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LA County Preparedness for a Radiological or Nuclear Incident

PSR-LA Ambassadors Natalia Kovteva, Stephen Coles MD, Margaret Wacker MD, and PSR-LA Associate Director Denise Duffield attended the seminar “Emergency Preparedness for a Radiological or Nuclear Incident” on January 21, 2010. The all-day event was held at the California Endowment and sponsored by Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, LA County Radiation Management, and Landaeur, a company that manufacturers radiation detection devices.

Kathleen Kaufman, Director of LA County Radiation Management, discussed the County’s Multi-agency Radiation Response Plan, a newly developed plan to coordinate County departments in the event of a radiological incident such as a dirty bomb. An equivalent plan does not currently exist for a nuclear detonation, though County officials will participate in the “Operation Golden Phoenix” planning exercise this June which will simulate a 10 kiloton detonation in Los Angeles. The exact date and nature of the exercise is yet to be determined.

Other speakers at the seminar provided information and concerns about treating radiation victims. Steven Becker, Director of the Disaster and Emergency Communication research unit, presented disconcerting information on perceptions and misconceptions held by doctors and nurses regarding a terrorist event involving radioactive materials. In a September 2008 study entitled “Improving Hospital Preparedness for Radiological Terrorism: Perspectives from Emergency Department Physicians and Nurses,” Becker discovered that many health care professionals do not believe their facilities would be sufficiently prepared, and some indicated that they would not comply with current protocols to treat victims out concern for their own families and fear of being contaminated themselves. (In fact, people who have been exposed to radiation pose no risk of contaminating others, while those who have been contaminated – such as through shrapnel – must be de-contaminated before treatment.)

PSR-LA Ambassadors Dr. Margaret Wacker and Dr. Steven Coles discuss their concerns with Brooke Buddemeier of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Perhaps the most powerful presentation of the day came from Brooke Buddemeier, a health physicist with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Global Security Risk and Consequence Management Program, who presented Department of Homeland Security modeling effects of an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) in Los Angeles. The modeling was done for a 10 kilton IND detonated at 6th and Grand (which, chillingly, happens to be exactly one block away from PSR-LA’s office.)

This scenario reflects the changing nature of nuclear threats, from fears of the Cold War’s H-Bombs to terrorists and smaller ground-based detonations and dirty bombs. Buddemeier contends that fatalist attitudes about a nuclear attack are detrimental and that proper preparedness training, especially on the part of emergency responders and medical personnel, could save thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – of lives. He presented new research indicating greater variability in fallout patterns than previously thought (based on variability in weather,) and offered detailed information on how long individuals outside of the immediate blast zone should shelter in place and the best types of structures in which to do so. More information about these findings is available in the recently published report Key Response Planning Factors for the Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism.

While the information presented at the seminar was immensely valuable, PSR-LA believes that the best preparedness tool when it comes to a nuclear or radiological attack is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The recent Haiti earthquake demonstrated the enormous challenges in providing care to victims when a disaster has destroyed medical facilities, personnel, and vital life-saving equipment and supplies. This would be no different, and likely worse, in a nuclear attack even with a smaller sized device – not to mention the human, environmental, and economic toll.

But while nothing can be done to prevent earthquakes, there are numerous ways to prevent a nuclear incident. Dramatically reducing global nuclear weapons arsenals, taking weapons off hair-trigger alert, and securing nuclear bomb-making materials are just a few steps that can be taken to ensure we are never faced with the horror of a nuclear attack. In this case, the proverbial ounce of prevention will be worth more, much more, than a pound of cure.

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