From his offices at Columbia University, Dr. Irwin Redlener spends his days thinking about the unthinkable. An earthquake opens up beneath midtown Manhattan, for example. A cyber attack knocks out electricity to hundreds of hospitals, with the blackout lasting beyond the capacity of their backup generators. A terrorist releases an airborne virus in an airport. As the director of Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Redlener is one the world’s top experts in planning for the worst. The pediatrician and professor is, quite accurately, a doctor specializing in doom.
A genial man with salt-and-pepper hair and a clipped Brooklyn accent, Redlener can catch government agencies off-guard when they consult him for his expertise. His preferred technique is to lob difficult, uncomfortable questions at them, designed to bring “overwhelmingly terrible” scenarios into the realm of the possible. Asking these questions before things go wrong, he says, can help set life-saving protocols in stone, so decisions don’t need to be made during traumatic times.
For Washington state lawmakers, he has a simple question: “How can you justify such a shockingly inappropriate, irresponsible policy?”
The question is a reaction to Washington’s emergency preparedness laws, which require the state to develop plans for all potential disasters, whether natural or man-made. All disasters, that is, except one: a nuclear attack. In fact, state law goes so far as to prohibit the inclusion of nuclear attacks in emergency management planning.
“That’s incredible and bizarre and totally wrong,” Redlener says. “The idea it’s useless to plan for it, that’s dangerous. Thousands of people could survive in high risk areas after a nuclear attack, if there was a plan to tell them what specifically to do, and prepare them.”
Like many people, Redlener has watched with concern as tensions with North Korea escalate, referring to that country’s leadership as “the ultimate loose cannon.” In media reports, Seattle is frequently cited as the top target for a surprise nuclear attack, due to its proximity to the Korean peninsula and the vital military infrastructure in the region.
The chances of a major nuclear strike are extremely remote, due to the perceived state of North Korea’s missile technology, and have been written off by most experts as something to worry about years down the road. But while Redlener agrees, he doesn’t believe the risks should be treated as impossible, especially by state planners and policymakers.
“It’s not a matter of statistical probability,” he says. “It’s about situational awareness. The situation isn’t good. People should be thinking about this.”
The law Redlener finds so reprehensible can be traced to the height of the Cold War, when air raid sirens were a weekly occurrence for many American cities, injecting a regular sense of dread into the national culture. Every time they sounded, it meant that Russia’s nukes could begin raining down within 30 minutes or less.
A government video from Spokane, circa 1954, captures such a “civil defense drill.” In it the National Guard patrols the streets, children leave school in single-file lines, and adults evacuate from downtown buildings, looking to the sky for a glimpse of enemy planes. People were instructed to hide in designated bomb shelters, or “duck and cover” under desks and tables, in hopes it would protect them from explosions hotter than the sun.
“Without confusion, the city of Spokane is suddenly deserted, and a ghostly quiet prevails until police sound the all-clear signal,” the video’s narrator declares. “Despite cold and rain, Spokane demonstrates that American cities can face attack with proper teamwork.”
As time passed, the grim theatrics of these drills started to wear on people, as did the ongoing possibility of mushroom clouds in America. One such dissenter was Dick Nelson, who represented Seattle in the state House of Representatives from 1977 to 1992.
“The nuclear issue is what got me into politics,” says Nelson. “I wanted to help put us on a path to a safer world, and away from the hysteria.”
In the mind of Nelson and other anti-nuke activists, civil defense drills were based around a lie. The only true preparation for a nuclear attack, in their mind, was to prevent such a thing from ever occurring. That meant dismantling every atomic bomb in existence. This movement was particularly active in the Seattle area, due to its proximity to Naval Base Kitsap, which contains a large percentage of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
While serving on the House committee overseeing the state’s National Guard activity, Nelson came across a law requiring the evacuation of Puget Sound citizens in case of a nuclear attack. This struck him as absurd, and he sponsored legislation to stop such planning for nuclear attacks.
“The law struck me as a relic of times past, when we were engaged in a contest, and things had changed,” says Nelson.
At the time Nelson’s law was passed in 1984, the legislature argued that such planning “instills a false sense of security in our citizens that they will be protected if a nuclear attack occurs” and notes that the “possibility of surviving a nuclear attack is extremely remote.”
The law only explicitly bans planning for the evacuation and relocation of citizens, but it’s had the effect of leaving the state with no specific strategy for responding to a nuclear attack, says Washington Military Department spokesperson Karina Shagren.
Now 80 years old, Nelson is no longer sure this is the right policy for the state. Watching the situation with North Korea, he says, “If they’re crazy enough to fire missiles at the West Coast, they may decide we’re a good target. I think we need to prepare for that possibility… This is big time stuff, and I don’t want to minimize the possibility that Kim Jong-Un is going to get to the limit. We thought we were doing the right thing at that time. But whether it lasts forever is anyone’s guess.”
Saber rattling with North Korea aside, not everyone agrees Washington needs to get back into the business of nuclear attack preparation. The state’s top emergency planner — Daniel Banks, the planning, analysis, and logistics section manager for Washington’s Emergency Management Division — pushes back on these sort of sentiments.
“The likelihood of a nuclear attack, it may have changed a little, but it’s still not significant in any way, shape, or form,” says Banks. “Look at the number of catastrophic earthquakes across the world. That’s something to worry about. The last nuclear strike was in 1945.”
In response to Redlener’s criticisms, Banks notes that the state where Redlener does the majority of his work, New York, “has tremendously more resources to do this planning than I could ever dream of.” In Washington, he says, planners must work with the resources they have. This means preparing for the most likely disasters: forest fires, floods, and a potential mega-quake on the Cascadia subduction zone.
Should a nuclear weapon explode in the Seattle area, he says, some of these plans could be repurposed to respond to it. He imagines the response might combine mega-quake plans for the Seattle area, and the plans developed to respond to a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in southeastern Washington.
“As planning lead here, we try to plan for the worst possible thing, but can adapt the plan for any kind of incident,” Banks says. “That’s what we’re doing with Cascadia (earthquake planning). Out plan is focused on not just an earthquake, but a wide range of effects. We can use that plan for a nuke attack, a Seattle fault earthquake, flooding, or other disasters.”
A FEMA spokesperson notes the agency does not have the resources for a nuclear attack response, and will defer to the state. Banks says the state will defer to the jurisdiction that’s been attacked to take the lead in responding, and will “jump in” as requested. When it’s pointed out the jurisdiction will have just been nuked, he says, “We’d work with what’s left of Seattle, or the jurisdiction impacted.”
Seattle, as a busy port, has long been identified as a potential target for terrorists who might smuggle enough nuclear material to create a so-called dirty bomb, which uses a conventional explosive device to spread radioactive contamination. Seattle’s comprehensive emergency planning does contain broad protocols for a “WMD event,” which is treated as a “dirty bomb” incident.
The plan hands primary responsibility to the fire department for coordinating response, but notes the event “will most likely overwhelm local public safety departments and the community health care system. At the outset, it will be necessary to mobilize and coordinate a regional, state and national response. In order to undertake such a massive interdisciplinary, inter-jurisdictional, and intergovernmental effort requires that it be … carefully planned and rehearsed ahead of time.”
The idea that a state could repurpose earthquake response plans for a nuke attack is dubious, Redlener says. However, he understands the inclination.
“I get it: For most people, this is science fiction land,” says Redlener. “For people in system, it’s too difficult to handle, too much to think about. They’d rather move onto other issues. ”
At the time the 1984 law was passed, then-Gov. John Spellman seemed aware of its potential implications, and attempted to rein it in. The original law contained a section that called on the state to broadly avoid planning for a nuclear attack response, beyond evacuations. Spellman issued a partial veto of the section, though this broad avoidance of planning nonetheless ended up being the outcome of the law.
“Although a nuclear attack would be a nightmare, one which would make all other calamities man has suffered seem small, state government is obligated to save as many lives as possible,” Spellman wrote, “and it is immoral to prevent government from doing all that it can to save lives and reduce suffering.”
Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, Seattle Weekly, InvestigateWest, Puget Sound Business Journal, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine and others. He can be found on Twitter at @ByDrewAtkins and contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.