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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One of the lessons learned at Bikini was the value of knowing about radioactive decay time. With this knowledge many lives could be saved in time of war. It is known that the intensity of radiation drops very quickly during the early postraid periods; that, at the end of the first fifteen minutes, the heat of lingering radioactivity is usually equal to only about one fifteenth of that existing a minute after the detonation; and that after an hour it is only one sixtieth of its original intensity.

For this reason a person should never be in too much of a hurry to leave his home or shelter after a raid. Even a ten- or fifteen-minute delay could be all-important. And then, too, anyone leaving his home without waiting for official word might be moving needlessly from a relatively cool zone into a hotter one.

Protection against the atomic bomb’s lingering radioactivity is to a great extent a matter of clear thinking, whether one is inside a building or on the street. The person unable to reach some underground shelter such as a subway should, in addition to lying face down beside some high, protecting barrier, also try to shield himself from possible radioactive bomb wastes. A cover of a few sheets of newspaper or a board might very well do it, but a raincoat or a torn strip of awning would be better. And later, when getting up, it would be important to crawl slowly from under the covering, avoiding, wherever possible, waste materials that might be on it.

Of course, in the event of attack, fire and other hazards existing after a raid might force many people to leave their homes and shelters without waiting for official announcements. This is the point at which it would be important for each individual to be able to identify the level at which the bomb was exploded. Should there be a high-rising, pinkish-white mushroom of a cloud in the sky, one would know that the bomb had been detonated in midair and that there would be almost nothing to fear from lingering radioactivity. Should he see darker, squatty, low-flying clouds, indicating a near-the-surface detonation, or a waterspout or mist wave that would indicate an underwater bombing, he would then know that he might well face hazardous ground contamination, and he could take proper precautions.

During evacuation under conditions of ground pollution, the carrying of excessive baggage would be foolish. One change of clothing, including shoes—and everything safe from contamination in a suitcase or bag—is all a person should take with him. He should also wear a hat and, if possible, rubbers. Rags wrapped around his shoes, if rubbers weren’t available, would be a worthwhile precaution.

Wherever possible, evacuation routes would be marked out by meter readers, and in that case, it would be an unwise person who attempted a short cut through a vacant lot or alley, or even to the other side of the street. I recall too well instances at Bikini where I found deck space on one side of a ship almost free of radioactivity while the other was a furnace.

There would be times, naturally, when instructions for travel could not be given. In general, a person should avoid all places drenched by the base surge of an underwater explosion. He should travel, wherever practical, against the wind instead of with it, for that would take him to areas least likely to be polluted. When necessary to go cross-wind, he should walk along the sides of streets lined with tall buildings, for there he would find the least contamination. Also he should avoid all water puddles—which, in Bikini, I found to hold the greatest heat—and piles of rubble; and he should never pick up souvenirs, especially gold or silver ones, for they carry the threat of induced radioactivity.

Once in an area of safety, he should shower and change his clothing, burying or destroying his old garments.

One of the myths surrounding radioactivity—and there are many, such as mass sterility and permanently “doomed areas”—is that the bodies of the dead give off deadly rays and particles. And I have read articles in which authors, discussing some theoretical bombings of our large cities, described how trenches would have to be dug twenty feet deep and the bodies picked up with long-handled cranes; and, once the bodies were buried in a mass grave, how they would have to be covered with twelve feet of concrete. This is untrue. Although the coins in their pockets might be temporarily heated, there is little chance of being burned by handling the bodies of the dead or by handling the injured.

Everyone should do what is possible to help the injured. If much dust was raised in freeing someone from the wreckage, a handkerchief around the nose and mouth would help prevent the inhalation of dangerous amounts of radioactive wastes. And in applying first aid, if one should have to use strips of his own clothing or that of the victim, these should be torn from the undergarments; they are least likely to be polluted.

Actually there is nothing that is new or mysterious about radioactivity. Although it has been brought before forcefully to the foreground by the atomic bomb, its principles and injurious factors have for many decades been the subject of laboratory study. More, for example, is known about radiological injuries than is known about polio or the common cold. Basically, radioactivity is no greater a threat in wartime than are typhoid fever and other diseases that often follow the ravages of a bombing.

The terrible and shameful part of the whole thing is that radioactivity, which has made a great contribution to medical science, must be compared to a disease. Its discovery was heralded as a gift and a blessing to mankind. But perhaps, if understanding among nations improves sufficiently, it will be once again. Although there are defenses against the atomic bomb—and the world can go on living with it just as it has lived with poison gas and all the other former portents of mass destruction—the best defense of all is peace among men. Perhaps, in their striving for defenses against one another, the nations of the world will find and use the most obvious one.

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