WASHINGTON — The plan was to stage the nation's first live exercise that simulates a nuclear bomb being detonated by terrorists in an American city, with 10,000 emergency responders, U.S. troops and officials playing out their roles in the heart of Las Vegas.
But the Obama administration canceled the Nevada events set for next month after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., backed by casino and business interests, said it would frighten away tourists and "unacceptably harm" the region's battered economy.
The federal government is also considering whether to scale back next year's National Level Exercise, the annual drill that for the past decade has been a cornerstone of the nation's efforts to prepare for a catastrophic terrorist attack or natural disaster. The 2011 exercise was envisioned by states as a five-day test in the Midwest for a 7.7-magnitude earthquake, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency may instead limit the event to three days and test for a milder earthquake, state and federal officials said.
The decisions are playing into a quiet debate about the future of the large-scale national exercises. Convinced that the drills are the best way to determine whether the nation is prepared for a disaster, some emergency planners and state officials say they fear that as the government cuts costs, it may dumb down the tests.
White House officials and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano say they are trying to improve the national exercises, not undercut them. The drills have grown into unrealistic, costly and over-scripted productions, Napolitano has said, an "elaborate game" rather than opportunities for officials to work through problems.