In 1961, the government of John F. Kennedy distributed throughout the US almost one and a half million signs indicating the location of nuclear shelters where people were to shelter if Russia ever decided to push the missile launch button. But with the passage of time, the Cold War abated, the shelters stopped being maintained and the signs began to languish. In December 2017, the New York City Hall removed the signs that still existed, not so much because the threat has disappeared, but because the shelters no longer exist and the wrong signs can do more harm than good.
However, although this risk is not as etched in the minds of citizens today as it was half a century ago, the growing tension between the USA and North Korea reminds us that atomic arsenals are still kept ready for immediate use. The false alarm of a nuclear attack in Hawaii last January 13, which sowed panic due to human error, could help the authorities to ascertain if the reactions of citizens in the case of a real event would match the recommended ones.
And it seems that it is not always the case. Although after the Hawaii alert many people sought refuge in the places where they were, many others fled to the streets. This action contravenes the recommendations in case of nuclear attack published on the Ready.gov website of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which advise people to: “take cover as quickly as you can, below ground if possible, and stay there until instructed to do otherwise.”
Where to take refuge?
Shelter is the key idea, but the question is: where? The strategy has changed since the Cold War era. The concept of the nuclear bunker stocked with everything necessary to survive the apocalypse for a long time has become obsolete, so that specific shelters are no longer designated nowadays. According to FEMA, the ideal is to shelter underground, such as in a basement, garage or subway tunnel, the farther from the surface and the thicker and more solid the ceilings and walls, the better.
However, warns FEMA, “even a blast shelter cannot withstand a direct hit from a nuclear explosion.” Therefore, the advice is generally directed to those who are outside the immediate range of the explosion.
The Nukemap application, created by nuclear weapons historian Alex Wellerstein, allows one to simulate a detonation of any power anywhere in the world to see how far its effects would go. For example, a bomb of 150 kilotons—in the power range of the weapon tested by North Korea in 2017—that exploded in the air above lower Manhattan would produce a fireball with a 450-metre radius, with a lethal level of radiation in a one-km radius and a destructive expansive wave of 3.74 km. The thermal radiation would cause third degree burns to the people within a radius of more than 5 km. The death toll is estimated at more than 700,000.
Radiactive fallout protection
For those who have the fortune of being outside the fateful lethal circles, the main risk is from radioactive fallout, which in the case of an explosion at ground level can be transported by air at a great distance. “People downwind of the blast will likely get the worst fallout, while people upwind may receive no significant fallout,” says Timothy Jorgensen, director of the Radiation Protection Program at Georgetown University Medical Center. Jorgensen summarizes the effects of radioactive fallout: “The greatest danger is being stuck outside when the fallout starts to settle. Fallout settling on skin or breathed into the lungs will cause tissue burns and potentially deliver high internal radiation doses.”
Faced with this threat, not just underground shelters can offer protection. Since the priority is speed, in the absence of a basement a building can suffice. As Jeff Schlegelmilch, Deputy Director of the National Disaster Preparedness Center (NCDP) at Columbia University, explains to OpenMind, you have to stay away from the windows: “Generally you want to be in the middle of the building, on a higher floor, but not too close to the roof as there will be fallout settling on the roof.” And never take refuge in a car; the reaction of many Hawaiians to hit the road would have exposed them to a fatal level of radiation in the event of a real attack, since the structure of a vehicle offers no protection.
It is likely that those who take refuge in a building will not have within their reach the resources necessary to survive for weeks. But luckily, they should not have to stay that long: “For today’s nuclear scenarios, we are looking at much shorter shelter-in-place timeframes than back during the cold war,” says Schlegelmilch. The expert clarifies that: “After about 12-24 hours, it is generally safer to evacuate than to stay in a shelter without supplies,” since by then most of the radioactive particles will have settled and will have decayed to less dangerous levels.
An emergency plan in each home
Despite all the above, experts insist that the response in the case of nuclear attack must begin before an actual alert, in the prevention. FEMA recommends that in each household an emergency plan should be designed in advance that includes options for evacuation, shelter and communication. In addition, it is advisable to prepare emergency kits that contain at least food and water (one gallon or 3.8 litres per person per day) for at least 72 hours, along with toilet and first aid supplies, a radio, mobile phone, a mask for dust, plastic sheets and tape to seal the enclosure, maps, a flashlight, batteries and a whistle. To all this, other items will be added according to personal needs, such as medicines or baby milk. As a curiosity, FEMA advises that hair conditioner not be used, as it would act like a glue for radioactive particles.
On the other hand, it is not advisable to include potassium iodide tablets in the kit, a product whose sales are on the rise with the new cold war between the US and North Korea. Iodine pills are intended to block the absorption of radioactive iodine into the body. But according to Schlegelmilch, while this isotope is common in accidents at nuclear power plants, it is “generally irrelevant for a nuclear weapon detonation.” From this increase in sales of iodine, the vice director of the NCDP concludes that the communication of the emergency authorities should improve in order to “guide people towards more appropriate protective measures.”