Though the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation has lessened somewhat since the end of the Cold War, the US government's nuclear plans have gotten more sophisticated. Focus has altered from a large-scale exchange of thousands of missiles to small-scale incidents, and in response, arrangements have shifted more towards detection, prevention, and the aftermath.
And yet, the legacy of the Cold War looms large, particularly in the wake of 9/11. From the old behemoth bunkers at Raven Rock and Cheyenne Mountain to sophisticated new missile tracking satellites, the United States government is committed to covering all the bases and remaining as secure as possible in the event of a crisis. This includes both preserving the president and senior leadership and informing the citizens how to prepare for a nuclear event.
Though some of the government's plans may seem excessive, when faced with the possibility of nuclear conflict, every option must be explored - even "Floating White House" doomsday ships.
The United States government's current plan in case of a nuclear event is called National Response Scenario #1, named because, according to FEMA documentation, it's one of the most likely mass disasters. Currently, plans have been made based upon the assumption that a 10 kiloton nuclear device would be detonated in a densely populated American city.
In this scenario, high levels of radiation are a significant concern for first responders, because they would make an immediate response at ground zero impossible.
Within the National Response Framework, there are 15 National Response plans that run the gamut from nuclear and biological incidents to food contamination and cyber incursions. They lay out everything from emergency planning to military counter-response.
Among the dozens of aides, staffers, and advisors who surround the president when he travels, there is one person with a special job. They carry a small, black satchel. Inside is a complicated communications device whose primary purpose is to verify the president's identity and allow them to communicate with the Pentagon and authorize nuclear strikes. This satchel is called "the nuclear football."
Despite what many believe, no big red button launches the nukes. Any such request needs to be routed through the Pentagon, and a complicated series of authentications must take place. Once those authentications are confirmed, however, the missiles fly.
During the midst of the Cold War, Major Harold Hering was kicked out of a missile training program for asking questions about authentication and the president's power. Although many others have questioned the unilateral authority of the president in sanctioning the use of nuclear weapons since then, the policy has yet to change.
In January 2018, Hawaiian citizens received a text message: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL." Thankfully, it wasn't real. An employee of Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency had accidentally triggered the message.
The system exists because the United States has a network of satellites monitoring the Pacific Ocean for potential ballistic threats 24 hours a day. The US Pacific Command is capable of detecting ranged ballistic missiles and gives the military valuable time to both attempt to intercept the rockets and prepare for impact.
Given the Cold War ended in 1991, it might be surprising to learn the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), a collection of medications stored for a nuclear - or any other extreme - disaster, was only created in 1999. The SNS was created in anticipation of numerous crisis-level events.
Various incidents in 2001, including the events of 9/11 and the distribution of anthrax, caused Congress to pass major legislation, which upgraded the stockpile's budget, inventory, and its ability to respond to threats quickly. The stockpile is spread out between a number of undisclosed warehouses all across the United States.