You’re not going to save everybody, but there’s a difference between 500,000 dead and 800,000 dead

Tuesday, April 12th, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought back the old question of how civil defense could help reduce the death toll from nuclear war:

But while a full-scale, US-Russia nuclear war would overwhelm target cities and devastate the global climate, up-to-date civil defense can make a difference in saving lives in what might be a more likely nuclear incident, like a terrorist bomb or a missile lobbed by a rogue state. “Yes, sadly, some people would die immediately and have no control,” says Kristyn Karl, a political scientist at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “But recent models show us there are many situations in which a lot of people would survive.”

The first step to making civil defense useful in the 21st century is to help people overcome what Karl calls the “fatalism and apathy” that nuclear weapons can engender, which is why she and her colleagues launched a program in 2017 called Reinventing Civil Defense. Using everything from graphic novels to posters to websites — Karl’s colleague at Stevens, Alex Wellerstein, is behind the Nukemap site that allows you to simulate a nuclear strike of any size on any location — the project aims to reawaken the public to the still-existing threat of nuclear war, and “the actionable steps,” as Karl puts it, that can be taken to potentially save their lives.

That advice can be broken down into three main points: get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned.

Should you receive warning of an incoming strike or detonation, get inside the nearest standing building — ideally one that is concrete — stay there for 12 to 24 hours, the amount of time when radiation levels from fallout will be at their worst, and wait for news about where to evacuate next.

More meaningful civil defense would require federal, state, and local governments to take the nuclear threat as seriously as they do others. When I spoke to Wellerstein in 2018 for my book End Times, he noted that while active shooter drills have become common in American schools, comparatively little is done on what actions can be taken after a nuclear strike. (Comparing the two threats is difficult, but one risk expert in 2018 put the chance of a student being killed by a gun while in a public school on any given day since 1999 at 1 in 614 million.)

“These sorts of activities can cause people not only to behave in their better interest during an emergency, but also to take it more seriously,” Wellerstein told me then. “You’re not going to save everybody, but there’s a difference between 500,000 dead and 800,000 dead.”


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    And after that 24 hour period, the immediate survivor of the nuclear attack can step outside and find that there is no electric power, no water, no wastewater treatment, no food supplies. Surviving the initial explosion is only the first step in a path for which we are almost totally unprepared — as societies and as individuals.

    When a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast with the energy of multiple nuclear bombs, the devastation is confined to a relatively small area — and the rest of the United States pours in assistance on an incredible scale. But when the rest of the US has been nuked, there will be no cavalry coming to the rescue.

    The message is — Avoid a Nuclear War if at all possible! That has immediate relevance to our idiotic government foolishly pumping up the violence in the Ukraine and prodding nuclear-armed Russia. The only place which would gain from an unnecessary nuclear war that destroyed the US, Europe, and Russia would be China.

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