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.