Is the U.S. Ready for a Nuclear Incident?

Whether it came from accident or malice, the likely consequences of any nuclear attack are difficult to fully comprehend. Billions – maybe trillions – of dollars in damage would result, perhaps tens of thousands of lives would be lost with even more injured or sick, not to mention supply lines cut off and massive panic across the nation.

In a nation that spends billions of dollars on insurance each year for natural catastrophes from fires and earthquakes to flooding, one would assume that preparing for a man-made disaster of nuclear proportions would be high up on our list of budget priorities. Sadly, this is not the case.

Despite the overall decrease in deployed warheads, the departments of defense and energy continue to increase their nuclear weapons budgets. There is one area of the nuclear budget pie that is noticeably underrepresented: Nuclear Incident Management – or, more simply, nuclear disaster preparedness for a nuclear or radiological attack.

Instead, the U.S. nuclear budget is dominated by funding for the upkeep of our existing nuclear weapons complex and missile defense. Seventy-three percent of nuclear weapons-related appropriations over the next ten years are slated for these two purposes. The assumption is that the deterrent provided by these two systems is enough to keep us safe from any attack by nuclear weapons.

As 9/11 showed, that’s just not true. Terrorists are not deterred by large nuclear stockpiles and mutually assured destruction doesn’t apply to non-state actors.

With only roughly $700 million devoted to the response and planning for such an event it is clear that these funding priorities need adjustment in order to address the threats of the day. Gone are the days when a nuclear exchange with Russia would make a “disaster response” laughable. Now, the real threats of a single “small” nuclear device or a dirty bomb delivered by terrorists – who do not fear retaliation from our nuclear forces – demand appropriate consideration.

Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace