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State legislators revive debate over nuclear evacuation plans

"Thousands Evacuate Downtown Area in First Operation Walkout." National Guardsmen of 161st infantry regiment, M/Sgt. George A. Goering (left), Sgt. 1/c James Hammel, were posted at Main and Wall during test on April 27, 1954. (SR)
"Thousands Evacuate Downtown Area in First Operation Walkout." National Guardsmen of 161st infantry regiment, M/Sgt. George A. Goering (left), Sgt. 1/c James Hammel, were posted at Main and Wall during test on April 27, 1954. (SR)

OLYMPIA – Washington’s emergency management personnel could once again think about the unthinkable and make plans to evacuate cities ahead of a possible nuclear attack.

Critics argue, however, that lifting the Reagan-era prohibition would only help bolster an “illusion” that nuclear war is winnable.

A bill before the House Public Safety Committee on Monday would lift a 1984 ban the state has on creating plans to evacuate or relocate people in advance of a possible nuclear attack, a restriction that puzzled Chairman Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.

“Where did that come from?” he asked.

When the law was passed, the United States and Soviet Union were in the middle of an arms race and Washington had a series of military installations with nuclear weapons, Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, the bill’s sponsor, said.

“It was a different day,” he said. “The thought was planning for an attack would make it more likely. They may have had a point back then.”

Today the danger is an attack from a “rogue nation” that develops a nuclear weapon, Muri said.

Before 1984, some communities had extensive nuclear readiness and survival plans. Spokane County adapted portions of its nuclear survival plan in response to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The Spokane plan also called for evacuating citizens to Pullman. Critics pointed out that the Pullman plan called for evacuating its citizens to Spokane.

At one time the plan for evacuating Seattle consisted of loading city residents onto Metro buses and driving them across Snoqualmie Pass to Yakima. The buses would then go back to Seattle, pick up another load of citizens, and repeat until the city was empty, Glen Anderson, an opponent of the bill, told the committee.

The state Emergency Management Division currently has an “all hazards approach to emergency management planning,” Deputy Director Jason Marquiss, told the committee. That includes earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, mudslides and serious winter storms, based on how catastrophic and how likely they might be.

The response plans have certain common elements, he said.

Has the division had any conversations lately about nuclear attacks? Goodman asked.

“There has not been a specific effort laid against a nuclear attack,” Marquiss replied.

Even under current law, the division could plan for a response to a nuclear attack, he said, but not without some budget help or taking staff away from what it considers priority planning for more likely emergencies.

James Thomas, of Seattle, said the state is free right now to plan how to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The law only prevents planning for evacuation or relocation before such an attack, because that could be seen by an adversary as a prelude to a first strike, and prompting an enemy attack.

“Given the increase in bellicose language from leaders. … Washington should not do anything to add fuel to the fire,” Thomas said.

The Public Safety Committee could vote on the bill in the coming weeks. A similar bill in the Senate has been referred to the State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee, but a hearing has not yet been scheduled.


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