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As concerns grow that terrorists might attack a major American city with a nuclear bomb, a high-level group of government and military officials has been quietly preparing an emergency survival program that would include the building of bomb shelters, steps to prevent panicked evacuations and the possible suspension of some civil liberties.
Many experts say the likelihood of al Qaeda or some other terrorist group producing a working nuclear weapon with illicitly obtained weapons-grade fuel is not large, but such a strike would be far more lethal, frightening and disruptive than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Not only could the numbers killed and wounded be far higher, but the explosion could, experts say, ignite widespread fires, shut down most transportation, halt much economic activity and cause a possible disintegration of government order.
The efforts to prepare a detailed blueprint for survival took a step forward last month when senior government and military officials and other experts, organized by a joint Stanford-Harvard program called the Preventive Defense Project, met behind closed doors in Washington for a day-long workshop.
The session, called "The Day After," was premised on the idea that efforts focusing on preventing such a strike were no longer enough, and that the prospect of a collapse of government order was so great if there were an attack that the country needed to begin preparing an emergency program.
One of the participants, retired Vice Adm. Roger Rufe, is a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security who is currently designing the government's nuclear attack response plan.
The organizers of the nonpartisan project, Stanford's William Perry, a secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, and Harvard's Ashton Carter, a senior Defense Department official during the Clinton years, assumed the detonation of a bomb similar in size to the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima in World War II.
Such a weapon, with a force of around 10 to 15 kilotons, is small compared with most Cold War-era warheads, but is roughly the yield of a relatively simple bomb. That would be considerably more powerful and lethal than a so-called dirty bomb, which is a conventional explosive packed with some dangerous radioactive material that would be dispersed by the explosion.
The 41 participants -- including the directors of the country's two nuclear weapons laboratories, Homeland Security officials, a number of top military commanders and former government officials -- discussed how all levels of government ought to respond to protect the country from a second nuclear attack, to limit health problems from the radioactive fallout and to restore civil order. Comments inside the session were confidential, but a number of the participants described their views and the ideas exchanged.
A paper the organizers are writing, summarizing their recommendations, urges local governments and individuals to build underground bomb shelters, much as people did in the early days of the Cold War; encourages authorities who survive to prevent evacuation of at least some of the areas attacked for three days to avoid roadway paralysis and damage from exposure to radioactive fallout; and proposes suspending regulations on radiation exposure so that first responders would be able to act, even if that caused higher cancer rates.
"The public at large will expect that their government had thought through this possibility and to have planned for it," Carter said in an interview. "This kind of an event would be unprecedented. We have had glimpses of something like this with Hiroshima, and glimpses with 9/11 and with Katrina. But those are only glimpses."
Perhaps the most sobering issue discussed was the possibility of a chaotic, long-term crisis triggered by fears that the attackers might have more bombs. Such uncertainty could sow panic nationwide.
"If one bomb goes off, there are likely to be more to follow," Carter said. "This fact, that nuclear terrorism will appear as a syndrome rather than a single episode, has major consequences." It would, he added, require powerful government intervention to force people to do something many may resist -- staying put.
Fred Ikle, a former Defense Department official in the Reagan administration who authored a book last year urging attack preparation, "Annihilation from Within," said that the government should plan how it could restrict civil liberties and enforce a sort of martial law in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, but also have guidelines for how those liberties could be restored later.
That prospect underscored a central divide among participants at the recent meeting, several said.
Some participants argued that the federal government needs to educate first responders and other officials as quickly as possible on how to act even if transportation and communication systems break down, as seems likely, and if the government is unable to issue orders.
"There was a clear consensus that a nuclear bomb detonated in the United States or a friendly country would be an earth-shaking event, and we need to know how we will respond beforehand," said Ikle. "I wish we had started earlier, because this kind of planning can make an important difference."
But others said the meeting made it clear that the results of any attack would be so devastating and the turmoil so difficult to control, if not impossible, that the lesson should have been that the U.S. government needs to place a far greater emphasis on prevention.
"Your cities would empty and people would completely lose confidence in the ability of the government to protect them," said Steve Fetter, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. "You'd have nothing that resembles our current social order. I'm not sure any preparation can be sufficient to deal with that."
Fetter added, "We have to hold current policymakers more responsible" for taking all out measures to prevent a nuclear attack.
Raymond Jeanloz, a nuclear weapons expert at UC Berkeley and a government adviser on nuclear issues, said that California might be better prepared than most states because of long-standing plans for dealing with earthquakes and other natural disasters. Those plans, he said, could be a useful model for first responders.
He added, as others did, that the dislocation and panic caused by a nuclear strike could make any responses unpredictable.
"The most difficult thing is the fear that this kind of planning, even talking about it, can cause," Jeanloz said.
Michael May, a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, defended the survival planning, saying that people should get used to the idea that such a crisis, while dire, could be managed -- a key step in restoring calm.
"You have to demystify the nuclear issue," said May, who now teaches at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. "By talking about this, you take away the feeling of helplessness."