CarriageTowneNews.com, Kingston, NH

Community News Network

January 16, 2014

Study: How to survive a nuclear explosion

It begins with a flash brighter than the sun. Trees, fences, and people immediately catch fire. The only reason you survive is because you run inside and dive into the cast-iron tub just as the shock wave arrives. You stumble to your lopsided front door and look out on the burning ruin of your neighborhood. The deadly radioactive fallout is on its way. Should you stay in your wobbling house or run across town to the public library to shelter in its basement? A new mathematical model may have the answer.

The model is the brainchild of Michael Dillon, an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. He started exploring the topic about 5 years ago after the U.S. government called for more research on nuclear shelters. Curious about his work, his family asked him what they should do if they saw a mushroom cloud. "I realized that I really didn't have a great answer," he says. The official U.S. government advice is to "take shelter in the nearest and most protective building." For most people, that would be the basement of their home. But, Dillon says, "out in California there just are not that many basements," offering little protection from fallout. For those people, the official recommendations suggest "early transit" to find better shelter, ideally one with thick layers of concrete over your head and plenty of food and water. But if you spend too much time outside in the fallout, you're toast.

During the Cold War, scientists modeled almost every imaginable consequence of a nuclear explosion. But Dillon found a gap in the sheltering strategies for people far enough from ground zero to survive the initial blast but close enough to face deadly fallout. He focused on a single low-yield nuclear detonation like those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world's nuclear arsenal has grown far more powerful - today's warheads can inflict thousands of times more damage - but security experts believe that low-yield bombs are the kind most likely to be used by terrorists.

The hard part was figuring out what variables matter for fallout survival. The rest was calculus. The longer you stay outside, the higher your radiation dose, but the environmental radiation intensity also decreases over time. So your total dose is a function of when you step outside, your distance from the detonation, how long you run before you reach better shelter, and how much shielding you get from the local environment while you're out there. Dillon simplified the calculation by assuming that you are totally exposed while running to safer shelter; he also ignored complexities such as limited shelter capacities. In the end, the math boiled down to a single critical number: the ratio of the time you spend hunkering down in your first shelter to the time you spend moving to the high-quality shelter. Then Dillon worked out what would happen with a variety of shelter options and transit times.

The results surprised him. For low-yield nuclear detonations, you can do far better than just sheltering in place, but you'll need a watch and good knowledge of your surroundings. If your current shelter is poor and higher quality shelter is less than 5 minutes away, the model suggests that you should run there as soon as you can. If you have poor shelter but higher quality shelter is available farther away, you should get to that high-quality shelter no later than 30 minutes after detonation. Depending on the size of the city, if everyone follows this advice, it could save between 10,000 and 100,000 lives, Dillon reported online Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

Not everyone is convinced, however. "I disagree with the conclusions," says Lawrence Wein, an operations research scientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "He fails to account for several important issues that are vitally important for policy recommendations." Anyone heading out into the apocalyptic wasteland will have no idea how long the transit time will really be. Because of this uncertainty, he says, the official U.S. government recommendation is "to shelter for at least 12 hours" after the blast. Wein also worries about "the collective behavior problem." In the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, a few thousand people were told to evacuate and nearly 200,000 people took to the streets. "The model is assuming that you have each person on puppet strings and can dictate their actions. This is simply not going to be the case in the aftermath."

But that criticism misses the point, says Norman Coleman, a public health researcher at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. "As someone working with government and state and local planners, we find models extraordinarily useful to help us develop concepts of operations," he says, noting that this is his personal view and not an official U.S. government response. For example, knowing how long the window of opportunity is for people to reach better shelter can help rank evacuation plans. At the very least, Coleman says, Dillon's model reveals what is "possible to do and what is not likely to be useful."

Bohanon is a Science contributing correspondent. This story is provided by AAAS, the nonprofit science society, and its international journal, Science. http://news.sciencemag.org

 

1
Text Only
Community News Network

New England News
Obituaries
  • Alan J. Walker, 68

    Kingston, N.H. — Mr. Alan James Walker, 68, passed away peacefully at his home on July 8, 2014, after a long, brave battle with cancer.

    Continued ...
    1 day
  • James Reese

    Raymond, NH — James Edwin Reese, 74, passed away on Wednesday, July 16, 2014, surrounded by his family and friends at his home in Raymond, N.H. He was the son of John and Ruth Reese, born on Oct. 29, 1939 in Edensburg, Pa. James graduated from Central Cambria High School in Pennsylvania before proudly serving in the U.S. Army as a food inspector. His military service was followed by 31 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a meat inspector. Mr. Reese was an avid outdoorsman and spent much of his time fishing, camping and hiking in the White Mountains. He became involved in the Boy Scouts and enjoyed passing on his vast knowledge of the wilderness to others. Throughout his retirement years he enjoyed woodworking, raising rabbits and working in his garden.

    Continued ...
    1 day 1 Photo
  • Velma J. Reid

    South Hampton, NH — Velma J. Reid, 80, died peacefully on July 17, 2014 at Exeter Hospital, surrounded by family. She was born in Haverhill, Mass. on June 8, 1934, the daughter of the late George C.W. and Alta I. (Kimball) Haynes. A graduate of Haverhill High School, Velma worked at Western Electric until she had children. For years, she was a devoted “stay-at-home” mom who raised her three children in a loving, nurturing environment. She later worked various manufacturing jobs until her retirement. After retiring, she volunteered her time at various organizations and was very involved at the East Kingston Community United Methodist Church as a member of the women’s guild, assisting with the holiday fair, and helping out wherever she could. She had a passion for animals, and would donate money, food, and blankets to the NH SPCA. She loved to sew and made a personalized quilt for every member of her family. She was also a member of the “Ugly Quilts” group, which made blankets and sleeping bags for the homeless using recycled fabric. She is survived by her husband, Clyde Reid of South Hampton, N.H.; daughter, Pam Eaton of Danville, N.H.; son and daughter-in-law, Douglas and Kim Reid of Raymond, N.H.; daughter, Shirley Reid of South Hampton, N.H.; two sisters, Gwen Stuart of Haverhill, and Norma Taplin of Dracut; four grandchildren, Cheryl and Marc Welch, and Kristen and Joshua Reid, and several nieces and nephews.

    Continued ...
    1 day 1 Photo
  • Carleen A. Knowlton, 80

    Danville, NH — Carleen A. (Rhoadhouse) Knowlton, 80, of Danville and formerly of Hampstead, died on July 7, 2014, at her home.

    Continued ...
    8 days 1 Photo
  • Miriam O. (Graham) Graham, 84

    Kingston, NH — Miriam O. (Graham) Graham, 84, a resident of Kingston since 2001, and former longtime resident of Grafton, Mass., died peacefully, surrounded by her family, on July 11, 2014, following a long illness.

    Continued ...
    8 days 1 Photo

Stocks