Surviving a Terrorist's Nuclear Attack

Interesting reading, mostly for the probable effects of a terrorist-sized nuclear bomb.

A terrorist bomb is likely to be relatively small—possibly only a fraction of the Hiroshima bomb’s explosive power—and likely exploded at ground level. This means that the area totally destroyed by the explosion is likely to be much smaller than the area exposed to lesser damage or to fallout radiation (this nuclear weapons effects calculator from the Federation of Atomic Scientists will let you see the effect of different sized bombs burst at different heights). Because of this, Homeland Security people in the Obama Administration have been encouraging a duck-and-cover approach, followed by advice to “shelter in place” against fallout rather than trying to evacuate the area.

Posted on January 14, 2011 at 7:07 AM41 Comments


jack January 14, 2011 7:19 AM

Yeah, but you don’t get any warning. Unlike the minutes warning we were taught to expect during the Cold War. Now, you see the flash then boom.

aaawww January 14, 2011 7:20 AM

yay! it’s duck and cover all over again

nice to see the same scare tactics in use, the modern society needs more recycling

kingsnake January 14, 2011 7:29 AM

There’s a similar demo at Meteor Crater in northern Arizona where you can play with the mass, velocity and entry angle of a meteor to see how much damage it would cause. First try? 90 degrees, max velcity, max size. Earth powder …

Jeff Martin January 14, 2011 8:10 AM

If the government says we should duck and cover I am going to start running instead. The likelihood of them having valuable safety advice is quite small.

Clive Robinson January 14, 2011 8:15 AM

Ho hum bad assumption time…

“possibly only a fraction of the Hiroshima bomb’s explosive power — and likely exploded at ground level.”

The first assumption might well be valid for “a home made bomb” but it is more likley they will get hold of a ready made CCCP / USSR weapon just left “hanging around” after the soviet collapse.

The second assumption rules out puting the bomb in a plane, based on previous attacks it is not. that unlikley that they could get quite a sizable physics package onto a cargo or private plane…

The real issue of course is the old Soviet nukes, there where no real inventories of weapons (viable or not) kept so we realy don’t know if the have all been accounted for, likewise weapons grade materials. Secondly the Soviets where not keen on Permisive Action Links (PAL’s)

dust in the wind January 14, 2011 8:36 AM

One of the issues raised about stray Russian tac nukes is whether the physics packages contained relatively short-lived neutron generators (beryllium?). The argument raised against the danger from lost atomic demolition munitions–your so called nuke in a suitcase or special forces nuke for behind enemy lines work or kgb nuke for similar clandestine occupations–was that because of the need for such neutron generators (evidently, but possibly not certainly, as part of the miniaturization process) the neutron sources had to be changed every three months, rendering such unmaintained nukes useless as explosive devices. Of course it defies logic that anyone would design a nuke for clandestine/special forces placement that had a 3-month shelf life. Anyone have any idea on this?

Also, SecDef Gates has been quoted as saying that the problem is not so much with the newer Russian tac nukes but with the old stuff, including nuclear mines. Unless he’s worried that someone will gut one of them for the plutonium/uranium to construct a bomb from scratch, it sounds like he’s not sold on the shelf life argument.

Putin has been quoted as saying in reply to a question about loose tac nukes, that none had been lost ‘on my watch’, leaving open, of course, the question of what happened before he came along.

There were tac nukes stationed in almost all of the Soviet Republics, including Central Asian Republics. The Wikipedia article on the 12th Chief Directorate has a list of Central Asian Republics and how many tac nukes were stored in each, but there is no citation to back up the (dis?)information.

But remember, a tac nuke is anything that’s not strategic–anything from a nuclear munition or artillery shell to an IRBM warhead.

It is said that the paper-work was lousy. Moreover it’s not really clear what PAL systems the Russians had, especially for tac nukes.

The 12th Chief Directorate is/was responsible for strategic nukes, but it is not at all clear who had control over tac nukes.

Moreover, in the nature of things, tac nukes are not subject to such centralized control as strategic nukes. Battlefield decisions have to be made.

Would appreciate clarification of these issues.

Jan Glarum January 14, 2011 8:44 AM

Knowledge of ballistic effects from any type of bomb, be it conventional, improvised or nuclear are well known and one could expect that whoever deploys such a device will try and elevate it to enhance the blast impact.

Don’t worry about being in the immediate area, just caulk it up to having a bad day. The greater impacted area will be the threat from incorporation of radio-active alpha/beta particles (dust/debris) through inhalation or even ingestion post blast.

Protection from radiation is not new science, there are only three things to consider; time, distance and shielding. Limit your time exposed to a radioactive source (if you decide to evacuate-which is not a always do or always don’t decision). Distance is a great protective tool properly used. If you move half the distance closer to a source of radiation, your dose rate goes up by a factor of 4, use this to your advantage; double the distance between you and a source and the dose rate goes down by a factor of 4. Shielding depends upon the type of radiation, but inside is better than outside and the more dense the material the better.

If i were in a large metropolitan city and felt and heard the shudder of a large explosion but was not directly impacted in my location…I would probably stay where I was until I had determined the source of the explosion, recognizing my opportunity to evacuate will be limited by such action. If in fact it is a nuclear and/or dirty bomb, radiation cannot harm me unless I get a dose significant to affect my health in my years remaining. Inside the structure I am currently better off than outside. I am at the mercy of competent emergency planning by the building owner and city to include shutting off HVAC systems to prevent drawing in potentially dust particles which have radioactive alpha or beta particles attached and I breath them in.

Knowledge is your best protection, not blindly running for the exits and heading out of town. We have great detection equipment to tell me when it is safe to exit the building. I will sit tight, breathing through my t-shirt if I am really worried and try to pay attention as the event unfolds.

A Reader January 14, 2011 8:46 AM

In the 1950s, it may have been that persons were less likely to be skeptical of official advice and official authority. As such, maybe this could have meant that it was easier to convey information to the public and to have the public accept the information.

In the Boy Scouting program, the requirements for the Emergency Preparedness merit badge ( ), include a requirement for the Scout to chart aspects of emergency preparedness with regard to certain emergency situations. For this merit badge, it appears that there are some emergency situations that must be considered by the Scout, including automobile crashes, an explosion in one’s home, and food poisoning. In addition, the Scout must also choose five additional emergency situations from a list of seventeen different situations, one of which is “Nuclear power plant emergency.”

The requirements for this merit badge have likely changed over time. In the tenth edition of the Boy Scout handbook (copyright year 1990) on page 612, the stated requirements for the Emergency Preparedness merit badge include specifying how one would respond in certain emergency situations, including that of an “atomic emergency.”

Austringer January 14, 2011 8:54 AM

The Soviets had the Perimeter / Dead Hand system in place, which seems about as much of a procedural PAL as one could ask for. I would be stunned if they went to all that trouble, but didn’t have some sort of technical system in place rather than let every Tom, Dick or Yuri press a big red and bypass the whole thing.

I can’t imagine them acknowledging it, however.

wiredog January 14, 2011 9:41 AM

Old nukes from the USSR wouldn’t explode as thermonuclears, because the tritium (or lithium deuteride?. Can’t recall which one.) has too short a half life. This is actually a problem with US nukes, as we stopped producing that material for a while.

So the worry is with relatively small atomic weapons.

dust in the wind January 14, 2011 9:53 AM


The puzzle is this: miniaturization seems to require the use of a boosted fission primary, and the boosting comes from neutron sources such as the ones you mention. This is a separate issue from the use of such neutron sources in the fusion (thermonuclear) secondary stage. That is, the argument seems to be that in a very small nuke the primary fission stage is itself boosted; otherwise it can’t be sufficiently miniaturized. Of course this is an issue with man-portable or near man-portable devices–not with Hiroshima scale devices.

paul January 14, 2011 10:19 AM

What’s the largest area anyone has every evacuated on short notice? I guess that pre-satellite hurricanes would be a good model.

spaceman spiff January 14, 2011 10:37 AM

Well, if you see the flash, just bend over and kiss your rear end goodbye. Along with all those visible photons came a good dose of gamma radiation…

Rob January 14, 2011 10:45 AM

Wouldn’t any terrorist weapon more likely be a dirty bomb instead of a more “conventional” nuke?

kingsnake January 14, 2011 10:50 AM

Anybody remember the old Far Side cartoon? Two guys fishing in a mountain lake, multiple mushroom clouds on the horizon, caption: “I’ll tell you what this means … screw the limit!”

Clive Robinson January 14, 2011 10:54 AM

I suppose it’s time for the obligitory mention of Progresive magazines battle with the US Gove to publish Howard Morlands “The H-Bomb Secret” 32 odd years ago.

I think you can still download copies of it from various places. It gives you quite a bit of information that would (in theory) eneble you to “mine out” a “stale nuke” and roll your own.

Also please remember that neither India or Pakistan use PAL’s (permissive action links) or ESD (Environmental Sensing Devices) lockouts, as they are more concerned by “first knock out” retaliation that due to the very limited distance (think width of Kashmir) they would not have time for unlocking PAL’s or reconfiguring ESD’s for updated target launches.

As has often been admited the ESD’s on US nukes could be bypassed by even “someone of limited imagination” Early US PAL’s and those on some stratigic missiles where little more than “enigma style rotors” or “code plugs” that simply unscrambled a wiring harness. It is only with US stratigic nukes and twelve digit “Catagory-F” PAL’s and associated “core poisoning” anti-tamper devices that they became sufficiently secure to be able to stop the PAL becoming circumvented by someone with sufficcient nuke knowledge. But even that won’t stop mining out for materials to make a crude device.

Jan January 14, 2011 11:06 AM

@spaceman: If you are close enough to be severely affected by the direct radiation, you will either burn instantly from the infrared part of the flash you mentioned, or, if you have some cover from that, the pressure wave will kill you either directly or by smashing you against the nearest available object. (At least with yields above 2 kt, the heat flash has the largest fatal range, then the pressure wave, and last the direct radiation.)

David Thornley January 14, 2011 11:14 AM

@Clive: I may still have a copy of that issue floating around. It was of no use to terrorists, since, aside from the precise machining, it didn’t cover much on how to make the fission blast you need to produce the radiation pressure for the fusion explosion. Without that, no bomb; with that, you can do enough damage without the fusion component.

Somewhere around that time, there was a science article in Analog (a science fiction magazine) that purported to tell you how to build a fission bomb in your home, provided you could get weapons-grade U-235. It looked to my untrained eye like it might work; after all, the “bang the U-235 together” bomb is about as simple as they come. Even if it fizzled, it’d likely scatter nasty fission products over a reasonably sized area.

It is, from what I’ve read, much harder to make a fission bomb out of plutonium, requiring at the least careful calculation and machining, and fortunately most modern nukes are plutonium bombs.

@wiredog: Lithium 6 and deuterium (which I believe are in the larger fusion bombs) are stable isotopes. Tritium isn’t, and will decay to helium-3 fairly fast. According to the Progressive article Clive mentioned, smaller fusion bombs require tritium, and therefore it has to be manufactured constantly. Therefore, any old small Soviet fusion bombs would likely not work, although the fission triggers would be nasty.

dust in the wind January 14, 2011 12:31 PM

Just to clarify, here is what Wikipedia outlines:

* Pure fission weapons were the first nuclear weapons built and have so far been the only type ever used in warfare. The active material is fissile uranium (U-235) or plutonium (Pu-239), explosively assembled into a chain-reacting critical mass by one of two methods:
      o Gun assembly, in which one piece of fissile uranium is fired at a fissile uranium target at the end of the weapon, similar to firing a bullet down a gun barrel, achieving critical mass when combined.
      o Implosion, in which a fissile mass of either material (U-235, Pu-239, or a combination) is surrounded by high explosives that compress the mass, resulting in criticality.

The implosion method can use either uranium or plutonium as fuel. The gun method only uses uranium. Plutonium is considered impractical for the gun method because of early triggering due to Pu-240 contamination and due to its time constant for prompt critical fission being much shorter than that of U-235.

* Fusion-boosted fission weapons improve on the implosion design. The high pressure and temperature environment at the center of an exploding fission weapon compresses and heats a mixture of tritium and deuterium gas (heavy isotopes of hydrogen). The hydrogen fuses to form helium and free neutrons. The energy release from this fusion reaction is relatively negligible, but each neutron starts a new fission chain reaction, speeding up the fission and greatly reducing the amount of fissile material that would otherwise be wasted when expansion of the fissile material stops the chain reaction. Boosting can more than double the weapon's fission energy release.

* Two-stage thermonuclear weapons are essentially a chain of fission-boosted fusion weapons (not to be confused with the previously mentioned fusion-boosted fission weapons), usually with only two stages in the chain. The second stage, called the "secondary," is imploded by x-ray energy from the first stage, called the "primary." This radiation implosion is much more effective than the high-explosive implosion of the primary. Consequently, the secondary can be many times more powerful than the primary, without being bigger. The secondary can be designed to maximize fusion energy release, but in most designs fusion is employed only to drive or enhance fission, as it is in the primary. More stages could be added, but the result would be a multi-megaton weapon too powerful to serve any plausible purpose.[2] (The United States briefly deployed a three-stage 25-megaton bomb, the B41, starting in 1961. Also in 1961, the Soviet Union tested, but did not deploy, a three-stage 50–100 megaton device, Tsar Bomba.)

stan_qaz January 14, 2011 1:17 PM

Since they are terrorists why wouldn’t they consider an “enhanced contamination” type of bomb rather than worrying about a big but short term bang.

If you look at the salting options there would be no problem obtaining them and adding them to their bomb package.

Davi Ottenheimer January 14, 2011 1:59 PM

“rather than trying to evacuate the area”

Seems to me, as another reader hinted above, the administration realizes an evacuation concept of yesteryear (using a freeway/suburb model introduced at the world’s fair) is never going to work given today’s population density relative to limited transportation throughput.

Doug Coulter January 14, 2011 2:22 PM

Whether a terrorist considers it or not, an old unmaintained nuke is likely to become a low yield and very dirty bomb — for a number of reasons, some mentioned above. Others I won’t mention, but I do know my stuff in this area.

If you’re right there, it won’t much matter what you do. If you’re at a distance, there are things you can do other than put a bag over your head and shoot yourself goodbye, though.

Raising the altitude of a bomb increases the effective EMP area, and the effective area started on fire, but that’s it. Less dirt is entrained and made radioactive by the neutron flux in an airburst.

At a distance, the main issue is going to be fallout, real hot (and therefore short lived) stuff. A lot of this simply falls as dust, or mostly, in rain. One way to protect against it is so devastatingly simple as to deserve mention here.

Cover your house with plastic, using the house as a tent-pole. All the dust and rain then migrate to the tent pegs tens of feet away from the house.

It’s cheap, it works, and at least you’ll not die of radiation sickness right off. Most of the truly nasty stuff has such short half lives you can simply wait it out with what’s in your pantry, and the ranges of the radiation aren’t that far, so having it tens of feet away, instead of concentrating on your roof, the wall/ground interface, and around your gutters will do a pretty decent job of keeping you alive. After some days, the stuff will be “stuck in the ground” and you can leave the bad area quickly enough to not pick up much radiation from it, spreading out the need for transportation that can move a lot of people all at once.

Inventing this was the first contract for the sooper-secrit-beltway-bandit-defense-contractor I worked for back in the ’70s. They were pretty proud of it, and how they got started, and it really seems a decent design. Roll plastic is cheap, compact to store, and you don’t need a tinfoil hat to have some around, it’s handy for other things. We use it for gardening, keeping firewood and hay dry, and so on anyway.

Yet another reason not to live in a big city or in a high density apartment building and get a life instead.

This technique was used in the opposite direction, so to speak, to concentrate nuclear fallout from the first soviet tests by NRL so they could analyze the isotopic content. Turns out rain does a better job of collecting the stuff than the Air Force’s method of flying high altitude bombers and a machine forcing air through filters to collect it, by a very fat margin. This was revealed in an old Physics Today magazine (somewhat more truthy scientifically then than any media is today).

Richard Steven Hack January 14, 2011 4:41 PM

Yeah, as soon as I see the nuke flash, I’m going to dig out my roll of several hundred feet of plastic, get up on the roof for the next hour trying to get it spread around right, then more time nailing it to the tent pegs.

This isn’t a bloody tent in the woods! It would take two hours to do it, at least. Meanwhile, the fallout is coming down.

This works only if the nuke flash is in the next city over, i.e., miles and miles away. This is about if the nuke goes off, say, X BLOCKS away. You’re likely history in that case.

Also doesn’t help people living in apartment buildings, does it? You did note that, but in a CITY likely to be targeted, that’s where most people live.

Also doesn’t help anyone who’s downtown at the time.

Bottom line: The odds of terrorists getting a usable nuke are extremely slim, mostly because terrorists are incompetent and nukes require some degree of competence. You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than a terrorist nuke. So, yes, this is scare mongering without a shred of value.

Also, “to play the odds you have to know the odds.” If you don’t live in Washington, D.C., or New York, what are the odds YOUR city is going to be hit? I’d say even less than being hit by lightning.

Complete waste of time even thinking about it for anyone not in a high value terrorist target zone, especially compared to the odds of running into a terrorist car bomb, which is MUCH more likely and MUCH more likely to be fatal.

Imperfect Citizen January 14, 2011 5:10 PM

I already did the duck and cover thing as a kid, the biggest thing we girls worried about was you know the modesty thing with the skirts and crawling under a desk. Then sitting under the desk wondering how that’s gonna help if the roof caves in.

Will we have to wait a whole generation for reasonable people to prevail over all this federally funded hysteria?

Andrew January 14, 2011 8:50 PM


Thoughtfully not doing what they were told saved some lives at WTC. A lot of survivors of the 1st incident vowed, “Never again!” and beat feet the moment they realized something was wrong on the 2nd go around. By promptly and hastily evacuating, they guaranteed their survival.


The Soviets were very keen on PALs because Party, Army and KGB had zero trust for each other and this allowed nuclear control without trust. The Perimeter / Dead Hand system mentioned above for strategic nukes is because there would be no time to distribute codes through ordinary communications links. Remember that the Soviet Union felt that any large war would immediately be nuclear, certainly any that they chose to start; conventional war took up only a small part of their overall doctrine.


Active military units are in a position to track and perform maintenance (if only by receiving new ones from depot and returning old for servicing). Nukes left on the shelf expire for a variety of publicly known technical reasons, some mentioned in comments here.

@Jan. On the money.

@spacemanspiff. The flash can blind you, and yes there is an exposure accompanying the detonation, but soldiers are trained to immediately duck for cover at the first sign of a flash as the neutrons are just that fraction slower. The old ‘Duck and Cover’ videos show this quite graphically in a variety of situations. If you are too close of course, you do an excellent imitation of a cigarette that is “soggy and hard to light.” This is why ducking for cover is so important; people survived in nearby slit trenches at Hiroshima while people in the open much further away were killed. Even newspaper between you and the flash means that the paper is on fire, not you.


You don’t need to seal the plastic overmuch. Duct tape would be enough. If it will keep dust and driven rain out, it will keep out fallout. Ideally one would overpressurize to prevent small leaks using a filtration system, but this is not a nicety most people will have time or equipment for. The protection from all this garbage (BNICE, CBRNE, etc.) is Time, Distance and Shielding. What the plastic is doing is creating some artificial distance which helps with certain particles. You will also want to live in your basement, a hole dug under your foundation, or a crawl space protected by as much shielding as you can quickly assemble (i.e. within 1 hour). Think ‘playing fort’ with furniture, dirt filled bags, and anything else solid. A good book for this is “Nuclear War Survival Skills”

@Richard and @Doug

Close only counts in nuclear weapons, horseshoes and hand grenades. It’s useful to know how to shelter in place if one is unharmed but trapped in a fallout zone. The bigger variable is the immense panic from folks like spacemanspiff who alternate between thinking they’re dead already and thinking it’s “The End Of The World As We Know It” (TETOWAKI) when it’s really a local problem. I’m less scared of the nuke and its effects than I am of the panic.

A good working knowledge of how to take cover can help a lot with the aforementioned explosives as well as the safely hypothetical terrorist nuke. This would be actually useful knowledge to widely disseminate. Look away from the flash, get down and away from windows, move to where you have something as solid as possible between you and the blast (even the lip of a curb!), and protect your head with your arms.


Solidly built furniture can help create void spaces to survive in if a building collapses over you. Of course, it is helpful if one has a whistle to blow so that people know you’re trapped. More of an earthquake thing.

If you’ve read this far, make sure you have a disposable filter mask, a pair of heavy gloves and a whistle around your desk, and sensible shoes if you don’t wear them all the time. These inexpensive items are worth their weight in gold for any disaster event.

dust in the wind January 15, 2011 3:09 AM

@Doug Coulter, @Andrew

The question is this:

The U.S. made some man-portable nukes. Are we to understand that they had a very short shelf-life, so that they couldn’t reliably have been left in place for months by Special Forces before detonation? Ditto the Soviet atomic demolition munitions and other small tac nukes? This seems counter-intuitive.

Would it have been scientifically possible to construct a more-or-less man-portable nuke without the shelf-life-constraining fusion-boost for the primary so as to increase its shelf-life?

If the effective shelf-life is so short, why would SecDef Gates express public worry about old Soviet tac nukes going astray? There doesn’t seem much in it for the USG to promote anxiety where it’s not needed.

Or is the issue either:

1) yes it’s an old lousy nuke, but it’s going to make a mess; or

2) the clever terrorists are going to gut the old lousy nuke to make something better (improbable)?

Of course, there could be other sources of stray nukes, for example Pakistan. But Gates was referring specifically to old Russian tac nukes as a serious worry.

Phocks January 15, 2011 4:08 AM

@ DitW:
I can imagine no scenario that involves untended nuclear weapons placed by ANY military force, anywhere. Even an infinitesimal risk of detection would preclude this entirely. Gates is worried by the very good reason that even unserviceable nuclear weapons contain highly enriched fissile material that can (relatively) easily be rebuilt into a lesser-yield but effective weapon.

Dirk Praet January 15, 2011 10:57 AM

Living in a small country with relatively many nuclear facilities – one of which only a few miles away from its largest city – , whe have quite detailed disaster contingency plans at all administrative levels from federal to local should anything go wrong. This includes regular test exercises, informational campaigns and even free distribution of iodine tablets to the population every five years. Similar plans and drills exist for areas close to Seveso-type chemical plants.

As argued by several other commentators, should a nuclear terrorist attack ever occur, it is more likely to be some dirty bomb variant rather than a fully operational tactical nuke. Given the fact that such a scenario would in any case prove fatal to most people living in the blast/heatwave radius, it makes more sense to focus on protection against radiation, continuity and recovery rather than a lame “duck and cover” strategy.

If indeed authorities have credible intelligence to worry about a nuclear plot, it would be an intelligent move to extend existing plans for areas with nuclear facilities (if any) to metropolitan areas with an elevated risk of such.

Andrew January 16, 2011 5:00 AM

“The U.S. made some man-portable nukes. Are we to understand that [man portable nukes] had a very short shelf-life, so that they couldn’t reliably have been left in place for months … ?”

In the very short term, nukes draw power, which can be addressed either by isotope batteries or by hooking up to mains power. In the middle range (months to years) the need is for tritium replenishment. Over the long haul, the irradiation of the nuke by its own components damages the materials of which it is made. These problems are complicated by small size.

A short shelf life for backpack nukes means that it has to be serviced and kept charged until shortly before departure, then has a window within which it could actually be detonated. As the SF people are not themselves taking months to reach their targets, this is a reasonable operational limitation to deal with.

The problem is that Russian designers combine the qualities of rugged and paranoid. It is not impossible that a backpack nuke could have been designed specifically around these issues and potential flaws. Also, a long term cache could have been set up with mains and/or backup power systems. In fact, installing such an item in someone’s data center rack would guarantee power, monitoring, and command detonation for a mere few hundred dollars a month. 🙁

One viable concern is that with an old nuke, one could simply upgrade components (in many cases with off the shelf parts that were unobtainable in the 1960s but commonly and widely available today). Another is that even an old nuke can teach the thoughtful observer too much about the details of weapons design.

All of this is open source. However, the Russians have proven that they have forgotten more about various atomic batteries than the West ever learned, to the point of using them in Arctic lighthouses (!) because they were cheaper (!!!).

Clive Robinson January 16, 2011 8:39 AM

@ Andrew,

“However, the Russian have proven that they have forgotten more about various atomic batteries than the West ever learned, to the point of using them… ”

It’s not just nuke batteries the Russian’s proved themselves more advanced than the west.

The Russians developed the RD-180 a Lox/Kerosene rocket engine (a design first pioneered by the British), however it is the equivalent of “double supercharged” by various preasure enhancing techneigues.

After the cold war it was found that 100 or so of these engines had been mothballed in a warehouse. Needless to say like just about everything else at that time they where up for sale and bought up by the US. Lockheed Martn have integrated them into the Atlass V launch vehicle and NASA have used some of them to great effect.

Peter A. January 17, 2011 7:51 AM

@Andrew and others:

“Duck and cover” doctrine is useless. You’re not going to be that alert all the time, for your whole lifetime. When you see the visible spectrum flash from a nuclear explosion you have only a couple of seconds before it goes infra-red and burns you – and you’ve got your share of UV and gamma already – and a few seconds more before shock wave arrives. For the duck and cover tactic to be applied at least somewhat successfully you would have to walk with this particular danger on your mind all the time, identifying potential covers as you go: “this thick tree would be fine to shield me from IR; this concrete bench is good against the shock wave”.

In the reality, your reaction would be: “what the **** was that?” followed by two-three seconds of indecision – and then the hell opens up on you.

Even if you manage to maintain the drill (drilling for a next-to-impossible event? nonsense) to seek cover immediately upon seeing some flash of light (how many poeple have actually SEEN the nuclear explosion flash and can recognize it on the spot), some (or even most) of the time you would not be in a postion enabling you to do even that. What you’re going to do if you’re driving down a freeway at 70 mph? or just any road or street? Walking a downtown street you may even not be able to recognize the direction from which the threat arrives. Within certain parts of a building you may not be able even to see the flash or recognize it. Etc., etc.

Duck and cover may be a good tactic for a soldier in a battlefield, not for the general public.

anonymouser January 17, 2011 10:28 AM


There is no problem with recognition. It’s quite probable that most anyone would be smart enough to stop and drop if the ENTIRE GOD DAMN WORLD JUST LIT UP LIKE HELLFIRE AROUND THEM, with maybe just a few hipsters left standing, groping for their cameras. I’ll grant you that the availability of good cover is mainly to do with luck.

If you’re in a building and fail to see the flash of a small nuke (or it’s just outside of your LOS) well, you’re probably very lucky. You may still die from overpressure, fire or falling debris if you’re close enough, after which it’s all about the fallout.

If you’re on a freeway doing 70, you’re already SOL if much lesser things happen (truck jack-knifes, thick fog bank ahead conceals a crashed car, sudden hailstorm breaks your windshield, black ice etc) so… I kinda fail to see your point here.

The purpose of this (admittedly minimal) information and training is to improve the odds a bit. No-one is claiming that this will be life-saving info for all (or even most of!) those caught in such an event. It’s just that a half of a percent is a lot of people if you’re talking about Manhattan or downtown LA.

paul January 18, 2011 10:27 AM

anonymouser’s comment about improving the odds is particularly important, imo, because of the hell that triage would be in a post-nuke situation. Reducing the number of prompt dead people would be nice, but reducing the number of alive-but-seriously-injured and especially the number of alive-but-going-to-die-soon is golden. Even moreso if the diagnostic capability for the last category is hard to come by.

Andrew January 18, 2011 4:34 PM


“Duck and cover” has benefits beyond counter-terrorism and nuclear attack, as it is the correct response to (accidental) explosions and gunfire as well.

If I’m driving down a freeway at 70mph when a disaster strikes, I am reminded of Churchill’s quote, “If you’re going through hell . . . keep going!” The only conceivable cover is the side of a freeway ramp, overpass or other structure.

@paul and @anonymouser

In the initial minutes of any nuclear incident, lifesaving first aid takes precedence over radiological concerns.

Post nuclear attack, the number of burn casualties will utterly overwhelm the ad hoc emergency medical response. The “Rule of Nines” can be used to rapidly estimate the percentage of skin burned. (See In peacetime, the “expectant” or likely to die with percentage of skin burned is about 80%, varies slightly by age … and post nuclear attack, about 30%. (The actual percentage is set by local protocols and the physicians running the response.) The difference is the lack of burn centers, qualified personnel, adequate supplies, and the effect of radiation exposure on healing.

The onset of radiation sickness is a good rough predictor for radiation-related fatalities. Severe symptoms within two hours of exposure is a bad sign.

“Half a percent is a lot of people if you’re talking about [any urban area.]”

Exactly. The trade-off here is that we are educating (scaring?) a lot of people to save a lot of lives if a vanishingly unlikely event occurs.

“Wear your seat belt” remains winner and champion of advice you can take that is most likely to save your life someday.

Matthew January 20, 2011 1:33 AM

A few years back, a previous premier of new south wales proposed that an evacuation plan be drawn up for sydney to cope with the threat of a terrorist nuclear attack.

I couldn’t stop snorting for several minutes after I read it. Yeah. 6 million people – just get ’em out of their homes and workplaces and onto the already-congested road network to be sitting ducks for whatever an attack brings. I guess the lucky ones will be jammed in the underground expressways when the thing goes off. Not so lucky the others.

You probably won’t know where it will be, and it’ll probably be small – in which case it’s much safer to just leave people where they are and skip the mayhem – or, at a pinch, just get them inside and away from windows, or into the subway. Some people will fall victim … but that’s going to happen anyway. MORE people will be affected if they’re scrambling around outside when the thing goes off. Maybe if you have very specific location information it would be a good plan to evacuate that area. But a city-wide alert would be counterproductive unless somebody develops ambulances and fire engines that can fly over stalled traffic.

I couldn’t believe that he’d even proposed it.

WhiskersInMenlo September 26, 2017 2:14 PM

There is a recent event that gives some hints…
Feb 15,2013 – A “small” meteorite streaked through the skies above Russia’s Urals region. The blast,
equivalent to 300,000 tons of TNT, shattered windows, damaged more than 3,000 building and injured
over 1,000 people.
Little Boy “exploded with an energy of approximately 15 kilotons of TNT”
Fat man “gave a yield of about 20 kilotonnes”

The 2013 meteorite gave some social response hints.
Many went to windows to see what caused the flash only to be impacted by flying glass.
Thus duck and cover even a wooden table has value.

Korea yields are in the 250+ kiloton range.

Radiation is a nasty tangle and depends on how dirty the bomb is and the altitude
of detonation. Altitude is one optimization as is detonation under water off the coast or
in a harbor.
“Arrayed around the 21-kiloton bomb were dozens of target ships….”
Another a decade later … Operation Wigwam, which was meant to test nuclear weapons against submarines. This device was planted deeper into the ocean, at 2,000 feet, 500 nautical miles southwest of San Diego.
was still more destructive than anticipated. The USS Tawasa, which carried scientists meant to observe the explosion, was badly damaged, and again a mist of radioactive water

Nuclear war even a single bomb is not a game…

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.