What If the 'Big One' Is A Bomb?

Random Lengths News | September 15, 2006
“At the Port of Long Beach a nuclear weapon detonates in a tremendous explosion heard and seen throughout the Los Angeles basin. Large quantities of materials and water are immediately sucked into a forming cloud of debris, and a large mushroom cloud begins to rise from the port area.”

So begins the nightmare scenario in a recently-released study by the RAND Corporation, examining the possible consequences of a nuclear explosion at the Port of Long Beach, the early costs of which “could exceed $1 trillion,” according the report. As America marks the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the issue of port security has barely begun to penetrate mass media consciousness, as seen by the small ripple of attention given to the RAND report, even with its sensationalist subject matter.

“People within approximately 2.2 miles (3.5 km) of the blast center who were not shielded by buildings or other structures suffer from flash burns over the portion of their bodies that is facing the port,” the scenario continues, with clinical detachment, and accompanying maps of the blast zone (followed later by larger maps of contaminated areas stretching deep into northern Orange County). “The affected area reaches as far as Long Beach Plaza. The hillside community of San Pedro, due west of the blast site, receives disproportionately extensive damage due to its direct line-of-sight to the blast area.”

The report highlights a number possible outcomes, including:

* 60,000 people could die instantly from the blast or quickly afterwards from radiation poisoning.

* 150,000 more could be exposed to hazardous levels of radioactive debris, requiring emergency medical treatment.

* 6,000,000 people might try to evacuate the region.

* 2-3,000,000 people might need long-term relocation from a fallout-contaminated 200 square mile area.

* Both ports would be completely destroyed.

The immediate loss of life could be 20 times that of 9/11, the initial cost 10-20 times as much. Rebuilding the ports would not even begin for years. Nearby areas might not be safe to resettle for a decade or more.

Yet, Michael Wermuth, Director of RAND’s Homeland Security Program, declined to say if it would cause a recession, despite the bleak picture the report paints for continued international trade. “All U.S. ports would likely close indefinitely or operate at a substantially reduced level,” the report notes, due to a devastated insurance industry, unwilling and unable to insure further business and “the high probability that people would flee port cities, severely depleting local labor supplies.”

Furthermore, “Some of the nation’s largest insurance companies might go bankrupt,” the report notes, which would have enormous ripple effects for business of all kinds.

RAND’s report is descriptively vivid, but lacks the specificity and analytic rigor of the two studies involving much more modest attacks contained in Protecting the Nation’s Seaports: Balancing Security and Cost, the recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). That’s because the purpose was different, as Wermuth explained in response to initial questions about uncertainty ranges.

“We tried to do something for purposes of discussion, that’s all this was about, to focus people on thinking about what economic impacts might be,” said Wermuth. “This is not off the charts. This is within the range of probabilities,” he added.

Jon Haveman, co-editor and contributor to the PPIC report, agreed. “It’s a well thought out potential scenario,” Haveman said. But he also noted that ports would not be a preferred terrorist target.

“Some place with a higher population density is likely to be the target. Someplace like downtown LA or San Francisco, where the death toll is likely to be 200-300,000, and where the potential for devastation of property is likely to be much higher,” Haveman explained. But if the bomb were about to be discovered at the port, terrorists would certainly detonate it, he said.

However, Haveman also argued that other transportation modes were far more likely. “Sailing yachts represent an enormous surveillance vulnerability,” he noted, in sketching out an alternative scenario, that began with shipping the bomb to Chile, and trucking it up to Mexico. “The odds of it being detected are much less than if it came in a container.”

In summing up, Wermuth said, “There has not been enough attention paid to economic consequences and particularly what we can do ahead of time by creating more resilience in our system. And so this was way to inform the debate and discussion on what things needed to be considered.”

Still, “Developing, acquiring or stealing, or trying to develop from scratch and effectively deploy and detonate a thermonuclear device is a very expensive proposition,” Wermouth cautioned. ““The Japanese cult Aum Shin Rikyo, by conservative estimate spend $50 million, some say, $100 million trying to develop nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction,” he pointed out. Yet, “when they deployed their sarin gas, they killed, 12 people,” he pointed out.

“I hesitate to say ‘only,’” Wermouth added, yet, for all the money the spent, “They didn’t do anything in terms of catastrophic loss of life.”

Given the difficulty of mounting such an attack, disaster planning has to have a much broader focus.

“We are at a much higher risk of a lot of potential disasters,” said Lonna Calhoun, chair of the San Pedro Neighborhood Councils Committee on Port Security & Safety (COPSS), who ticked off a list of terrorist attacks, toxic explosions, fires, and, of course, earthquakes.

“Earthquakes are one of our greatest risks,” Calhoun said, then made immediate reference to a letter COPPS received from Barbara Boxer, who tried to get information from FEMA about their earthquake response planning.

“Last September, I requested a copy of the FEMA disaster recovery plan for California. After several months, I was disappointed to receive a general reply outlining the things that might happen following a generic disaster,” Boxer wrote. “Sadly, it appears that little has changed at FEMA in the year following Hurricane Katrina.”

Mention of Katrina shines another critical light on the RAND study. By their very nature, scenario decision-making games create (and therefore assume) the very coherency and focus that was so clearly lacking with Katrina. Conducted in 2004, prior to Katrina, timeline of responses has a seriousness, coherency and focus to it that is simply impossible to believe in today in post-Katrina America.

“We have to do more in regard to emergency preparedness,” Calhoun said, reflecting on the shortcomings Boxer highlighted. “That’s the real mission of COPPS.... To work with all first responders and government together... to increase the awareness of personal responsibility for personal preparedness.”

“We have to get together to shelter in place and take care of ourselves, because we have severe evacuation challenges.”

Haveman agreed, saying the RAND study “highlights the need for basic disaster preparedness. It highlights the lack of medical supplies...the lack of first responder capacity. Evacuation planning is not what it might be. So there are all these basic natural or man-made preparedness steps that ought to be beefed up.”

“Its’ not going to be cheap,” Haveman concluded. “But the payoff could be potentially enormous.”

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