Practicing for the unthinkable

Rob Lawrence, of the Georgia National Guard, introduces himself at a tabletop exercise simulating the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, at Georgia State University Parc Stadium on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Rob Lawrence, of the Georgia National Guard, introduces himself at a tabletop exercise simulating the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, at Georgia State University Parc Stadium on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Fulton EMA conducts tabletop exercise with federal officials for response to nuclear attack

Here’s the scenario: A relatively small improvised nuclear device was detonated at I-75 and the Chattahoochee River, on the border of Cobb and Fulton counties. Part of Cumberland Mall has been flattened less than a mile away. Workers at Home Depot’s headquarters, two miles from the blast site, have cuts from the windows blowing out. The roads from Buckhead to Chamblee are blocked with smashed cars because the blast temporarily blinded drivers. And there’s a radioactive plume hovering 5 miles above the area.

What would emergency responders do two days later?

That simulation is what occupied more than 100 experts from the region in the top floor of Georgia State University’s Center Parc Stadium on Thursday.

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They participated in a new table-top exercise that is a collaboration between the Defense Department’s U.S. Northern Command in Colorado and the Atlanta Fulton Emergency Management Agency.

Matthew Kallmyer, director of Fulton’s EMA, opened the day by saying this exercise was not in response to recent events in Europe.

The backgrounds of attendees ranged from animal behaviorists to radiological attack response strategists, and the affiliations stretched from the Red Cross to the Sandy Springs fire chief and the United States Marine Corps.


Lt. Chayne Sparagowski, another member of Fulton’s EMA, was the person who volunteered Atlanta for this exercise while attending an emergency professional conference a year and a half ago.

The crowd listened as he explained the situation. A 10-kiloton bomb (the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was twice that size) had struck and the group was tasked with three things: how to get information to the public, how to create family assistance centers and how to decontaminate all survivors — including their pets.

He warned that apathy could lead to more death. Though a nuclear blast like that would absolutely kill untold people, there are many more who could be saved from the fallout cloud with quick action.

Researchers say people have about 15 minutes to hunker down before the radioactive particles mixed with dirt and debris from the blast descends.

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An attendee's copy of a Nuclear Weapons Incident Response Training book is seen during a tabletop exercise simulating the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, at Georgia State University Parc Stadium on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

An attendee's copy of a Nuclear Weapons Incident Response Training book is seen during a tabletop exercise simulating the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, at Georgia State University Parc Stadium on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Combined ShapeCaption
An attendee's copy of a Nuclear Weapons Incident Response Training book is seen during a tabletop exercise simulating the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, at Georgia State University Parc Stadium on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

The pros say people should relocate to the center of whatever building they’re in, away from where the particles will collect on the windows and roof. Even going to the center of a regular house makes a difference. Brick homes or going underground are both great options.

Lt. Col. Eric Miller, with the Defense Department, said they’ve never worked closer with local agencies for a nuclear wargame exercise. He said the decisions made Thursday, especially in the realm of animal decontamination, could form a national model.

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People listen as an attendee introdues herself during a tabletop exercise simulating the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, at Georgia State University Parc Stadium on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

People listen as an attendee introdues herself during a tabletop exercise simulating the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, at Georgia State University Parc Stadium on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Combined ShapeCaption
People listen as an attendee introdues herself during a tabletop exercise simulating the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, at Georgia State University Parc Stadium on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Thursday was merely a prelude to a full-scale practice in November, with decontamination units and real-life obstacles to give emergency responders the ability to practice.

When asked if it seems a waste to prepare for the aftermath of such a catastrophic blast, Sparagowski said: “Just about every death is preventable.”

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