The United States has begun preparing for the possibility that a terrorist could detonate a nuclear device in a major American city. U.S. officials appeared before a Senate panel Thursday to discuss the effort. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.
The Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee heard sobering testimony about the impact of a nuclear attack on the United States.
Senator Joe Lieberman, who calls himself an independent Democrat, is committee chairman:
"A nuclear attack on our homeland would be sudden and swift. It would be devastating and deadly. Failure to develop and test a comprehensive plan for dealing with the aftermath would only magnify its impact," he noted.
U.S. authorities began preparing for such a scenario following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Preparedness and Response Craig Vanderwagen says the detonation of an improvised nuclear device (IND) would be one of the most catastrophic events the United States could endure.
"An IND would kill, indeed, tens of thousands of individuals with blast, burn, and traumatic effects, not to mention radiation," he noted.
Vanderwagen says there would be many thousands more victims with injuries and radiation sickness. He says healthcare facilities have begun taking steps to prepare for the possibility of such a situation.
"If we look back on 2002, there was a very limited infrastructure for integrated mass care," he explained. "Now we have 87 percent of all U.S. hospitals participating in the program that would bring about mass care. As far as decontamination goes, two-thirds of the hospitals in 2002 reported that they really did not have any ability to decontaminate people effectively, and now we have the ability to decontaminate over 400,000 people within three hours on a nationwide basis."
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator David Paulison says federal funds have gone to communities across the nation to help train emergency personnel.
"State and local governments have received $23 billion in preparedness grants to build all-hazardous capabilities. In the past four years alone, fully $350 million in Department of Homeland Security grant programs have been invested in projects related to radiological and nuclear preparedness as well as decontamination," he said.
Paulison says his agency is planning a national exercise in 2010 to respond to a scenario in which a 10-kiloton nuclear device is detonated.
Assistant Defense Secretary for Homeland Defense Paul McHale says the Pentagon is doing its part to train rapid response teams.
"We will have 20,000d military personnel prepared for the primary mission of domestic, catastrophic response. These are capabilities that did not exist on September 11," he added.
The hearing was the latest in a series on the potential for a nuclear attack on U.S. soil. Senator Lieberman says his committee plans another hearing later this year that will focus on the steps the federal government has taken to prevent such an attack.