Donald Trump, flanked by Rick Perry, addresses to Boy Scouts of America's annual jamboree.
Donald Trump, flanked by Rick Perry, addresses to Boy Scouts of America's annual jamboree.
The White House

Great, Now We're Talking About How to Survive Nukes Again

Now that North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Donald Trump are bragging about who has the bigger nuclear button, a lot of buzz is bubbling up about nuclear preparedness, i.e., what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, besides die.

Sorry, millennials, but it looks like the '70s and early '80s are back. That's a time from prehistory when families all gathered around the TV together and watched "network" television offer fun movies like The Day After. Popular science guy Carl Sagan was warning us about how nuclear winter would wipe out any species bigger than a cockroach. Ronald Reagan was using words like "evil empire" and making inadvertent jokes about nuking Russia.

The zeitgeist could best be summed up in three words: "We are screwed."

Then the Cold War ended, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon, apparently. Turns out those preppers who always seemed a little odd are, in fact, living examples of the truth behind the adage, "Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

Politico recently reported about several potential scenarios that worry former nuclear commanders, policymakers and experts on Korea. The scenarios included the North Korean dictator launching a surprise attack and the U.S. trying to give North Korea a "bloody nose" with a limited strike that leads to nuclear war.

"Words matter," retired Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told Politico in a Jan. 6 article. 

Guam's Homeland Security Office of Civil Defense released a two-page fact sheet about what to do in case of a nuclear strike. Multiple news outlets recently reported that Hawaii plans to start monthly testing of its nuclear warning system for the first time since the Cold War. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is hosting “Public Health Response to a Nuclear Disaster” on Jan. 16 to discuss various federal, state and local public health programs to prepare for nuclear bombs.

"Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness," the CDC said in a press release. "For instance, most people don’t realize that sheltering in place for at least 24 hours is crucial to saving lives and reducing exposure to radiation."

Well, that's good news. Surely in the decades since the end of the Cold War, science and civil preparedness have advanced enough that we don't all end up like Jason Robards in The Day After, slowly watching our teeth and hair fall out. But what about Dallas? What is the 21st century thinking here of what to do in the event the unthinkable happens? It can be summed up in three words: "Duck and cover."

Dallas' Office of Emergency Management offers monthly disaster preparedness training for City Hall employees but focuses on region-specific hazards like tornadoes, flash floods, radiation releases and chemical spills for North Texas. Rafael Ferreira, the organization's community outreach specialist, said it's been working on hurricanes since Hurricane Harvey, but registration opens on Jan. 16 for the Community Emergency Response Team training class for neighborhoods, community organizations or workplaces. 

Ferreira said Emergency Management promotes sheltering from a nuclear explosion on case-by-case scenario, but it won't announce where and when to shelter until a nuke detonates. The office has a team that works on such scenarios, but what to do would depend on the size of the event and the number of people affected.

In any event, Emergency Management recommends on its website that people take any kind of cover, even lying flat on the ground and covering your head if you must. It’s a technique first introduced by Bert the Turtle in a 1950s official civil defense film.

Many critics considered the duck-and-cover technique absurd. But if you’re outside the initial blast radius, it may not be a bad idea to consider, Suzet McKinney, former deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response at the Chicago Department of Public Health, told The Washington Post in a Dec.14 article.

“I would honestly say the duck-and-cover response from the Cold War era is really the best protection that we as individual citizens would have after a nuclear bomb or improvised nuclear device was detonated,” she said. “It’s something that’s very easy for every single member of a family, every single member of a community to understand.”

The U.S. government also recommends taking cover and hiding when a nuclear blast occurs. Indiana Jones hid in a refrigerator in 2008's Kingdom of Crystal Skulls. There's a 50/50 chance that you could ride out a nuclear detonation inside one, director George Lucas claimed in a January 2012 New York Times Magazine article.

Science says the chance anyone survives by hiding out in a fridge is 0 percent, according to David Shechner’s Feb. 22, 2012, Overthinking It report titled "Subjecting 'Fridge Nuking' to Scientific Peer Review." The blast’s shock wave alone, he said, is strong enough to crush a refrigerator like a can and hot enough to melt it or, at the very least, trap you in an environment more "reminiscent of an oven than an ice box" as you wait out the CDC’s recommended 24-hour period to limit radiation exposure.

If you somehow survive the tumble through the radioactive plume, like Jones in the film, Shechner said there is still the possibility of suffocation when the atomic explosion ignites the atmosphere and consumes the local oxygen supply.

The U.S. government says your best bet is to take cover in a building (preferably blast resistant or reinforced structurally). The denser the material between you and the outside world, the better your chances of limiting exposure.  A wood-frame house will grant you some protection, but not nearly as much as a two-story brick home or the basement of a multilevel apartment or office building, according to the National Security Staff Interagency Policy Coordination Subcommittee’s "Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation."

Emergency Management recommends knowing the locations of underground areas like basements and subway tunnels or windowless middle floors of high rises before the nuclear blast. But with more than 7.2 million people living in North Texas, reaching an apartment or office building may be problematic in a nuclear attack, especially during rush hour.

"We've made a lot of different efforts to attack the situation and make sure our population is well informed," Ferreira said. "We also ensure that the Spanish-speaking population is also aware."

If you’re stuck outside, everyone seems to agree that finding shelter as soon as possible is essential to your survival. Once it’s found, it’s recommended you remove all contaminated clothing (sealing it in a bag or container) and take a shower as soon as possible (or use a disposable wipe).

An electromagnetic pulse from an atomic bond will probably cause significant electronics disruptions, so Emergency Management recommends having a communication plan for you and your family and an emergency kit with three days of food, water and other essential survival items.

Atlas Survival Shelters sells bunkers that it claims are the only ones tested against the effects of a nuclear bomb. They cost anywhere from $9,000 to $20,000 or higher. They’re round, long and able to reach the depth needed underground to protect from a nuclear blast. They offer modern amenities like hardwood flooring, air filtration systems, carbon dioxide scrubbers, generators and high-tech electronics. Some are built under the home, and others bolt in the garage or house. They're also in demand.

“I sold enough bunkers in the last few days equal, probably, to what I did in my third year,” Ron Hubbard of Atlas Survival told KDFW-TV (Fox 4) in an Aug. 11 report.

It's a good idea to keep the bunker's location a secret once installed in case of mass hysteria after a nuclear bomb detonates. It's an ideal that Hubbard stresses on Atlas Survival Shelters' website.

"We realize that your shelter is more private than a bank account," he said. "We do not keep accurate records on any of our customer locations and only accept wire transfers for payment."

After a nuclear bomb detonates, 80 percent of the radioactive fallout will occur within the first 24 hours, with the heaviest amount limited to the area at or downwind of the explosion, Emergency Management points out on its nuclear blast webpage. People in most areas affected could be allowed to exit their shelters within a few days and might be evacuated to unaffected areas, but people in the heaviest fallout areas could be in a shelter for up to a month.

Ferreira didn't address the specific steps that would be taken, but the Environmental Protection Agency released “Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation” in 2009 and offered several recommendations for the first few days after a nuclear detonation. Some covered shelter and evacuation, medical care, and population monitoring and decontamination.

The EPA's guidance came in response to gaps the agency noted in the Department of Homeland Security’s 2004 report “Planning Guidance for Protection and Recovery Following Radiological Dispersal Device and Improvised Nuclear Device Incidents.”

In its newer report, the EPA wanted to provide guidance on how to respond to the damaged region surrounding a nuclear detonation, a three-mile radius of a 10-kiloton device with fallout depositing within 10 to 20 miles of the initial blast. For example, the EPA pointed out that in the first 60 minutes after a nuclear explosion, emergency response officials will decide whether to safely shelter or evacuate people in expected fallout areas. These areas could “reach across many jurisdictions, potentially involving multiple states.”

But don't expect a federal response anytime soon. The EPA said there wouldn't be any significant federal response at the scene for 24 hours, and assets may not be available for up to 72 hours.

The EPA divided the blast area into zones, with the LD zone as the outer boundary where the litter and rubble begin and the NG zone as ground zero where very few buildings and people will survive. Despite your location within these zones, the EPA basically reiterates what Emergency Management pointed out and the CDC will no doubt recommend in its meeting next week: 

“It is anticipated that some injuries can be prevented or reduced in severity if individuals that perceive an intense and unexpected flash of light seek immediate cover. ... The speed of light, perceived as the flash, will travel faster than the blast overpressure allowing a few seconds for some people to take limited protective measures.” 

Or, as Bert the Turtle said, duck and cover.

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