Relatively small investments in recovery aids can speed up recovery by months or years, and thereby prevent millions of deaths by hunger, cold and disease. For example, a crucial need after a general nuclear attack would be diesel fuel to transport every other item for recovery. However, oil refineries are large, immobile, and probable targets. One proposal is to preposition truck-mounted diesel refineries near oil fields and bulk storage depots. Other critical infrastructure needs would include road and bridge repair, communications, electric power, food production and potable water.
During the Cold War, civil defense was seen largely as defending against and recovering from an attack involving nuclear weapons. After the end of the Cold War, the focus moved from defense against nuclear war to defense against a terrorist attack possibly involving chemical or biological weapons. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the concept of civil defense has been revisited under the umbrella term of homeland defense.
Mitigation is the process of actively preventing the war or the release of nuclear weapons. It includes policy analysis, diplomacy, political measures, and more military responses such as a National Missile Defense and air defense artillery. In the case of counter-terrorism, mitigation would include intelligence gathering and direct action against terrorist groups. Mitigation may also be reflected in long-term planning such as the design of the interstate highway system[?] and the placement of military bases further away from populated areas.
Preparation consists of building shelters, and prepositioning information, supplies and emergency infrastructure. For example, most larger cities in the U.S. now have emergency operations centers that can perform civil defense coordination. Other measures would include continuous government inventories of grain silos and fuel storage systems, and the dispersal of truck-transportable bridges, water purification, mobile refineries and other aids to speed civil recovery.
On an individual scale, one means of preparation for exposure to nuclear fallout is obtain potassium iodide[?] (KI) tablets as a safety measure to protect the human thyroid gland from the uptake of dangerous radioactive iodine.
Response consists first of warning civilians so they can enter shelters and protect assets. Afterwards, trained civilians can perform up to 50% of rescues from damaged structures, when organized in community emergency response teams.
Recovery consists of rebuilding damaged infrastructure, buildings and production. The recovery phase is the longest and ultimately most expensive phase. Once the immediate "crisis" has passed, cooperation fades away and recovery efforts are often politicized or seen as economic opportunities.
Preparation for recovery can be very helpful. If mitigating resources are dispersed before the attack, cascades of social failures can be prevented. For example, a crucial need after a general nuclear attack would be diesel fuel to transport every other item for recovery. One hedge against bridge damage in riverine cities is to subsidize a "tourist ferry" that performs scenic cruises on the river. When a bridge is down, the ferry takes up the load. In practice some capability is maintained by local and state agencies, and an emergency reserve is provided by specialized military units, especially civil affairs[?] and combat engineers[?].
Some advocates believe that government should change building codes to require autonomous buildings in order to reduce civil societies' dependence on complex, fragile networks of social services.