FEMA releases updated planning guidelines for nuclear detonation response

If a nuclear explosion were to occur in any American city, it would be one of the most catastrophic incidents the United States has ever seen. Responders must be prepared for the unique challenges of responding to a nuclear incident. With careful planning, many lives can be saved and injuries mitigated. Additionally, preparing and planning for nuclear explosions helps better equip your community for other natural and man-made hazards/disasters, such as spreading fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and radiological incidents.

Although the fallout hazard is unique, most aspects of multi-hazard or all-hazard planning and response apply to nuclear explosion response and planning. Planners and responders bring a wealth of experience and expertise relevant to nuclear detonation response. This guidance provides nuclear detonation information and context to enable planners, responders, and their leaders to leverage their existing capabilities.

Specifically, this document outlines the considerations, planning factors, and resources available to develop a successful nuclear detonation response plan. This document focuses on the first 24 to 72 hours after a detonation, when early actions can save many lives.

The primary audiences for these planning councils are Federal, State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial (FSLTT) emergency response planners at all levels and their leaders. Target audiences for this document include, but are not limited to:

  • Emergency managers
  • Law enforcement planners
  • Fire Response Planners
  • Emergency medical services planners
  • Hazardous Materials Response Planners (HAZMAT)
  • Utilities and Public Works Emergency Planners
  • Transport planners
  • Public health planners
  • Medical provider planners (eg, hospitals)
  • Mass care providers (e.g. American Red Cross)
  • Public Information Officers (PIO)
  • Local and regional private sector industries able to provide logistical support for the immediate response, either through voluntary actions or through the requisitioning of resources.
  • Other emergency planners, planning organizations and professional organizations that represent disciplines that conduct emergency response activities.

These guidelines were developed by a federal interagency writing team led by FEMA’s CBRN office. The guidance would not have been possible without the technical assistance provided by the agencies and organizations summarized in the Acknowledgments section. These planning guidelines have undergone extensive stakeholder review, including subject matter experts (SMEs) from federal and state interagency laboratories; representatives of the emergency response community from police, fire, emergency medical services; medical care providers; and professional organizations, such as the Health Physics Society and the Interagency Board.

These orientations also reflect the evolution of nuclear threats. The 2010 planning guidelines focused on 10 kiloton (kT) and lower power detonations consistent with the threat of nuclear terrorism, all occurring on the Earth’s surface. This update to the 2021 Planning Guide addresses an expanded range of threat scenarios, including nation-state2 threats with much greater explosive yields. These guidelines also take into account nuclear devices launched by ballistic missiles or aircraft that can produce high bangs above the surface. Low-level airbursts can increase the magnitude of the explosion and thermal damage inflicted, but can also greatly reduce local fallout impacts. Urban emergency planners should focus on surface and low level detonations, as these detonations will have the greatest effect on an urban environment.

The technical community that developed Chapters 1 and 2 of this guide was tasked with examining how these broader threat factors shape the resulting advice for emergency response planning.

The third edition (2022) has been updated and expanded to provide guidance for a wider range of nuclear detonations, including larger detonations and airbursts. It also incorporates new research, best practices and intervention resources. Additionally, this edition includes a new chapter on the Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System (IPAWS), which enables state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) officials to send warnings and key messages during the response.

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