For the first time in more than 30 years, emergency planning in Washington state could include preparations for potential nuclear attacks, with bipartisan support in bills entering both the House and Senate.
The Legislature voted in 1983 to ban including nuclear war preparations in emergency planning procedures. The prohibition specifically applies to planning for evacuation and relocation of citizens.
The move was made in the context of increasing tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union. With former President Ronald Reagan taking an aggressive stance against what he called the “evil empire,” lawmakers in Washington state were concerned that preparing for a nuclear war would draw the ire of Russian leaders.
Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, said that such fears have been extinguished with the fall of the Soviet Union and the United States’ status as the world’s sole superpower. Muri is the primary sponsor of House Bill 2214, which would remove the prohibition on preparing for a nuclear attack.
Muri, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said a routine part of his job during the Cold War involved surveying air fields in case of nuclear attacks. The representative said the biggest threat of nuclear war today comes from “rogue” nations like North Korea and Iran.
“The idea is that we would hopefully have some plans in place that would mitigate any potential attack,” Muri said at the bill’s public hearing Jan. 22. “It’s unthinkable, but we should plan.”
HB 2214, like the prohibition it seeks to overturn, comes at a time of deteriorating relations between the United States and a rival nuclear power.
President Donald Trump said in August 2017 that North Korea would face “fire and fury” should they continue nuclear testing. The comment was made in response to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report that suggested the communist regime had developed nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
HB 2214 passed the House Committee on Public Safety Tuesday afternoon and heads to the House floor for debate. A companion in the Senate, SB 5936, will be heard in committee Friday morning.
Seattle resident James Thomas testified in opposition to the bill, citing the same concerns that brought about the ban in the first place. Thomas said he has been studying nuclear policy since 1981.
“Relocation of people in anticipation of an attack could be perceived by our adversaries as a step leading to a first nuclear first strike and would increase international tensions,” Thomas said. “Washington state should not do anything to add fuel to the fire.”
Another concerned citizen, Glen Anderson, argued against the bill, but focused his criticisms on the logistics of preparing for nuclear war. Anderson has previously been honored by the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County.
“I believe in honesty and practicality,” Anderson said. “Public policy should help people recognize truth and not deceive people.”
Anderson said a bill like this would create an “illusion” that nuclear war is survivable, a notion that Anderson said has been discredited. Anderson said there is no feasible response to a nuclear attack, and that the effort would be better spent on reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons.
But Muri expressed an opinion to the contrary. The bill sponsor said that in the event of a nuclear attack it would be necessary to assist survivors. He said this would include developing shelters and ensuring that enough supplies are on hand to deal with the effects of radiation and fallout.
“Everybody thinks that a nuclear weapon hitting a part of our state would be the end of the world,” Muri said. “It would not.”
This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.