The risk of exposure to radiation decreases by 55 percent one hour after the explosion and by as much as 80 percent after 24 hours.
According to the Swedish Institute for Peace Research Sipri, there are around 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, distributed among the nine nuclear powers: India, France, Great Britain, Pakistan, China, North Korea, Russia and the USA. According to Sipri estimates, Russia has around 6,257 nuclear warheads. This makes it the country with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, followed by the United States with around 5,500 nuclear warheads.
Russia’s nuclear arsenal is so extensive that it could strike almost anywhere. Should a weapon be aimed at the US, local residents would have 30 minutes or less to protect themselves provided they were given immediate warning of the attack. “There wasn’t even time to get the children out of school,” says disaster expert Redlener.
The first minutes and hours after a nuclear explosion are a crucial window of opportunity. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the risk of exposure to radiation decreases by 55 percent one hour after the explosion and by as much as 80 percent after 24 hours.
For the first 30 minutes: protect your eyes and face
In 2018, Hawaii’s Disaster Relief Agency mistakenly sent a breaking message to people’s smartphones warning of an imminent ballistic missile. “Go to the shelter immediately. This is not a test,” the message said. An employee of the authority had accidentally sent the warning. “That led to chaos,” says Redlener. “Some people ignored the news completely, while others panicked and hid in the sewers with their children.”
The most reliable source for a nuclear warning is television or radio. Sirens could alert people who don’t have direct access to news, but the sound could also cause confusion. By the time the reason for the alarm was found on the Internet or with the police, it was already too late.
In the event of a nuclear explosion, the first thing to do is protect your eyes. Atomic bombs release beams of light and a gigantic orange fireball that could temporarily blind people within a radius of around 20 kilometres on a clear day, or as much as 85 kilometres on a clear night.
The US health agency also recommends lying face down on the ground and tucking your hands under your body to protect yourself from flying debris or blistering heat that could cause burns. If you have a scarf or handkerchief with you, you should cover your mouth and nose with it. However, it is important to keep the mouth slightly open to equalize the pressure on the eardrums.
In the first 45 minutes: move to shelters
A single nuclear weapon could cause tens of thousands of immediate deaths in a large city like New York or Washington. The number of casualties depends on the size of the weapon and the location of the explosion.
Survivors would have about 15 minutes before dust-sized nuclear particles, also known as atomic dust, fall to the ground. Exposure to this atomic dust can lead to radiation poisoning, which in turn can damage the body’s cells.
If possible, a shelter should be sought that is in the opposite direction from collapsing buildings. It’s important not to go in the direction the wind is coming from. Run as far away as you can for 10 to 15 minutes, then seek shelter immediately before the radiation cloud has a chance to descend.
The best havens are buildings like schools or office blocks that have few to no windows and a large basement. If there are no buildings of this type in the immediate vicinity, it is still better to take shelter somewhere indoors than to be outside.
If you are in a multi-story building, you should stand in the middle of the house and stay clear of the lower and upper floors and all windows to protect yourself from flying glass.
First 24 hours: shower and stay indoors until further notice
In the hours following an explosion, exposure to radiation must be reduced as much as possible. While doctors can treat radiation injuries with drugs like potassium iodide, “there are certain levels of exposure that you can’t do anything about,” says Kathryn Higley, a professor of nuclear science at Oregon State University.
Also, in a worst-case scenario, there may not be enough doctors or hospital beds. “There aren’t enough ICU beds in the entire United States to treat victims of a single city’s nuclear attack,” said Tara Drozdenko, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ global security program.
Those who were outside during the blast should shower, ideally with warm water and mild soap, as soon as possible. Hard scrubbing can break through the skin’s natural protective barrier. You should also cover open areas and small wounds while you take a shower.
In an emergency, no products such as conditioner, body lotion or face cream should be used. These can lay on radioactive particles and bind them to your body.
Blow your nose and clean your ears and eyelids, otherwise, dirt could collect there. It is also recommended to pack the outer layers of your clothing and used towels in plastic bags.
Food from sealed containers such as cans or bottles is safe and safe to eat. In addition, you can also prepare food from the pantry or the refrigerator if you first clean all surfaces and utensils. However, unpackaged foods, such as fruits and vegetables from the garden, should not be eaten.
Unless there are other regulations, you should not leave the house until the risk of contamination has decreased. The US health agency recommends staying indoors for at least 24 hours.