Given the current state of affairs in Eastern Europe and various other places around the globe, it is becoming clear that the risk of a confrontation involving nuclear weapons is a growing possibility. The nations that are stoking tensions are, for the most part, ones that have nukes in their arsenal, and not all of them are guided by reason.
Short of an asteroid hitting Earth or an ultra-deadly world pandemic, no disaster has the potential to destroy society as much as a nuclear war. Even “minor” radiation accidents, such as reactor meltdowns, may cause long-standing damage to entire areas. The family medic must always have a plan of action for every type of disaster to increase the chances for survival of group members.
It’s worthwhile to know the Types Of Nuclear Weapons. The least destructive weapon using radioactive materials is the “dirty bomb” used by terrorists. A dirty bomb is not technically a nuclear weapon. It uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material in the general area. Usually, the effect of the explosion causes more damage and casualties than the radioactive elements.
Our concept of an “atomic bomb,” as developed by the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, is one that uses what’s called “nuclear fission.” The explosion is caused by a chain reaction that splits atomic nuclei. The result is a wave of intense heat, light, pressure, and kinetic energy equaling thousands of tons (also called kilotons) of TNT. This is followed by the release of radioactive particles in a cloud that resembles a mushroom (if a ground blast). Mixed with dirt and debris, the particles fall back to Earth, contaminating crops, animals, and people. This will happen at the site of detonation (known as “ground zero”) but will also be blown elsewhere by the prevailing winds.
Atomic bombs gave way to hydrogen bombs, often described as “thermonuclear” weapons due to the generation of extreme heat during detonation. Hydrogen bombs use a process known as “nuclear fusion,” which takes two light nuclei and forms a heavier one, using variations of hydrogen atoms called “isotopes.” This fusion process requires high temperatures and usually involves a fission reaction to initiate. H-Bombs don’t just generate atomic power in the kilotons; they can reach levels in the megatons (millions of tons) of TNT.
Another type of thermonuclear weapon is the “neutron bomb,” which generates much less kinetic energy and thermal damage, but much more radiation. Enhanced radiation weapons like the neutron bomb generate a fusion reaction that allows neutrons to escape the weapon with only a limited blast. Originally designed to counter massive Soviet tank formations, the neutron bomb is an example of a tactical nuclear weapon. The effect is to leave infrastructure mostly intact while wiping out human targets due to massive radiation.
(Note: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons that would have destroyed the Russian tanks currently invading the country in an 1990s agreement in which Russia recognized its national sovereignty.)
The impact of a nuclear bomb is related to its “yield,” a measure of the amount of energy produced. The Hiroshima atomic bomb had a yield of 15 kilotons, while the “Tsar Bomba” detonated by the Russians in 1961 had a yield of 51 megatons (that’s 51,000 kilotons). Most of the weapons stockpiled in the U.S. and Russia consist of bombs in the 100 to 500 kiloton range, much stronger than Hiroshima and much weaker than Tsar Bomba. This is because they’re meant to be fired at major cities in clusters of 20 or so, much harder to intercept than one big bomb.
You can expect a generally circular pattern of local damage, but various factors come into play besides the yield of the weapon. The altitude of the explosion, weather, wind conditions, and nearby geologic features play a role. The U.S. government estimates the distribution of damage for fission bombs to be:
• 50% shockwave (kinetic energy)
• 35% heat (thermal energy)
• 5% initial blast radiation
• 10% dispersed radiation (fallout)
You might think there isn’t anything you can do to survive a nuclear attack, and if you’re at ground zero at the moment of detonation, you’re right. But your chances of survival, given time, distance, and protection, may be better than you think.
The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 flattened buildings over a roughly four-square mile area and killed 60,000 people instantly. Another 90,000-140,000 succumbed later to injuries and radiation exposure. Although this represents a total of 150,000 to 200,000 fatalities, the entire population did not perish. At the time of the explosion, there were about 350,000 people in Hiroshima, including 43,000 soldiers. Indeed, a Japanese citizen named Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived both 1945 atomic bomb detonations (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and lived to reach the age of 93. This shows that, although horrific in its effects, distance from ground zero and other factors besides the power of the bomb itself play a role in a nuclear weapon’s lethality.
A 50 megaton H-Bomb like the Russian Tsar Bomba, however, would cause a much larger circle of devastation than the Hiroshima bomb, with widespread fatalities at least 20 miles from ground zero and third-degree burns 50 miles away. Windows were reported shattered from the 1961 detonation as far away as Norway and Finland.
I’ll be doing a number of videos on this subject, including some strategies that might give people away from ground zero the best chance for survive the initial blast, as well as discussing radiation issues and shelter building.
Next, we’ll discuss other issues related to nuclear events, such as radiation.
Joe Alton MD
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