The White House has warned state and local governments not to expect a "significant federal response" at the scene of a terrorist nuclear attack for 24 to 72 hours after the blast, according to a planning guide.
President Obama told delegates from 47 nations at the Nuclear Security Summit on Tuesday that it would be a "catastrophe for the world" if al-Qaeda or another terrorist group got a nuclear device, because so many lives would be lost and it would be so hard to mitigate damage from the blast.
A 10-kiloton nuclear explosion would level buildings within half a mile of ground zero, generate 900-mph winds, bathe the landscape with radiation and produce a plume of fallout that would drift for hundreds of miles, the guide says. It was posted on the Internet and sent to local officials...
The chaos that would inevitably follow such a blast would make it difficult for the federal government to react quickly. "Emergency response is principally a local function," the document says, though "federal assistance will be mobilized as rapidly as possible."
The "Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation" was developed by a task force headed by the White House Homeland Security Council. It was circulated to state and local government officials and first responders in January 2009.
The report has never been formally released to the public, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro says.
It offers practical guidance to first responders and advice on radiation measurement and decontamination.
Disaster experts say local governments aren't prepared for a nuclear attack. "There isn't a single American city, in my estimation, that has sufficient plans for a nuclear terrorist event," says Irwin Redlener of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
The message for families is simple, he says: Stay put. Wait for instructions. If you've been outside, dust off, change, shower. "What citizens need to know fits on a wallet-sized card," Redlener says. "A limited amount of information would save tens of thousands of people...
Stay put... just like in New Orleans, one supposes.