How to Protect Yourself from Nuclear Fallout

How to Protect Yourself from Nuclear Fallout
Photo:Beige Alert, Creative Commons, Flickr

Pakistan, which has a reputation as a politically unstable country, has admitted to nuclear weapons, thus striking fear into the hearts of India’s people.

North Korea has also admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, but is presumably getting ready to disarm in the face of international opposition. Around the world, most developed nations and a few developing nations possess nuclear weapons, some close to America’s shores, some so distant that the fear of nukes seems scarcely worth the effort.

Until one takes terrorism into account.

Rising tensions over an undeclared and unresolved war in Iraq and another in Afghanistan bring the threat closer to home in the form of a terrorist’s "dirty bomb." Food and oil shortages escalate tensions in Asia. Deteriorating relationships between major powers, and the recent Russian Victory Day display of tanks and other weapons has Germany on edge. We are, according to the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, right around the corner from a nuclear terrorist attack.

”As an initial indicator of this trend, a recent analysis of online jihadist documents that deal explicitly with nuclear weapons has revealed that while their knowledge is still below par, there have been significant advances in the understanding of nuclear issues within the general jihadi community in only a few short years,” Gary Ackerman, research director for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland testified before a Congressional committee.

In the 60’s and 70’s, we did the drill in school – hiding under desks in the event someone dropped the "Big One." Today, we’re a little more sophisticated. We know a desk may save us from a collapsing roof, but it takes a little more thought and effort to protect ourselves from those other nuclear effects, including flash blindness, radiation poisoning and the subsequent effects on water and food supplies.

These techniques, which I describe below, are also applicable in the event of a nuclear plant failure. Most U.S. nuclear plants were built in the 70’s, and are now beginning to experience problems typical of aging infrastructure and somewhat primitive design. We haven’t had an event since Three Mile Island in 1979, and some nuclear power experts are still waiting for the other shoe to fall. In any event, there are some things you can do to prepare for a worst-case scenario from whatever source.

First, know your state’s civil defense policies, shelter locations and civil defense siren protocols. In the event of an actual nuclear attack – nuclear weapons launched via intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems – the warning would likely come from civil defense (air raid) sirens, followed by media coverage, and would potentially give citizens up to a half-hour of warning. A nuclear plant failure would likely provide the same type and amount of warning. A dirty bomb would not.

Most civil defense sirens in U.S. cities are tested on a regular basis. Know your state’s test pattern. In Minnesota, it’s the first Wednesday of the month. Varying tones often indicate the nature of the impending disaster. A single note, called
Alert, usually sounds for tornadoes, or tsunamis in coastal areas. Attack, Wail, and Hi-lo are additional warning tones, the last often used by rescue units, police, and fire departments. Know what the tones mean, and how your state will use them to alert you.

If you hear the sirens and it’s not a scheduled alert day, take shelter and assess the situation. The best place is underground. Second best in on the middle floor of a building, away from windows. In an actual nuclear attack, where nuclear weapons are detonated at high altitude (the most effective way to distribute radiation), electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) will shut down everything from vehicle engines – most of which are now electronically controlled – to cell phones, computers and even electrical power.

A nuclear plant that goes offline because of a failure will cause a momentary reduction in power supplies or an actual power loss, quickly followed by a resumption in normal power levels as other sources are re-routed through the electrical grid via substations. Don’t assume a momentary dimming of the lights is a cause for alarm. Generating plants (both nuclear and fossil-fuel fired) are routinely taken offline for repairs. No such "flicker" will alert the public to a terrorist’s dirty bomb, however.

If you can’t find shelter, cover your face and exposed skin (a coat, a jacket, even a newspaper will help) and shut your eyes. The flash will blind you, either momentarily or permanently. The pressure wave that follows can actually rupture internal organs, so in the absence of a building or even a sheltering wall, lie down in a gutter or other declivity facing away from the blast and protect your head and eyes from flying debris. Do not assume that structures like fire hydrants, newspaper stands or bus shelters provide protection. None of these is designed to stand up to the 100- to 500-mile-per-hour winds generated by a nuclear explosion.

Once the blast wave has passed, try to get out of the open air, which is distributing mass quantities of lethal radiation. If you were outside during the blast, you will already have picked up a large dose, but radiation sickness is cumulative. The more you can prevent, the greater the likelihood you will survive.

If the wind is blowing after the blast wave passes, move into the wind. Radiation is thickest downwind. Avoid low-lying areas, which accumulate radiation in the same manner as they collect frost or fog (by subsidence inversion). Get to a source of water, preferably a broken water hydrant or water main that will remain somewhat uncontaminated for fifteen minutes to half an hour because the source is usually enclosed or distant. Remove all outer clothing, including shoes. Do not pull items over your head. which will only "shed" the radiation farther. Cut off your clothing, if possible, or strip it slowly down your legs. Then bathe yourself, but do not put the clothing back on; cold and wet is better than dead. Continue looking for shelter. Do not touch anyone who has been exposed to radiation other than to check for vital signs and search pockets for identification and foodstuffs or matches, and do not eat or drink anything that is not wrapped or containerized.

If you managed to find shelter before the blast, either in a building or – better yet – a basement or subway tunnel, seal yourself off with whatever is handy – wooden panels or signage, plastic bags, even bed sheets or thick layers of newspaper – anything that will delay the infiltration of radiation. You can’t block off a subway tunnel, but these tunnels usually have utility or maintenance rooms off the main tunnel structure where you can take refuge.

If you’re in your basement, you should have stockpiled some food and water against normal emergencies like tornadoes or hurricanes. If not, run water in the washing machine or laundry tub as quickly as possible, preferably hot from your water tank. In the basement of a building or a subway, try to find water and food near at hand, as from the pockets or purses of other victims (being careful to make as little contact as possible), a vending machine, a lunch room or even water from standing puddles.

Remember than a human can survive about two weeks without food, but only about 72 hours without water. If the area around you has mostly collapsed from the blast, try to mark the entryway before you seal yourself in, so rescue workers can find you. Use discarded, brightly colored clothing, as this is a traditional signal to rescue workers that someone is buried. Use the universal distress signal (SOS), or Morse code, to signal your presence to rescue crews. This is three sharp taps, three heavy, sustained blows, and another three sharp, quick taps (dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot).

Once you are more or less safe in your shelter, either as a family unit or a collection of strangers, you may have to decide whether to accept additional survivors. This will depend on how close your shelter was to the initial blast and how intensely irradiated these survivors are likely to be. If you have access to large amounts of water in your shelter, you can help these unfortunates decontaminate themselves and then bag or bury their outer clothing. Food and water brought into your shelter are suspect, because they – like their carriers – have been exposed. Well-packaged food can be removed from containers, or the containers carefully dusted or washed. Raw fruit and vegetables can be peeled and eaten, but food not wrapped in any manner should be bagged or buried. Most plastic water bottles can take about 15 to 30 minutes of intense irradiation before becoming lethal.

The good news is, most victims of radiation sickness who receive less than 200 rads will recover. Between 200-1000 rads, the situation becomes more precarious but still survivable. From 1000 to 5000 rads, people will exhibit symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, disorientation, low blood pressure, extremely high temperature, or visible radiation burns on the skin which result in loss of skin. These can vary from a sunburned look to actual tissue damage to, and beneath, the epidermis. The sooner the symptoms appear, the larger the dose of radiation. If the symptoms begin within 30 minutes of exposure, the dose is likely fatal. If they occur several hours after exposure and in the absence of the radiation burns described above, they can mean either a low dose of radiation or a psychologically driven reaction to the stress of the event.

If you’re far-sighted, you’ll stash a supply of potassium iodide against this day. A small dose (130 mg.) taken 1/2 hour before or immediately after exposure can protect the thyroid gland by reducing radiation absorption to about 1 percent (of the original dose). Many emergency technicians advise against this unless you know the nature of the radiation, but others argue that survivors of an atomic blast are unlikely to know the specific isotope of plutonium or uranium (the two common components of nuclear weapons) for weeks or months after exposure. I favor having it, and taking one tablet ASAP, and one every 24 hours, although not if you have a known allergy to iodine, as in the case of CT contrast dye, or if you have a goiter, Graves’ disease or autoimmune thyroiditis. Take the medicine for no more than 10 days, and keep the bottle tightly sealed.

If you’re lucky enough to have adequate amounts of water, you can detoxify the effects of radiation with baths of diluted Clorox (one cup per tub of very hot water), soaking as long as possible and not rinsing afterward. You can also use the bleach to purify water supplies of pollutants, though not of radiation. Epsom salts will also work in a bath, though less effectively. Bentonite clay, used either externally as a mud-pack, or taken internally (diluted in water) can help detoxify, provided the clay is not high in aluminum content. This works because clays typically bind to heavy metals. You can also use charcoal, though obviously not briquettes treated with flammable agents. Ground charcoal as used in fish-tank filters is acceptable. You can also use seaweed (packs or internally), or mix pectin in water and drink it. I have even see a recipe for domestic pets that calls for water, powdered kelp, apple cider, aloe vera juice, Brewer’s yeast, ground rosemary and vitamin E.

In the meantime, a company called Protectan is developing a pill in cooperation with the U.S. Dept. of Defense that promises to prevent radiation sickness. This pill can reportedly be taken with equal effect before or after radiation exposure. At $200 a pop, it should enable members of the government and other elite to survive long enough to launch a retaliatory strike at the attackers, further irradiating the earth’s atmosphere by contaminating globe-circling winds with the very isotopes we, in our shelters, are trying to avoid.

I hope we never live to see this day, but it is always better to be safe than sorry. Take the time and money to prepare yourselves and your families against this very real possibility. Have food and water supplies ready and emergency phone numbers, a meeting location and a draft plan of action posted in a logical spot in your home. For more information on radiation protection measures, visit the CDC’s website, or respond to this post with ideas of your own. The more we know, the better our likelihood of survival.

Disclosure: I don’t own Protectan stock.

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