Expert Commentary

Action following a nuclear blast in a U.S. city

2007 report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center on necessary steps in the aftermath of an act of nuclear terrorism in a U.S. city.

Despite international efforts to safeguard nuclear materials, the possibility of nuclear terrorism continues to be a concern for both policymakers and the public at large. In recent years, the threat has seemed acute enough to prompt contingency planning in the United States for the immediate aftermath of such an event should it occur.

A 2007 report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, published in The Washington Quarterly, “The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City,” anticipates the actions that would be required in the days following a nuclear attack on American soil.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Every person within the initial radiated zone would on average have a 20% chance of dying from some form of cancer. For responders not initially affected, entering the zone after the blast may only represent a 1% overall increase in their chances of dying from cancer. This calculus might be crucial in determining regulations around entering affected zones to save trapped individuals.
  • Even if only one device was detonated, and regardless of whether a terrorist group claimed there were others, it would be prudent to expect that there were. It is unlikely that a terrorist organization that has procured one nuclear weapon has not been able to obtain more than one.
  • The federal government is the only body with the resources to handle any recovery project. Law and regulation should stipulate that a nuclear attack triggers a federal response automatically.

In their conclusion, the authors state that such planning will help “the citizenry avoid overreaction and panic” and help “maintain trust in the government and help preserve democratic institutions in a time of emergency.”

Tags: cancer, disasters, nuclear weapons, terrorism

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