Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Tuesday heard somber testimony about the consequences that would face our nation in the aftermath of a terrorist nuclear attack on a major U.S. city.

In the third of a series of hearings the Committee is holding on the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack on the homeland, what the federal government is doing to prevent such an attack, and how prepared the government is to respond to the challenges, the Senators heard that medical facilities would be so overwhelmed, approximately 90 percent to 95 percent of burn victims would receive no treatment. However, they also heard that beyond the initial blast zone and the narrow plume of nuclear fallout that would be carried by the wind, most of the city and its residents would remain intact and unharmed. Rather than trying to evacuate on gridlocked transportation arteries, the witnesses testified, the best course of action for most residents might well be to shelter in place.

“The scenarios we discuss today are very hard for us to contemplate, and so emotionally traumatic and unsettling that it is tempting to push them aside,” Lieberman said. “However, now is the time to have this difficult conversation, to ask the tough questions, and then to get answers as best we can and take preparatory and preventive action. The actions we take now could save many thousands of lives and could in many other ways reduce the damage to our country from such an attack.”

Collins said: “No region of the country is immune to this threat, and an attack would undoubtedly require a regional and federal response to supplement overwhelmed state and local capabilities. These are powerful reasons to ensure that responders across the country are supported at high levels of preparedness, and that we maintain the all-hazards focus of the National Response Framework. Just as the Katrina disaster drew in responders from around the country, including people from my own State of Maine, a nuclear strike in any American city would require the resources from well beyond the immediate area.”

Detonation in a major U.S. city of a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb – similar in size to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – would cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in the area closest to the explosion from the cumulative effects of the initial blast, the ensuing fires, and the spread of lethal radiation. Millions more could be displaced from their homes unnecessarily, especially if panic caused by the blast leads to an attempted exodus of people from nearby areas not otherwise affected. Witnesses said a major element of the response would be accurate communications by officials to the public, most likely through the mass media, to contain mass hysteria.

Nevertheless, logistical challenges would be huge, essential response resources could be destroyed or severely damaged, and first responders themselves would risk radiation exposure. Maintaining law and order would be central to any response. Coordination among federal, state, and local government entities would be vital – even though those governments could be compromised and the communications infrastructures that they oversee and operate could be badly damaged. And the private sector would have to step in to assist in every way it could.

Witnesses responded with recommendations for federal priorities and achievable solutions to existing gaps in response capabilities.

The Committee’s previous hearings focused on the role of the Defense Department in the event of a terrorist nuclear attack and the intent and capability of terrorists to carry out such an attack.

Witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing, entitled “Nuclear Terrorism: Confronting the Challenges of the Day After,” included Ashton B. Carter, Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Cham E. Dallas, Director, Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense, University of Georgia; Roger C. Molander, Senior Research Scientist, RAND Corporation; and John R. Gibb, Director, New York State Emergency Management Office.