Professors analyze nuclear blast safety guidelines

In an attempt to help people effectively respond to a nuclear threat, engineering and public policy professors Keith Florig and Baruch Fischhoff have published an article in Health Physics called “Individuals’ Decisions Affecting Radiation Exposure After a Nuclear Explosion.”

The article’s intent is to provide individuals with information not offered by the government about nuclear blasts.

Florig, the lead author of the paper, said that there is a problem with how the United States government organizes information on nuclear blasts. In particular, he said that government officials do not ask the public about what they are interested in knowing.

“That [information] goes out pretty much as unfiltered advice,” he said.

Florig and Fischhoff hope to help people make decisions about how to prepare for and respond to a nuclear blast with their paper.

Florig said, “That kind of information that’s very simple to produce is just not available.”

In their paper, Florig and Fischhoff considered whether it was worth purchasing the emergency supplies recommended by the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Homeland Security recommends purchasing such supplies as food, tools, bedding, and clothes, in case of an emergency.

The authors found that the supplies cost $465 for initial stocking and $250 per year to maintain. Moreover, the authors found that there is only a slight probability that these supplies will actually be used — less than 1 percent.

This probability is based on several other contingencies, however, including whether the wind will be blowing in the individual’s direction, whether that individual is home, and whether that individual finds out about the threat in time to react.

Environmental Health Administrator for Allegheny County Anthony Gaglierd said that there are many different types of nuclear incidents, each of which has different ramifications and appropriate responses. The least severe incident, he said, is the exposure of individuals to a radioactive source.

“That’s basically going to affect the people that are there,” said Gaglierd.

Dispersible radioactive isotopes, on the other hand, are radioactive sources that contaminate an entire area.

If the device explodes, “[the] explosion is probably going to be the biggest problem,” said Gaglierd, injuring or killing people in the area.

In the case of a dirty bomb, or radiological dispersal device, which consists of both explosives and radioactive materials, Gaglierd said that public officials must assess radiation and contamination levels. They would also need to quarantine the affected area.

While dirty bombs do not create self-sustaining nuclear reactions, Gaglierd said that they might contaminate individuals with plutonium or uranium, or damage surrounding buildings.

If radioactive contamination travels through the air as a result, it may reach homes outside of the immediate blast area. Gaglierd said that people near the affected area will probably not have time to evacuate and should seek shelter in their basements.

According to Florig and Fischhoff’s paper, a person 20 to 50 kilometers away from the blast would experience a 2 percent cancer risk if sheltered, compared to a 20 percent cancer risk if unsheltered.

Florig said, “The gamma radiation from these particles is very penetrating.” According to Florig, the typical basement blocks 90–95 percent of gamma rays.

In light of the basement’s sheltering capability, Gaglierd suggests keeping a bin of canned food and water ready for emergency purposes. Gaglierd suggested preparing for a nuclear threat just as one would for a flood or snow storm.

“You’re acquiring stuff everyday,” Gaglierd said. “When you go shopping, buy an extra box of cereal, a couple of extra cans of ravioli.”

In regard to whether it is worth the money to purchase emergency supplies, Florig said, “Each person needs to do that calculation for themselves.”

Additionally, the paper provides information about how long a person should remain in a shelter after a nuclear blast. According to the paper, such a decision depends on both the basement’s level of protection and how long it takes an individual to cross the contaminated area.

Such information, Florig hopes, will allow individuals to make informed decisions when faced with the threat of a nuclear attack.

“All of these questions ought to be worked through,” Florig said.