The decades-long advice to find shelter nearby, if a nuke is ever detonated anywhere in the world, is not necessarily the best plan for survival.
It’s been more than 70 years since two low-yield nuclear bombs, detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, destroyed the two Japanese cities, killing at least 129,000 people. Though the unfortunate incident remains the only use of nuclear weapons for warfare in history, neither the Third World War nor a nuclear strike seem preventable anymore.
Since 1945, nearly 2,000 nuclear tests have been performed, and about 125,000 nuclear bombs have been built. Today, nine countries together possess nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons — each warhead 20 times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. The United States and Russia maintain about 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high-alert status — ready to be launched within minutes of a warning.
Putin is developing an underwater drone that can deliver a nuclear warhead and wreck havoc on American shores. Recently, North Korea released a new propaganda video showing Washington under nuclear attack. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that the NATO military buildup along Russia’s borders in Eastern Europe shows a nuclear war is just around the corner.
While there’s no ‘evidence’ that a nuclear war is on the horizon, the return of great power politics brings with it the risk of powerful states going to war; unleashing previously unseen forms of warfare and using nuclear weaponry to inflict unthinkable and irreversible damage on the enemy state is no longer impossible.
Though today’s simmering tensions are unlikely to trigger a nuclear war, there is no doubt the situation is alarming. So, what if we have a nuclear war? Would you avoid nuclear fallout? Would you survive a nuclear bomb attack?
In a 2014 study, carried out at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, researcher Michael Dillon discovered that your chances of survival entirely depend on where you are when the nuclear blast happens.
The official US government advice is to “get to the middle of a nearest building or a basement away from doors and windows and take shelter for a period of time.” Professor Iwrin Redlener, US specialist on disaster preparedness, explains:
“In those 10 to 15 minutes [of nuclear blast], all you have to do is go about a mile away from the blast. Within 20 minutes, it comes straight down. Within 24 hours, lethal radiation is going out with prevailing winds. You should feel for the wind and begin running perpendicular to it – not upwind or downwind. You’ve got to get out of there. If you don’t get out of there, you’re going to be exposed to lethal radiation in very short order.
“If you can’t get out of there, we want you to go into a shelter and stay there. Now, in a shelter in an urban area means you have to be either in a basement as deep as possible, or you have to be on a floor – on a high floor – if it’s a ground burst explosion, which it would be, higher than the ninth floor. So you have to be tenth floor or higher, or in the basement.”
“In the event of a single, low-yield nuclear detonation (0.1–10 kT) in a major urban area, response strategies implemented in the first hour have the potential to save 10,000–100, 000 individuals from a fatal exposure to fallout radiation.
“If you are immediately next to or in a solid shelter when the bomb goes off, stay there until the rescuers come to evacuate you to less radioactive vistas. If you aren’t already in a bomb shelter, but know a good shelter is about five minutes away, hoof it over there quickly and stay in place.
“But if the nice, thick-walled building would take about 15 minutes travel time, it’s better to hole up in the flimsy shelter for awhile – but you should probably leave for a better shelter after roughly an hour. This is because some of the most intense fallout radiation has subsided by then, though you still want to reduce your exposure.”