Jan 20, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

How to Survive a Nuclear Explosion in 2023

There was a time in the United States when school administrators did not feel the need to stage ‘active shooter drills’ to prepare students, teachers and staff in the event that their school has a potential mass murderer on the premises. While those staging them try to make them non-traumatic, that seems to defeat the purpose of what dangers and disasters they are preparing for. There are many people of a certain age in the U.S. who remember a different time and different yet similar type of drill. During the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, schools were required to hold nuclear attack drills, which went by the non-traumatic name of “Duck and cover drills.” It should come as no surprise to those who read the news that these nuclear attack drills have returned. Do you remember the old ones? That knowledge might come in handy again as we look at the recommended new ways to survive a nuclear attack.

A Cold War guide (public domain) 

“There is no good place to be when a nuclear bomb goes off. Anything too close is instantly vaporized, and radiation can pose a serious health threat even at a distance. In between, there is another danger: the blast wave generated by the explosion, which can produce airspeeds strong enough to lift people into the air and cause serious injury.”

The study “How to Shelter from a Nuclear Explosion,” is published in an unlikely source: the journal Physics of Fluids. Author Dimitris Drikakis is a professor dealing with engineering, applied physics and computational science at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, while co-author Ioannis William Kokkinakis is Researcher in the Defence and Security Research Institute (DSRI) at the same university. The purpose of their study is to help those who are far enough away from the nuclear explosion to not be vaporized and would like to survive the nuclear blast in hopes that there is something left in the country and the world after that. Their assumption is that most people will be indoors at the time – going about their normal day at work or school or watching the worsening news on television. To conduct their study without a nuclear explosion, they thankfully turned to computer simulations.

“Before our study, the danger to people inside a concrete-reinforced building that withstands the blastwave was unclear. Our study shows that high airspeeds remain a considerable hazard and can still result in severe injuries or even fatalities."

Drikakis explains in the press release that all of those kids (this writer included) who participated in “duck and cover” drills were operating under unproven assumptions that what they were doing would actually protect them during a nuclear attack. For those who don’t remember or are too you to have had the pleasure, here are some typical instructions from UnitedStatesNow.org:

“Drills generally began with the imagined sighting of an extremely bright flash, thought to be the first sign of an unexpected nuclear attack. Upon seeing that light, students were to immediately dive under their desks and position themselves away from windows. Students who saw the flash in a hallway were to cover themselves against the wall. Anyone caught outdoors was to immediately take shelter in the nearest building.”

The “cover” part was to cover heads with coats or anything else a student could grab. A cartoon called “Duck and Cover” starring Bert the Turtle was shown as a way to keep the whole idea non-traumatic. Would such an animated feature be enough to instruct children and adults today on what to do in the event of a nuclear blast?

A promo poster for "Duck and Cover" featuring Bert the Turtle (public domain)

“Tactical nuclear weapons range between 5 and 15 kilotons (kT). In the present study, however, we have chosen a 750 kT atomic warhead as this corresponds to an extreme scenario of an upper range value of a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), for example, the RS-28 Sarmat (Satan II).”

Can a turtle explain that? The study says this type of explosion would give a blast wave with a radius of about 2.8 miles (4.6 km) at ground level, with a peak overpressure slightly over 7 psi. Overpressures of 5 psi cause 'moderate' blast damage like the collapse of timber buildings, 'universal' injuries and widespread fatalities. That means the best place to have a chance for survival would be in a reinforced concrete building. The study simulated one with rooms, windows, doorways and hallways. The simulation also allowed them to calculate the speed of the air following the blast wave and determine the best and worst places to be  in the building.

“The most dangerous critical indoor locations to avoid are the windows, the corridors, and the doors. People should stay away from these locations and immediately take shelter. Even in the front room facing the explosion, one can be safe from the high airspeeds if positioned at the corners of the wall facing the blast.”

Time is of the essence -- the time between the explosion and the arrival of the blast wave is only a few seconds. If that is all the time one has, the best place to run to is a corner facing the blast – that will protect from the blast and have you turned away from windows, glass, flying debris and other dangers. If you are too far away from a corner or in a glass conference room or (horrors) in a circular office, the next best thing is to remember Bert the Turtle and duck under or behind a desk or table and cover your head with clothing or even just your arms. For more information (or a new animated Bert the Turtle cartoon), the simulations provide colored maps of the indoor areas where the risk of human injury is reduced.

Sadly, the old way is stil the best way - duck and cover.

Let’s say that you’ve reviewed the instructions and practiced the drills. Then the unthinkable happens. Fortunately, you are in a concrete building and manage to make It to a corner. Once the wind, noise and heat waves stop, what next?

“Additionally, there will be increased radiation levels, unsafe buildings, damaged power and gas lines, and fires. People should be concerned about all the above and seek immediate emergency assistance.”

In other words, things will be pretty bleak for the survivors. Drikakis and Kokkinakis actually suggest that the best use of their study might be as a guide to those designing the concrete structures of our future.

Wouldn’t a better idea be to show the simulation to world leaders? I think we know what their response would be. Good thing we know how to duck and cover.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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