Surviving a Nuclear Explosion

What to do in case of a nuclear attack
1. Stay clear of all windows
2. Stand away from lamps, tables, chairs and other furniture
3. Loosen all restrictive clothing
4. Remove glasses, empty pockets of all sharp objects such as pens, pencils, etc
5. Immediately upon seeing the brilliant flash of nuclear explosion, bend over and place you head firmly between your legs
6. Then kiss you a** goodbye

The above was a poster I put on the wall of my dorm room in the 1970s. The sentiment expressed was the certainty of global annihilation in the event of an all out nuclear exchange, with a sarcastic jab at the civil defense “duck and cover” drills of the 1950s. After graduation, however, I headed to West Germany where nuclear weapons – of the tactical variety, at least – were a fact of life. We had them. The Soviets had them. In the event of war, we both would have used them and we both trained to operate in their midst.

As I remember, when a nuclear weapon detonates, four things occur: (1) there’s a tremendous flash of light accompanied by a searing wave of heat; (2) there’s a blast wave that blows down much in its path; (3) there’s a release of radiation that contaminates dust, dirt and debris that spreads through the immediate vicinity of the blast and migrates through the air depending on the wind speed and direction; and (4) there’s an electromagnetic pulse that fries all electronic equipment that’s on at the time of detonation. Soldiers were trained to stay buttoned up inside their armored vehicles during the blast and to immediately drive out of the area of contamination, still inside the protective steel cocoon of the tank or personnel carrier. While tactical nukes were powerful, they were also small and of limited range, so the training made sense.

Fast forward thirty years to today when I read that the US Government is about to embark on an effort to educate the public in ways to survive a nuclear explosion. In the era of global terrorism, this makes abundant sense to me. Should our defenses fail and terrorists succeed in bringing a working nuclear or atomic bomb into our country, the device will be relatively small and nowhere near the size or the power of the city-busting thermonuclear weapons that dominated the Cold War. A terrorist device would be more on the scale of the tactical nuclear weapons we faced along the Iron Curtain, devices that while devastating in their power, would be survivable by many. According to this story in today’s New York Times, teaching Americans to stay hunkered down inside a building or even an automobile in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, rather than trying to flee the area immediately, would cut casualties by more than 50 percent. That’s quite a savings in lives for just a bit of public education.

One Response to Surviving a Nuclear Explosion

  1. Jason says:

    I had never seen the poster, but when I started reading the list I knew the punch line before I got halfway through. When I remember becoming aware of the concept of nuclear war and the unease such a discovery brings to a child, I only remember being told the last two items on the list by most adults. Sadly I know they were serious.

    Personally I think being vaporized would be preferable. While a small scale or dirty bomb attack is much more likely than the use of large weapon, it would be the devastating effects on society and long term damage I’d prefer not to live through.

    Think of Katrina like refugee displacement and long term health effects that would make the illnesses of those at the World Trade Center pale in comparison. Time, Distance and Shielding are all good advice, but the world into which you emerge won’t be the one you want to live in.