While the U.S. and North Korea exchange threats about who will launch the first strike, U.S. residents find themselves thinking about a nuclear attack on our homeland for the first time since the Cold War. Fortunately, science has progressed far beyond hiding under desks and offers some specific guidelines about what to do if a nuclear attack occurs in your area.
The Current Political Context Surrounding a Nuclear Threat
In a statement on August 8, 2017, a North Korean military spokesman said, “The provocative war the U.S. has devised and plans to execute will be countered with a just all-out war of wiping out all the strongholds of the enemies, including the U.S. mainland.”
This recent threat to the U.S. piles on top of the ongoing upgrade in tensions with Russia, which has continually increased its nuclear capabilities despite treaties to the contrary.
As more countries obtain nuclear capabilities, a growing threat of a terrorist nuclear attack also looms as a possibility.
It’s unclear how much advance warning we would receive prior to a nuclear blast.
What to Expect During the Blast
The federal government’s radar would receive the first notice and would send warnings to the public via phone alerts and air sirens.
If you don’t receive warning of the attack, you’ll see signs in the form of intense light and heat, which you should not look toward to avoid flash blindness within 50 miles of ground zero. You could also receive instant first to third-degree burns within ten miles, and will soon see the mushroom cloud climb into the sky.
The Department of Homeland Security explains that the explosion would be followed by a “damaging pressure wave, and widespread radioactive material that can contaminate the air, water, and ground surfaces for miles around.”
The radioactive material is spread through what is known as fallout, a mixture of radioisotopes that was created during the atom splitting process of the explosion. The danger of fallout results—specifically, from gamma radiation—can cause acute radiation sickness. The large pieces of gamma radiation quickly shoot up and fall back to the Earth, but the lighter particles can spread quite a distance.
“Close into the [blast] site, they may be a bit larger than golf-ball-size, but really what we’re talking about are things like salt- or sand-size particles,” according to Brooke Buddemeier, health physicist and expert on radiation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She explains that the dangerous fallout does not resemble dust or snow, as often depicted in films. “It’s the penetrating gamma radiation coming off of those particles that’s the hazard.”
Four Factors to Avoid Fallout: Distance, Time, Shielding and Evacuation
Escaping fallout requires focusing on the four essential steps of distance, time, shielding and evacuation.
While your immediate instinct may be to hop into your car, gather your family and drive away from the blast, your car is the least safe place after a nuclear blast, Buddemeier said. Traffic will likely be out of control, the car’s glass and metal won’t protect you from the fallout traveling at speeds you can’t outrun, and an unusual effect of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) may prevent your car from working—leaving you stranded.
Instead, Michael Dillon, a researcher from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and author of the most commonly cited study on the subject of avoiding nuclear fallout, offers some organizing principles about what to do in case of a nuclear blast in your area.
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