PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

News

January 17, 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
News
  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Jamaal Charles' Football Camp

    April 15, 2014

  • Search teams will send unmanned sub to look for missing Malaysian airliner

    Teams searching for a missing Malaysian airliner are planning for the first time to send an unmanned submarine into the depths of the Indian Ocean to look for wreckage, an Australian official leading the multi-nation search said Monday.

    April 15, 2014

  • Teens trading naked selfies for mugshots

    Will teenagers ever learn? You think yours will. Maybe so. But it's likely that was also the hope of the parents of children who were so shamed by nude photos of themselves that went south - how else can they go - that they killed themselves.

    April 11, 2014

  • Boston doctors can now prescribe you a bike

    The City of Boston this week is rolling out a new program that's whimsically known as "Prescribe-a-Bike." Part medicine, part welfare, the initiative allows doctors at Boston Medical Center to write "prescriptions" for low-income patients to get yearlong memberships to Hubway, the city's bike-share system, for only $5.

    April 11, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 2.16.35 PM.png Are Americans smart to stop drinking diet sodas?

    Recent data from Beverage Digest suggest many are cutting back on diet sodas. Consumption of diet sodas fell more than that of sugary sodas in 2013. This raises two questions: Why is total consumption declining, and is drinking diet soda harmful to health?

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 10.43.57 AM.png VIDEO: Amazing dance moves at NCAA title game

    Eye-catching action wasn't confined to the court at AT&T Stadium Monday night during the NCAA Championship game between UConn and Kentucky. This pair -- apparently a father and son -- delighted the crowd during a timeout with some synchronized dance moves.

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

  • VIDEO: White House may ban selfies

    The White House wasn't too pleased after Red Sox player David Ortiz snapped a selfie with President Obama that was later used promotionally by Samsung.

    April 9, 2014

  • Investing more money in tornado research would be a disaster

    This week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding to focus on improving forecasts of "high impact weather events" like tornadoes and hurricanes "for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy."

    April 7, 2014

  • firefighters.jpg VIDEO: Firefighters sing song from 'Frozen' to calm girl stuck in elevator

    Firefighters in Reading, Mass., sing the Disney power ballad known by children everywhere -- "Let It Go" -- to calm a 4-year-old stuck in an elevator.

    April 7, 2014 1 Photo

Video
Facebook
Sports Tweets
Photos