Protect and Survive

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the British government produced a series of public information films called Protect and Survive, about what to do in case of nuclear attack:

The series was considered classified material that was intended for transmission on all television channels only if the government determined that nuclear attack was likely within 72 hours, although recordings were leaked to organisations like CND and press organisations like the BBC, who broadcast it on Panorama as a discussion of public affairs.

I suppose I’m just old enough — and of the “right” temperament — that I don’t find them particularly chilling in their mundanity:

The printed booklet, from May 1980, condenses the advice down to a few pages.

Many people seem to react with a nervous laugh and an outburst like, “Oh, yeah, that’ll help when you get nuked!” — as if the advice had been presented as “What to do when you’re at Ground Zero,” rather than “What to do if you’re far enough away to survive the initial blast.”

Glenn Reynolds recently discussed the unexpected return of Duck and Cover, in this post-Cold War era of terrorist threats:

Even short-term sheltering (a day or two) before attempting to evacuate the area will dramatically increase the number of survivors. The difficulty, as the planning document puts it, will be overcoming people’s “natural instincts to run from danger and reunify with family members.” Overcoming those instincts will require preparation and education on the part of public health and school authorities.

When Americans think about nuclear war, we tend to think about the apocalyptic scene at the end of Dr. Strangelove, a war involving thousands of megaton-yield hydrogen bombs. (A megaton is the equivalent of a million tons of TNT, or about 60-70 times the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, which had an explosive power of around 15 kilotons, the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT). But in 1951, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had yet tested a hydrogen bomb, and the duck-and-cover era authorities were basically preparing people for a rerun of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with us on the receiving end of relatively small numbers of (relatively) small nuclear weapons. “Duck and cover” advice is particularly effective there.

An atomic explosion can blind you, burn you, crush you with explosive power, or poison you with radiation. The “duck and cover” advice, based in no small part on the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, was designed to do what could be done to minimize that.

Years ago, I found the following fact — from Table C, “Per-Cent Mortality at Various Distances” of The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — morbidly fascinating:

From 0 feet to 1000 feet from ground zero, percent mortality was 93.0. Not 100.0 percent. Not 99.9 percent. But 93.0 percent. Certain earthquake-proof concrete buildings survived the blast intact; I guess that accounts for the 7.0 percent.

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