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How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 3, 2012 07:30 AM

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Writing on his blog, Just Well Mixed, blogger Jason Lefkowitz explains some of the basic steps you can take if you want to survive a nuclear explosion. While we often imagine nuclear explosions to be inherently unsurvivable, your odds of surviving a terrorist-sized bomb -- assumign you haven't been vaporized in the initial blast -- are perfectly decent! "This conclusion may seem counter-intuitive," Lefkowitz writes, "because when most of us think of nuclear weapons we think of the weapons the US and USSR built to aim at each other during the Cold War. But it’s important to understand that the type of bomb a terrorist group would be able to develop and deploy would be something very different — something very much smaller, and much less destructive."

Not so bad after all.

Lefkowitz is drawing on a 2011 report from FEMA which offers a projection of what would happen if terrorists detonated a ten-kiloton nuclear bomb a few blocks north of the White House. While many nearby buildings would be vaporized or destroyed, buildings only a little further away, like the U.S. Capitol, would suffer only "light damage." If you see the tell-tale flash of light which indicates a nuclear blast -- "a bright flash of light like the sun, where the sun isn't" -- then, Lefkowitz says, you should do two things: stay away from the windows, and find youself a hideout which is well-insulated from fallout. You need to get to your hideout within the next ten minutes. "The ideal shelter from fallout is an underground concrete structure, because then you get protection not just from the walls but also from the earth around them and the building above them; but even the concrete walls of a modern above-ground office building can provide sufficient protection, especially if you take shelter in an interior room rather than one touching an exterior wall." There are more details at his blog, as well as a great discussion with some more technical advice at Reddit, for those of you who are serious preparedness nuts.

Survival is possible, of course, because the blast would likeyl be "only" ten kilotons. During the Cold War, multiple warheads with as much as 475 kilotons of destructive power would have been detonated above any given city, making survival essentially impossible. I've long felt that this is one of the unambiguous (and too-often underappreciated) ways in which the world has improved over the last few decades: We no longer live under the constant threat of actual Armageddon-level nuclear apocalypse, which was a real possibility only twenty-five years ago. (The iPhone is pretty cool, but that is even cooler.) If you're interested in being traumatized, I highly recommend the BBC drama Threads, which explains, in absolutely terrifying detail, just how scary and hopeless that situation would have been. It's the best dramatization of what might have happened, and it makes today's nuclear terrorism, which is scary, a little less so by way of comparison. (I'm serious about the trauma thing, though. As one MetaFilter poster puts it, pretty much accurately, in my experience, "[Threads] scared me so much that I sat up all night, in my apartment, all alone, with the lights on -- and then the next day urged all my friends to watch it so they could share my horror.")

See also: How to survive a nuclear attack, at TED. And a recent book, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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