Western countries are not prepared for nuclear war, warns fallout expert

Exclusive: 'People understand better that this will come as a surprise. If you are not prepared in advance, you won't have a good response'

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The Independent Online

Western countries are ill-prepared for the aftermath of a nuclear war or catastrophic meltdown, an expert specialising in the impacts of fallout has warned.

It comes amid heightened tensions between the US and North Korea over the latter’s dogged pursuit of its nuclear and missile programmes, in defiance of UN sanctions and international pressure. Both Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have indicated support for expanding their nuclear arsenals.

With the recent ramping up of rhetoric between world powers, governments owe it to their citizens to be prepared for potential nuclear incidents, Dr Arik Eisenkraft, director of homeland defence projects at Pluristem Therapeutics, told The Independent.

The heightened tensions since Mr Trump took office have “really highlighted the reality, how things are fragile, how things may change in a few days”, he said. 

“People understand better that this will come as a surprise. If you are not prepared in advance, you won't have a good response. Once everyone is aware of the potential of this problem, you are already on the way to having a good solution.”

The world is still learning lessons from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, he said. “Chernobyl opened our eyes. For the first time, people all over the world understood that a single incident might influence their own countries even if they are far away and regardless if they themselves use nuclear energy.”

The catastrophic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, killed at least 31 people, the majority from acute radiation syndrome, with potential long-term cancers still being investigated. "Everyone now understands the need to be prepared is shared by everyone," he said.

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Dr Eisenkraft, who previously worked with the Ministry of Defence in Israel, said governments are also becoming more aware of the danger terrorist attacks could pose to a nation's nuclear infrastructure.

He praised the British Government for putting a high priority on nuclear preparedness, saying it understands the consequences of "either a natural disaster like in Fukushima" or "human error like in Chernobyl."

But he warned countries must do more to prepare for the chaotic aftermath of a nuclear accident or war. One of the major issues for governments, he said, is understanding exactly what other countries are doing in response to a disaster.

"If you don't know that and the event is chaotic in nature, you can add more chaos to it," he said, adding that governments must prepare themselves and train for different scenarios.

"I think people are not aware enough of how complicated this probably will be. Just look at Fukushima.

"Japan is a country which invests a lot in safety and security, and they still weren't prepared for such a catastrophe. And other countries are not prepared in the same extent."

One of the biggest dangers in the aftermath of a nuclear emergency is acute radiation sickness, when exposure to very high levels of radiation result in severe and potentially lethal damage to the body.

High doses of radiation can destroy the bone marrow's ability to produce white blood cells, which are essential to fighting infection, oxygen-carrying red blood cells and platelets, which help the body form clots to stop bleeding.

"Once people are suffering from acute radiation syndrome, they are in danger of life threatening infections, anaemia and uncontrolled bleeding," Dr Eisenkraft said.

He described current treatments for acute radiation sickness, which include blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants, as "very complicated, very expensive."

"Just imagine dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of casualties. This will be very difficult to perform even in western countries. So there is a real need for something simple that would be simple to deploy and to use."

That is where his research on stem cells taken from the placenta after birth comes in. 

His team at Pluristem have developed a medical countermeasure to treat acute radiation sickness which, once injected, can prevent anaemia, infection and a potentially fatal decrease in platelets. 

Initial pilot studies have proven promising and Dr Arik said the treatment "may well be the next generation countermeasure against acute radiation syndrome."