Nuclear fictions more real than drills

Rich Moniak

Like all emergency drills, Shielded Eagle blurred the lines between reality and fiction. The Coast Guard, Juneau Police Department and Capital City Fire/Rescue successfully implemented a well thought out response plan to a simulated terrorist plot involving a nuclear device. While emergency responders get good practice from such exercises, the rest of us can learn more from the reality captured in science fiction films ending in nuclear disaster.


In the drill, terrorists brought radioactive bombs to Juneau by ferry. One remains on board the ship loaded with volunteer passengers. The other is driven into town. It’s discovered by law enforcement after a routine traffic stop. The suspect informs them about the one still on the ferry. But it had already left Auke Bay. So JPD alerts the Coast Guard. Personnel from both organizations intercept the ship, board it and find the second device.

Averting the crisis in that sequence required a stroke of luck (courtesy of a traffic violation) and the questionable notion that terrorists plotting to detonate a dirty or nuclear bomb wouldn’t be prepared to die in the explosion. If that was the case, then the one being interrogated wouldn’t likely cooperate.

Those flaws made Shielded Eagle a less credible drill. But the bigger problem is the outcome. Given that that fictional plot was realistic, the drilled failed to encourage the city and its citizens to confront what would happen if one or both of the terrorists successfully carried out their plan.

That’s how “Special Bulletin” ended. In that 1983 made-for-TV drama, a terrorist group smuggles a homemade atomic bomb into Charleston, South Carolina. They hold the city hostage by threatening to detonate it if the U.S. government doesn’t comply with their demands Special forces kill the terrorists, but the crew sent in to diffuse the bomb accidently triggers an explosion. Although most people had evacuated the city, the radioactive fallout turned the region into an uninhabitable wasteland.

As implied by the film’s title, much of the story is told from a simulated television newsroom, including the type of technical difficulties common with live broadcasts from that era. The objective of such realism was to lend credibility to the possibility that terrorists could obtain a nuclear bomb. And to the magnitude of the potential disaster. It seemed so real some viewers panicked like people did during the recent false nuclear alert in Hawaii.

The same year more than 100 million people tuned in to watch “The Day After.” Early in that movie multiple mushroom clouds are seen rising on the horizon of the Kansas plains. The ballistic missiles came from the Soviet Union. The U.S. launched some too. Which side ordered the first strike does matter because it’s about how people survive in the aftermath.

Unlike “Special Bulletin”, the cinematic style of storytelling made it obvious the movie was fiction. But the horrific results of the nuclear attack weren’t exaggerated. They were based on a 1979 government commissioned study that examined “the full range of effects that nuclear war would have on civilians: direct effects from blast and radiation; and indirect effects from economic, social, and political disruption.” Among those consulted by its authors were nuclear scientists and experts from the Department of Defense and CIA.

Henry Kissinger participated in a televised debate immediately following broadcast of “The Day After.” Almost 30 years later he co-authored a plea to the world to abolish nuclear weapons. Around that time, a fictional Kissinger appears in the “The Watchmen,” a science fiction film about super heroes in which one of them goes rouge and sets off a nuclear explosion in New York City. How he and the president recognize there isn’t a legitimate target for nuclear retaliation is the movie’s only piece of realism.

The strategy of deterrence relies on the idea that nuclear “aggressors and evildoers would recoil,” over the consequences of attacking America, the real Kissinger explains in the 2010 documentary “Nuclear Tipping Point. “In a world of suicide bombers, that calculation doesn’t operate in any comparable way.”

That’s the final reality missing from Shielded Eagle. And why rather than take comfort in our government’s hopes to thwart terrorists, we should be leading them to embrace the imperative of total nuclear disarmament.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a regular “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.


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