May 31, 2007
In February of 2002, I wrote
“You Only Think
You’re Having a Bad Day: The Effects of a Nuclear Attack on Austin, TX,”
based on six months of research into nuclear weapons and their potential impact
The question of whether or not terrorists already possess nuclear weapons is a question pondered and debated by men with much stronger backgrounds in these issues than my own and access to much better intelligence and research than I could ever hope to obtain; therefore, that is not a question I will attempt to answer. Regardless of whether or not terrorists already possess nuclear weapons, everyone is in agreement that more nations are in possession of nuclear weapons than ever before and that terrorists are actively looking to obtain such weapons.
Whether the threat is from
terrorists, such as Al-Qaeda, rogue nations, such as
The technical information provided in my 2002 essay is basically accurate; however, I am now able to add to the advice and technical information I offered in that essay.
In order to simplify a very complicated issue, for practical application by those of us who aren’t nuclear physicists, think of a nuclear blast as affecting three different areas—area “A,” area “B,” and area “C.” Area “A” is ground zero, or the area immediately surrounding the point of detonation. Nobody can survive in area “A;” therefore, there is no reason to concern ourselves with it. Area “C” is a safe distance from the point of detonation and completely unaffected by the blast or resulting fallout. People in area “C” will be fine without taking any precautions; therefore, there is no reason to concern ourselves with area “C.” Our only point of concern is area “B”—everything in between “A” and “C.” The people in area “B” have the potential to survive, with the right knowledge and preparations.
To some, this “ABC” breakdown may seem ridiculously simple; however, many of the misconceptions about the dangers of a nuclear attack originate from people who don’t understand this simple concept. Many people assume there is only an area “A” and an area “C.” They think that when it comes to a nuclear attack, you’re either in the kill zone or you’re not. They don’t realize that there is a large middle ground where your own decisions and actions can make the difference between life and death.
We’ve all heard standup comedians lampoon the old “Duck and Cover” instructional films of the 1950s. While such jokes are good for a laugh, they undermine what is actually solid advice. In studies of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as nuclear tests conducted in the Nevada desert and the Bikini Islands, officials discovered that most of the fatalities from the initial detonation of a nuclear bomb aren’t caused by the fireball in area “A;” they’re caused by the overpressure—hurricane/tornado force winds—in area “B.” And what do we tell people to do if they’re caught in a tornado? We tell them to drop to the ground and cover their heads. Drop and cover is good advice because falling and flying debris are one of the biggest dangers from a nuclear blast. Those old black and white films of the “Duck and Cover” turtle disappearing into his shell every time he sees a bright flash may look funny today, but they taught children of the Cold War a valuable survival skill, and we would all do well to remember it today.
Since light travels much faster than the blast force of the bomb, the flash precedes the arrival of the overpressure by seconds. The overpressure carries with it dust and sand which can, at closer ranges, sear exposed skin. That’s why it’s preferable to cover with a blanket or jacket to cover exposed skin. The overpressure also carries debris that can cause serious injury or death. That’s why it’s important to cover one’s head. These high winds can also dislodge fixtures, beams, bricks, and other items that may fall onto people below. That’s why it’s preferable to duck under a desk or table or anything that will offer some protection from falling objects. A person standing in the open when the overpressure hits can be blown off of his or her feet and into walls or objects, causing serious injury or death. As the overpressure passes, it creates a vacuum behind it. Once the overpressure blows out, air immediately rushes back in to fill the vacuum. This means that there are two waves to each overpressure, the out-wave and the in-wave. A person who ducks and covers through the out-wave but then stands up as soon as it passes may be injured or killed by debris or high winds from the in-wave. The two waves should be only a matter of seconds apart, so when you duck and cover, be sure to stay down through both waves.
As mentioned in my first essay, a person who looks at a nuclear blast may suffer from flash blindness. Flash blindness is a temporary or permanent, depending on severity, burning of the retinas. The severity of flash blindness is determined by the victim’s distance from the blast, whether he or she was looking directly at the blast, whether he or she had any form of shielding (i.e., sunglasses), and whether the blast occurred during the day or night—Eyes are more susceptible to flash blindness at night because pupils are more dilated, in order to let in more light. A person suffering from flash blindness should wear a bandage over his or her eyes and not attempt to use them until they have healed sufficiently.
Some people have complained that the 1 KT blast map shown in my original essay is based on an outdated model and is, therefore, not accurate. You can view updated blast maps for nuclear detonations ranging in size from 1 KT to 100 KT HERE.
Nuclear blasts emit what is known as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Though few, if any, of us had heard the term “EMP” ten years ago, it has, through TV and movies, become as much a part of the modern vernacular as “ICBM” was in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The truth about EMP is that nobody really knows exactly how it would affect electronic devices, which electronic devices it would affect, or to what extent it would disrupt our infrastructure. Worst case scenarios describe a complete, nationwide meltdown of all electronics, from automobiles to radios. Best case scenarios describe a short-term disruption of the power grid. Some questions, such as whether or not automobiles would be widely affected, are hotly debated. The truth is that nobody knows because it’s never happened. The types of electronics seriously affected by EMP were not in existence at the time of the World War II nuclear detonations or the subsequent open air nuclear tests, so none of these theories have been proven or disproven through practical tests. But there are some things we do know.
We know that an air burst would cause greater EMP destruction than a ground burst. We know that the worst damage would be caused by a burst several hundred miles above the ground. We know that modern equipment containing solid state electronics (circuit boards) are much more susceptible than older equipment containing simple electronics (i.e., pre-1980 automobiles) or vacuum tubes (i.e., old radio sets). We also know that anything plugged into the electrical grid is at much greater risk due to the electrical charge that would build up in power lines, creating a huge electrical surge that would overpower even the most sophisticated surge protectors. We also know that electronic items can be protected by placing them inside a metal cage, known as a Faraday cage or Faraday box, as long as the items don’t come into direct contact with the metal sides of the cage.
Experts debate whether or not the cage needs to be constructed from ferrous metal (metal containing iron—something to which a magnet would stick) to work. While some argue that only ferrous metals can offer sufficient shielding, others argue that many nonferrous metals, such as copper, are better conductors and would, therefore, offer better protection. Some believe that simply sticking electronic items in a cardboard box and wrapping it in aluminum foil would work, while others argue that foil is not thick enough to offer adequate shielding. Experts also debate whether it is necessary or prudent to ground one’s faraday cage. One school of thought is that grounding is necessary to allow the charge created by an EMP to be bled away. The other school of thought is that a grounding wire is not necessary to allow the charge to pass around the shielded items (the scientific principles behind a Faraday cage don’t require grounding) and that a grounding wire is likely to act as an antenna, attracting the charge created by the EMP. The various schools of thought on EMP shielding can be found HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. Some of the best information can be found in the two discussion threads found HERE and HERE. A government report on the effects of EMP can be read HERE.
If you want to build a Faraday cage out of ferrous material, you can use a galvenized steel trash can with a lid (found at most home improvement stores) or an old steel ammo can, both of which are made of ferrous metal. If you want to use nonferrous metals, you can purchase copper screen or copper mesh at many hardware stores, or you can use a large aluminum or copper cooking pot with a lid. If you’re torn about whether to build your cage out of ferrous or nonferrous material, you could either layer the materials or build cages within cages, for added protection. It’s possible that, depending on your proximity to the blast, items located inside your car but not connected to the vehicle’s power supply (not hardwired into the car or plugged into the cigarette lighter) could be protected by the car’s metal frame; however, you shouldn’t count on a car to protect sensitive electronics. A metal garage or storage building could potentially be converted into a Faraday cage for automobiles.
According to some experts, one of the most effective, easily accessible, ready-built Faraday cages available is the common household microwave, which is designed as a Faraday cage so that the waves that cook your food don’t also cook you. In order to use a microwave as a Faraday cage, you’d need to unplug the microwave and, according to many experts, cut off the cord so that it doesn’t act as an antenna for the EMP. Old microwaves can often be found at thrift stores, at flea markets, on Craig’s List, etc. If an attack were eminent, your home microwave could, theoretically, be quickly converted into a Faraday cage.
One commonly suggested (though far from perfect) way to test the effectiveness of a Faraday cage is to place a working radio inside the cage and see if its signal is lost or weakened (radio waves are a part of the electromagnetic spectrum). A similar test can be conducted by placing a cell phone inside the cage and checking the phone’s signal reception (can it still receive a call?). A cell phone or radio placed inside a microwave or ammo can will show a weakened signal but will not lose its signal altogether; however, a cell phone or radio wrapped in aluminum foil or placed in a box wrapped in aluminum foil WILL completely lose its signal. Multiple layers of shielding, or Faraday cages within Faraday cages (i.e., items wrapped in aluminum foil and then placed in an insulated ammo can and then placed inside an insulated microwave), probably offer the best chance of protecting sensitive electronics from electromagnetic pulse. CLICK HERE to view instructions for building a Faraday cage that features multiple layers of shielding.
You should give some thought to the items you want to protect. In the aftermath of an EMP attack, working communications equipment (i.e., two-way radio equipment, a shortwave radio receiver, etc.) would be invaluable. Flashlights, rechargeable batteries, and solar chargers would also be critical. Though you might think that a computer would be an unnecessary luxury following such a disaster, having a working, rechargeable laptop could prove very useful. Aside from performing simple tasks such as mathematical calculations and data storage, a computer could also be used to access CD-ROMs (which would not be affected by EMP) containing useful information on science, medicine, technology, etc. Even a workable, rechargeable cell phone (especially a PDA/smartphone), though no longer useful for communications, might come in handy in unexpected ways.
Though a great deal of lethal radiation is released in the initial detonation of a nuclear bomb, the wider threat is from nuclear fallout. Fallout is dust and debris, launched miles into the air by a nuclear blast, to which radioactive particles cling. This fallout can be dispersed hundreds of miles from the blast site, by the prevailing winds. Radiation is invisible, tasteless, odorless, and lethal. You can’t even feel it as it’s killing you. Like billions of tiny, invisible bullets passing through your body, it destroys your organs until your body is beyond the point where it can repair itself. Then you die.
Because radiation is undetectable through any of the five senses, it’s a good idea to have access to some sort of equipment designed to test for it. RadMeters4U.com offers a lot of great information on survey meters, Geiger counters, and dosimeters. If you want to save money, you can buy old Civil Defense survey meters, Geiger counters, and dosimeters on eBay and then hire RadMeters4U to calibrate them. If you don’t want to spend the money for professional testing equipment, you can build your own reliable Kearny Fallout Meter with materials found around the house.
There are three types of radioactive particles—alpha, beta, and gamma. Because alpha particles have very little penetrating power—They can’t even penetrate the microscopic layer of dead skin that surrounds your body—they are relatively harmless unless inhaled or ingested, in which case they can be toxic to internal organs. Beta particles have enough penetrating power to penetrate several layers of skin and cause severe burns, but they are typically not life threatening unless they are inhaled or ingested. Gamma particles are by far the most dangerous form of radiation. They are the ones that tear through your body like billions of tiny, invisible bullets, causing illness and eventually death.
There is a myth, created in large
Though the idea of a “radiation suit” is primarily a myth, there are advantages to having access to what is known as an NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) suit. Whether it be a military issue BDO (battle dress overgarment), complete with military issue NBC chemical gloves and rubber overboots, or a cheap rain suit, complete with discount store rain boots and dishwashing gloves, wearing protective clothing anytime you venture outside your shelter, in the first month following a nuclear attack, can help prevent both beta burn and the tracking of fallout particles into your shelter (This is prevented by removing the protective clothing before reentering your shelter). Coupling this suit with a quality gas mask with a current NBC rated filter, as described on the home page, will help prevent you from inhaling dangerous alpha, beta, and gamma radiation particles. The gas mask will also help protect your face from beta burn. In short, the less time spent outside your shelter in the first month following an attack, the better, and the less exposed skin when you’re outside your shelter in the first month following an attack, the better. My original essay contains a chart of the maximum exposure times for the first month following an attack.
Another common myth about fallout is that it makes other items radioactive. While it's true that some materials at ground zero might be made radioactive by ionizing radiation, this applies ONLY to materials at ground zero. Though radioactive fallout can contaminate open containers of food and water and cling to just about anything, in the same way non-radioactive dust clings to things, any object that can be washed can be decontaminated. An unopened can of peas that was sitting in your back yard when the fallout fell would still be safe to eat, assuming you first washed the fallout off of the can and were careful not to allow the food inside to become contaminated. Tools left outside would still be safe to use, assuming you first washed the fallout off of them.
It is not, however, always possible to decontaminated meat, milk, and vegetation harvested after the fallout has settled. You should be advised that eating the meat or drinking the milk of animals that have eaten contaminated vegetation is extremely dangerous, as both are probably contaminated. Fallout is eventually filtered out through the food chain, so if you had to hunt for food in a highly contaminated area, you would probably be better off hunting and eating only carnivores (This requires a heightened level of discretion--Never eat animals that appear to be sick, and never eat the liver of a carnivorous animal), for at least the first month or so, as that would put an added step between the meat you’re eating and the contaminated vegetation. Plants that have grown in contaminated soil are contaminated and cannot be washed clean. Before planting new vegetation for consumption, you’ll need to remove the top several inches of topsoil, to avoid contamination of your new crop.
If you combine the information found in this supplement with the information found in my original 2002 essay, you’ll have a solid foundation in the information needed to survive a nuclear attack.
I don’t provide this
information in order to scare anyone. Contrary to what some people might
construe from my writings and my actions, I don’t think a nuclear attack