12 August 2017

Why the Bomb Isn't As Scary Anymore

     Alright folks, let's get serious. A nuclear bomb is possibly the scariest and most dangerous weapon of all time. We have seen a lot of people talking about what might happen if anybody uses one (which probably/hopefully won't happen), and I wanted to talk about a few things to hopefully give you some peace of mind. It may not be as bad as you think.

     First off, let's talk about the bad part (the part that is as bad as you think): If you are at or near the location of a nuclear blast, you are probably dead. If that scares you...fair enough, but there is nothing that can be done in that instant. We're going to assume you were not destroyed in the initial blast. Here's what you need to know:

A nuclear detonation is not a nuclear meltdown

     A nuclear blast does not turn a place into a radioactive wasteland, at least not the way we see in movies. A nuclear core meltdown, something like Chernobyl, is a constant release of radiation from a still-active nuclear source. The nuclear fuel core is no longer cooled and protected and is releasing the radiation.
     In a nuclear detonation, the nuclear material is burned up in a high-speed reaction, releasing all the energy at once. There is no remaining nuclear source to continue emitting ionizing radiation.

There are different types of radiation

     With a nuclear detonation, we are not concerned with ultra-violet (UV) radiation or microwave radiation, we're more concerned with ionizing radiation, which consists of alpha, beta, and neutron particles, as well as gamma and X-rays. The nasty ones are gamma rays, X-rays, and neutron particles. X-rays and gamma rays are very similar in any important way. These rays are shot out when the detonation occurs.

     At the moment of the blast, gamma and x-rays are really your main concern. they shoot out like beams of light in whichever direction they are headed, and basically just keep going until they are diffused. If you are very near a nuclear detonation, you will get a heavy dose of radiation, about as severe as your exposure to the heat and pressure of the blast. So if you get survive and have high levels of radiation exposure, you will likely also have burns and possible pressure damage, like ruptured eardrums or burst lungs (that last one means you probably didn't survive). Doses radiation at this point can be fatal or can cause what is known as radiation sickness or radiation poisoning. The more radiation you are exposed to, the more sick you will be. The three factors to limit your exposure are demonstrated below and are Time, Distance, and Shielding.


     Okay, I know. I told you I was going to make you feel better. I'm getting to it. At least now you should know exactly what makes the nuclear detonation so powerful. All of that basically lasted a minute. If you survived that, now is the time for you to take action, and because you are awesome and capable, it gets a lot less scary.

What about fallout?

     For a surface burst nuclear detonation, you get the characteristic mushroom cloud:

     As you can see, after the outward blast, there is a vacuum effect and all that dirt and debris, which is now radioactive, is pulled into the sky. The radiation in this material is basically alpha and beta particles. Here is a simple picture of the penetrating power of alpha (top), beta (middle), compared to x-ray and gamma (bottom).

     Obviously, alpha does not go through much and beta does not go through much more. Wimps. The key thing to remember is that these two particles are just that; they are particles. They are little tiny radioactive pieces, whereas gamma and x-rays are rays, which you can't pick up, they just move through space.
     Fallout consists of debris which is emitting alpha and beta particles. The fallout will go where the wind takes it. Here's the (kind of) good news. You can get warning of fallout and you can protect yourself. If you cannot get out of the way by evacuating, then you can shelter in place. Alpha particles can't go through even paper. beta particles can be stopped by your clothes. However, if either of these get inside your body, they will continue to emit their cute little ionization into your cells.

     After the initial blast, if fallout is heading your way, you can shelter inside, wear personal protective equipment, turn off your your HVAC system, and you are not going to be cooked by the radiation. It is very important to use respiratory protection. Do you know what the military wears for radiation protection? Gloves, boots, hooded coveralls, and a mask. That's it. That's enough to protect against alpha and beta particles. After fallout, it would be a large scale process to evacuate and decontaminate everyone in the fallout zone, but it could be done.

The better news

     Fallout is what happens with a surface burst detonation. Fortunately, the most tactically advantageous way to attack is to use an air burst. With an air burst, the fireball does not touch the ground which means it does not pull up all the debris from the ground, which means no fallout! The damage is contained to the obliterated area, which would be a really lousy place to be, but if you are not in the immediate hazard area, and you're still alive, you did it!

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