For the first time since the end of the Cold War, attention on how military and civilian authorities – and the public – would respond to a nuclear attack has resurfaced during recent hostile exchanges between the US and North Korea, and following a false missile alert in Hawaii.

It hardly needs saying that such an attack on any part of the world would be several orders of magnitude more catastrophic than just about all the others in the CBRN pantheon. Aside from a detonation of nuclear bomb out of a nation state’s stockpile, a terrorist improvised nuclear device (IND) has risen in the list of threats, as has a cyberattack or natural disaster triggering a nuclear plant meltdown or explosion in the manner of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The chaos produced by a nationwide natural disaster would be eclipsed by the mother of all WMD. A nuclear explosion from just a 5-kiloton device will kill and injure millions – both in the short and long term. Acute radiation injury and multiple injuries would overwhelm health services. Infrastructure – electricity, water, food and sanitation – would be totally destroyed or damaged, with major civil unrest breaking out and further injury and lost citizens buried below collapsing buildings and fires. Overall, it isimpossible to defend populations and troops against even a single device detonation, let alone a full-scale nuclear war.

Civil Defence

In the UK what rudimentary preparations were – and are – in place used to come under the original term ‘civil defence’. In drills of the 1950s and 1960s, American schoolchildren would ‘duck and cover’ under their desks when the sirens sounded. Upgraded sirens alerted the population to an imminent attack. But as for evacuating them on notice of inbound enemy bombers, US policy is summed up by one historian: “run like hell.”

Nevertheless, for their citizens the US has encouraged ‘Nuclear War Survival Skills’ – from ‘go bags’ containing essential items for a few days’ survival and basic first aid – to instructions for untrained civilians to “make high-protection-factor expedient shelters, efficient air pumps to ventilate and cool shelters, a fallout radiation meter that is accurate and dependable, and other life-support equipment.”

Civil defence was all but dismantled in the UK and US after the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Then post-9/11, the new Department of Homeland Security recommended citizens purchase duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal doorways and windows in the event of a chemical or biological attack. Critics derided this as “duct tape and cover.”

Whether you receive a warning by text (most likely) or in an alert broadcast, the basic instructions in the UK and US is to stay inside, putting yourself behind dense material and the outside world – for at least two weeks. The US government website advises removal of contaminated clothing to be placed in a sealed bag “as far away from life as possible.”

In the UK, US-style warning sirens are unlikely to be used. People are advised to “move away from the immediate source of danger” and follow the instructions of the emergency services, take shelter in the nearest building, tune in to local and national news media, and await further instructions.

False alarm…


On 13 January a false incoming ballistic missile alert in Hawaii was broadcast via the
Emergency Alert System and Commercial Mobile Alert System over television, radio, and mobile phones. The alert advised residents to seek shelter, and concluded “This is not a drill.” No civil defence outdoor warning sirens were authorized or sounded. A second message, sent 38 minutes later, described the first as a false alarm.

State officials blamed a miscommunication during a drill at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for the first message. Human error – an employee pushing the wrong button – and a lack of adequate failsafe back-up measures for the technology reminded authorities that rapidcommunications to citizens to warn them of imminent danger must be effective without inadvertently sending the population into a state of mass panic.

Vibrant Response

A service member takes part in the exercise called Vibrant Response 17 by carrying a gurney to pick up an “injured” participant.
 Photo courtesy: Joint Task Force-Civil Support

Military support is basic to the US civil defence system. Once US states can no longer handle the magnitude of an incident, federal response becomes critical.The National Guard WMD Civil Support Teams (WMD-CST) support civil authorities on response at a CBRNE incident site.

However, it is not clear how far they could help in a nuclear weapon attack, although drills are staged to enhance preparedness. Last May, a US interagency exercise, Vibrant Response 17, was designed to prepare whole-nation response to an epic attack and to coordinate the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation; the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the US Army Corps of Engineers, and local law enforcement and emergency agencies. Service personnel responded to the exercise at multiple locations around the country. As with most response exercises, Vibrant Response involved hundreds of role-playing ‘victims’ to simulate incident aftermath (probably best depicted in the chilling BBC 1984 TV production, Threads).

JTF-CS deputy to the commander Michael Collins said: “They were able to practice all these skill sets including triage, medical stabilization, decontamination of personnel, both ambulatory and non-ambulatory personnel, and then medically evacuating them either by air ambulance or Army field ambulances… What makes this exercise so important is… it takes incredible coordination for the city, the state, the federal government and the DoD to respond to whatever it is the incident commander needs, in the quantities they need and where and when they need it in responding to the incident. So practicing is a golden opportunity.”

Collins called for quicker integration of capabilities into the response. “…especially at the federal level, we need to find ways to help the states overcome the resource restrictions they have for exercises. For example, New York and New Jersey weren’t able to participate for every day of the exercise.”

The featured image is of two members of the 92nd Civil Support Team take a sample of a simulated hazardous substance in a Sparks, Nev., shopping mall during training on Nov. 25, 2005. The Nevada National Guard’s civil support team was called to assist Las Vegas Metro Police on Feb. 28, 2008, with a suspicious substance that was later identified as deadly ricin. The team is one of 52 certified units nationwide to support local and state authorities at domestic incident sites by identifying hazardous agents and substances. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka) (Released)