Rapid Response to Terrorist Nuclear Attack

I wish I were seeing a lot more articles like this one (hat tip Instapundit) that appeared in New Scientist, concerning preparedness for a terrorist attack with homemade nuclear weapons. I also wish the political powers that be would take them seriously. The nuclear attacks on Japan were not an historical anomaly. Nuclear weapons will be used again. The only question is when. “When” may well be when terrorists with the will to launch a nuclear attack acquire enough of the special nuclear material, in the form of plutonium or uranium, necessary to make a bomb. Once they have it, it is certain they will be able to make an effective nuclear device. The only question is how effective. On the low end of the spectrum, they could make a super dirty bomb by simply assembling a critical mass. On the high end, they could build a device with an explosive yield equal to or greater than that of the weapon dropped on Hiroshima. Regardless, when an attack occurs, we should be prepared to act swiftly and effectively, because thousands or tens of thousands of lives may be hanging in the balance.

Many of those whose lives could be saved by an effective rapid response will be those suffering from radiation poisoning. The effects of radiation poisoning are described here, and additional information on effects, symptoms, treatment, etc., may be found here, here and here. Note that death from radiation poisoning usually occurs because radiation damage renders our cells incapable of reproducing. This is especially critical in the case of cells that normally reproduce rapidly, such as white blood cells, or the cells lining our gut. If they are unable to reproduce, the number of these cells in our body may become depleted, typically in a matter of a few weeks, to the point that we succumb to infection and other secondary effects of their loss. As noted here, without treatment, “Total body exposure of 400 roentgens (or 4 Gy) causes radiation sickness and death in half the individuals.” However, the effectiveness of the techniques we have developed to treat radiation poisoning has increased very substantially in the last few decades. Using these techniques, victims might be stabilized and kept alive during the few critical weeks needed for their cells to recover the ability to reproduce. A great many of those who would have died could be saved. Related information may be found in the links noted above, as well as here, and much additional information may be found on the web. In short, if we respond effectively, we will be able to save a great many lives of those who would have been written off as hopeless cases 20 years ago. We must be prepared.

Good people are working on these problems in government agencies, universities, technical societies, etc. We need to listen to them, recognize the urgency of the problem, take action, and be ready.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

3 thoughts on “Rapid Response to Terrorist Nuclear Attack”

  1. Is the stablization of radiation victims indefinite or is their a limit on how long the treatment is effective?

    Pam contacted me about your blog and her praise is infectious and accurate. I think you might remember that I used to post at Davids Medienkritik but unfortunately it seems now host to two trolls that don’t really add anything and usually manage to hijack the thread.

  2. Thanks for the good words, Pat, and welcome to my blog.

    I’m no medical expert. If I were I could probably find a much better term to describe the treatment than “stabilization.” Let’s assume the patient had been rescued from the area of radioactive danger shortly after receiving a heavy dose of radiation from a nuclear blast and the ensuing fallout. The radiation would have killed few cells outright. Rather, it would have destroyed their ability to reproduce. Some cells in the body, such as white blood cells and the cells lining the gut, die and need to be replaced on a regular basis. In the patient, these would begin to die, but would no longer be replaced because of radiation damage to the cells’ reproductive process. Given time, the cells would begin to recover. The goal of treatment would be to get the patient through the critical time during which the numbers of these critical cells reached its minimum. By “stabilization,” I don’t mean the patient would be safe during this period. He/she would just have an increased chance of surviving. Many victims who had received what would almost certainly have been a lethal dose of radiation without treatment could be saved.

    The Wiki article on white blood cells has some interesting information on the different types, and their average lifespans in the body.

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