Three types of different radiation is the major problem in Nuclear or radiological scenario: Alfa particles, Beta particles and Gamma rays. Alfa particles have a very low penetration power; they can’t penetrate the skin on the body. But if you inhale Alfa particles into your lungs, drink contaminated water, eat contaminated food or have a cut in your skin you may suffer serious damage from Alfa particles. Beta particles have a slightly higher penetration capability and can cause damage to unprotected skin that resembles the kind of wounds you attract from burn damages. Regular clothing gives some protection but the best protection is some kind of rubber or plastic clothing. Gamma rays have a very high penetration power and the cant really be stopped, the radiation dose can only be reduced by various materials. Materials with a high density like lead or concrete gives the best protection against gamma rays. Neutron radiation is similar to gamma rays with a high penetration.
Radiation causes damage to the cells of the body, if the dose of radiation is big enough the person will become sick, even die if the dose is big enough. The chance of contracting cancer and tumors also increases if persons are submitted to radiation. Early symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, being tiered and vomiting.
A gasmask prevents radioactive Alfa and Beta particles from entering your body trough the lungs. If a nuclear or radiological situation would happen cover up with anything you can find, normal cloths is better than nothing, then get into cover as fast as you can. A basement in a building or fallout shelter is the best option. If no such cover is available, pick the most central location on the ground floors in a building. Use the same routine as with chemical warfare; close all windows, doors and ventilation. Use tape or whatever you can find to make the protection better. Clean your entire body to remove as much radioactive particles as possible. Find out where your nearest fallout shelter or Bomb shelter is located.
There is prophylactic treatment that can be used in advance to exposure. Iodide tablets decreases the amount of radiation that the body accumulates by preventing radiation from being absorbed and then leave the body with the urine. This is only reduces some of the effects, it doesn’t prevent them. The immune system often gets severally damaged as an effect of radiation poisoning, often resulting in fatal infections. In the case of an attack with nuclear weapons many surviving people will suffer burn damages from thermal radiation as well as radiation burns, this will make people even more vulnerable to infection. Antibiotics are often given after exposure to prevent infections. Keep all wounds clean and covered.
There is a possibility that radiological materials could be spread by being attached to a conventional bomb to cause even more damage to people. If highly radioactive material like depleted fuel from a nuclear power plant is used there would be a major problem for those how attempt to construct the bomb to actually survive making of the bomb. I have been unable to find any case where a “dirty bomb” has been used.
High Attitude Electro Magnetic Pulse (HEMP)
A nuclear explosion that takes place above 30000m creates a powerful electromagnetic pulse. A explosion that triggered high enough could take out most of the electronic systems and communication system in almost the entire continental United States or the European Union. An electromagnetic pulse has no direct effect on people. William R. Forchten describes a scenario like this in he’s fictional book “One Second After”.
Events involving Nuclear Weapons and Radiological Materials
1942 The Manhattan Project gets started with the objective of creating nuclear weapons. In July 1945 the first nuclear bomb called “Trinity” was tested in New Mexico.
1945 The Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked with nuclear weapons. The weapons used was relatively weak in comparison to the weapons of today (15 and 20 kilotons), but still about 200.000 died of the total population that was less than 500.000. This is the only cases where nuclear weapons been used against an enemy in history.
1952 The US tests the first hydrogen bomb in history named “Mike”, the bomb had an explosive force about 10,5 Megatons.
1952 there was a partial meltdown of the NRX research reactor in Canada. Most of the radioactive leakage was contained within the building housing the reactor.
1961 The Soviet Union tested the most powerful nuclear weapon in history: Tsar Bomba. The nuclear weapon had an explosive force about 60 megatons, 3 megatons is equal to all explosives used in the entire Second World War. 1 Megaton equals 1000 kilotons of explosive force. 1 kiloton equals 1000 tons of TNT. So Hiroshima equaled: 15.000 tons, Tsar Bomba 60.000.000 tons of TNT.
1961 the nuclear reactor aboard the Soviet Strategic Submarine K-19 malfunctions and almost has a complete meltdown. Radioactive cooling water leaks from the reactor. A total meltdown was prevented but eight of the crew later died from radiation sickness.
1962 The Soviet Union placed nuclear weapons and missiles on Cuba. An armed confrontation that could have lead to a nuclear war was very close but could be diverted. This incident is often referred to as The Cuban Missile Crisis. I strongly recommend the book “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis” by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow that analysis the crisis from three different perspectives. There is also a movie about the event called “Thirteen days”.
1967 The US reached its peak in number of nuclear warheads at around 32.500 warheads.
1969 there was a partial meltdown in a small reactor in Lucens, Switzerland. The area containing the reactor was contaminated but no human was exposed. No one died as a result of the incident.
1979 The Three Mile Island accident was the most serious incident in American history until today. There was conflicting information about the accident the first days, there was some radioactive fallout but no one died as direct result. However the fallout may have caused some fatalities from cancer.
1981 Israeli aircraft bombs the Osiraq research reactor in Iraq.
1986 Mordechai Vanunu reveals evidence of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press. He was kidnapped in Rome by Israel intelligence agents and brought back to Israel where he was tried for espionage and treason. He was imprisoned for 18 years and released in 2004. Israel has never gone public with their possession of nuclear weapons.
1986 The Soviet Union reaches its peak with about 45.000 nuclear warheads.
1986 there was a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. 56 died as direct result and hundreds of thousands was exposed to radiation. How many of these that have or will die as a result of cancer is a debated question. Many other countries also got affected by radioactive fallout. This is the worst accident at nuclear power plants until this day.
Sometime during the end of the 1980:s South Africa destroyed all its nuclear weapons. South Africa is the only nuclear power that completely destroyed their nuclear weapons, this was made public 1991.
1999 there was an incident at the Tokaimura nuclear waste storage facility in Japan. It caused radioactive leakage that killed two of the employees.
2006 North Korea makes its first nuclear weapon test. Most information indicates that this was a test with a weapon of relatively weak warhead.
In 2006 the Russian journalist Alexander Litvinenko dies after he’s been poisoned with the radioactive material polonium.
Russia has continued to develop missile systems after the end of the Cold War. One of the current missile projects Bulava are designed to penetrate missile defense systems. The Bulava missiles is intended to be carried by a new Russian class of submarines, the Borei class that is under development.
2011 A massive earthquake outside the coast of Japan results in a devastating Tsunami that resulted in massive physical destruction to the east coast of Japan. The Tsunami knocks out the back-up generators and cooling system at the Nuclear Power plant at Fukushima, during the process of trying to cool the reactors with seawater explosions and radioactive fallout has followed. The full extent of damage and radioactive fallout is still not known.The Situation Today
Existing nuclear powers: The United States and Russia are the most powerful nuclear powers in the world, they have still have around 10.000 warheads per country. France, The United Kingdom, China, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea also have nuclear weapons but not nearly as many as the US and Russia. South Africa used to have nuclear weapons but have chosen to destroy their weapons.
There is a possibility that terrorist could get there hand on a nuclear weapon but it would be very hard for a terrorist group to build a weapon from scratch. It’s my belief that the weapon would have to be either supplied by a state or stolen from a state. The security measures surrounding nuclear weapons would make that highly unlikely, but not impossible. The bombs have to be activated, if this is done wrong the modern weapons will seize to function and the process to reset them is complicated, this can often only be done at the installation where they were built. And if a weapons would be stolen the country would chase the people how had stolen it with all resources of a modern state.
If a country would supply a nuclear weapon to terrorist group there is a very high risk that the weapon would be traced back to country that supplied it and the country would most likely face massive retaliation. A terrorist attack with a high attitude EMP is even more unlikely because of need for an advanced missile as well as a nuclear war head.
US Defensive Systems
The US withdrew from the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty 2002 and has some operational systems that can intercept ballistic missiles and some that are under development. The sea based Aegis system is designed to shoot down air craft and incoming ship to ship missiles and is being developed further for this purpose. There is also the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 System that uses missiles. The THAAD system is designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles as they re-enter earths atmosphere, the entire system is mobile and be moved by transport planes. MEADS is also an ongoing project involving US, Germany and Italy. The Airborne Laser (ABL) is a project to shot down missiles with a laser mounted in aircraft, this system is under development. The ABL system and THAAD system has been covered on the show “Future Weapons” on the Discovery channel for anyone looking for more information. How effective ballistic defense systems would really be is hard to say.
There is also stationary equipment to detect radioactive particles and radiation at US port, airports, many major cities and at important installations. So even if a non state actor could get their hands on nuclear weapons it would be hard to smuggle it into the US and there is a real chance it could be intercepted before reaching its target. In addition to this almost every modern country has a series of automatic stationary systems spread over the country that can detect radioactive fallout in an early stage. This is one of the lessons learned from Chernobyl.
The use of nuclear weapons is in my opinion a very low probability scenario but the most disastrous scenarios that could ever happen.
If you want to learn about how triage is planned to work after a nuclear incident I recommend that you check out the report “The “RTR” Medical Response System for Nuclear and Radiological Mass-Casualty Incidents”.