Let's get one thing straight: we don’t really want to be writing about — let alone thinking about — the possibility of a nuclear attack. Let's also make another thing clear right off the bat: the chances of this happening are pretty unlikely, despite what hysterical headlines and your crazy uncle's Facebook posts might have you think.
That said, government health officials say that having a go-to plan in the (again, unlikely) event of a nuclear disaster can reduce a person’s chances of getting sick or dying. That's why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is planning a briefing on Jan. 16 for doctors, government officials, and emergency medical workers, during which they’ll talk about how federal, state, and local public health programs have planned for a potential nuclear detonation. An announcement for the meeting on the CDC website says that while a nuclear detonation is unlikely, it would have “devastating results."
It's unclear whether the CDC's briefing was prompted by any specific news events, such as threats from North Korea and President Trump’s responses on Twitter. (The CDC did not return Men's Health's requests for comment.) It's also worth pointing out that this is not the first time the CDC has held such a panel informing the public on how to prepare for a hypothetical nuclear attack.
But Ira Nemeth, MD, chair of the American College of Emergency Physicians’ Disaster Committee and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at UMass Memorial Medical Center, says that safety has been on the minds of disaster planners long before the concerns over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities escalated.
“People in disaster planning have been talking about this for a long time. We need to get better at preparing for it,” says Nemeth.
So what should you actually do in the event of a nuclear explosion? Kelly R. McKinney, head of Emergency Management and Enterprise Resilience at NYU Langone Health, says that if you’re within a mile of the blast, the odds are poor that you’ll survive. But people in surrounding areas will likely live through it, and they need to protect themselves from radiation exposure.
“The blast itself is not survivable, but everything beyond the ground zero is really a radiation threat,” he says.
Staying in a safe, well-protected place will reduce radiation exposure and could potentially save your life after a nuclear attack. (The CDC website echoes this, advising people to stay in a shelter for at least 24 hours.) “Radiation has three different protective measures: time, distance, and shielding. That’s what you do to get away from radiation. If it happens, it’s a pretty simple process you follow,” McKinney says.
An easy way to remember what to do, he says, is to think, "Get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned."A basement, a bathroom, or a room with no windows or one with well-sealed windows will reduce your chances of being exposed to radioactive debris. By contrast, a car isn’t a safe place, unless you don’t have other options.
Radiation levels from the detonation fall off dramatically within a matter of hours, but staying where you are, listening to news reports, and getting information from friends and family outside the area (in the event that you can't reach anyone in your area) are crucial.
"The plume is all this radioactive debris and can get transported sometimes hundreds of miles downwind. It’s important to know if you’re in the fallout zone,” says McKinney.
You could spend a few days in a shelter, so Nemeth recommends preparing a disaster kit or box ahead of time, the way some people do for hurricanes and other natural disasters. Stock it with a few days' worth of water, non-perishable food, and any prescription medications you’ll need. Keep a hard copy of phone numbers of family and friends who live out of town in case your contacts list dies along with your mobile phone.
Once it seems OK to come out, follow your local emergency advisories. Watch the wind patterns. Steer clear of any radioactive dust and debris. If you’re exposed to any radioactive material, brush it off as soon as possible and take a gentle shower to rinse it off hair and skin.
As depressing as it is to plan for a nuclear disaster, try to stay positive.
“I still think it’s a pretty low likelihood,” says Nemeth. But knowing what to do in the worst-case scenario, no matter how unlikely it might seem, is still important.
“It’s definitely a scary concept and people haven’t had to think about this since back in the Cold War days,” he says.