06/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Planning for Nuclear Terrorism as Well as the Flu

Every day brings news about the spread of swine flu in the U.S. and instability in Pakistan. It is too early to tell how either story will end, but we are prepared to deal with the potential consequences of only one of these situations.

Confronted with a potential pandemic flu outbreak, President Obama thanked the Bush Administration for "creating the infrastructure so that we can respond." Extensive planning began several years ago, and these efforts encompassed all levels of government as well as the private sector.

As the Taliban's influence spreads, concern about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials grows. Terrorist acquisition of a nuclear bomb, or the materials required to construct one, would fulfill President Obama's warning that "one terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction." Significant, if insufficient, action has been made toward preventing nuclear terrorism while little has been accomplished in terms of preparedness for an attack. Similar to pandemic flu planning, such efforts need to occur outside of Washington, DC and include private businesses and citizens.

The "Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation," developed by the White House Homeland Security Council, stressed that it is "incumbent upon all levels of government" to prepare "through focused nuclear attack response planning." According to that same guidance, "local and state community preparedness to respond to a nuclear detonation could result in life-saving on the order of tens of thousands of lives."

Unfortunately many communities have not gotten the point.

Two assumptions prevail at the local level: that any nuclear explosion will completely destroy a major city and that the military is the only organization capable of responding.

These ideas are fueled by Cold War-era memories in which the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union meant thousands of bombs would fall on U.S. cities. However, scenarios involving a nuclear terrorist attack, though horrible, are not equivalent.

The federal government will eventually take charge of response efforts and military aid will be required. Yet as overwhelming as it will be for local and state resources, it is all that will be available in the first hours following the explosion.

So what should local officials do?

First, accept the threat and understand the military cannot arrive immediately to help. Although probability of such an attack is low compared to conventional explosives, natural disasters, or even bioterrorism, the possibility is real and the consequences catastrophic. Local officials should not delude themselves into thinking that existing plans for responding to dirty bombs can be simply expanded to deal with nuclear terrorism. There is no comparison between the two -- as Harvard professor and nuclear terrorism expert Graham Allison describes it, "a dirty bomb is to a nuclear bomb as a lighting bug is to lighting."

When this lighting strikes, it may be several days before the federal government can respond in force. Although the Defense Department has recently tasked thousands of U.S.-based troops to support local authorities in case of such a catastrophic event, local officials should assume this federal help might not arrive for up to 48 hours after an explosion.

Second, realize this is not a problem for only large "high risk" cities, but one that requires a regional response. People will self-evacuate, fallout will be blown long distances, and the only resources available will be found in neighboring communities.

Third, actually make plans. This has to take place across local jurisdictions and among disciplines that often compete for scarce resources as well as include business and other private entities that often are not brought to the table. As recommended by the recent WMD Commission, a serious program of engagement with the public will be required to not only encourage disaster preparedness but also provide guidelines to track their local officials' progress.

Such planning is not necessarily specific to nuclear terrorism. Regional preparedness and response can be leveraged for a range of catastrophic events, including hurricanes, earthquakes, and pandemics. Plus, preparing for the "big one" will help communities deal with the small disasters they face every year.