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Kennedy School Review

Topic / International Relations and Security

Nuclear Terrorism: Are You Prepared?


A 10-kiloton nuclear blast in New York City’s Times Square would instantly annihilate everything within half a mile. The shockwave would crumble buildings from Union Square to Central Park, breaking windows up to ten miles away from ground zero. Fires would rage for at least a mile in all directions, indiscriminately destroying hospitals, police offices, churches, and schools. These initial effects would cause a quarter of a million casualties and a trillion dollars in infrastructure damage. Those lucky enough to be outside the initial blast radius may be blinded by the flash of the fireball, deafened by the pressure of the blast, or poisoned by radiation fallout. Additionally, the electromagnetic pulse would render electronic equipment useless, making communication by telephone, Internet, radio, and TV impossible.

The horrors of nuclear terrorism are almost unimaginable, too terrible to think about, and certainly politically unpopular to discuss. Yet the nuclear threat the United States faces today is ultimately survivable. Unlike the Cold War fear of apocalyptic nuclear exchange, a single nuclear blast, as would likely be the case in a terrorist attack, would not topple the United States. Not even close. It would be a devastating, world-changing event, but the United States would live to fight another day. However, the country should have a plan on how to soften the blow, respond, and ultimately recover from an attack.

With its dense population, iconic infrastructure, and presence on the world stage, New York City is widely considered the most likely target for nuclear terrorism. From the New York Stock Exchange to the United Nations Headquarters to the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, the city screams of Western idealism and represents the American way of life. This target-rich environment presents particular vulnerability, and an attack on the Big Apple would cause more damage to the U.S. population, economy, and psyche than a strike anywhere else in America. So what would the world look like waking up the morning after a nuclear attack on New York City?

The Threat

It is important to understand that nuclear terrorism is not just an obsession of the paranoid and conspiracy theorists. The threat of a nuclear terrorist attack has loomed over U.S. policy makers at least since September 11 and remains frighteningly possible. U.S. President Barack Obama labeled nuclear terrorism the “single biggest threat to U.S. security,” and placed a global spotlight on the need to secure fissile material (substances that can be used to make a nuclear bomb) and improve border security around the world to reduce the risk of a nuclear strike.

Although these efforts will mitigate the threat, they cannot eliminate it completely. A 2005 poll of security experts estimated the likelihood of a nuclear terror strike within the next decade at 29 percent (Belfer Center 2007), and Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, arrived at the same conclusion through a mathematical model. Even if the actual likelihood of a nuclear attack is far less than these predictions, the devastating consequences demand preventative attention. Americans take everyday precautions for much less horrific disasters. Take driving, for example. The chance of being killed in a transportation accident over the course of a year is only one in 6,000, yet the government requires seat belts, enforces speed limits, and demands all drivers be licensed (National Safety Council n.d). These laws exist because the government wants to protect its citizens from the dangers of car accidents; surely the government could play a larger role to encourage the populace to be prepared for nuclear terrorism.

Looking beyond the bounds of a decade, Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and professor of government at the Kennedy School, calls nuclear terrorism “inevitable,” and many experts join him, claiming it is more a question of when than if.

The Preparations 

The United States has spent billions working to prevent the catastrophe of a nuclear terror attack but has done little to prepare for it. On the national level, Congress created the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after September 11 to “lead the unified national effort to secure the homeland.” The creation of the DHS caused the greatest government reshuffling in recent history, placing twenty-two disparate agencies under one roof. This gargantuan organization left many onlookers scratching their heads, unaware of who held authority, with the overlapping jurisdictions and repetitive mission statements. However, DHS made it clear that preparedness and disaster recovery fell under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), folding the Office for Domestic Preparedness, the Nuclear Incident Response Team, and the National Domestic Preparedness Office under its wing.

The lethargic response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 highlighted the flaws in FEMA’s national infrastructure and its capability to assist a devastated community. There is little evidence of substantive improvements since then. When questioned about the pace of FEMA’s operations, Administrator W. Craig Fugate said in a November 2010 interview with the Washington Post, “One of the big problems with FEMA is that we’re too bureaucratic. Processes are too complicated . . . dealing with the paperwork and the burden of the recovery is almost as onerous as the disaster itself” (Fox 2010). When last measured in 2007, the average time to provide “essential logistical services” to an impacted community of only 50,000 was forty-eight hours (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2009). Imagine the time delay for New York City, a metropolis of eight million.

Assuming national assistance doesn’t arrive in force for at least two days, the lion’s share of initial response will land on the shoulders of state and local responders. So who is making sure they are prepared? FEMA. After Katrina, FEMA was empowered to develop a system to assess preventative capabilities and national preparedness. Yet a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from October 2010, states, “FEMA has made limited progress in assessing preparedness capabilities . . . [and it] has not yet developed national preparedness capability requirements.” Apparently there is room for improvement in FEMA’s oversight.

New York, however, is better prepared than most states, and New York City is perhaps the most prepared municipality in the nation. The New York Police Department has an unparalleled counterterrorism division, with a force several thousand strong, advanced radiation detection equipment, and regular “nuclear drills.” Adding in the rest of the force and the fire department, New York City boasts nearly 50,000 local emergency responders. Additionally, the city and state both host volunteer programs in which citizens are trained on basic emergency response skills. Of course, more could be done, but New York City has thought of most everything within reason, and budget, to prepare for catastrophic attack.

The Unthinkable 

Despite these efforts, even New York City is woefully unprepared for nuclear terrorism. The first few hours after a nuclear attack would be mayhem, reined by confusion and fear, with untested response structures falling short of objectives and an uneducated populace unable to help. What’s left of New York’s finest would undoubtedly suit up and jump into action, though they would be restrained by a destroyed transportation infrastructure, communication systems, and utilities. However, the biggest obstacle is the radiation. A 10-kiloton nuclear explosion creates a “no save” zone with a one-mile radius out from ground zero; no responders could enter this area due to the lethal radiation level, and all survivors within it would have to be abandoned. Even outside the kill zone, radiation levels would be high enough to cause serious injuries including headache, fatigue, nausea, and a heightened risk of cancer and genetic defects. First responders may even be fearful of entering the affected areas.

Survivors would panic. Without TV, radio, or Internet, the government would have no way to communicate with the populace, leaving individuals to their own devices. Hundreds of thousands would be injured, and those able to seek medical attention would easily overwhelm the city’s remaining medical infrastructure. The frantic search for family members would leave hospitals, schools, and daycare centers unattended. Others would remain trapped by toppled buildings or debris, without water and unable to signal for help.

This tragedy would also have impacts outside the immediate area. The terrorist organization claiming credit for the attack would likely say it has additional bombs in other major cities, regardless of the truth. This could cause massive exodus and havoc in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Antonio, and other large cities around the United States. Those living in New York City suburbs may also evacuate, attempting to distance themselves from danger.

Assisting New York and maintaining composure in other large cities is only a small part of responding to a disaster of nuclear proportion. The financial market would collapse. Planes across the country would be grounded. All ports, embassies, and borders would close. The military would go on high alert. The president and top cabinet members would be taken underground. Citizens from around the world would call emergency services in search of friends and family members. And perhaps most importantly, Americans would demand retaliation. The United States is not terribly apt at nuclear forensics, and in the haste for a kinetic response, it could retaliate against the wrong country.

The Answer

There is no easy way out of the above scenario, but there is a road forward. Citizens who know how to act have the best chance of saving themselves and assisting those around them. Fugate highlighted the issue, stating, “If you’re looking for somebody else to take care of you in a disaster, there may not be somebody else fast enough” (Pelofsky 2010). In short, the single most-effective way to protect the United States against a nuclear attack is to have every citizen prepare for it. A culture of preparedness could turn the tide in the wake of nuclear terrorism.

Without basic disaster response knowledge, the populace would make the situation much worse. By trying to flee the city, residents would expose themselves to dangerous levels of radiation and cause additional injuries with traffic accidents and stampede-style trampling. Hospital and medical supply centers would be looted. There would be unreasonable expectations of information and assistance accompanying irresponsible calls for retaliation.

However, the public’s response does not have to add to the problem. If properly prepared, it could be the key to recovery. Simple steps such as carrying a water bottle and an emergency kit, knowing what to do following a nuclear explosion, and having realistic expectations of the national government could save thousands. Although the government can only do so much to alleviate the need of medical supplies, hospital beds, temporary shelter, and so on, it can make substantial progress in preparing the citizenry’s response to a nuclear terror attack.

A featured strategic goal on the DHS Web site is developing a “culture of preparedness,” yet all performance measures are based on internal abilities within the first responder community. Nothing focuses on the education and knowledge of the public. I could not find a single government study or article of the state of civilian preparedness or serious recommendations on how to improve it.

Do you know what to do following the flash of a nuclear explosion? Most Americans don’t. As one friend said to me, “I saw the Day after Tomorrow movie, but that’s about as much as I know on how to prepare for a disaster.”

FEMA and other emergency response agencies need to get serious about civilian nuclear preparedness. A small section on a rarely visited Web site is not a media campaign. We need commercials, billboards, and a vast expansion of the Citizen Corps program. Tax breaks or other financial incentives should be available for individuals who volunteer and go through with the corps program or similar preparedness courses through the Red Cross or local police.

Preparedness programs should also be incorporated into high school curricula or established as a nationwide criterion for graduation. Schools should hold practice drills for terrorist attacks as often as they do for other disasters, such as campus shootings, earthquakes, fires, and tornadoes.

Hearing about what to do in a nuclear attack should be as familiar as listening to a flight attendant brief the airplane cabin on security, as automatic as buckling a seat belt in the car, and as anticipated as hurricanes in Florida.

Americans should not shy away from talking about nuclear terrorism. They should confront it, learning to live with and manage the threat. Being informed does not require being scared. No amount of preparation can prevent the horrific consequences of nuclear terrorism, but it can reduce unnecessary panic, injuries, and fatalities. Although the world will surely be a different place the morning after a nuclear attack, just how different is up to each of us.


Belfer Center. 2007. Nuclear terrorism FAQ. The Washington Post Fact Sheet, September 26. The Nuclear Threat Initiative and Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center.

Fox, Tom. 2010. Breaking down “administrator mystique”: An interview with FEMA’s Craig Fugate. Washington Post, November 30.

National Safety Council. n.d. Frequently asked questions. National Safety Council ( 

Pelofsky, Jeremy. 2010. FEMA chief sees progress 5 years after Katrina. Reuters, August 25.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2009. Annual performance report: Fiscal years 2008-2010. Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2010. FEMA has made limited progress in efforts to develop and implement a system to assess national preparedness capabilities. GAO-11-51R, October 29.


This article was originally published in the 2012 edition of the Kennedy School Review.

Katie Frost is a 2012 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She concentrates in international and global affairs, focusing on nuclear policy and security studies.


Photo source: Prepared Citizen’s Guide