As the recent missile-attack false alarm in Hawaii demonstrated, Americans are simultaneously worried about nuclear war and not seriously prepared for it. But the problem goes far beyond the inept handling of an emergency-alert system.
Take, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recently announced a program to work on preparing for a nuclear attack. “While a nuclear detonation is unlikely, it would have devastating results and there would be limited time to take critical protection steps. Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness,” the agency wrote.
That’s certainly true. Back during the Cold War, when Americans feared (with reason) that we might face a massive nuclear exchange with the old Soviet Union, we had a lot of planning and infrastructure in place to deal with the aftermath. Such an exchange would have been much worse than anything we’re likely to see now: The standard unit of counting casualties was a “megadeath,” that is, 1 million deaths; now that’s just the name of a nostalgia heavy-metal act. But an attack by North Korea or Iran, or perhaps terrorist groups backed by one or the other or someone else, would be bad enough. Getting serious about preparation makes sense.
Alas, though, neither the CDC nor the nation itself was ready to be that serious. The CDC preparation program wound up being politicized, with activist scientist Edwin Lyman quoted in The New York Times as saying, "It's a predictable response to the Trump administration, which is inflaming tensions and raising the risk of nuclear war.”
That was an amazingly ignorant — or dishonest — statement by Lyman, given that the Obama administration was engaged in similar planning back at the beginning of this decade. I even wrote a piece praising the Obama efforts in The Atlantic back in 2011.
But in response to this sort of politicization, the CDC wound up postponing its nuclear presentation and scheduling a talk about the flu in its place. That’s too bad.
There are important things that people should know in advance about how to respond to a nuclear attack. Many of them were common knowledge during the Cold War but are largely forgotten now. When Hawaii’s false alarm went out Saturday, most of the people receiving it had no idea what to do. The emergency message simply said “seek immediate shelter.” So here’s a brief guide:
►In the event of an attack, the best thing to do — as summarized in that quaint Duck and Cover film from the 1950s — is to get under cover as quickly as possible. If you have advance warning, you should go to the sturdiest indoor area you can reach, and take whatever food and water you can easily carry.
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►If your first warning is the brilliant flash of an exploding atom bomb, you have just a few seconds before it goes from brilliant light to searing heat. You have to get under or behind something that will block the light, and ideally something that will provide shelter from the following blast wave.
►Once the blast has passed, you have a few minutes before fallout (radioactive dust from the nuclear explosion) starts to settle. You want to get or stay indoors, with as much mass (walls, roof, etc.) between you and the fallout as possible. Basements are good; middle floors on high-rises are good; underground parking garages and subway stations are really good.
►When the fallout starts to settle, you want to be indoors under cover — not stuck on a highway trying to evacuate the area, reach a hospital, or get supplies. Even a couple of days sheltering in place can save your life. (There’s more advice at Ready.gov.)
Fallout radiation decays according to the so-called rule of 7:10. Seven hours after the explosion, the radiation drops to a tenth its original level. After seven times seven hours (two days), it’s a tenth of that, or a hundredth the original. Seven times two days (two weeks) and it’s down to a thousandth of the original level.
People need to know these things, and they need to be taught them before the fact. Once the missiles fly, there’s no time.
Forget the politics. As I reminded people when Barack Obama was president, this stuff is physics, and it works the same no matter what your politics are. Let’s try to get serious, while we can.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @instapundit.