When I was in elementary school, we had a daily drill that was called “duck and cover.” We’d get under our desks, knit the fingers of our two hands together behind our necks, and tilt our faces toward our chests, our arms protecting the sides of our faces. It was great fun. And the exercise was supposed to protect us from an atomic explosion.
Of course, we were too young and naïve to understand the significance of radioactive fallout or the White House being occupied by the only man in the history of the world to use a nuclear weapon against an enemy. But, President Harry Truman was also something of a peacekeeper, having launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economy of Western Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United Nations. He also led the U.S. into a war against North Korea.
Now, more than six decades later, California officials are taking the threat of a nuclear attack seriously. The recent spat between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, each of whom is thin-skinned and prone to impulsive behavior, has spurred the Los Angeles-area Joint Regional Intelligence Center to urge local commissions to prepare for the unimaginable. Its bulletin, “Nuclear Attack Response Considerations,” has been circulated to the area’s response teams.
According to Jana Winter, writing for Foreign Policy, “Much of the information… is based on well-known facts about the effects of a nuclear blast, including the effects of radiation, the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse disabling communications, and the destructive effects of the initial blast on human life and infrastructure.” The report warns that even household pets can spread radioactive contamination. The public, which is advised to evacuate the area, may experience high levels of anxiety and be non-compliant because of its “limited understanding of radiation risks.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) lists three factors that must be considered in order to protect oneself from radiation and fallout: distance, shielding, and time. Essentially, the more distance you can put between you and fallout particles from the blast, the better. Being in an underground bunker or office-building basement offers more protection than being in one’s home or in any above-ground shelter. DHS states that blast shelters “are specifically constructed to offer some protection against blast pressure, initial radiation, heat, and fire. But even a blast shelter cannot withstand a direct hit from a nuclear explosion.”
Shielding is equally important. In the event of an attack, put heavy and dense materials between you and the site of the blast. The agency suggests thick walls, concrete, bricks, books, and earth. The idea is to have some type of matter absorb as much radioactive fallout as possible before it can reach you.
DHS claims that fallout shelters “do not need to be specially constructed for protecting against fallout. They can be any protected space, provided that the walls and roof are thick and dense enough to absorb the radiation given off by fallout particles.” In fact, any protection — however temporary or thin — is better than none at all.
Awareness of time is critical. Fallout radiation loses its intensity fairly rapidly. According to DHS, “In time, you will be able to leave the fallout shelter. Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks, by which time it has declined to about 1 percent of the initial radiation level.”
In the Foreign Policy article cited above, Jana Winter advises that there will be no significant federal assistance at the scene for 24 to 72 hours following the attack. The DHS concurs in its document, stating, “Expect to stay inside for a least 24 hours unless told otherwise by authorities.”
Of course, people want to know about the potential danger to themselves. No place is absolutely safe. When I was in college, a professor of mine held an impromptu seminar on the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In a shaky voice, he announced that he was going to get his family into his sailboat and head for the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I had always considered him to be an alarmist, and his pronouncement that day did not change my opinion.
However, people usually assume that being in the middle of Nevada or Montana is preferable to being in a center of population. That may be true, but we citizens don’t know where secret military installations might be located. Nonetheless, the DHS has identified the following potential targets.
Missile sites and military bases would be high on the list, as would be centers of government, like Washington, D.C., and state capitals. Other targets would include important transportation and communication centers; manufacturing, industrial, technological, and financial centers; petroleum refineries, electrical power stations, and chemical plants; and major ports and airfields.
If the unimaginable happens, and you’re caught outside fleeing any of the above, you should be aware of the following instructions from DHS.
Do not look at the flash or fireball, as the intensity of the light and heat will have the same effect as looking at the sun during an eclipse. Take cover behind anything that is between you and the site of the explosion. Lie flat on the ground and cover your head. Stay in that position for a while, as it may take 30 seconds or more for the blast wave to reach you. Get away from the blast site, as fast and as far as possible. Remember that radioactive fallout can be carried by winds for hundreds of miles.
Get as clean as possible, as soon as possible. Remove all material from your body that may have absorbed radioactive particles. Outer layers of clothing can contain as much as 90 percent of the radiation. Then, if possible, place the clothing in a plastic bag to keep the contamination from spreading.
Wash yourself completely. If feasible, take a shower, using lots of soap, but being careful not to scratch yourself or scrubbing too aggressively. Use shampoo, but not conditioner. Conditioner will bind radioactive material to your hair. Gently blow your nose and wipe your eyelids.
Remember to listen for instructions from your television, radio, or cellular device.
And hope for cooler heads
Although these documents are only reminders of established procedures, let’s hope that cooler heads prevail and that we never have need for this information.