Archive for September 2007

Nuclear Fallout: Which Way is the Wind Blowing?

September 27, 2007

The vast majority of inhabitants of a city will likely survive a nuclear attack. If a one kiloton suitcase nuclear bomb exploded in my area and I was a “safe” five or 10 or 20 miles away, one of the big questions on my mind would be: which way is the fallout blowing?

Fallout information will come from official broadcasts and from personal observations. I’ll get more into firsthand observation in future posts, but here’s some practical advice from the FEMA website: “Monitoring can project the fallout arrival times, which will be announced through official warning channels. However, any increase in surface build-up of gritty dust and dirt should be a warning for taking protective measures.” This makes sense as a bomb digs a creator in the ground and the soil gets sucked into the atmosphere by the blast. Thus, if the environment around you is becoming dirtier and grittier, there’s a chance you’re in the path of the fallout.

After FEMA’s hurricane Katrina performance, and because I may not have a working electronic device, I don’t want a survival strategy that relies 100 percent on broadcasts. But, for now, I’m curious how fallout information will be broadcast. Keep in mind that even if my TV is working, if I was only five miles from the blast I’m not sure if kicking back to watch TV will be my first impulse, but there will be some distance from the blast where getting information from TV and radio should be helpful.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS), jointly operated by FEMA, the FCC and the National Weather Service, is designed to broadcast emergency information. The FEMA website says to “Keep listening to the radio and television for news about what to do, where to go, and places to avoid.” I have a few questions:

  1. There may be an abundance of emergency information that needs broadcasting. Will fallout be at the top of the list, ie, how long will I have to listen before I get the information? Will the information make sense to me? I suspect time may be of the essence as I may be faced, depending on the direction of the fallout, with the choice of seeking shelter immediately or moving to a safer area.
  2. Can I get this information from my cell phone, which is the most likely device I’ll have on me? This assumes the cellular system is still working and is not jammed.
  3. If I’m a “comfortable” 50 or 100 miles away, is there a website that will track the fallout plume?
  4. If I live 500 or 1000 miles away, how concerned should I be? Given that winds tend to travel west to east, if a bomb goes off on the West Coast and I live on the East Coast, am I at risk?
  5. What shape is FEMA in? A nuke will put a lot more stress on them than hurricane Katrina, an event for which they had warning. What if more than one nuclear bomb goes off? What if a bomb takes out part of our intelligence network?
  6. The EAS was not activated during the 9/11 attack. One explanation is that the media coverage was pervasive and served as an adequate warning. If that’s true, do I really want survival information in the hands of the press and, if so, which network will be the most reliable? If that’s not true, ie, the EAS failed, is it now ready to handle the chaos of a NA?

As I try to imagine the immediate post-nuclear attack environment, I wonder about the nature of the fallout information that I’ll receive. If I’m told the fallout is moving, say, southwesterly, will I know which way is southwest? Something like a weather map would be a good presentation but what if I only have a radio? Maybe I’ll be told to avoid certain neighborhoods and towns but, even after living in my city for years, I still don’t know half the areas mentioned in traffic reports. Wind direction can change—will wind patterns be squirrely after a nuclear bomb and how often do I need updated information?

It would be nice to get cell phone alerts after a nuclear atack. (Again, even if I can receive emergency alerts via cell phone, I don’t know if the alerts will give fallout information and, if so, if the information will make sense.) The EAS entry in the Wikipedia mentions a couple of options that offer cell and email delivery: “A private website called the Emergency Email Network offers to send an email or SMS text message to registered users in the event of an EAS activation. Some desktop weather monitoring programs, such as WeatherBug, offer a computer alert during emergencies. Currently under development is new infrastructure called the Digital Emergency Alert System. This system would allow the transmission of emergency alerts directly to citizens and responders without the need for a special receiver. These alerts would be sent to users of computers, mobile phones, pagers, and other devices.”

I signed up for the Emergency Email Network (EEN), a private venture of Enotem (I googled for Enotem and came up with this link with more information). You sign up with your zip code and it would be great to receive zip code-specific fallout information. After all, what if you tune into the EAS after a nuclear attack and all you get is the President, in a national broadcast, telling us not to panic? I’ll ask the EEN if and how they intend to give fallout information.

I poked around the WeatherBug website and found no reference to them giving out non-weather emergency information. They have a variety of consumer products for computer and cell phone so I will contact them for clarification. Weather bureaus handle disaster warnings (hurricanes, tsunamis, etc), fallout is directly related to wind direction and weather maps seem to be a good way to display the fallout plume, so it makes sense that a weather service would be a good source for this information.

I’ve been clicking around the Internet but I’ve yet to find any websites claiming that they’ll provide real-time fallout information. I’d rather not have to google for a website in the middle of a nuclear disaster so I’ll keep searching. As I gather more information on any service that’ll dispense real-time fallout information, I’ll let you know and put important links in the blogroll. If any readers know of other sources for this information, please contact me or post a comment.

Question #4 above affects a lot of people so I’ll look into it. I think the gist of questions #5 and #6 are unanswerable as the only acceptable proof will be in the pudding of how well FEMA and the EAS handle the next disaster. The news networks are aggressive in putting reporters in the “eye of the storm” so I’ll look into it and let you know if any networks have been stocking hazmat suits and Geiger counters.

I hope I get fallout warnings and that they make sense but, unfortunately, hope is not a good survival strategy. I’m coming to the conclusion that individuals close to the blast will need to take a good deal of responsibility on their own in determining the direction of the fallout and how to react. In future posts I’ll look at issues like whether to stay put or evacuate, which direction to move if you’re evacuating a fallout area, what type of shelter to seek from fallout and what to do if you’re contaminated.

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After the Bomb

September 12, 2007

Click here for an interesting New York Times op-ed piece from 6/12/07, ”After the Bomb”, by three retired bigshots, a former defense secretary, a former assistant defense secretary, and a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

These gentlemen say the probability of a nuclear attack “is larger than it was five years ago.” They suggest the formation of a contingency plan for the inevitable chaos on the day after: “Sadly, it is time to consider such contingency planning. First and foremost, the scale of disaster would quickly overwhelm even the most prepared city and state governments.”

If a former secretary of defense and his colleagues are requesting the formation of a contingency plan, it makes me wonder, do we currently have a plan? Or maybe they think we have an inadequate plan. Or, maybe, because they think you can’t plan the day after, they feel a new plan should be devised to plan that the day after is unplannable. I’m getting the warm, radioactive fuzzies all over.

They give good survival info if you survive the blast. They bring up an important point, which is to know which way the wind is blowing to determine if you’re in the path of the fallout:

“Those lucky enough to be upwind could remain in their homes if they knew which way the fallout plume was blowing. (The federal government has the ability to determine that and to quickly broadcast the information.) But for those downwind and more than a few miles from ground zero, the best move would be to shelter in a basement for three days or so and only then leave the area. This is a hard truth to absorb, since we all would have a strong instinct to flee. But walking toward the suburbs or sitting in long traffic jams would directly expose people to radiation, which would be the most intense on the day after the bomb went off.”

More about determining wind direction in my next post.

They state there will be choices for individuals regarding what to do, which should take into consideration radiation exposure and the chance of long term health risks, specifically cancer:

“The choices would be determined by the dose of radiation they were willing to absorb. Except in the hot zone around the blast and a few miles downwind, even unsheltered people would not be exposed to enough radiation to make them die or even become sick. It would be enough only to raise their statistical chance of getting cancer later in life from 20 percent (the average chance we all have) to something greater — 21 percent, 22 percent, up to 30 percent at the maximum survivable exposure.”

Finally, they bring up a very interesting point. A nuclear attack in one city could inflict fear of more bombs in other cities and could incite the mass or partial evacuation of our major cities:

“Next comes the unpleasant fact that the first nuclear bomb may well not be the last. If terrorists manage to obtain a weapon, or the fissile material to make one (which fits into a small suitcase), who’s to say they wouldn’t have two or three more? And even if they had no more weapons, the terrorists would most likely claim that they did. So people in other cities would want to evacuate on the day after, or at least move their children to the countryside, as happened in England during World War II.”

I think this concept is a biggie in putting together a survival strategy: Everybody should be prepared to stay in their homes for an extended period of time without emerging; and everybody should be prepared to evacuate their homes immediately.

For some grim, depressing comments on this New York Times piece and what the day after would be like, click here for a column by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Although I agree that survivors in the immediate area will be too traumatized to act rational in the ensuing chaos, there will be a distance from the blast where people will not be as traumatized and will need to make immediate decisions. Common sense says that those who are prepared will fare best.

What’s a safe distance from a nuclear bomb? That will be the subject of numerous futures posts.