Americans Would Have No Place To Go in Nuke Attack, Say Experts

By Michael Betsch | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - While U.S. political leaders are prepared to survive a nuclear attack, protecting the general public from radiation apparently is not part of the equation.

According to civil defense advocates, there's only enough room in America's remaining Cold War-era fallout shelters for members of Congress and other select government officials.

According to Ed York, a pioneer in U.S. nuclear weaponry, "The possibility that some terrorist group will be able to steal or buy or fabricate a weapon on their own is going up all the time," and some say that makes preparedness all the more important.

As a member of the top-secret Manhattan Project in the 1940s, York is familiar with the design and potential of nuclear weapons for devastation. York said he was "lucky" to have been present at every nuclear test, including the "first nuclear detonation, the first air drop, the first balloon carry to the first underground."

York says Americans need more than luck when it comes to surviving a nuclear attack.

He notes the federal government has not developed any fallout shelters or equipment to protect the general population from a nuclear attack since the Cold War ended.

The only people concerned about protecting American citizens from such attacks, he said, have been a handful of civil defense advocacy groups including Doctors for Disaster Preparedness (DDP).

No place to go

DDP President Dr. Jane Orient said she is concerned by the lack of civilian fallout shelters. There is "no place that they (civilians) know about; no place that's prepared."

The reason for this lack of preparedness, Orient said, is because fallout shelters in "all 50 states" were stripped of their supplies (water, food, blankets) and equipment (radiation detectors) more than five or six years ago." Most of the contents and materials from the shelters were auctioned off or disposed of, she added.

However, Orient said a number of civil defense advocacy groups managed to acquire several radiation meters from the state of Arizona. Those rescued devices were manufactured in the 1950s, but are still considered state-of-the-art since nothing has come along to replace them.

Although Arizona, for example, has a few radiation meters, Orient said many more are needed to adequately protect the citizens of that state. Such instruments would enable those affected to determine the level of radiation outside before leaving the shelter.

Orient offered a hypothetical scenario that shows the need for radiation detection equipment and access to working fallout shelters.

"If that soot raining down in Brooklyn (from the World Trade Center) had been radioactive," Orient said, "there would be many thousands, maybe millions of people dying slow, agonizing deaths from radiation sickness that could have been prevented had people had access to shelter."

On Sept. 11, after the first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center, a steady stream of people crossed the Brooklyn Bridge by foot to escape Lower Manhattan.

John Pike, a defense policy analyst and director of, added that "effective evacuation is very difficult" in an urban environment such as Manhattan. He also stressed the need for readily accessible and functioning fallout shelters, but dismissed the possibility of an impending nuclear attack on the U.S. by terrorists.

"Rumors about missing 'suitcase' nuclear bombs have been floating around for over a decade," Pike said. "I cannot detect that the U.S. has taken these reports seriously or regarded as being credible."

Orient strongly disagrees with Pike. "It's a very credible threat," she remarked. "There are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world. We don't know where all of them are."

York, who once headed the NATO nuclear upgrade program, believes the probability of a single nuclear weapon being smuggled into the U.S. by a terrorist organization is "going way up because there are more countries that have stockpiles, especially countries like Pakistan, India and some of the republics of the former Soviet Union."

But York agrees it's unlikely that terrorists would detonate a suitcase bomb in the U.S. He said the bomb that a terrorist group would use is going to be "homemade, massive and either delivered by a ship or a pickup truck or something like that," he said.

According to Orient, it may be just a matter of time before terrorist organizations have the technology and capability to launch nuclear weapons against the U.S. She believes terrorists already are using "our stolen technology, or the technology that they were 'given' or 'bought' from us" to develop a sophisticated delivery system.

Orient wants Americans to realize that although nuclear weapons pose the threat of "awesome" devastation, such devastation is not "apocalyptic."

She said she would continue to remind Congress and government officials that "the amount of damage that will be done and the ability to recover from it depends a lot on preparing in advance."