Archive for the ‘Contamination’ category

Three miles from a 10 kiloton nuke – will I live or die?

April 6, 2008

In the prior post I explained why I’m planning for a bomb size of 10 kilotons. Now I’ll look at the risks from the blast and radiation.

While I believe I have a chance of sustaining no injuries or only minor scathing from the affects of the blast, there are many variables to consider and I’ll return to those risks—from shock, heat, fires and flying debris—at a later time. Ultimately, it may be too difficult to determine risk because of unknown variables. For example, will I be standing next to a window that gets blown out or will I be in an interior room? (The U.S. Dept. of Energy website on the Manhattan Project discusses Hiroshima: “…and the blast wave shattered glass in suburbs twelve miles away.”) In any case, I feel blast affects are secondary to radiation risk, where there is a calculable risk of death.

It’s impossible to know the full risk of radiation without knowing wind direction. If I’m upwind of the blast, the best-case scenario, the risk is from immediate radiation or what’s call “ionizing radiation” (the RAND Corporation report cited below calls it “flash radiation”). I’m having difficulty calculating the precise dose of immediate radiation from 10 kilotons at three miles so, for now, I’ll quote a RAND study, which says the zone of 100% mortality is about a radius of three quarters of a mile: “For a 10-kiloton airburst, everyone will be killed by lethal doses of flash radiation to a distance of 0.7 miles.” This is from the RAND Corporation’s Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy, page four of a report titled, “Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack.”

So, beyond three-quarters of a mile, some live and some die. Even if certain death is unlikely from immediate radiation at three miles, there will be some low level of radiation exposure, which could eventually manifest in health problems. But, at the moment, I feel immediate radiation affects are secondary to “residual radiation,” aka, nuclear fallout. On a bad wind day and sans a fallout shelter, I could be fatally zapped.

Quoting from page six of a report by The Preventive Defense Project, a joint Stanford-Harvard program, titled, “The Day After: Action in the 24 Hours Following a Nuclear Blast in an American City” (the link is a pdf file):

“Further downwind from the detonation point, a plume of radioactive debris would spread. Its shape and size would depend on wind and rain conditions, but the area over which people who did not shelter themselves or flee within hours would receive lethal radiation doses within a day would range from five to ten square miles: the area of Brooklyn for New York, northwest Washington for Washington, DC, or the upper peninsula for San Francisco – but the direction from ground zero depending on the wind.”

(Note: I thought fallout begins to hit the ground within 15 minutes so I’m confused about the above phrase, “flee within hours.” I’ll return to the topic of evacuating versus sheltering in place with better information on how quickly I need to evacuate.)

While immediate radiation creates a circular pattern of radiation exposure, fallout creates an oval pattern that moves downwind from the blast. The Preventive Defense Project’s “The Day After” report has a map of Washington, D.C., with two overlapping ovals placed on top of the map to show the approximate fallout patterns. The smaller, dark oval is the 50% fatality zone, and the longer, lighter oval is the 10% fatality zone. The visual isn’t that important to see (on page eight if you want to follow the link above to the study) but the caption to the illustration tells me what I need to know:

“Over 50% of the population within the dark red oval (approximately 5 miles long) would incur fatal radiation in the course of the first day if they stayed unsheltered in that area. Absent elaborate shelters people should leave as soon as possible.

“Over 10% of the population in the lighter oval (about 8 miles long) would incur severe radiation injury, sometimes fatal, in the first day if they stayed unsheltered in that area. Light shelters could offer significant protection. There and nearby, sheltering offers the better option.”

The bottom line for me is that there’s a 50% mortality risk in an area five miles downwind of the blast. I’m three miles from my target so, depending upon conditions, my location has a high risk of death and, short of death, a high risk of severe radiation exposure. I don’t have access to an “elaborate shelter” so, if my target is nuked, I’ll need to jump into action.

Fortunately, I’m upwind from my target so, on most days, I’m at low risk. I could dig up historical weather information to better define my risk, and I may do that in the future; but I’m not sure if calculating risk based on the weather, reliably unpredictable, is a good use of my time. Also, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to convincingly monitor wind direction in the immediate hours after a blast.

I’m beginning to wonder, what if I’m over-reacting? What if the probability of a nuke attack is infinitesimally small?

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Surviving a nuclear terrorist attack on New York City (video: 7 min., 20 sec.)

February 20, 2008

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I do this blog largely because nuclear terrorism gets little coverage in the mainstream press. I taped this ABC News piece, which aired in Sept. 2005 as part of a post-Katrina program on disasters, and find it informative and well-balanced. It speculates on the fate of New Yorkers after a 10 kiloton bomb explodes in Times Square.

I captured it on VHS and I want to get it in the archives of this blog before the tape disintegrates (I crudely converted it to digital so, bear with me, the quality is poor). The segment is from ABC Primetime and is reported by Chris Cuomo. (Here’s a link to the transcript, which is titled, “Experts’ Keys to Surviving a Nuclear Terror Attack.”)

Here are some important points:

  1. There will be several hundred thousand immediate deaths. Most people will survive and most buildings will remain intact.
  2. Radioactive nuclear fallout will begin within 15 minutes and the fallout will drift with the wind. Nuclear fallout could be dangerous for as long as two weeks.
  3. The government will be tracking the deadly plume with sophisticated software. “Officials should be able to tell you which direction is safe and that is the direction to go…. First responders will use available communication to inform you where the danger is and then evacuate people out of the path of the fallout.” (See my comment below.)
  4. Your initial instincts of what to do could be wrong. Instead of evacuating your best bet may be to shelter in place.
  5. Duct tape and plastic can be helpful in sealing your shelter from radioactive dust. (I’m reminiscing about the Duct Tape and Plastic Panic of 2003…)
  6. While decontamination centers will be operational, no city is prepared for the hundreds of thousands of people who will need decontamination and medical care.
  7. You can decontaminate yourself by quickly shedding contaminated clothing and taking a shower with soap.
  8. A recent survey, reports BusinessWeek magazine, found that “just 57% of healthcare workers in the region would report for work during a radiological event.” (Wow.)
  9. “And so far the government doesn’t seem to have educated citizens about what they can do to protect themselves if a bomb goes off in the city.” (Yup.)

As I speculated in my post of 9/27/07 (Nuclear Fallout: Which Way is the Wind Blowing?), I think point #3 above could be a serious problem—and deadly if anybody screws-up. First, note that points #3 and #4 are contradictory. It means that, depending upon the situation, you may have to either shelter in place or evacuate. If you’re close to the blast I think that decision will have to be made in less than 15 minutes.

Second, the quote in point #3 above is vague (“available communication”) in describing how you’ll get evacuation information. By what method should you try first (TV, radio, email, telephone, cell phone, text-messaging, loudspeaker, talking to a first responder, etc.) and in what form will you get the information (i.e., will you understand it)? Will you get the information within 15 minutes of the blast or should you have a back-up plan?

I’d like to know now so I can do some prep, plan a response and not be prone to panic.

What it means to survive a nuclear bomb

January 2, 2008

I’ve been thinking about the word “survive.” For me, it means maintaining both my health and my quality of life.

If I’m close enough or downwind, physical health may be elusive. It’s one thing to cover my eyes (to avoid blindness) and hit the ground (to avoid the shock waves) and be able to wake up the next morning, but it’s another thing to avoid radiation poisoning.

Some unsettling words from the Centers for Disease Control website: “While severe burns would appear in minutes, other health effects might take days or weeks to appear. These effects range from mild, such as skin reddening, to severe effects such as cancer and death, depending on the amount of radiation absorbed by the body (the dose), the type of radiation, the route of exposure, and the length of time of the exposure.”

Hiroshima was a small bomb, a size that could be tactically detonated in the U.S. today. Estimates of 70,000 died the day of the blast and tens of thousands more died in the months that followed. The U.S. Dept. of Energy website states: “The five-year death total may have reached or even exceeded 200,000, as cancer and other long-term effects took hold.” The wikipedia notes that about nine percent of cancer and leukemia deaths from 1950 to 1990 have been attributed to the bomb.

While the biological effects of radiation are known, my actual exposure and the consequences are less clear. The two questions that will be on my mind the day after, which are bugging me today, are:

  1. Besides theoretical estimates based on bomb size and distance from ground zero, without a geiger counter around my neck is it possible to know the amount of radiation I was exposed to?
  2. Is it possible to know how sensitive my body is to radiation exposure (to determine my susceptibility to long term health problems)?

While radiation poisoning is a worst-case scenario, the other end of the spectrum—surviving in perfect health—is nagging me too.

Let’s say I’m in a city that gets nuked and I live. I not only live but I luck out with fallout and I get zero-exposure. And let’s say I followed most of my own advice and have survival gear and a month or more of food and water. What will life be like? What routine necessities and comforts will I still have to struggle for? Unlike Japan who was able to surrender, would we live in fear of future attacks?

How long will it be before life is normal again?

Nuclear survival information at

November 6, 2007

When you google for “survive nuclear attack,” the first hit is Run by civil defense expert Shane Connor, it has very good information and I’ve placed the link in the blogroll. Here’s a six-minute CNN interview of Shane Conner (now on youtube) talking about the likely 99% survival rate of a 10-kiloton bomb (about two-thirds the size of Hiroshima). He smartly says that surviving the blast is not the problem; it’s surviving the next two weeks.

The “ki” part of the web address stands for potassium iodine. It comes from “KI,” which is the chemical symbol for potassium iodine, the substance used to iodize table salt. KI pills, which sells, are a common item in a nuke survival kit—they’re taken to saturate your thyroid gland with good iodine, thus preventing the absorption of radioactive iodine—and the homepage of is mostly about taking KI.

There are several other pages at that I find more interesting:

There’s a guide to “what to do if a nuclear disaster is imminent.” On one long web page, which is packed with about five pages of information, it has topics including the decision to evacuate (stay or go), things to do immediately after the blast, making shelters and contamination.

There’s a “nuclear blast & fallout shelters FAQ” in three parts. I was overwhelmed, both technically and imaginatively, with the amount of information on these three pages:

Nuclear Blast & Fallout Shelters Part I is about the affects, and survivability, of the actual blast.

Nuclear Blast & Fallout Shelters Part II is about radiation and the affects, and survivability, of nuclear fallout.

Nuclear Blast & Fallout Shelters Part III is about taking shelter from nuclear fallout.

There’s the classic book, Nuclear War Survival Skills, which is free online, courtesy of It’s written by Cresson H. Kearny of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Originally published in 1979, it’s a Cold War era book on how laypeople can improve their chances of surviving a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. While the geopolitics are outdated, a lot of the survival information is still relevant. There are a dozen glowing (pun unintended, I hate puns), five-star reader-reviews of this book for the two printed editions at, the Nuclear War Survival Skills 1982 updated edition and the Nuclear War Survival Skills 1987 updated and expanded edition (they’re both out of print). At this moment, the best price for the 1991 edition is at

Speaking of stuff for sale, in addition to the KI pills and the book above, sells a variety of radiation monitoring devices and nuclear survival manuals and DVDs. Here’s the order from and product page. is a worthy site. In future posts I’ll dive further into the site and pull some pearls of surviveanukeattack-wisdom.

In general, most of the information I’ve seen on the web for surviving a nuclear bomb is technical and tedious (not to mention depressing). I’ll be sifting through this stuff and, in future posts, I’ll repackage the most important material and pump some life into it.

Radioactive “Dirty Bomb” Exercise

October 14, 2007

The Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) is running a dirty bomb preparedness exercise this week, Oct. 15-19, called TOPOFF 4 (Top Officials 4). It’ll take place in Portland, Phoenix and Guam and will involve many thousands of people from all levels of the public and private sectors. Here’s the TOPOFF 4 link in the DHS website, although there’s not much there.

Training for people directly involved in disaster prevention and relief is important but what about you and me? A first responder is probably not going to be available in the first two minutes after an explosion to help me decide if I should seek shelter or evacuate. Everybody needs preparation.

Interestingly, dirty bombs use conventional explosives so it may not be apparent that a bomb is dirty (i.e., radioactive). One thing you can do if you suspect radiation is to shed your clothes, which you should always do if you’re contaminated, and save them in a sealed plastic bag for testing.

How easy is it to obtain radioactive material to create a dirty bomb? Here’s something from the book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense under Clinton:

“The consensus in the national security community has long been that a dirty bomb attack is inevitable, indeed long overdue. The integration of various forms of radioactive material in modern life, from X-rays in dentists’ offices and hospitals to smoke detectors, has made control of such material impossible.”

This is a worthy book and I’ll come back to it at a later time. Here’s the amazon link.