*Who抯 Afraid of the Big Bad Bomb?*
There is a risk, in attempting an article like this—and especially giving it a title like this one has—of appearing impossibly optimistic in the face of an unspeakable horror. An article that starts off with the noble goal of dispelling many long-held myths about nuclear weapons could end up sounding like little more than whistling in the graveyard—and end up being just as useless.
Before going further, therefore, the author begs of his audience its indulgence for the duration of this article. It is his desire to see that your investment of time in reading this article is amply rewarded with sound fact and tested theory.
Nuclear weapons are bad enough. Videos of many atomic tests can be found with relative ease on places like YouTube; articles describing the destructive power of nuclear weapons riddle the Internet, and if you watch the History Channel for more than an hour or so you’re bound to see at least one mushroom cloud. The numbers of the dead and maimed from the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are almost too large to comprehend, and in fact it’s not difficult, when watching a video of a nuclear detonation, to imagine you’re looking into Hell’s own boiler room. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s quote from the Baghavad Gita was prescient: “I am become Death, the Shatterer of worlds.”
Yes, nuclear weapons are pretty bad. They become even worse when Hollywood and fiction writers get their hands on them, and that’s where a real tragedy begins.
How much do you know about nuclear weapons? How much do you know about radiation? About as much as anyone else, I suspect.
But ask yourself this question: Where did I get my facts? Did I get them from school and independent learning, or did I learn what I know from movies and television? I don’t wish to appear condescending. For the longest time everything I ever knew about atomic weapons came from watching the British movie “Threads,” about as horrible and bleak a movie as ever was made, and was correspondingly dismissive about my chances of ever surviving a nuclear attack, or wanting to if I did.
But then something happened. I learned a few facts, real facts and not Hollywood storytelling. I learned that atomic weapons, while dreadful, can be survived, and with prudent planning, so can their aftereffects.
The remainder of this article will be a series of common assumptions about nuclear weapons and their effects, followed by responses to them. This article won’t answer every question (no single article or even book can do that), but it is my hope that, having shared with you the important fact that nuclear weapons are survivable, you will be encouraged to find out more on your own about how to actually do just that—survive.
Yes and no. It depends on the size of the bomb and the size of the city. I live in a mid-sized college town, population about 20,000 or so. A big enough bomb would turn the entire town into a glass crater. And in the 1950s the Soviets (remember them?) made a bomb big enough to wipe any city off the map.
On the other hand, they only made one of these, and the only reason they made it was to show that they could pull it off. Nuclear weapons are in fact smaller, oftentimes much smaller. A weapon likely to fall into the hands of a terrorist, or one manufactured out of parts as described in the Tom Clancy novel “The Sum of All Fears,” is likely to be on the smaller end of this spectrum yet. It is possible to survive a small nuclear device if you’re not very close to it when it explodes.
Not necessarily. The 13kt bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a destructive radius of about a mile, and fires consumed about four-and-a-half square miles, due in large part to the extensive use of flammable materials in building construction. This was true of many Japanese cities bombed during the War.
If we refer to the Fallout Predictor program found elsewhere on this website, we learn the following:
Let’s put this in real-world terms. Suppose you live and work in one of the nearby suburbs of Chicago—Oak Park, for example. It’s about 7 miles or so west of the Downtown Loop. A Hiroshima-sized bomb going off near the Wrigley Building would be unspeakably devastating. You would likely see the bright flash of the explosion and most certainly see the mushroom cloud as it develops. You might hear and feel the concussion of the explosion—then again, you might not.
But how much would you be affected by this blast? In truth, not much at all. You would not be subject to the initial blast, thermal or radiation effects. Falling or flying debris would not hit you. And 9 days out of a given 10, Oak Park is upwind of Chicago.
This leads to our next assumption.
Again, not necessarily. Fallout is the tiny particles of debris that contain radioactive material from a surface or near-surface nuclear explosion. It is borne by the wind, and is deposited downwind from center of the blast. Our Oak Park resident is unlikely to experience any fallout, since most days the wind blows from the west toward the east—from Oak Park to Chicago. Where you are with respect to the blast determines whether you receive fallout. And weather patterns determine whether you receive a lot or a little.
But what if I’m downwind of the Bomb? Again, let’s look at the Hiroshima bomb as a guide.
[If you’re wondering why I keep referring to the Hiroshima bomb, it’s because a bomb of that size is in the most likely range of weapons one could expect a terrorist to be able to acquire or build. It may be a bit bigger, and could very likely be considerably smaller]
I live about 45 miles East Southeast of Chicago. The winds often blow directly from the Windy City in my direction. Going back to the Fallout Predictor, we find that my fair city would get somewhere in the range of 30R/hr of radiation from fallout if the wind were blowing straight at me.
30R/hr?! That’s…uhh…920 R (whatever that is) in a day! That’s…uhh…what is that, exactly?
Radiation measuring units can be confusing. Several different units exist to express the exact same radiation in a slightly different way. R stands for “RADs” or “Radiation Absorbed Dose.” Very simply put, it’s an expression of the amount of radiation a typical healthy person can stand before he might get sick.
A normal human in good health can stand a 6RAD dose of nuclear radiation per day for some time—the body can repair the slight damage done at that level. A person can receive a “prompt”—all at once—or “cumulative” (all added-up) dose of around 50 RAD and likely not need any sort of treatment. These numbers are averages, and will differ from person to person—someone may get sick from less, while the guy next to him may be able to withstand far more. It’s difficult to predict.
So. 6R/day and 50R total is the baseline we’re dealing with. If I just said that my hometown was receiving 30R/hr, that translates into—depending on how you look at it—about 12 minutes or an hour and a half before I start to get sick.
Well, not so fast…
You see, those two numbers don’t tell the whole story. In the first place, 30R/hr is for someone standing OUTSIDE. Our homes provide some level of protection, which varies depending on their type and construction. The basement of the typical stick-built home will shield a person from about 80% of outside radiation. My home, an apartment on the third floor of a concrete-block building, will shield me against more than 90%, largely because it’s well above ground level. But let’s be conservative and round down to 90%. That means 3R/hr getting to me.
If we were to extend that for an entire day, that’d work out to 72R/day—not so good. But there’s something else about radioactive fallout we haven’t discussed yet. It’s something that many people may have heard of, but few really know anything about.
Radioactive fallout decays—becomes less harmful—relatively quickly.
The rule of thumb is called the 7/10 rule and it states: “For every 7 hours elapsed, the dose rate will decrease by a factor of 10.” In other words, once the fallout stops falling, the dose rate is as high as it’s ever going to get, and starts dropping off quickly.
Let’s apply this rule, again to my home. Suppose I’m in my home when the Bomb we’ve been discussing goes off. Say it goes off at 8:00am. Once the fallout stops falling (about 3 hours or so after the blast, or 11:00am), the radiation outside my home is at 30R/hr. That’s as high as the outside radiation is going to get. By 6:00 that evening it will be around 3R/hr, and will only get smaller from there. Now, remember that I’ve said that my home reduces the outside dose rate by an estimated 90%.
Supposing I stayed inside all day, the most radiation I could expect to be exposed to was 0.3R/hr, going down to 0.03R/hr by suppertime.
All of this could change with a different sized Bomb, different winds, etc. The main message, however, is that even if I’m directly downwind of a Bomb the size of the Hiroshima Bomb, I could still survive without any ill effects by just staying indoors for a few hours. If I were upwind of such a device (Our friend and neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois), it’s highly doubtful I’d receive any fallout at all!
Radiation sickness is not contagious—you can’t get radiation sickness from another person. Their clothes, hair, cars and other effects might have fallout on them, and that’s a concern. But you can’t “catch” the radiation from them.
That’s beyond the scope of this article, but concern over just such a possibility is probably what brought you to this site in the first place. Look around the site; you’ll find plenty to help you.
Lastly, think about where an atomic bomb might be set off. During the Cold War, it was assumed that the Soviet Union would essentially carpet the inhabited portions of the United States with strategic (i.e., HUGE) nuclear weapons all in one overwhelming fell swoop. That likelihood is less; however, the threat of a terrorist cell or lunatic national leader setting one off has grown perversely higher.
What follows is speculation on my part, but reasonable speculation. If a terrorist cell has a nuclear bomb in their possession, it’s reasonable to assume that they’ll set it off in what military analysts call a “high value/high-payoff” target. Somewhere like our nation’s Capitol, or in a major city. Scranton, Pennsylvania or Billings, Montana probably don’t have much to worry about from a terrorist nuke.
I say this because we must bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of Americans will survive a nuclear detonation if one happens somewhere in the United States. Having survived it, and understanding beforehand that you very likely will, it’s prudent to make preparations to live well in its aftermath.
The Bottom Line is that the Bomb is bad.
But it’s not magic.
Robert Heinlein wrote in the 1950s, “The best way to survive an atomic bomb is to not be there when it goes off.” It’s as obviously true today as it was then. Terrorists and pariah nations are trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and make no bones about using them once they’ve got ‘em. The possibility of seeing a mushroom cloud in a city near you now becomes not so academic anymore. But the probability of surviving such an attack is very real, especially if you don’t live or work in the downtown area of a major city. Knowing and understanding this, you owe it to yourself and your family to stock up on wholesome foods, have a means to communicate with loved ones, make life as comfortable as possible and live safe and sane in troubled times—those commonsense, unglamourous, and yet very prudent preparations that are wisdom to make, and weakness to defer.
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