From our Archives: How You Can Survive an A-Bomb Blast

This 1950 article claims that, in the event of an atomic bomb, "there are protective measures you can take—and proof that the blast is not always so fatal and frightful as you think.

U.S. military photo of Atomic bomb detonation at Bikini Atoll.

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Even when the two wartime raids came as complete surprises, even when the inhabitants did not have the knowledge or time to use the measures of protection known today, in the tinderbox city of Hiroshima slightly more than one half of the people a mile from ground zero survived the catastrophe; and in Nagasaki, 69 out of 100 persons at that same distance lived to tell of their experiences. Almost every one of the survivors had had some chance shielding. And, incidentally, one reason why death and destruction were more nearly complete at Hiroshima was that that city is flat while Nagasaki has a rolling terrain. This is impressive proof of the value of barriers.

In the event of a threatened raid, there are many precautionary household measures that can and should be taken. In World War II, fire was the great destroyer, and since the heat flash of an atomic bomb could set fire to inflammable materials more than two miles from the point of detonation, it probably Would be the great destroyer again. Thus it would be important to keep exposed inflammable matter to a minimum. Trash should be put in cans and covered tightly, dry leaves should be raked away from the home.

Within the house, oil burners should be shut off at the first alert, pilot lights turned off in gas stoves and water heaters, the fuel and draft doors to coal-burning furnaces and wood stoves closed. Even if an attack were to come without warning, these things should be done as quickly as possible.

Flashlights should be kept handy. Since there always is a danger that the shaking and twisting of buildings by a bomb’s blast could rupture gas pipes and oil lines, it would be a foolish person 
who lighted a match to see his way in the darkness.

A house should be as much of an airtight compartment as it is possible to make it—doors closed, windows shut and blinds drawn. This is protection not only from fire sparks and glass
 splinters—in atomic explosions, unlike other kinds, windows are blown inward—but also from the nuclear weapon’s radioactivity.

This radioactivity, which is the atomic bomb’s only basic added hazard, is, for the layman, perhaps the most widely feared of all its forces. Many people believe that there is no defense against the bomb’s invisible but penetrating ionizing rays and particles. Actually, radioactivity is the least of the nuclear bomb’s threats; still, to combat even the comparatively small but important threat it does hold, a new and proved military science has arisen. Radiological defense, which consists of the detection and avoidance of radioactive hazards, is something which, in a quiet but effective way, the Government has been perfecting for several years.

Radiological defense in time of war would be worked on two levels: that of the community toward its members and that of the individual toward himself and his family. Both, however, would of necessity be linked one with the other.

On the community level, the plan calls for a number of civilians to be trained and assigned to duty with radiological defense units. They will be “meter readers”—men who would have been taught to use Geiger counters, ionization chambers and similar instruments that detect the presence of radioactivity and measure its intensity in units called roentgens—named for Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, the discoverer of X rays.

The meter readers would be assigned either to survey or personnel duties. After a raid, the job of the survey men would be to detect radioactive hot spots and relay this information by radio or telephone to some central headquarters. There, with the incoming reports graphically portrayed on 
maps of the city, the entire radiological picture could be studied, and rescue and safety plans formulated from it.

That headquarters would be not unlike the task-force command ship at Bikini, the nerve center of the operations, where master charts of the situation were kept as reports came in from Geiger men like myself who were boarding ships, flying over the bombed fleet in airplanes, testing the water in
 patrol boats and surveying the islands of the lagoon. From the charts, those in command at Bikini, could tell at a glance which ships were radioactive, which could be boarded, and for how long a period. They knew the radiation of the islands and even how far the bomb clouds had drifted.

The headquarters of a bombed city would serve the same function. Once the reports were in from the survey men and the radiological situation mapped, a “hot plot” would go into effect. By radio, sound truck or some other means, advice would be got to the inhabitants as to what to do and where to go. Contaminated areas would be roped off. Rescue and engineering teams would be sent wherever needed.

Meanwhile the job of those meter readers assigned to personnel duties would be to accompany fire fighters and other rescue and medical teams that might have to work in polluted areas, and to protect them from overexposure to radioactivity.

First of all, a fixed maximum limit of daily exposure to radioactivity would be set for all teams, and it would be up to the meter reader to see that the team for which he served as radiological monitor stayed under that limit wherever possible and practical. Let us say that the limit was ten roentgens per twenty-four hours. If the meter reader’s instrument showed anything less than that figure, the teams could work in that area all day and night without harm. Should the indicator show forty roentgens, however, which would be four times the daily limit, the teams could remain only a quarter of a day, or six hours. After that they would have to be relieved by fresh teams.

Although the foregoing may at first sound implausible, its basic principles were tested and proved at Bikini. After the underwater explosion, many ships, deadly radioactive, were boarded by Geiger men who very frequently estimated the safety limit at only several minutes. It was important, however, to get the test animals out as soon as possible for study, and so one team would rush aboard, pull out as many rats or pigs as it could in the allotted time, then leave; another team would follow. This continued until all the animals were removed. Not one man who boarded those ships, not one of the approximately 40,000 who took part in the Bikini tests, was injured through radioactivity.

Incidentally, some of the goats used in the first Bikini test had previously been sent to Cornell University for a checkup. Several psychoneurotic ones were then selected, so that the scientists would be able to see what effects the nuclear explosion had upon their nervous systems, and in this way perhaps the human susceptibility to crack-up and panic could be determined. A protected movie camera was focused upon one such goat before the test. When the film was developed later, it showed the goat calmly eating before the detonation. At the moment of explosion there was a mass of flying objects on the screen; and then, this clearing, the goat once more could be seen eating calmly and very much undisturbed. No collapse. No nervous breakdown.

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