Amanda Ripley


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Time to Start Thinking About the Unthinkable

17th Dec 2010 posted in Disaster Behavior

Nuclear bomb survival doesn’t tend to come up in conversation often these days. But when it does, I immediately think of my parents and the infamous drills of the ‘50s, which seem so quaint now. These days, nuclear bombs conjure up images of automatic, mass death and suffering, or, in the words of my dad when we discussed it today, “We’re all fried anyway.”

But that’s a dated perception, it turns out. First of all, a terrorist’s nuclear bomb is likely to be much smaller—and more survivable—than a Soviet bomb. And according to the New York Times this week, new science show that we are much more likely to survive any kind of nuclear attack if we immediately take cover from the radiation:

“Even staying in a car, the studies show, would reduce casualties by more than 50 percent; hunkering down in a basement would be better by far.”

For those working to improve preparedness, it’s less about the facts themselves than how to disseminate the information to a public generally fatalistic about the phrase “nuclear attack.” FEMA head Craig Fugate said as much in an interview with the Times:

“We have to get past the mental block that says it’s too terrible to think about[...]”

Though getting past that “mental block” is probably easier said than done (just check out this year’s failed attempt at the nation’s first live exercise simulating a nuclear bomb detonation), the New York Times and FEMA should be celebrated for even broaching such a subject with the American people.  Yes, the thought of a nuclear attack is scary and full of the unknown, but it’s time to start acting like grown-ups. The threat of nuclear attack, albeit small, is real.  We know you can survive. Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew how?

Unfortunately if you’re looking for clear, straightforward survival steps right now, there’s not much out there. The Citizen Corps site has a “Planning for a Nuclear Detonation” fact sheet of sorts, but it’s dense and lacks practical steps. It does seem clear that staying inside—even for a few hours and preferably in a basement—is a much better idea than trying to evacuate. Hopefully Fugate will work on getting us better guidance than that. For now, there’s this: an ‘06 tongue-in-cheek Slate piece about surviving a nuclear bomb (“Here’s the worst part: You will survive.”)