Nuclear Friday: Bringing Back Civil Defense

I recently came across a very good video from disaster medicine specialist and children’s health advocate Irwin Redlener. I remembered him as a specialist in hurricane preparedness and hurricane response, but I had no idea he also was an advocate for a new strategy of preparedness for nuclear attack. Turns out it’s similar to a lot of older ideas.

Redlener trained and practiced as a pediatrician, but switched to public health because illness in children is the result of lack of access to care and the effects of poverty. He made this switchover in Miami, a city that gets lots of hurricanes. Here in hurricane country we understand the importance of both individual preparedness and collective effort. I think it improves our character. Those years in Miami certainly changed Redlener’s thinking. In the late 1970’s he joined Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nuclear disarmament advocacy group and began an amateur study of nuclear weapons. In 2003 he was appointed as a faculty member to the National Center for Disaster Preparedness which was then part of Columbia University’s School of Public health.

Here’s the video. Much better than the usual from TED when dealing with a poitically sensitive subject. Of course, I will provide some additional information and my usual critique, but watch this first. It’s that good.

I like the way he divides the nuclear armed era between 1949-1991 and 1991 to the present. And things really did start changing as early as 1985 once Andropov was gone and the START and INF treaty negotiations really started getting somewhere. But as he points out, there are still a little over 20,000 nuclear weapons deployed. That’s quite too many. I would also add that the US, Russia, and France have all assumed a stronger nuclear stance since this video was made back in 2013.

Around 5:15 he discusses the absurdity of civil defense. Readers of The Big Board know that I disagree. He makes fun of Bert the Turtle, whom I will always defend. Civil Defense made sense for the US until at least the late sixties when Soviet capabilities became effective enough to stage a nation-ending retaliatory strike. Civil Defense was abandoned solely for strategic reasons. From a strategic point of view, the nation dies if 60, 90, 100, or 120 million civilians die. Thus they abandoned us to die. I still think there are huge moral differences between these numbers.

At 7:20 Redlener discusses the Carter-era FEMA plans for evacuation. This is were the whole concept of “FEMA Camps” comes from. There really were plans to evacuate millions of people from cities to rural camps in the late 70’s when Jimmy Carter and Sec Def Harold Brown made new plans for civil defense. The camps were never built, but their legacy lives on. And I find it odd he thinks we would not have 2-4 days warning. The whole thinking back in the late 70’s was that there would be a crisis in Berlin or Hungary with threatened US intervention. In 1980 the thinking  was that the USSR might use Afghanistan as a staging area to rush through a very unstable Pakistan and Iran to seize ports on the Persian Gulf.

Days or weeks of warning in either case. And as for the idea that FEMA camps would cause the Soviets to retarget weapons and waste warheads to kill refugees: This is just mirror image thinking. Hermann Kahn, a civilian weirdo who founded a think tank, was obsessed with megadeaths, a term he coined. Kahn proposed targeting Soviet dispersal points, and part of his recommendations made their way into SAC strategy. There is no evidence the USSR thought the same way. I’ve read the 1986 FEMA nuclear attack survey which was based on very good information from spies. The USSR knew that if you kill the machines, the refineries, the power plants, the pipelines, the humans will die even if it takes a year.

Later on around the nine minute mark, Redlener starts making better sense. Perceptions of civil defense are shaped by the perceptions of people who grew up when civil defense was perceived as useless. Response and training might be futile in even a limited Soviet strike in 1981, but they are very useful in a nuclear terrorism event.

At 10:13 he talks about the ease of acquiring fissile and fissionable materials. If I were making an enriched uranium bomb, I’d want at least 90 pounds. That’s just two more coke cans though. Plutonium is useless to terrorists. Triggering a plutonium implosion is amazingly complex. I don’t think a terrorist group could do it. Highly enriched uranium is the way to go and Redlener eventually agrees with me on this.

Around 14:00 minutes he starts talking about inspection and interdiction. Nope, isn’t gonna happen unless we have specific intelligence there’s a threat. He grew up in NYC, spent time in Miami. I’m in Houston and surely he understands as I do the containers must move. Retailers, port operators, and the Teamsters Union agree. Fast turnaround is pure money.

Around 14:50 we have a digression into the supposed missing Soviet “suitcase bombs” of 1997. These bombs are total bulllshit. Do a freeze frame on the mock-up and diagram. A linear “gun” type bomb with so little uranium? Oh, I don’t think so. That’s about 40lbs tops, not nearly enough to go supercritical and far less than the 75lbs of Coke cans Redlener showed in the video. Yeah, there are “neutron source” boosters in the diagram, but I don’t know what that would be. If it was tritium, it’s long since decayed to uselessness, and as far as I can tell, tritium boosting doesn’t really work in linear devices.

The lightest nuclear weapon ever deployed was the W-54 based SADM, a somewhat cumbersome backpack nuke the size and shape of a five gallon bucket. There were narrower weapons like the W48 linear implosion shell for the smaller version of Atomic Annie. While  a stripped down Atomic Annie shell would really fit in a suitcase, it would weigh over 50kg, twice the weight of an SADM. That’s a cumbersome suitcase.

Eventually Redlener gets back to a plausible scenario, a ten kiloton enriched uranium device similar to, but less efficient than, the Little Boy bomb detonated over Hiroshima. This is a bomb terrorists could build if they had the enriched uranium and some technical support, He has the right delivery method too, a rented truck.

And at 23 minutes when he finally gets around saying how to survive nuclear terrorism, he gives all the early fifties CD tips civil defense tips. Duck and Cover, walk perpendicular to the prevailing wind, seek shelter underground. The only think new he added was seeking shelter from fallout 9+ stories up in an a lightly damaged building. If you have enough shielding from air pressure, you will live. Nine stories of air will shield you completely from fallout beta decay, the deadliest radiation. Any building strong and tall enough to stand after nuclear attack will provide gamma protection too.

I gotta give my props to Redlener. His critiques of the response to Katrina and Rita helped us respond beautifully to Hurricane Ike. Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Comissioner Ed Emmitt worked with dumbass Rick Perry to make emergency contraflow lanes, build a local gasoline reserve, and set up food ration distribution stations.

Listen to Redlener. You can survive nuclear terrorism.

 

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