Back in the early 1980’s, when aggressive re-arming began with the election of Ronald Reagan and put the Russia-USA nuclear standoff on hair-trigger alert, I did some research and grew alarmed at how unprepared Canada and the USA were for nuclear war.
The Soviets had extensive plans for the evacuation of their cities. Berlin’s subway system had been constructed to also serve as a city-wide long-stay nuclear shelter, and other cities across Europe were taking similar steps to protect their people. But here in North America we were doing almost nothing – apparently because North Americans were convinced that nuclear war would never happen. It was ‘unthinkable’.
Of course it was never unthinkable to the military. Both sides had their plans ready. Today, when there are more nuclear powers, they all have plans, and you can be sure that they are all ready.
What about you? Do you know what to do in the face of a nuclear explosion? Are you aware that there’s much you can do?
Well, I’ve asked those questions before. Back in 1982 ,I wrote an article in which I tried to wake North Americans up. Just doing the math, I realized that the more or less 10,000 warheads each side had, and even allowing for many to be devoted to purely military targets, and allowing that large cities would receive multiple strikes, and that both combatants would want to retain some missiles for the next stage of the war, I calculated that there were enough warheads in the Soviet arsenal to deliver at least one for every community in North America of 50,000 people or more. Most of the continent was in danger.
But a journalist I consulted warned me that I was unlikely to get anyone to publish this. He pointed out that Doris Lessing had published something similar in the New York Times and she, along with the newspaper, received a storm of abuse in response. It was thought that talking about nuclear war was encouraging it to happen.
Alternatively, people also argued that nuclear war would be the end of the world, so what’s the point of doing anything? In another post I’m going to deal with this pernicious idea.
Well, World War III didn’t happen in the 1980s, but that journalist was right about what would happen with my article – I submitted it to 30 magazines/newspapers and all rejected it.
This wasn’t a surprise, for it came at the end of ten years of SF short story and science article rejections. I was already aware that the North American appetite for my ideas was minimal.
But having that article rejected was exasperating, for, from my analysis of the effects of the explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the many studies of the survivors, I’d seen that there is much each of us can do to increase the chance of survival for our families and ourselves.
Now that the Ukraine war has come, with Putin and other Russian leaders making threats about using nuclear arms every week, and China threatening Taiwan almost daily, the current instability in world politics is alarming. What are the chances of nuclear war? That too I’ll leave for another post.
But I feel obliged to resurrect my writing on this, which I’m going to do in a series of posts. I’m hoping that our new generations – the X’ers, the Millennials, the Generation Z’s – will be more more open to learning the facts of nuclear survival than my generation was.
In this post we’re going to look solely at your chances of survival if you’re caught outside, completely out in the open.
Approximately half of the people in Hiroshima survived. In Nagasaki, though the bomb dropped on it was three times as powerful as Hiroshima’s, only a third were killed, partly because, in just the three days between the two bombings, word had spread about what to do or not do when the next bomb came.
There were 30 individuals who survived Hiroshima, went off to nearby Nagasaki, hoping just to recover and be with family, then had to survive the bombing there too. The reasons for their survival are instructive.
One of these was naval engineer Tsutomo Yamaguchi. In his book The Last Train from Hiroshima, Charles Pelligrino tells how Yamaguchi, walking through a potato field 3 kms from ‘ground zero’, recognized the flash of an explosion and, following his naval training, threw himself to the ground and rolled into an irrigation ditch, simultaneously covering his face with his hands, while forcing his thumbs into his ears to protect his ear drums.
Nuclear warheads intended to destroy cities are not exploded on the ground .The Hiroshima bomb was exploded about 1500 to 1700 feet above the ground (depending who you read) to spread the heat of the light flash and the impact of the blast over as much area as possible. “Ground zero” is the spot on the ground directly below the explosion. Believe it or not, there were survivors at ground zero in both cities.
Yamaguchi in his ditch had to wait several seconds for the blast wave, wondering why. A nuclear explosion is similar to a bolt of lightning, though much more powerful. The flash appears almost instantly because it travels at the speed of light, while the blast or shock wave comes seconds after, depending how far you are from the explosion.
To get an idea of the astonishing force Yamaguchi was about to meet, take a look at these pictures of a house being destroyed, then scroll down to an accompanying video showing what happens to vehicles when exposed to a nuclear explosion (keep your seatbelts on).
Yamaguchi said the blast wave lifted him a metre into the air, then dropped him. This was followed by a vacuum wave that pulled him up in the air again and suspended him just above the ground for what he said seemed a long time.
When it was over, his left arm and the left side of his face were severely burned, but his light colored short-sleeved shirt and long pants had protected most of his body. The burns were from the light flash, not the blast waves.
The protection provided by the the color white is astonishing. People in black or dark clothing were burned entirely. But one woman who had momentarily lifted a sheet of rice paper before her eyes just as the flash entered the window of her house, saw the print words on the paper burn through instantly, while the rest of the paper was unaffected. The sheet protected most of her face and eyes, but the light flash coming through the holes where the print had been left the printed words permanently burnt into her face.
When Yamaguchi got up, unlike others still alive who would wander aimlessly around the city, delirious from their injuries, he focused carefully on how to get out of the city and back to his wife and child at home – in Nagasaki.
The severe burns of so many outdoor survivors produced the worst horrors of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings. But Japanese doctors and researchers learned important things from them.
For example, how long does the light flash last? If you search the internet, you won’t find much about it, though one site says the explosions from the missiles in Polaris submarines lasts only about 0.3 of a second.
Because many Hiroshima/ Nagasaki survivors were left with a strong memory of the flash, you might think it lasted some time. But Japanese scientists studying the burns of survivors noticed that some people had patches of unburnt skin that matched the shapes of leaves. Leaves exposed to the light flash were completely destroyed, so they concluded that the leaves must have lasted just long enough to protect the skin behind them, which could only happen if the light flash was very short.
There is a lot of talk about not looking towards the flash, but why would that make any difference if the flash is gone before you can turn your head to look at it? Maybe our eyes are faster than 0.3 seconds? But the light flash is also accompanied by infrared heat, which may last longer.
So, anyway, if there is no ditch to roll into as Yamaguchi did, getting yourself under a bush or the shade of a tree might save you from a lot of burns.
One seven-year old boy in the playground of his school in Hiroshima was standing next to a low concrete wall, when, just before the light flash, he bent down to pick up a coin. All the other children there were killed, but he got only a scorching burn on the back of his head, from the light/infrared heat arriving at a 45 degree angle. The blast wave would leave him unconscious, but he would go on to survive all of what was coming. This is the same boy mentioned in my Last Train to Hiroshima post who was rescued from a pile of bodies about to be cremated by a soldier who noticed he was still breathing.
So walls offer protection too, though they’re a danger too, of course, since they can collapse. So much depends on how far you are from an explosion, but you have no way to know that.
Back in the 1950s, everyone’s attention was on the radioactivity in the dust coming back down from the mushroom cloud – the “fallout.”.Neville Shute wrote his SF novel On the Beach, which was made into the famous movie of the same name, in which a great cloud of radiation spreads slowly south around the world, and people wait for the end to come. That movie ran in theatres month after month though it completely disregarded all the science on radiation. The film and book are partly responsible for the idea that still persists that nuclear war would be the end of the world. Another post I need to do.
In fact, the radiation from a nuclear explosion is complex. If you’re outside and fairly near to the explosion, you’re just as likely to be killed by gamma rays that arrive along with the light flash. But Tsutomo Yamaguchi survived that somehow both, so you can too.
One problem with the radiation for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that no one knew it existed, not even doctors. Many wandered around not realizing that without any indoor place to find protection, they should have at least been trying to get out of the city. Even worse, none knew that simply holding a cloth over their nose and mouth would keep much of the radioactive dust out of their lungs. They suffered far more from radiation sickness than they had to.
So, now, let’s look more closely at what you should do if you’re caught out in the open:
- Don’t look towards the light flash. Regardless of my doubts whether this helps, nothing is gained by looking towards it, and blindness is the last thing you want. Depending again on how far away they were from the explosion, most of those blinded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only blinded temporarily, but even that can be a big problem. What if you’re driving a car? What if your sight doesn’t come back for two days?
- Should you warn your children? With small children we can’t confront them with the prospect of nuclear war, but why not just remind them that we never look directly at the sun, so we don’t look towards any other bright light in the sky either? One father in Nagasaki not only warned his 8-9 year-old son of this, but he went out and bought him a new outfit of long-sleeved white shirt, long white pants, and a broad-brimmed white hat, then insisted that his son wear them to school. His son survived the Nagasaki bomb.
- I think most children are ready to learn about nuclear war by 10 years-old. If they ask you anything about nuclear war, that’s the ideal time to start talking about it. Why don’t we teach this in schools? I’ve wondered for decades about that.
- Remember how Yamaguchi covered his face with his hands, pushing his thumbs in his ears? I’ve tested this and it’s surprisingly easy, as long as your wrists are down by your chin, your fingers pointed towards your forehead. Try it out.
- When I was walking about the city in 1981-’85, I used to examine my surroundings, assessing them for protection from the flash and blast waves if they were to come at that moment. You can do that without discussing it with anyone. If you work or go to school in one location, following fixed paths, you can quickly develop a plan for each step of the way.
- Walking along the sidewalk of a busy street, stay close to building walls (which also gives you some protection from cars or trucks coming off the road due to mechanical failure, driver heart attack, stroke or drunkenness, or collision with another vehicle – you’d be surprised how common those accidents are and how many fatalities they produce.)
- Back in the 1980s I was unaware of the protection offered by leaves. Now I’m examining hedges and trees and planning how I could best get under them. If you have an older child, you might teach them to make a game of this.
- Don’t forget the value of light-colored clothing. If, like me, you’re addicted to dark colors, all I can say is good-luck. However, if you’re far enough from an explosion, even with dark clothes you might find only that a few spots on your clothes have started to burn. Unless you’ve got heavy gloves on, don’t try patting them down with your hands, as many Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors did. The best thing is to inspect yourself before getting up, extinguishing any flames you spot by rolling about on the ground, pressing those spots against the earth or pavement.
- Despite your efforts, if you survive, you’re likely to have some severe burns. Don’t automatically give up hope. It is amazing how many heavily burned people in Hiroshima/Nagasaki survived their injuries even without immediate medical help.
- First aid website pages recommend against putting any cream or ointment on severe burns. This seems counter-intuitive, but it may be because even completely dead skin still provides some protection to the flesh beneath. The concern may be about removing it accidentally. Many at Hiroshima/Nagasaki had skin come off accidentally. That’s probably why the same sites recommend wrapping the burns with gauze. Why not carry some in a first-aid kit?
- Remember that the Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors were unwittingly breathing radioactive fallout dust. Any clean cloth held over your nose and mouth should block most of it. The covid masks that we’re all so used to now will help too, the tighter the fit the better. If you can find access to clean water, soaking one will allow it to fit better (I’ve tried it). Also, from time to time brush your clothes or any unburnt skin to get rid of radioactive dust, especially before you go inside a building.
- Apparently because of their burns, all Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors reported an almost immediate craving for water – they drank radioactive water from rivers and puddles. They opened their mouths to the the “black rain” that came down after the blast in drops the size of grapes. If you don’t already, why not make a point of always carrying water with you in a backpack or in your car (where you could carry a good supply). Of course, whether the backpack or bag will still be with you after the blast waves have gone by remains to be seen.
- All the first aid sites tell you to call 911 in the event of severe burns. Well, in the aftermath of a nuclear attack that has just destroyed your city, and if you still have a phone, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get an answer, or, if you miraculously do get an answer, that the person on the other end will be able to help you. But there’s no harm in trying. If this ever happens, it will be interesting to see how our communication systems hold up. Maybe the first call to make is to call home.
- Beyond helping any people you’re with who have also survived, your first goal should be to get inside any building that is still intact and not burning. If there is none, you want to get as far away from the explosion as you can get. That isn’t as easy as you might think, if you’re half delirious from injuries. If there is a steady breeze, go upwind since the wind is taking the fallout downwind. Try to stay focused and avoid the bane of lost people – walking in circles – which doomed many at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do you ever study city maps? If not, this is good reason to study a map of the city you live in, or one you’re about to travel to. If there is any help on the way into the city, you will likely meet them sooner if you are on your way out.
In my next post, I’m going to look at survival inside buildings, sometimes called by those who study these things, “shock cocoons” . Though their collapse can also kill you, people inside buildings had a much increased rate of survival. Three men in a house made of wood with a tile roof, that was directly below the explosion, survived Hiroshima.
PS – to any family or friends who are not followers of this blog, but might eventually feel offended that I haven’t alerted them to this post, the explanation is that in the 1980s my nuclear survival article was not welcomed even by friends and family. I did offer it to a few then, and raised the subject with others. That made me no friends, and may have lost me a couple.