I spend most of my time thinking about one of two frightening things: how I could have had more fun in college, and what will happen when there’s a nuclear attack against the United States. (And I do believe it will happen in my lifetime.) Nuclear war and nuclear terrorism are just about the scariest things in the world, and it might bring you some peace of mind to pretend you can survive. As someone who has spent most of my life living in DC and New York—two prime nuke targets—I have thought this over quite a bit.
The bad news is that you almost certainly won’t survive a nuke. It could be a big one or a little one, delivered via missile or suitcase, but there’s one thing you can be sure of—if the initial blast doesn’t vaporize you, you’ll probably wish it had.
Let’s think about this. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima completely destroyed everything within a mile, created a hellish firestorm for miles farther out, and bombarded the rest with radiation. According to nuclear scholar Laura McEnaney, one 1954 hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean detonated a device 500 times more powerful than the one that leveled Hiroshima, and the fallout contaminated a Japanese fishing boat 85 miles away. That was decades ago, and scientists around the world have only worked harder to make nuclear (and thermonuclear) weapons even more devastating.
So, you have basically a handful of fates if we get nuked: You’re instantly turned into vapor (best case), you’re horrifically burned for the rest of your life and filled with glass shards (pretty bad), or you’re structurally unharmed but bombarded by radiation and/or radioactive fallout, condemned to die within days by radiation poisoning or terminal cancer (not good). In Civil Defense Begins at Home, McEnaney’s fantastic book on the Cold War efforts to fool the American public into believing an atomic bomb could be survived, she mentioned a quote from former Federal Civil Defense Administration Director, Val Peterson that has stuck with me. When asked about how one might best survive a nuclear attack, Peterson was known to give the reply, “not to be there.”
Peterson’s advice is extremely fucked up and extremely true. The U.S. government’s civil defense propaganda efforts like “Duck and Cover,” for example, were largely fraudulent and designed to delude Cold War citizens into supporting the arms race, and to spook Russia into thinking we would live through whatever they might launch our way. In her book, McEnaney writes that “FCDA strategists openly admitted their mission to market civil defense as a mental state.” In other words, making citizens feel safe was better than nothing, I guess. In the end, McEnaney noted that home preparedness “deflected attention from more fundamental questions about whether protection from such powerful weapons was even possible in the first place.”
It’s really probably not.
But hey, for the sake of deflecting attention in a time of uncertain crisis, here are some things that you could buy to convince yourself you won’t die in the event of nuclear attack. Luckily, unlike many placebos, they’re pretty cheap:
- Potassium iodide tablets. They’ll block radioactive potassium isotopes from clogging up your thyroid, which would really fuck you up. Unfortunately they won’t protect against any other form of radiation poisoning.
- Sealed drinking water and food. Fallout will contaminate everything edible and potable after a blast, which then makes its way into your body and fucks you up.
- A change of clothes—preferably something sporty, comfy, and seasonally appropriate. A“day to night” look works best. Your clothes will also be covered by radioactive fallout so change out of them at some point.
- Tweezers to remove glass shards. The glass shards will be from all of the windows that were blown out from the bomb’s unstoppable shockwave, and you’ll use the tweezers to pull them out from your body or someone else’s.
- Reading material. (Kindle recommended.)
- This “special forces” hazmat suit. It won’t do anything but you’ll look pretty cool.
- You could get a gas mask that’s rated for “NBC” (nuclear, biological, chemical) protection, but man, all this stuff is getting bulky. Where are you going to keep it? Are you really going to take it all to and from work every day? Are you going to get a work preparedness kit and a home preparedness kit? What about vacations?
- These “Radiacwash” wipes. They advertise fallout-cleansing properties, but you should really just take a non-contaminated shower as soon as possible. If you’ve resorted to wiping radioactive material off your body with special wet wipes, you’re probably fucked.
Anyway, I hope this all helps (it won’t), or at least makes you feel a little better (it might but it really shouldn’t). Again, the best advice I can give you is to either avoid a nuclear attack altogether by being somewhere else that’s not experiencing a nuclear attack, or to hope you’re killed instantly. Good luck.
Sam Biddle is a reporter for The Intercept.
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