Mushroom Cloud: Surviving a Nuclear Attack

Mushroom Cloud: Surviving a Nuclear Attack

It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, and you can’t wait to get your weekend started. The office staff is pretty much non-existent, so you decide to bug out a few minutes early. You’re dreading that constantly ridiculous Los Angeles traffic as you make your way to the parking structure but the only important thing on your mind is getting your weekend started with a cold one in your hands.

Seems everyone has the same idea. The parking structure is hive of activity. You race for the road knowing all the back street shortcuts as you begin to imagine the sun at your back with your feet in the sand. Your weekend has finally begun, or at least that’s what you’re telling yourself.

As you inch further away from the office you hope you’ll never see again, a blinding light sears across the sky from behind you. It’s so bright it hurts your eyes even while looking away and with them tightly closed. For a few seconds, it’s brighter than the sun. Then an unspeakable crack of worlds colliding overwhelms you. It’s deafening. In less than 10 seconds, you’re hit with a thunderous shockwave followed by an intense heat. The mighty wind and fire incinerates everything as it approaches you.

Asphalt, rocks, trees, shards of glass, and just about everything above surface level has been hurled at you is thrust into the air and is consumed by a giant mushroom cloud. If you survive at all, you’re most likely injured and assuredly bewildered and confused. You do what everyone else in your general vicinity does. You stumble from the remains of your vehicle, if you’re not completely blown out of it, and try to make sense of what’s just happened. With hundreds of fires around you and the sky now growing darker and darker, you begin to wander aimlessly as shock sets in. Thankfully, you’re outside the ring of complete decimation and you’re left with a fighting chance.

A Terrorist’s Bomb

A terrorist’s crude, but effective, 10 kiloton Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU), Improvised Nuclear Device, or “IND”, was just detonated on street level in a major metropolitan city at the site of a major transportation hub. With the force of 10,000 tons of dynamite, more than 40,000 people are killed in an instant and more than 100,000 injured. Inside the blast area are four hospitals/medical facilities. They include Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles County – USC Medical Center, and UCLA Children’s Hospital and are some of L.A.’s largest medical facilities. This will certainly affect the number of persons able to receive immediate medical attention.

There are also 19 schools and education facilities, nine places of worship, and one fire station inside the blast radius. Dodger Stadium and Sunset Boulevard are also in the outer fringes of the blast and are still well inside the area where injury can occur. The number is sure to grow as this was the result of the thermal blast only. Running abreast of the thermal blast, is what many fear.

Potential Casualties

Extremely high doses of radiation in the form of gamma, neutron, and x-rays will produce even more casualties over a larger area within the next several minutes, hours and weeks. Alpha particles, which can be released at the time of burst, or delayed as fallout, are harmful if internalized but can easily be shielded by paper or dead layers of skin and can be brushed away without harm. Beta particles, which can be shielded by plastic or aluminum, may cause skin burns and can also be harmful if ingested. Gamma rays destroy living cells and are harmful when exposed to them. They can be shielded by lead and concrete. Neutrons, emitted only during the detonation, are 20 times more harmful than gamma rays and can pass through several feet of concrete. Although your body is equipped to naturally repair cells exposed to radiation, these massively high amounts of radiation will overpower that healing process and destroy the cells before repair can take place.

The Damage of a Nuclear Blast

The blast leaves a crater 100 feet deep and more than 500 feet in diameter. The cityscape as far out as two miles in all directions is absolutely decimated. The surface of the earth at ground zero has essentially been scraped clean and vaporized. Five hundred feet from the blast, the overpressure is 20 psi, which causes incredible death and the complete destruction of most buildings. What was on the surface has been consumed by the intense fireball and mushroom cloud and spewed into the sky, reaching an altitude of at least 27,000 feet.

When the cloud begins to settle, it will deposit radioactive particles, a phenomenon called “fallout,” over large portions of the city and beyond. There are no bodies, vehicles or buildings, just a gaping hole where the train station used to be. Just outside the three-mile radius and as far out as seven miles of the blast, there is still a great amount of carnage. The air pressure is 5 psi, enough to crush residential homes. It’s in this area that you begin to see a bleak landscape never before seen outside the movie theaters. Alien in nature, the sights alone are enough to evoke shock and disbelief.

Everything around is on fire. Signs of what used to be a bustling city full of life are completely non-existent. Although much of what you see is undiscernible, it’s clear that nothing has survived nor is anything salvageable. On the fringes of this ring is where the walking dead are. The term walking dead describes just that. Zombie-like in appearance with horrific burns and traumatic injuries, these are the people that death hasn’t caught up with yet but is certain to drop in for a visit momentarily. Just outside the seven-mile perimeter, the probability of third degree burns is still 100 percent. There will be many whose death is imminent, severely burned, amputees, and in shock. Nothing can be done for them. If you’re lucky enough to be outside the eight- to nine-mile radius and up to 17 miles away, you may still experience severe blast effects. Those inside fortified buildings and away from windows and doors may survive the heat and blast effects. At a 1.5-psi overpressure, glass windows can be expected to break. Those rushing to the windows to see what caused the bright light was will be met by the impending blast (which travels faster than the pressure wave). Windows will explode, hurling shards of glass and other items at speeds up to 600 miles per hour and causing even more widespread carnage.

The successful detonation of the HEU IND has occurred close to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. It detonated at a time when the train station is at its busiest; Friday afternoon at around 4:30pm. Although relatively small by today’s standard, it still packs a wallop. It’s the same size as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, August 6th, 1945.

Being a surface detonation, the amount of radioactive fallout will be much greater as the blast consumed everything on the ground and sucked it up into its giant mushroom cloud. The jet black cloud, now full of irradiated particles is expected to grow to an altitude of 27,000 feet or more and will cover the city like a blanket. With the trade winds blowing from the west at approximately 6 miles per hour, the cloud will produce fallout as it begins to settle. It will rain down on potentially hundreds of miles of populated areas from the blast site and the outer fringes where death and injury has already taken place.

Just how did this happen? A group of radicalized terrorists, perhaps a faction of Hamas or ISIS, has successfully smuggled the HEU in through the L.A. Harbor aboard the only privately owned ferry systems allowed to dock there. From the former Soviet Union through Georgia and then on to Iran or Iraq, this special nuclear material, or “SNM,” traveled to South America, into Costa Rica, and then to Mexico on the same route that most of the drugs and other illegal contraband entering this country routinely travels. From Baja California, it is transported in the dead of night by panga boat into United States waters. Piloted by a two-man crew and accompanied by a large shipment of marijuana, the panga boat arrives on the quiet backside of Catalina Island.

A Source of Danger

Dubbed “smugglers’ paradise” in the 1950s, Catalina Island sits just 26 miles from the Los Angeles coastline. Daily ferries can take you across from three different locations in just under two hours. Already on U.S. soil, making it into L.A. Harbor is the most daunting part of the trip for the smugglers. With more radiation detection portals around the L.A. Port than on any other leg of the journey, this is nail-biting time. Unlike other more easily detectible radioactive isotopes like Cesium 137 (Cs-137), a man-made isotope with both medical and industrial uses, the HEU has a very small radioactive signature or “activity.”

Virtually impossible to detect due to its low radioactivity and 3 billion year half-life, (halflife is the amount of time required for a quantity to fall to half its value as measured at the beginning of the time period), the HEU is transported to the L.A. Harbor aboard that ferry. This characteristic is what makes it so hard for radiation detection equipment to detect. To be sure it gets across undetected, the terrorists take extra measures and encase the material in lead pipe to shield it from possible detection and hide it in a scuba tank that has been modified to accommodate it.

At an undisclosed location, the other components are gathered, construction is carried out, and the weapon is assembled. Their objective is to kill about 4 million men, women, and children. No amount of planes crashing into high rise skyscrapers or truck bombs would accomplish this so their plan is to carry out the slaughter with the use of a nuclear device. They arrived at that number by totaling the casualties in the many wars in the Middle East. Although crudely constructed, the weapon has enough material to produce a larger device but because of its inefficient design, a greater yield will be averted.

Difficult to Plan

This attack has been in the planning stages since well before 9/11. The only thing preventing this attack from taking place sooner is the fact that the material needed for the device is extremely hard to get. There are really only three ways to acquire a nuclear weapon. You can steal a bomb. You could buy a bomb, or you could build a bomb. The hardest part of making a bomb is getting the highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Many countries have these materials and often they are poorly guarded. Probably the best places to look are the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The easiest corridor from Russia is through Georgia, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Iraq, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. Over the years, there have been many reported cases of theft of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Every time there has been a black market seizure and the material recovered, it could be tracked back to Russia. But these were only the ones caught. How many actually made it through?

At the Luch Uranium Enrichment Facility in Russia, a worker there discovered that as long as the output of the material made was within a certain amount of the input, the supervisors attributed that difference to normal loss. So every day over a long period of time, he stole small quantities of the highly enriched uranium or HEU. Since his salary couldn’t keep up with inflation, he wanted to use the HEU to buy much-needed items for his family, like a refrigerator and a stove. Over a period of time he had amassed a kilogram and a half of 90 percent enriched, highly enriched uranium. He raised no alarms and not a single soul knew until he was caught trying to sell the HEU to a group of thieves that were in the business of selling stolen car batteries.

Had special nuclear material been available to the terrorists who carried out attacks in London, Madrid, Bali, Kenya, Riyadh, Buenos Aries, Mumbai, and here on U.S. soil, they certainly would have used it. Many terrorist organizations have sought the use of nuclear weapons to bring death, in great numbers, to the West. Just prior to 9/11, Osama Bin Laden met with two Pakistani scientists and discussed nuclear weapons. Certainly, it would have changed the outcome to the World Trade Center attack.

Due to the current world climate, economic downfall, and the destabilization of several countries that possess this material, many have loosened control of the “magic material.” It’s possible that military members or those in the position of safeguarding the materials for those countries in distress could profit from stealing and selling this material. We already know there are plenty of capable buyers. In almost all the cases involving theft of this special nuclear material, it was almost never known that the material was even missing until the items were seized. It is estimated that there is approximately 1,700 tons of highly enriched uranium in the world today. It’s a staggering amount, an amount that can be used to make 50 to 100,000 nuclear weapons.

How a Nuclear Device Works

The nuclear device delivers its destruction in stages. First is the intense 200-meter diameter fireball. It delivers a burning heat to areas of exposed skin and incinerates anything combustible. A fraction of a second later it’s followed by an immense shockwave moving at the speed of sound, a wave comprised of thermal radiation (heat), nuclear radiation, and ballistic debris due to surface or shallow sub-surface bursts. From the site of the blast, which leaves the large crater, everything is instantaneously vaporized. People are reduced to carbon ash in a split second. Just beyond, at approximately 1,530 yards, buildings are completely demolished and those that aren’t, sustain severe damage. Those inside buildings close to the detonation are killed from the blast, which results in the buildings’collapse.

Out to approximately 2.2 miles, an estimated lethal radiation dose of 5,000 REM. REM is a unit of radiation dosage (such as from X rays) applied to humans. Derived from the phrase Roentgen equivalent man, (pronounced RONKEN). It will be 100 percent fatal to anything inside that circle. That’s the equivalent of receiving 2.5 million chest x-rays in less than a minute. Death will occur almost instantly. Out to approximately 4.2 miles, you can expect the radiation dose to be 1,000 REM. This dose will cause a 95 percent mortality rate, even with immediate medical attention. Death will occur within a matter of hours to a few weeks. At approximately six miles from the blast site, the radiation level will have dropped to approximately 500 REM. Without immediate medical attention, you can expect a mortality rate of 50 to 90 percent from acute effects, alone. Death will occur within several hours to a few weeks.

To put these dose rates into perspective, I used a dose calculator to calculate an average dose based on where I live. I live in Southern California at an altitude of 564 feet, and I’m approximately 50 miles from the now-closed, San Onofre nuclear power plant. For that, I will incur 28.01MREM or “millirem.” One millirem is 1/1000 of a REM. Twenty-eight MREM is attributed to cosmic radiation, a radiation that everyone gets by being out in the sun. Harmless until you get sunburned and 0.01 MREM for being close to San Onofre.

From food containing Carbon-14 and Potassium-40, I get 40 MREM and from the air I breathe, I get 228 MREM. I’ve traveled approximately 60 jet hours in the last year, for which I received 0.5 MREM per hour for a total of 30 MREM. I’ve gone past luggage x-ray inspection at the airport (0.002 MREM each time) about 10 times, so there’s another .02 MREM. I have a porcelain crown, 0.07 MREM, a smoke detector at my house, 0.008 MREM, and I’ve had one chest x-ray, which gets me 10 MREM for a grand total of 366.9 MREM over the entire year. That’s just .366 of 1 REM. You would need 5,000,000 MREM to equal 5,000 REM.

The state-recommended EPA dose limit to perform lifesaving is 25 REM. That’s only 25 percent of 100 REM. Neither is a lethal dose and they’re a far cry from the radiation doses we can expect from a detonation like this. It’s also the total dose a first responder can receive over the period of a lifetime. Although not enough to kill, the only way you can exceed this dose is if you are a willing volunteer. This means you are made aware of the dose and the dangers of exceeding it, but continue to perform lifesaving voluntarily.

The Affect of Nuclear Radiation

So exactly what effects do these high doses of ionizing radiation have on you? The radiation will begin to destroy the cells in the body that divide rapidly. These include blood, GI tract, reproductive and hair cells; additionally, radiation harms the DNA and RNA of surviving cells. For starters, you can expect to lose your hair quickly and in clumps with radiation exposure at 200 REM or higher. Since brain cells do not reproduce, they won’t be damaged directly unless the exposure is 5,000 REM or greater. Like with the brain, radiation kills nerve cells and small blood vessels around the heart, which can cause seizures and immediate death. Certain body parts are more specifically affected by exposure to different types of radiation sources.

The thyroid gland is susceptible to radioactive iodine. In sufficient amounts, radioactive iodine can destroy all or part of the thyroid. By taking potassium iodide, one can reduce the effects of exposure; however, having them around with you at all times might be a little presumptuous. When a person is exposed to around 100 REM, the blood’s lymphocyte cell count will be reduced, leaving the victim more susceptible to infection. This is often referred to as mild radiation sickness. Early symptoms of radiation sickness mimic those of flu and may go unnoticed unless a blood count is done.

According to data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, symptoms may persist for up to 10 years and may also have an increased longterm risk for leukemia and lymphoma. Intense exposure to radioactive material at 1,000 to 5,000 REM would do immediate damage to small blood vessels and most certainly cause heart failure and immediate death.

You can expect to get nauseous, have diarrhea, and begin to vomit blood. Radiation damage to the intestinal tract lining will cause these violent effects. This is occurs when you’re exposure is 200 REM or more. Because reproductive tract cells divide rapidly, these areas of the body can be damaged at REM levels as low as 200. Long-term, some radiation sickness victims may become sterile.

If you’re lucky enough to dodge the radiation effects because you’re at least seven miles away, don’t count your lucky stars just yet. The thermal blast still has enough energy to cause third degree burns. Third degree burns extend throughout the layers of skin, and are often painless because they destroy the pain nerves. They will cause scarring or disablement, and can require amputation. Without immediate medical attention, death can occur due to shock, rapid blood loss, and easily susceptible infection.

Surviving a Nuclear Blast Survival inside the critical rings is highly unlikely, however, as in Hiroshima, it’s possible. Exposed and unshielded, the effects of the thermal blast and the severely high radiation doses will cause certain death inside the critical areas. Your only real chances for survival, should you be within the outer areas and are not injured, are for you to take immediate action.

Since a detonation like this will occur without warning, your first action should be to immediately drop to the ground in a prone position. Tightly cover your face with both hands. Do not move until the initial blast wave and any reflected blast waves have passed. Shelter in place if the building you’re in is safe to remain in. Otherwise, seek shelter in a fortified concrete structure if possible. Stay indoors as long as you can, avoiding time spent around windows and doorways. Close and seal doors and windows to retain the safer area. Use window barriers such as blinds, curtains or other coverings to improve protection.

Moving to the center of a building may be more advantageous, provided the building is intact and is made of concrete. Make sure to turn off the HVAC, any fans and exhaust fans, combustion heaters. If you were outside and you’re seeking shelter, decontaminate yourself before you enter a shelter. Brush dust/fallout off your clothing away from your eyes, nose and mouth. If you’re able to, rinse any exposed skin. If you’re in an unsafe area, make your way out with as much protective clothing on as you can possibly collect.

Cover your head and any exposed parts of your body. If no protective clothing such as Tyvek suits or respirators exists, don as many layers of clothing or material over whatever you’re wearing. Use a towel or rag to cover your mouth and nose ensuring that you can still breathe slowly through it. A damp towel draped over your head and mouth will help keep contaminants to a minimum. Putting your feet into plastic bags will help keep contaminants from affecting your feet. Evacuate upwind or crosswind. Discard that layering and remove the protective layers on your shoes before entering another shelter rolling them all outward and away from you.

Utilize the “COLDER” method for how to use and care for your clothing.

C — Keep clothing Clean

O — Avoid Overheating

L — Wear clothing Loose and in Layers

D — Keep clothing Dry

E — Examine clothing for defects and wear

R — Keep clothing Repaired

Stay hydrated as often as possible. Drink only from new, unopened containers. Do not drink from any open areas such as drinking fountains, ponds, or streams. Commercially available water purifiers will eliminate bacteria and debris but cannot eliminate radioactive material. The same holds true for food. Do not eat anything that comes from a container or wrapper that is already open. The landscape will be treacherous to walk through, with the many hazards. You’ll have to navigate through or around them so as to minimize injury. It will be slow going. Do so carefully so as not to kick up and ingest the radioactive dust.

Basic survival skills are always good to have, however, in an incident such as this, many of those skills like trapping or snaring food, navigation methods using celestial aids, and purifying water may be useless. On the other hand, first aid, navigation, sheltering, hunting, and gathering, will come in handy.

Gear to Take

I always have a small kit bag with me in the truck that contains a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, a case of water, cell phone charger, jumper cables, a basic tool kit, rubber gloves, water purifier, a portable radio, rope, a gas mask and N-95 disposable respirators, a Tyvek suit, road flares, a flashlight with batteries, some glow-sticks, Fix-A-Flat, a fire starter, a candle, some granola bars and gum, a sleeping bag, and a Thermo Scientific Personal Radiation Detector – Extended Range (PRD-ER), and of course, extra clothes.

All of that fits quite nicely in a waterproof, airtight, Pelican Case, 20 x 29 x 15-inches. Yes, I’ve been accused of being paranoid, but each time I’ve rolled up on an incident, or have been away from home for longer than I intended, I’ve had what I needed to be comfortable or until better help could arrive. I’m not paranoid. I’m prepared.

Although this nuclear scenario may seem far-fetched, it was the first of many exercise scenarios played out in the largest, full-scale exercise in the Department of Homeland Security’s history, the National Level Exercise 2010, or NLE2010. During the three-day, nation-wide exercise, local, state, and federal agencies participated in scenarios designed to test the response to nuclear and radiological threats in and around the Los Angeles area and in other parts of the country, culminating with similar scenarios in Washington, D.C.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 issue of American Survival Guide.

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