Every man, every man for himself

16 12 2010

I grew up with nuclear dreams.

Nightmares, actually: Watching as the bombs rained down, fleeing from bombs, living after the bombs fell, wondering how long before we were all gone.

I know that in real life that ‘bombs’ are unlikely—in most places, a single bomb would be enough—but these were nightmares, not journal articles. In real life, I studied nuclear history, nuclear weapons, nuclear tactics. I learned about throw-weights and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) and ICBMs and SLBMs, tactical ‘backpack’ nukes, yields, and blast radii. I was drawn and horrified, thrilled and terrified at the technologies and policies that could end it all.

I was also convinced that any attempt to survive nuclear war was foolish, a waste of money, and, most damningly, likely to lower the threshold of MADness. Since deterrence was found in this balance of terror, any attempt to diminish that terror with songs of survivability was, itself, mad.

As regards all-out nuclear war, I think that assessment holds.

But what of smaller-scale nuclear war, of terrorist tactical nukes? The world won’t end if one or two or three bombs are exploded (see: the world after the Trinity test, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the numerous test explosions since 1945), so why not try to increase survivability?

Somewhat to my surprise, then, I am not opposed to federal guides on how to live after a nuclear explosion.

The New York Times notes that the Obama administration, following steps taken by the Bush administration, is distributing information on how to survive a nuclear bomb. This information is based on models which, unexpectedly, showed that casualties could be greatly reduced simply by taking shelter immediately after the blast, thereby reducing exposure to radioactive fallout.

Physicist Brooke Buddemeier spoke at a recent conference:

If people in Los Angeles a mile or more from ground zero of an attack took no shelter, Mr. Buddemeier said, there would be 285,000 casualties from fallout in that region.

Taking shelter in a place with minimal protection, like a car, would cut that figure to 125,000 deaths or injuries, he said. A shallow basement would further reduce it to 45,000 casualties. And the core of a big office building or an underground garage would provide the best shelter of all.

“We’d have no significant exposures,” Mr. Buddemeier told the conference, and thus virtually no casualties from fallout.

This is not nothing.

Government at all levels in the US is unreliable: it may come through in prevention before and care after, but, then again, maybe not. And, as these guides note, even a fully enabled government may not be able to respond immediately after.

For better and for worse, the government is telling us, we’re on our own. For better and for worse, we have to take care of ourselves.