The #1 UFO Resource
When I was a kid, nuclear preparedness was easy. We worried that the Soviet Union would launch missiles, and if they did, we would hide under our desks while our president returned the favor.
But things are a little more complicated now. Gone are the days of mutually assured destruction, when we assumed that everyone with nuclear weapons could be considered a “rational act.” Instead we wonder about the sanity of North Korean leaders, the religious zeal of Pakistan’s military, Iran’s calls to wipe Israel off the map, and the ever-present danger of rogue terrorist groups. Even President Trump has displayed a willingness to use some of the heavy hitters in the U.S. arsenal.
Although the Cold War flirted with nuclear brinkmanship, the challenges are even more dangerous today. So how does an entire city prepare for such a devastating attack in this new era of nuclear saber-rattling? The same way you prepare for anything else—practice.
[Andrew Karam has over 30 years of experience in health physics (radiation safety), beginning with an eight-year stint as a mechanical operator and radiation safety specialist in the Navy.]
Dwight Eisenhower once said that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Local, state and federal governments need a plan when the very worst happens, even if reality doesn’t match their expectations. Agencies like FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security prepare for this cataclysmic scenario by holding meetings and running through lots of exercises. While this sounds like a mundane and bureaucratic nightmare, these meetings are vital because this is where the technical, operational, and administrative people from several agencies all sit down and figure out what needs to be done—and which agency can do it.
If a nuclear weapon goes off in (or near) any of our cities, we’re going to have quickly map out dangerous areas, know when to evacuate the public safely, manage a flood of evacuees, restore the city’s electrical and water systems ASAP, and figure out how to feed a few million people.
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
For decontamination, the job might fall to a well-staffed fire department? But how are they going to decontaminate, how quickly can they do it, what equipment do they need, and where will the material be stored? What we can’t do is assume that all of the pieces will just fall into place.
The first round of rehearsal is usually a bunch of senior people and their advisors sitting around a table and talking through the problem. This is called a “Tabletop Exercise” (sometimes abbreviated TTX). First, a group of people will develop a scenario – say a group of die-hard University of Michigan fans decided to nuke Ohio Stadium (sorry, Buckeye fans). The exercise team will give information to the group—at 0930 a nuclear device was set off on the 50 yard line of Ohio Stadium, the initial yield is estimated at 5 kT with winds blowing north along the Olentangy River. Then, there will be a map detailing radiation levels.
Then everyone takes their turn talking. The police will discuss how they intend to secure the city, getting people to safety, keeping them out of areas that are dangerously radioactive, and trying to maintain civil order. The fire department is going to have fires to put out, people to rescue, and will begin setting up decontamination stations.
But the nature of nuclear attacks makes these daunting tasks even more difficult. For example, the Health Department might need to figure out exactly where the winds have taken the plume, so it won’t be safe for anyone to be outside, including first responders. If you’re caught in the plume’s centerline, the area where the fallout is most dangerous, you’re going to get a fatal dose of radiation in a matter of minutes. So now both Fire and Police know that they can’t immediately spring into action. Instead, they have to wait for the plume to settle out before they can start the evacuation.
The initial plume is only a small part of the problem. In close proximity to a 5 kT bomb, virtually every building within about a half-mile radius will collapse, shattered by the force of the explosion, and create rubble as much as 100 feet deep. Meanwhile, many areas will be remain engulfed in flame. In Hiroshima, this ensuing mass fire was as deadly as the radiation.
So during the TTX, those around the table will go through the plans to see how their agency can respond – and to see if they can help to make things better (or at least help keep them from getting worse). They look for holes in the plans – what do we need to do that hasn’t been address? What have we been assigned that we just can’t do? Do we have the equipment, personnel, and training to carry out our responsibilities? And are we doing everything we can to keep the public and the emergency responders safe?
The result of these exercises is usually a lot of sober faces sitting around a table. Knowing that in real life these decisions could affect the lives of millions of people. It’s a sobering experience, and when talking with others, you quickly learn that they feel the same way.
Once the local, state and federal representatives step in, and the plan is analyzed from every conceivable angle, it’s time for the last step—boots-on-the-ground exercises.
Every so often you’ll hear about nuclear terrorism exercises in Virginia Beach or New York City. Although conspiracy theorists may dream up more sinister motives, these tests are absolutely necessary. Until this moment, all the experts have really done is to write and talk by people who haven’t been in the field for years. Now is the time to put workers into their protective clothing, give them radiation meters, set up decon stations, and do everything else we can to prepare for the worst.
This is the penultimate test—with the ultimate test being something you hope you never have to do. Field personnel make sure they can find their equipment, operate it under realistic conditions, and answer minuscule but deadly important questions like if the switches on a radiation meter are too small to operate in protective gear and if we can really set up a decon tent in only 2 hours.
If everything goes smoothly, then the next step is making the plan better, faster, and as flexible as possible. If the opposite is true, then it’s back to the step one, this time armed with many lessons learned.
All this seems like a flurry of planning that can come together over a few weeks, but sometimes this process can take years to accomplish. One plan I personally worked on took over five years to hash out, another two years to set up a series of TTX exercises, and few more to revise the plan. After all, these agencies do lots of other important things every day, but nuclear preparedness scenarios continue to be conducted across the country
The Survival Strategy
It goes without saying that a nuclear attack is a horrific circumstance, but it can be survived at distances of less than a mile from ground zero, depending on the strength of the explosion. Of course, there are a lots of variables, but you shouldn’t assume that a nuclear attack means instant and unavoidable death.
Strangely, fleeing also isn’t necessarily your best option. If you see a bright flash and mushroom cloud and turn to run the other way, half an hour later you might sustain a lethal dose of radiation—all depending on which way the wind is blowing.
The very best thing you can do is go into the nearest stable building and stay there until you’re told it’s safe to leave. That might be in a few hours (if the plume went in another direction) or it might not be for a few days. But unless you’re a radiation safety professional with your own instruments, you have no way of knowing if it’s safe to go outside or even know which direction to evacuate. Remember, vehicles offer no protection, so you’ve got to be in a building—the larger the better.
Once inside, stay toward the center of the building because fallout can still expose through walls. So the further from the exterior walls you’re staying, the lower the radiation dose will be. Stay on a lower floor or in the basement, and fallout that would kill you in a matter of hours can be easily survived if you find the right shelter.
You’re also going to be in dire need of uncontaminated food and water. You can fill the bathtub (if you think of it), take water from the toilet tank, drink whatever you have in your refrigerator as well as any bottled liquids you might have in the basement or garage. But most people can survive for a few days without drinking at all, and even longer on a relatively minimal amount of water. So you don’t need to keep a month of water on hand at all times.
The Navy has a saying that “failing to plan is planning to fail.” Although a nuclear attack remains unlikely, it’s a deadly serious possibility where the right information can save your life. It’s a plan you hope to never have to use, but one that’s undeniably necessary.