Tonawanda News

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
  • VIDEO: Boston bomb scare defendant appears in court

    The man accused of carrying a backpack containing a rice cooker near the Boston Marathon finish line on the anniversary of the bombings was arraigned Wednesday. He's being held on $100,000 bail.

    April 17, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 17, 2014

  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 17, 2014

  • Raw oysters spike U.S. rise in bacterial infections, CDC reports

    Raw oysters, so good with hot sauce, increasingly can carry something even more unsettling to the stomach: A bacteria linked to vomiting, diarrhea and pain.

    April 17, 2014

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014

  • Low blood-sugar levels make for grousing spouses

    Husbands and wives reported being most unhappy with their spouses when their blood-sugar levels were lowest, usually at night, according to research released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Missing a meal, dieting or just being hungry may be the reason, researchers said.

    April 16, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.51.22 PM.png VIDEO: Toddler climbs into vending machine

    A child is safe after climbing into and getting stuck inside a claw crane machine at a Lincoln, Neb., bowling alley Monday.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • portraitoflotte.jpg VIDEO: From infant to teen in four minutes

    Dutch filmmaker Frans Hofmeester’s time lapse video of his daughter, Lotte — created by filming her every week from her birth until she turned 14 — has become a viral sensation.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 15, 2014