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How to Survive Nuclear War

Nuclear War: Still A Very Real Threat Today. Is it possible to survive a nuclear war between nations? What does it take to survive just one nuclear bomb detonation? How much risk does the U.S. have of a nuclear attack? What to do and tips on surviving a nuclear confrontation.
by Cliff Montgomery, Copyright ©
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Without a doubt the primary question now confronting nuclear security is: what do groups like Al-Qaeda know about nuclear weaponry, and what have they done about it?

Bush's Emphasis on Nuclear Terrorism

A recent story in the Washington Post (at the time of this writing) sums up this dilemma nicely:

"Bush's emphasis on nuclear terrorism dates from a briefing in the Situation Room during the last week of October [2001]. According to knowledgeable sources, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet walked the president through an accumulation of fresh evidence about Al-Qaeda's nuclear ambition. Described by one consumer of intelligence as [a necessary but] "incomplete mosaic" of fact, inference and potentially false leads, Tenet's briefing raised fears that "sent the president through the roof." With considerable emotion, two officials said, Bush ordered his national security team to give nuclear terrorism priority over every other threat to the United States."

But when spelling out what nuclear weaponry Al-Qaeda may actually possess, administration officials seemed more prosaic. The Post added:

"The consensus government view is that Al-Qaeda probably has acquired the lower-level radio nuclides strontium 90 and cesium 137, many thefts of which have been documented in recent years. These materials cannot produce a nuclear detonation, but they are radioactive contaminants. Conventional explosives could scatter them in what is known as a radiological dispersion device, colloquially called a 'dirty bomb'.

"The number of deaths that might result is hard to predict but probably would be modest.

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One senior government specialist said "its impact as a weapon of psychological terror" would be far greater."

Dirty Bomb(s) Would Spread Fears of Radiation

Unlike a conventional nuke of any massive power, which on account of its sheer size, weight, and complexity would almost certainly need a missile to be delivered to its intended target, a 'dirty bomb' could be covertly smuggled around in a suitcase or backpack.

The fact that Al-Qaeda's old Afghan bases had at least the low-grade uranium or other radioactive materials necessary for a "dirty bomb" is well-proven, if not necessarily well-known. A December 2001 United Press International (UPI) wire report stated that low-grade uranium and cyanide "have reportedly been discovered in drums at an al-Qaeda terrorist base near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

"The discovery -- the first evidence that suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had obtained [such] materials -- was confirmed by U.S. officials, the London Telegraph said."

While statements bin Laden made about this time to a Pakistani reporter regarding Al-Qaeda's possession of some type of nuclear weapon received rather sensationalistic and breathless press -- they were perhaps the last known statement bin Laden has made as of this writing -- the much more reliable UPI article was lost in the shuffle. But the wire report was published on Christmas Eve, a time infamous in news circles for 'swallowing up' large news stories.

"The suspicious substances were found in tunnels at the edge of an air base controlled by U.S. forces," the UPI report continued.

"Haji Gullalai, the interim intelligence chief for Kandahar province, told The Telegraph that after capturing the airport area earlier this month, his men discovered the materials in the tunnels.

"There were big drums the size of petrol drums and metal boxes with sides seven or eight inches thick," he said.

"The bottles were labeled in four different languages -- Chinese, Russian, Arabic and English."

"The Telegraph quoted U.S. officials as saying that Russia, the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, China and Pakistan were all possible sources for the uranium."

But how likely is it for a violent group to gain access to more than just the materials and know-how necessary to make a mere 'dirty bomb'? If such a bad scenario is possible, what can be done to keep it from becoming reality?

Reports that Bin Laden Purchased Uranium to Build a Nuclear Bomb

An unconfirmed October report from stated that intelligence sources wishing not to be named told the online journal that "Bin Laden had almost certainly procured a supply of uranium-235 [the best-known component of the more conventional atom bomb] six months before the September 11 suicide attacks. The uranium was believed to have reached him in a multimillion deal with Ukrainian-born mobster Semion Mogilevich."

In all such unconfirmed reports -- that is, reports not also published in other, reliable wire services, newspapers, or journals, or not verified by a released statement or report by someone in a position to know -- one must consider the article's claim unproven. And, as you will read below, S.O.S. doesn't believe the claim currently holds up to scrutiny; though as you'll also see, that doesn' t mean such an exchange might not eventually happen.

Of the countries to consider a 'nuke security risk', China seems to be the safest of the triad consisting of China, Pakistan, and the former Soviet states. China is easily the most stable, with a strong economy and Muslim fanatics of its own to worry about. And since its scientists still enjoy a good deal of perks and benefits (it is still a communist nation, remember), the possibility of a 'rogue' Chinese nuclear technician selling secrets to someone who may well use the weapon on him seems rather remote.

That leaves Pakistan and the countries of the former Soviet Union. If a real nuclear dilemma shows itself, it will almost certainly have its origin from one or both of these countries.

CIA Director George Tenet told Bush in October that Pakistan's nuclear weapons program was more deeply compromised than either government has publicly admitted. Readers may recall that Pakistan arrested two of its former nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid, on Oct. 23 2001 -- little more than a month after 9-11 -- and interrogated them about contacts with bin Laden and his lieutenants.

The Washington Post reported this March that "Pakistani officials maintain that the scientists did not pass important secrets to Al-Qaeda, but they have not disclosed that Mahmood failed multiple polygraph examinations about his activities.

"Most disturbing to U.S. intelligence," the Post continued, "was another leak from Pakistan's program that has not been mentioned in public. According to American sources, a third Pakistani nuclear scientist tried to negotiate the sale of an atomic weapon design to Libya. The Post was unable to learn which Pakistani blueprint was involved, whether the transaction was completed, or what became of the scientist after discovery.

"Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is believed to include bombs of relatively simple design, built around cores of highly enriched uranium, and more sophisticated weapons employing Chinese implosion technology to compress plutonium to a critical mass."

Strong stuff -- but we are probably not as close to nuclear disaster as some breathless media reports, such as the ones above, would have us believe. Attempts by groups like Al-Qaeda to purchase plans of real, bona-fide nukes seem to have one great flaw: being little more than well-funded, outlaw groups without the tacit support of a single nation, they must live in the shadows of underworld activity and treason. They must trust that in exchange for a small fortune, the world's most unsavory characters will dutifully give them reliable top-secret nuclear designs and components.

Apparently such people have come to the conclusion that nuclear-armed madmen would be bad for business. That's true enough; in any case, they appear time and again to have offered Al-Qaeda and such groups a miracle nuclear plan or component that turned out upon closer examination to be little more than trash -- with the sellers long gone and much richer for their cons, swindles and false leads.

In one case, Al-Qaeda was taken in by scam artists selling "red mercury," a phony substance they described as a precursor, or ingredient, of weapons-grade materials. A December article in the Christian Science Monitor adds "Clever criminals pitch this element as a crucial component of the Soviet weapons program."

"In the case of Al-Qaeda, the 'red mercury' turned out to be radioactive rubbish," concluded Gavin Cameron, a professor of politics at Britain's University of Salford, in a paper on terrorist nuclear-proliferation activities.

The Monitor article said that "Al-Qaeda has been a player in fissile-material markets for years, according to intelligence reports. In the early '90s, it allegedly scoured Kazakhstan for USSR-era material, in the belief that the high percentage of Muslims in this former Soviet republic might open doors. Apparently, the group came up empty.

"Since then, Al-Qaeda may have been snared by its share of scams. They were dealing, after all, in a back alley of world commerce that makes drug-dealing look both honest and inexpensive.

"At least once, Al-Qaeda operatives have been offered low-grade uranium reactor fuel unsuitable for weapons use without further enrichment."

The idea of such people being fleeced time and again by the underworld surely brings a smile. Yet there is still cause for real concern.

Wahabbism -- a religious fascism beginning about 100 years ago in Saudi Arabia, and proclaiming that all who do not live by its Islamic fundamentalist tenets to be unworthy of dignity, and even of life -- is the distorted form of Islam poisoning the Arab world today. All Muslim fanatics, from Palestinian bombers to Al-Qaeda members, believe in some form of Wahabbism.

They Believe in Creating a Caliphate

The idea of re-creating a massive Islamic empire, a great 'caliphate', is central to this teaching. Before its fall, the Taliban was considered to have created the purest form of Wahabbi society on earth. And such believers are, to a person, deeply anti-Israeli and Anti-American, since they are considered to be the two societies most certainly keeping this 'great society' from becoming reality.

Retired Gen. Hameed Gul, an ex-chief of Pakistan's ISI -- that country's version of the CIA -- predicted to UPI after Sept. 11 that one day there would be a single Islamic state stretching from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and it would have nuclear weapons and control the oil resources of the Persian Gulf.

UPI said General Gul -- a longtime Taliban supporter -- is "an ISI legend" and still popular among the agency's leaders, who were his junior officers in the late 1980s. Gul is vehemently anti-American and a Muslim fundamentalist. He acts as "strategic adviser" to Pakistan's extremist religious parties and spent two weeks in Afghanistan immediately before Sept. 11.

The Pakistani officer corps is 20 percent fundamentalist, according to a post Sept. 11 confidential survey by a branch of military intelligence operating separately from ISI. Pakistan's nuclear scientists are known as "profoundly fundamentalist" and anti-American. They are particularly resentful of America's economic and military sanctions against Pakistan as punishment for their country's nuclear weapons program. Not long after 9-11 and coming on the heels of the arrests of scientists Mahmood and Majid,. the CIA reportedly submitted a list of six more nuclear scientists it wanted Pakistan to probe on suspicion of having links with al Qaeda.

Their guru is Abdul Qadir Khan, the scientist who devised Pakistan's first nuclear weapon. Pakistan now has an estimated 20 such weapons in its arsenal.

Pakistani President Musharraf, a devout Muslim who is no believer in Wahabbism, always keeps a dangerous precedent in mind as he keeps Gul and his ilk in line: Six years ago, a group of Pakistani army officers was arrested for plotting to kill Army Chief of Staff Gen. Abdul Waheed, who had fired Gul for secretly assisting Muslim rebels in several countries.

The Old Soviet States: Nuclear Warheads for Sale?

Still, the likeliest source of nuclear materials, or of a warhead bought whole, is the vast complex of weapons labs and storage sites that began to crumble with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. For instance, Russia -- the largest former Soviet state -- has decommissioned some 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons since then, but it has been able to document only a fraction of the inventory.

The National Intelligence Council, an umbrella organization for the U.S. analytical community, has reported to Congress that on at least four occasions between 1992 and 1999, "weapons-grade and weapons-usable nuclear materials have been stolen from some Russian institutes."

Victor Yerastov, chief of nuclear accounting and control for Russia's ministry of atomic energy, has said that in 1998 a theft in Chelyabinsk Oblast made off with "quite sufficient material to produce an atomic bomb."

And, perhaps most disturbing, there have been reports that a number of RA-115 backpack nukes, a small-scale but readily portable nuclear bomb, is missing from Russian stockpiles. (Because of their obvious importance, will we discuss these explosives later on in the article.)

Overall, a December UPI wire report stated that "the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria is aware of 175 cases of trafficking in nuclear materials since 1993 [throughout the world], including 18 that involved highly enriched uranium and plutonium pellets the size of a U.S. silver dollar."

Luckily the thefts of less threatening nuclear byproducts, especially isotopes of strontium, cesium and partially enriched uranium, are easily the most common.

But there is one point about Al-Qaeda's nuclear program on which practically all experts agree: It does not yet have an actual atomic explosive. If it did, the chances are it would have exploded by now.

What the U.S. Can Do to Prevent Nuclear War or a Nuclear Attack

Preventing a nuclear terrorist attack on the US will require a comprehensive effort spanning far into the future, say US officials. It will be perhaps the most important part of an overall commitment to homeland defense. More concretely, it will almost certainly necessitate redoubled cooperation with Pakistan and Russia, the most likely sources of loose nukes in the world. Warming relations between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a shared sense of concern by U.S. and most Pakistani officials, offer excellent windows of opportunity, according to officials.

Since 9-11, Pakistan's Musharraf truly seems to have done what is conceivably possible in checking the small but virulent strain of Muslim fundamentalism in his country. There is a very concrete reason for Musharraf' s efforts, outside of the fact that his administration does seem, on the whole, do have been appalled by the 9-11 terror attacks: Pakistan itself could eventually face civil chaos, and nuclear war with India, if the terror groups in Pakistan aren't done away with permanently. So the immediate ties and shared worries between the U.S. and Pakistan regarding this Terror War couldn't be stronger, say officials.

On the Russian side, there is already a decent foundation of mutual effort on which to build. Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. and Russia have employed several programs designed to reduce the number of standing nukes in the world. One of the most successful endeavors has been the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, created in 1991 thanks to the efforts of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA). CTR has grown into a $1 billion-plus effort overseen on the US side by the Departments of Energy, State, and Defense.

"These programs have achieved impressive results for a relatively minor investment," says Stephen LaMontagne, a nuclear analyst at the Council for a Livable World Education Fund.

CTR funds pay for the destruction and dismantling of Russian ballistic missiles and submarines, among other things. Last year, $57 million of U.S. funds went toward completion of the first wing of the Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility, which will ultimately have the capacity to protect 6,250 dismantled warheads.

Then there's the Department of Energy's Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program, which has so far improved physical security at 13 Russian Navy nuclear sites and 24 civilian nuclear installations. There are however some 58 more Russian nuclear sites that need security upgrades, according to DOE figures.

And there are some headaches. The Christian Science Monitor reports that "efforts to replace three Russian nuclear reactors that produce both desperately needed energy and plutonium have stalled in a swirl of politics."

There could also be a big problem on our side of the fence. The Bush administration, in its first crack at drawing up a national-security budget, has slashed the funding of much of this non-proliferation effort.

Bush's budget took $100 million out of the Department of Energy's non-proliferation programs -- a hefty amount in anyone's book. Many on the Hill are combating the proposed cuts, however. The Secretary of Energy's advisory board has been one such critic, stating that nothing in these programs should be cut until the U.S. achieves certain things, namely: a real strategic plan; a high-level position within the White House devoted to the issue, perhaps within the National Security Council; an even greater budget for non-proliferation, and more urgency.

"There is a clear and present danger to the international community as well as to American lives and liberties," the report concluded.

That possible mistake aside, this isn't to say Bush has been lying down when it comes to a nuclear threat. The administration has deployed hundreds of sophisticated sensors since November to U.S. borders, overseas facilities and choke points around Washington. It has also placed the Delta Force, the nation's elite commando unit, on a new standby alert to seize control of nuclear materials that the sensors may detect.

Ordinary Geiger counters, worn on belt clips and resembling pagers, have been in use by the U.S. Customs Service for years. The newer devices are called gamma ray and neutron flux detectors. Until now they were carried only by mobile Nuclear Emergency Search Teams (NEST) dispatched when extortionists claimed to have radioactive materials. Because terrorists would naturally give no such warning, and because NEST scientists are unequipped for combat, the Delta Force has been assigned the mission of killing or disabling anyone with a suspected nuclear device and turning it over to the scientists to be disarmed.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia have also rushed new detectors to their borders after American intelligence warnings. Since even the best current sensors might miss some radioactive energies, the Bush administration has also quietly ordered a crash program to build next-generation devices at the three national nuclear laboratories.

According to the Washington Post, in a series of "tabletop exercises" conducted at the highest levels, President Bush's national security team has also highlighted difficult choices the chief executive would face if the new sensors picked up a radiation signature on a boat steaming up the Potomac River.

Another hypothetical scenario, participants said, was a sensor detecting a possible radiation signature from a nuclear weapon amid a large volume of traffic on a highway such as Interstate 95.

According to two participants, the group considered all conceivable scenarios in determining how the Energy Department's NEST teams, working with Delta Force, might best find and take control of the weapon without giving a terrorist time to use it.

What Can We Do to Prepare for a Nuclear War?

Because ionizing radiation ionizes what it effects, it's easy to see that a medium like a gas or a voltage could be used to measure the amount of charge liberated in that medium once it is radiated. These are, after all, the most common methods of measuring radiation.

The infamous Geiger Counter, for instance, is really nothing more than a small volume of gas with a voltage applied across it. As the radiation enters the gas, it causes electrons to be formed which are collected and measured to determine the amount of initial radiation present.

Another common detection device actually uses the old Glow-In-The-Dark plastics, paints, and watches we all had when we were kids. This process of radiation detection is called scintillation, which is merely using a medium to see the visible light an object gives off after its interaction with radiation.

Another measure of a radiation's intensity and energy is to somehow collect and use the light given off by the activity. There are in fact many different ways of obtaining such a measurement, using semiconductors, liquids, superheated bubbles, crystals and plastics.

So how would all this help us if a terrorist nuclear detonation occurs in a populated area of the U.S.?

Since a 'dirty bomb' would probably be the closest to a nuke a group like al Qaeda would use on U.S. shores (or Britain's, or perhaps Saudi Arabia's for that matter -- they hate everyone), it would only release radioactivity around the few blocks in which the bomb was detonated. Serious business, but as said earlier, its bark is much bigger than its bite.

You can of course use the detection devices mentioned above to help you determine if there is some radioactivity in your area after a 'dirty bomb' attack, or even after a true nuke attack; Geiger counters and Glow-in-the-Dark plastics can be picked up at several stores, at reasonable prices. (If using a ' Glow-in-the-Dark' piece, make sure it's kept from a direct light source as you make your basic measurement, in order to get a true reading.)

If you care to know more about 'dirty bombs', S.O.S. has an extra article on just this subject, since -- if we ever suffer some radioactive attack -- this type of bomb will be the most likely culprit. Check it out when you have the time.

The answer for the other, much more serious weapon is of course another matter. In the unlikely (but possible) threat of a true nuclear attack, the two main worries consist of the blast itself, and what are called the 'thermal pulse effects'.

Most of the energy released by a nuclear explosion is in the form of blast and shock; the remaining 35% or thereabouts is in the form of heat.

A readily portable terrorist nuclear bomb, such as the RA-115 backpack nukes reported missing from Russian stockpiles, would -- while still very dangerous -- only possess a fraction of the power released by a conventional nuke. For instance, the Hiroshima bomb released a power of about 15 kilotons when it exploded above the city; the RA-115 backpack nukes are one kiloton yield each.

Nuclear blast effects, it should be remembered, also drop off quickly with distance. At Hiroshima a brick building survived only 640 feet from ground zero. And less than a mile away a trolley car remained intact and on its tracks.

For concerns of a future attack, the current thinking is that with the continuing trend towards more accurate MIRV'ed (multiple, independently targetable, re-entry vehicled) nuclear weapons, they are now mostly smaller than in the past, averaging on the order of 500 kiloton or less and for submarines only 200 kiloton. Of course, there are now more warheads per missile (4-10) and they are substantially more accurate than during the height of the Cold War.

If a terror organization strikes, we may expect structures dear to the American heart -- the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Capitol building -- to be hit first.

All buildings will suffer light damage if caught in a shock wave of even 1 psi (per square inch) peak overpressure -- shattered windows, doors damaged or blown off hinges and interior partitions cracked. The blast wind from a modern nuke can exceed hurricane velocities above 2 psi.

So how much blast or overpressure is too much to survive? It depends on where you are when it comes charging through, but from a 500 kiloton blast, 2.2 miles away, it'll be arriving about 8 seconds after the detonation flash. (An even larger 1 megaton blast, but 5 miles away, would give you about 20 seconds.) Like surviving an imminent tornado, utilizing those essential seconds after the initial flash to 'duck & cover' could be the difference between life & death for many.

Majority of Nuke Casualties Are Those Caught in Blast Shck Wave

Being caught in either the overpressure of the blast shock wave or the blast wind are the main causes of casualties and damage.

For the man-in-the-open example above (2.2 miles from the detonation of a 500 kiloton air burst), this sharp body slap would produce an immense overpressure that might perforate his eardrums. He would also experience a blast of wind of about 295 mph for about three seconds that would launch him into a probably fatal impact, and would probably also likely suffer injuries from flying missile fragments of glass and debris. It's like suddenly being in the middle of the strongest tornado that just as quickly fades away.

And as in a tornado, prompt protective actions can make a great difference in one's survivability, believe it or not. For example, it requires about eight times the blast wind force to move a person who is lying down compared to a standing person. Diving into a ditch, depression, basement or anywhere else normally thought of for tornado protection will improve your odds greatly. You are also much less a target for glass shards and debris missiles. This simple change in position and placement can save many lives. (S.O.S. also has a good article on surviving a tornado; you may wish to look at it as well.)

Then there's the thermal pulse that accompanies the massive burst. This pulse represents 35% of the energy expended in a nuclear explosion. Burns caused by the heat energy of this fireball will produce the most far-reaching consequences.

For our example above of the man-in-the-open, 2.2 miles from a 500 kiloton air detonation, fatal blast injuries would have served in most cases to put him out of his misery. The thermal pulse, traveling at the speed of light, would have already delivered lethal burns and his clothing would have burst into fire if truly exposed in the open. In fact, about 50% of those fully exposed to the fireball anywhere in the 2 psi or greater range would eventually die from the severity of their burns.

However, if there is fog or haze or any kind of opaque material or structure between people and the oncoming fireball, the effects of the thermal pulse can be greatly reduced. With medium haze it can be cut by 50% and with heavy fog down to even just 10%. Smog in the big cities could actually be partly protective for once.

Also, while it delivers most of its energy within the first second, the larger the bomb the longer it'll take to deliver its full compliment of thermal energy -- up to several seconds for some megaton bombs. Quickly diving behind anything creating a shadow could be lifesaving.

Besides fog, smog, haze or clouds, there are buildings, trees, hills and other objects that would also block and reduce some portion of the thermal pulse. In fact, the more densely built-up an area is, the less likely the inhabitants would be to suffer the full impact of the thermal pulse. Of course, they may still have to deal with the resultant fires, as well as any blast damage.

Bottom Line: The majority of Americans, even in a full-scale all-out nuclear war, would survive the initial blast and thermal effects of nuclear explosions. Even with a large 1 megaton explosion and being as few as 8-10 miles away from ground zero, you would likely find that you had survived the initial thermal, blast and shock wave. With any kind of prompt protective action your odds of surviving at even half that distance are quite high.

It should also be mentioned that with the much smaller yield and resulting blast damage area of a likely terrorist nuclear weapon, your odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time during the attack are even more remote. In these trying times, that's something to remember.

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