Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Everything you always wanted to know about fallout but were afraid to ask

with 3 comments

OK, in a previous post we have escaped being incinerated by a nuclear weapon’s initial flash through dumb luck, and escaped being crushed and imploded by the ensuing shock wave through quick wits and a fortuitously placed shelter of some sort. Now we are standing outside the subway staring at the starkly beautiful and terrible mushroom cloud rising a few miles away. “This can’t be good” would be a reasonable assessment of the situation, aren’t we now doomed to die a horrible death from fallout induced radiation poisoning? No. In fact if you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you will be around to tell this story to your grandchildren. And they won’t be mutants from fifties horror movies either, well, at least some of them.

The reason is that the danger from fallout is exaggerated, and even better, a few simple precautions can reduce that danger considerably. What is fallout? Fallout is dust and debris sucked up and pulverized and irradiated by the nuclear explosion, tossed up into the air by the mushroom cloud, and delivered to nearby locations by the wind. Unless the bomb was designed to create fallout, which is unlikely, fallout is going to be rather minimal. However, even better, fallout is simply radioactive dust falling from the sky, possibleyin rain, possibly invisibly. Why is that better? Because, for that dust to really hurt you, it has to get inside you. Thats right, the mere presence of radioactive fallout, while not a good thing, is not nearly so bad as inhaling or swallowing the dust.

So now the clever reader just figured out the purpose of the pillowcase they had stuffed in their briefcase or purse because they read about it in Doug’s Darkworld, and has already ripped it into strips to act as an impromptu breathing mask. Wrap your face so that as much as possible you’re breathing through cloth, wet cloth if it can be arranged, and proceed on your way. The fallout is only going to drift downwind from the bomb site, try to proceed away from both the bomb site and any area downwind from the site. Think of it this way, invisible poisonous dust may be falling from the sky, if you can avoid breathing or eating it, you will be OK. It’s also a good idea to not let any accumulate on your body.

How can all this be accomplished? Wear a mask of some sort, improvised if necessary. Change the mask every 15 minutes or so. Don’t eat or drink anything that has been exposed to fallout, not a good time to quench one’s thirst in puddles or fountains. Changing into uncontaminated clothes and showering yourself off is a good idea when possible. A good idea to cover your hair if you are outside.

OK, by now it is clear that while fallout danger can be minimized, boy, it’s not going to be easy or safe to run around in a fallout contaminated area. On the plus side only areas downwind of the central blast site are going to get fallout. That means if facing the mushroom cloud the wind is at your back, count your blessings and proceed in a direction away from the blast area, preferably with the wind in your face.  Fallout is only really dangerous for a few days, it takes decades to fade away entirely but most of the radioactive material in fallout is unstable and decays into harmless dust very quickly. This is why the fallout shelter was invented, if one can get to a decent fallout shelter fast enough, the danger from fallout is mitigated even further.

Which leads to part three of my “How to survive a nuclear attack” series. Fallout shelters. Yes, rather than run around in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, it might be a good idea to lay low in a fallout safe structure. It is even possible to build a fallout shelter. Coming soon. In conclusion, I’m not trying to minimize the terrible danger of nuclear weapons (or nuclear power plant fires, the above information also applies if your local nuclear plant catches fire,) I’m trying to illustrate the central idea that there are many possible calamities in our lives where a little knowledge quickly applied is the difference between being a survivor…or a statistic.

(The above image was taken by a US government employee in the course of their duties, and is thus public domain under US law. This is a picture from the Apple-2 nuclear test on 5 May 1945, also known as Operation Cue. This was the last big public(!) nuclear test, and was extensively covered by the media of the day. It’s also the test where the iconic video images linked in the previous post were. Yes, civilian volunteers were trucked in to witness the test and its aftermath, those were the good old days!)


Written by unitedcats

November 12, 2008 at 9:29 am

Posted in Health, Science, War, WMDs

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. There have been over 1500 atmospheric and space nuclear tests, and we are all still here.



    November 12, 2008 at 12:12 pm

  2. I think I will bring my towel as well.
    (What kind of hoopy frood would I be without my towel during the apocalypse).


    November 16, 2008 at 11:08 pm

  3. Doug, thanks for this post. I’ve thought pretty much the same thing since I began to understand how fallout works. I’m particularly surprised that the majority of our inbound attacks are likely to be airbursts (which create the highest immediately fatalities through overpressure and heat, as well as disruption due to EMP) rather than groundbursts (which create more fallout, but are far less useful, strategicaly), and yet we still worry so much about fallout.

    Unless some kook really does decide to start using “salted bombs,” I can’t see any reason for a protracted nuclear winter. Not, mind you, that I’m real interested in limited or wide-scale nuclear exchange. It just seems the threats are overplayed.

    Disclaimer: I live three blocks from the Pentagon. While the rest of you would suffer from fallout, I’m likely to be one of the lucky few turned into my constituent atoms first. :)

    Alex J. Avriette

    November 22, 2008 at 2:07 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: