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Can you survive a nuclear explosion in your city or town?

U.S. News & World Report - Health logo U.S. News & World Report - Health 8/21/2017 Ruben Castaneda
Nuclear explosion created by American atomic bomb.: It’s possible to survive a nuclear blast near ground zero if you happen to be inside a robust building, such as a fortified structure or an underground facility. © (Getty Images) It’s possible to survive a nuclear blast near ground zero if you happen to be inside a robust building, such as a fortified structure or an underground facility.

Could you survive the detonation of a nuclear bomb in your city or town? Is there any point to planning for a nuclear blast, however unlikely it is to happen? The answers are “yes” and “yes.”

Your chances of living through a nuclear detonation depend on your proximity to the nuclear device when it exploded; a difference of a few hundred meters could mean the difference between immediate death and survival. For instance, a nuclear blast from a bomb about the size of the one U.S. forces dropped on Hiroshima could immediately kill about 75,000 people in a major city and leave hundreds of thousands of people wounded from the explosion, burns, radiation, glass cuts and other injuries, says Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University in New York City. However, many people not at ground zero would survive, he says. “The farther away you are from the initial blast, the better your chances of survival,” Redlener says. “Two to five miles away, you could be killed by flying glass or fire, but not necessarily by the initial blast or even the radiation.”

It’s even possible to survive a nuclear blast near ground zero if you happen to be inside a robust building, such as a fortified structure or an underground facility, says Brooke Buddemeier, a certified health physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. He notes that a handful of people fortunate enough to be inside sturdy buildings survived the atomic bomb that U.S. forces dropped on Hiroshima even though they were near the hypocenter of the blast. For example, one survivor, a woman, was inside a bank building about 300 meters from ground zero when the weapon exploded in the air. She survived because she was inside a sturdy building that was not flattened by the blast, Buddemeier says, but when she left the bank and walked outside, her leg and ear were burned by raging fire. A handful of other people who were near ground zero also survived; a woman and her toddler who were inside the basement of another bank sustained glass shard injuries to their shoulders and other parts of their bodies but survived, according to the Hiroshima Peace Media Center.

A similar nuclear bomb detonated in a city would probably destroy or severely damage everything in a half-mile radius, Buddemeier says. From a half-mile to a mile out from ground zero, it would cause moderate damage, and the area a mile to three miles from the blast hypocenter would be a light damage zone, he says. In 2010, federal, California state and local authorities conducted a mock exercise, Operation Golden Phoenix, in which a nuclear device with the destructive force of the Hiroshima device exploded in Los Angeles. In the exercise, the blast killed between 50,000 to 100,000 people, in a city with a population of 3.8 million at the time. 

Many U.S. residents have been pondering the odds of surviving a nuclear attack in the wake of recent news reports that North Korea has succeeded in making a miniature version of a nuclear warhead that can be outfitted on the country’s missiles. Within a year, North Korea is likely to have developed a missile capable of reaching the continental U.S., according to U.S. intelligence officials. The reports prompted a series of tense exchanges between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. At one point, North Korea stated it was developing plans to fire missiles into the waters near Guam, a U.S. territory that sits about 2,100 miles southeast of North Korea. Days later, North Korea’s state media reported Kim had decided not to launch the missiles near Guam but added he could reverse course “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions.”

Before North Korea backed off its Guam threat, the island’s office of civil defense distributed literature advising residents how to survive a nuclear attack. Among other things, the fliers recommended that, in the event of a nuclear blast, residents shouldn’t use hair conditioner “because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.” The literature also advised people to “not look at the flash or fireball – it can blind you.”

With some knowledge and preparation, you can survive a nuclear attack, assuming you aren’t killed in the initial blast, Redlener says. Experts recommend these strategies:

1. Don’t try to flee immediately; instead, find shelter. If a nuclear weapon detonates in your area, your first instinct may be to get your loved ones and flee, says Brendan Applegate, director of the Center for Threat Management, a nonprofit research center based in Camarillo, California. Resist that instinct, he says. “By leaving your place of shelter, you risk increasing your exposure to fallout,” he says. “Without timely and accurate information about where conditions will drive the fallout, you may wind up heading right into it.” Radiation can cause cancer and radiation sickness, characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, headache and a rapid heartbeat. Radioactive fallout from the nuclear blast’s mushroom cloud will fall to ground level about 15 minutes after the blast; use that time to find shelter, Applegate says. An underground structure, like a parking garage or basement, would be a good place to shelter for a while. If you’re in a multi-floor building, try to stay away from the top floor; radiation will fall on the building’s roof, and the farther you are from it, the better. If windows are intact, shut them and turn off ventilation systems that may bring in outside air. Plan on remaining in your shelter for up to 24 hours. Nuclear fallout decays rapidly, Buddmeier says. Within 24 hours of an explosion, it loses 80 percent of its energy, he says. 

2. Suppress the urge to drive away. Cars, trucks and other motor vehicles provide little to no protection from nuclear fallout, Applegate says. “A car doesn’t provide much protection from radiation and may even have been rendered inoperable by the electromagnetic effects of a large nuclear explosion," he says. “Driving immediately following an explosion would be extremely hazardous. It is likely that large numbers of people will be attempting to evacuate the area in vehicles, adding to debris and damage from the blast and rendering roads impassable. You may end up trapped in an area where fallout is descending with no place to turn for shelter.”

Slideshow: 16 cheap emergency essentials you don't want to be without (Provided by Cheapism)

WEATHER THE STORM: With hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods, earthquakes, and even strong thunderstorms, there's always the possibility of a natural disaster causing evacuation or the long-term disruption of essential services. It's easy to go overboard on storm prep, especially in last-minute panic mode, but a few simple steps taken in advance make emergency preparation affordable even on a tight budget. The American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency recommend two weeks' worth of emergency supplies for sheltering in place and a three-day supply for evacuating to a safe zone. 16 Cheap Emergency Essentials You Don't Want To Be Without

3.Keep a radio handy. Expect normal forms of communication – such as cellphone and internet service – to be disrupted in the wake of a major attack, Applegate says. Power could be knocked out, and with it, your television. Keep a radio in your home or office for emergencies, to get the latest updates from authorities regarding what areas are free of radiation (depending on wind patterns) and on the availability of emergency services. Many local governments have incident response plans that include public messages about available assistance and the status of critical public services. Your choice of radios includes models that rely on batteries or solar power, as well as hand-cranked devices.

4. Store a small supply of water and nonperishable food. At home and at your office, store enough water and food to get you through a week or so, preparations that apply to any disaster, Applegate says. While the radiation threat may have dissipated after 48 hours, transportation options to get food are likely to be disrupted, and stores may not open for a while. “Government priorities will focus on maintaining critical operations and restoring public services,” he says. “It will be up to you to provide for the basic needs of you and your family until you can access additional resources.” 

5.Plan ahead. Devise a scheme for what to do in the days following an explosion, after you’ve sheltered in place for 24 hours or so. If you have a safe place to go, think of potential modes of transportation, Applegate says. “You shouldn’t be thinking of how to exit an area when an emergency happens,” he says. Have plans for multiple routes, in case some are unusable, he advises. 

Video: Tips On How To Survive A Nuclear Blast (Inside Edition)

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