U.S. Nuclear Emergency Preparedness Poor, Report Says

John Commins, March 15, 2011

Most states are "poorly prepared" to respond to a major radiation emergency like the nuclear disaster that Japan faces now, according to a report and survey of state health departments posted Monday by Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

The report, entitled Nuclear Preparedness, notes that public health preparedness has improved since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on Washington, DC, and New York City, and that many of the 38 state health departments that responded to the survey reporting having some sort of written plans in place that provide for nuclear emergencies. However, most states complained of inadequate resources.

"Few reported having sufficient resources to do public health surveillance, radiation exposure assessment, laboratory functions and other capabilities," the study said. "The results of this assessment indicate that in many measures of public health capacity and capability, the nation remains poorly prepared to respond adequately to a major radiation emergency incident."

The study found that 45% of the states surveyed had no comprehensive response plans for a nuclear disaster. "Without a comprehensive plan, states in which a radiation emergency occurs are likely to mount inefficient, ineffective, inappropriate, or tardy responses that could result in (preventable) loss of life," the report said. "With nearly half of the responding states not having a response plan, a large portion of the U.S. population is at increased risk should a radiological event occur within the country's borders." 

Emergency preparedness guidance related to radiation release incidents -- both intentional and unintentional -- has come from a collaborative of state, county, municipal and federal organizations called the National Alliance for Radiation Readiness. As part of the NARR activities, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists reassessed the status of radiation preparedness planning and response capabilities at the state health department level in 2010 through a survey.

The 38 state health departments responded to the survey include 26 states with nuclear power plants. 

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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