Can you survive nuclear fallout? – Brooke Buddemeier and Jessica S. Wieder

The full scope of a nuclear detonation
is almost unimaginable. Hopefully, no one will ever experience
another of these catastrophic incidents. But there is a scientifically supported
plan of action that could save hundreds
of thousands of lives in the area surrounding
a nuclear explosion. So what is this plan, and what exactly would it protect us from? To create their destructive blast, these weapons harness
the power of nuclear fission– in which an atom’s nucleus
is split in two. This process produces an incredible
amount of energy, and in some materials the neutrons
produced by one fission are absorbed by nearby atoms, splitting additional nuclei. These chain reactions can produce
a range of explosive yields, but let’s consider an explosion
equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT. An explosion like this would create a fireball capable of decimating
a few city blocks and a shockwave damaging buildings
several kilometers away. There is tragically nothing
that can be done to save those in the fireball’s radius. However, for those in the
shockwave and beyond, our scientifically supported protocol
could be life saving. And though it may sound surprising, the best way to stay protected before,
during, and after a nuclear detonation, is getting inside. Similar to protecting yourself
from tornadoes or hurricanes, getting and staying inside a sturdy
building would offer protection from the explosion’s shockwave,
heat, and radiation. The shockwave of energy would travel several kilometers beyond the fireball’s
radius in the first few seconds. Sturdy buildings within that range should
be able to withstand the shockwave, and staying in the centers and basements
of these buildings also helps provide protection from
heat and flying objects. Finding shelter is especially important
if the fireball occurs close to the earth, as it will pull thousands of tons of dirt
and debris several kilometers into the atmosphere. As the fireball cools, unstable atoms created by the nuclear
fission mix with the debris to produce the most dangerous long-term
effect of a nuclear detonation: radioactive particles called fallout. These sand-sized particles emit
ionizing radiation, capable of separating electrons from
molecules and atoms. Exposure to massive amounts of this
radiation can result in cell damage, radiation burns, radiation sickness,
cancer, and even death. Created several kilometers up, dangerous concentrations of this material would be driven by upper
atmospheric winds, potentially leading to hazardous
levels of fallout in areas up to tens of
kilometers downwind. Thankfully, the same buildings that offer
protection from the blast are even better at
guarding against fallout. Radiation is reduced as it travels
through space and mass. So while a broken window and sealed window both have the same minimal
effect on radiation, thick layers of steel, concrete,
and packed earth can offer serious protection. And since fallout gives off half of its
energy in the first hour and 80% in the first day, staying inside for 24 hours could
dramatically improve the odds of avoiding the most serious
effects of radiation. Following the blast there would be at
least 15 minutes to find shelter before the fallout begins. Since the most hazardous fallout particles
are the heaviest, they sink through the air and collect on streets and rooftops, making ideal shelters underground
or in the middle of high-rise buildings. But if someone were to get
caught in the fallout, there are still measures they could take. After finding a safe space, they should remove their shoes
and outer layers, wash any exposed skin, and store the contaminated
clothing far away. Once inside, plan on staying there
for at least 24 hours. If the shelter is poor, or someone
inside needs urgent medical attention, try seeking outside help after an hour. But ideally, stay inside and stay tuned for more
information from first responders. While electric power, cell service, and
Internet would be down, most radios would likely survive. So listen in for emergency responders to determine the safest course forward. Nuclear weapons are some of the most
powerful tools of destruction on Earth, and it may seem naive to put faith in
these straightforward protective measures. But studies and simulations have
repeatedly shown the benefits of getting inside. So while we’ll hopefully never need to, remember to Get Inside, Stay Inside,
and Stay Tuned.

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