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News from the National Academies

June 26, 2013

Responding to International Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Incidents

On June 20, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a workshop to discuss ways to improve the U.S. government's assistance in responding to a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear incident that might occur elsewhere in the world. 

Among the speakers was Major General Julie Bentz, director of Strategic Capabilities Policy at the White House, who spoke about lessons learned from the U.S. government response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor accident that Japan faced in 2011.  The scale and breadth of the Fukushima disaster highlighted a need here in the U.S. for better mechanisms to coordinate activities among federal agencies to ensure that the right resources can be mobilized in a timely way without duplication or gaps.

Paul Stockton, president of Cloud Peak Analytics and former assistant secretary of defense, stressed the need to take not just a whole-of-government approach to these incidents, but a "whole of nation" approach -- in other words, a need to marshal resources from beyond federal agencies during a response.  "We're making terrific progress … in building federal capabilities to support partner nations when they request our assistance," Stockton said. "I think we're nowhere near [as] far along in bringing U.S. state capabilities to bear."  He noted, too, that the U.S. hasn't begun to tap into the tremendous capabilities of the private sector that could be harnessed during a response. 

The science adviser to the Cabinet of Japan, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who chaired an independent commission that investigated the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, discussed some of the lessons learned from the accident.  In noting that "machines break, accidents happen, and humans err," Kurokawa highlighted the need to build resilience to extreme events and a need for  transparency and accountability in decision making.

Overall, the workshop's speakers and participants identified a vast network of existing resources -- within and outside of the U.S. government -- that can be brought to bear on response efforts for these incidents.  This workshop opened a conversation about response to these incidents that will continue in the United States and abroad.

Watch these and other presentations by viewing the archived webcast