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Switzerland Conducts Nuclear Drill - 2001-12-19

Neutral Switzerland recently carried out a drill to see how well it would cope with a nuclear attack on one of its neighbors. Other countries are clamoring to see the results of the test.

Many nations are considering how they would respond to a potential terrorist attack involving nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

Switzerland is a neutral country of over seven million people which largely escaped the ravages of two world wars. It is neither a member of the European Union nor NATO. But it believes in preparedness; even its telephone directories provide instructions about what to do if an attack or accident dumps radiation or chemicals.

Switzerland says its recent November test to see how it would cope with the effects of radiation was planned well ahead of the devastating terrorist assaults on New York and Washington. The government says the timing perfectly coincides with growing public concern over possible terrorist threats.

The National Emergency Center conducted a computer simulation from reinforced bunkers to determine what might happen if a nuclear attack took place.

The Center's director, Marco Brossi, says the scenario assumed that the fallout from a nuclear weapon exploding in a nearby country would contaminate nearly all of Switzerland - a broad area stretching from Lake Geneva to Lake Constance - forcing millions of people into shelters.

Mr. Brossi explains that Switzerland is equipped with thousands of bomb shelters to handle a nuclear or chemical attack. "What we would do first is to send everybody to shelters because then you can have some time where you can take measures, make long-term decisions," he said. "And that is important that you do not lose control of the whole scenario. We are all prepared from kids on to go to shelters and about what to do."

A 1963 Swiss law requires homes, hospitals and other public buildings to set up bomb shelters in the basements. Mr. Brossi says these are equipped with bunk beds, water, and other provisions, but a number of Swiss city dwellers use their cellars to store wine and luggage.

Mr. Brossi says the exercise showed the need to keep citizens informed with up to date, accurate information about what was going on and when it would be safe to leave the shelters. "Authorities in Switzerland own a series of radio transmission stations, which are able to penetrate the walls of these shelters, so we can keep the population with updated information about the situation outside," said Marco Brossi.

Mr. Brossi says that Germany, Italy, France and Spain want to see Switzerland's test results. South Korean officials also plan to visit the center to see how the drill was carried out.

Britain does not have the vast number of bomb shelters that Switzerland boasts. Nonetheless, British officials say they test the country's ability to respond to radiation dangers on a regular basis. They say the government would use the Internet to communicate with citizens who would be sheltered in their homes.

Bernard Wilkins of Britain's National Radiological Protection Board says the country constantly tests its ability to coordinate people and monitor events during its nuclear exercises. He says the spread of radiation depends on the size of the attack. "In terms of nuclear explosions, a good deal of the radioactivity decays away in a fairly short time," he said. "So with things like shelter in houses, people can actually return to relatively normal living in a fairly short time."

Experts say terrorists are unlikely to have access to military-grade nuclear weapons. They believe the greater threat would come from so-called "dirty bombs." These would involve attaching radioactive material to conventional explosives. Mr. Wilkins says such devices would probably spread radioactive contamination over a smaller area.

He says that decontamination measures would involve examining how people have been exposed to the radiation and the size of the area affected, and then deciding on the best procedure to clear radioactive debris.