Civil Defense Perspectives March 2015 Volume 31 No. 3
The U.S. long ago adopted the nonstrategy of deliberately leaving its citizens completely unprotected against nuclear weapons. For prevention it has depended on the concept of nuclear deterrence. This depends on the enemy being rational, concerned about its own survival, and identifiable—and the willingness and ability of the U.S. to utterly crush the foe.
Nuclear proliferation, unilateral U.S. disarmament, technological change, and the rise of many enemies willing or eager to die in the process of killing infidels mean that nuclear deterrence is much less reliable—or even impossible.
The 1940s technology of the atomic bomb is more ancient than that of cassette tapes, in-home television, or transistor radios, Richard Maybury points out. And it was long ago miniaturized. As early as 1962, Washington had the Davy Crockett warhead the size of a desktop copier that weighed 51 pounds.
The possibility of the “FedEx option,” which Maybury discussed with the late Sam Cohen, has never been denied, to his knowledge. The accuracy of FedEx delivery is better than that of any missile. While the character of the fallout might reveal the source of the nuclear material, it would not reveal the identity or location of the attackers. How could anyone retaliate?
Since something like this has been possible for half a century, and no one has done it yet, there may be some impediment (Early Warning Report, April 2015). But if it does happen, civil defense is the only way to save lives.
Note that such weapons, unlike the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, would be groundburst and thus create dangerous fallout.
For decades, Physicians for Civil Defense and Doctors for Disaster Preparedness have deplored the absence of radiation monitoring capacity in the U.S. PCD, with the generous help of vendors, has given away state-of-the-art equipment, including a fallout-monitoring station using the NukAlert ER (DDP, March 2014) and the original NukAlert plus a factory-made Kearny Fallout Meter (KFM) and a copy of Nuclear War Survival Skills (CDP, January 2009, and http://tinyurl.com/kl3bfv9) to rural fire departments in Arizona. Stephen Jones demonstrated RadStickers at some 160 fire stations between Martha’s Vineyard and San Diego (CDP, November 2011). Unfortunately, our hopes of distributing RadStickers to first responders foundered for lack of funding, and RadStickers are currently not being made.
Developed under U.S. government auspices by Dr. Gordhan Patel, the Self-indicating Instant Radiation Alert Dosimeter (SIRAD) is a wonderful advance. It uses a radiation-sensitive chemical sensor that instantly and irreversibly changes color. The color on the sensor strip can be compared with standards ranging from 50 to 4,000 mSv (5 to 400 R). (See jplabs.com.) This is now available on the credit-card size RadTriage50 sensor.
The RadTriage card is a dosimeter. The only indicator of ongoing exposure is the rapidity of color change. The only instrument I know of that can be used both as a dosimeter and a survey meter (giving Roentgens or Sieverts/hr) is the NukAlert ER. It keeps track of accumulated dose and can be re-set to zero.
If the U.S. had a serious civil defense program, all first responders in the field would carry the equivalent of a RadTriage card and have ready access to a NukAlert ER or comparable meter with a high range. For the NukAlert ER, the upper limit is 600 R/hr (6,000 mSv/hr). Typical pocket dosimeters max out at 20 R (200 mSv), and Geiger counters may max out at dose rates as low as 1.0 mSv/hr (0.1 R/hr or 100 mR/hr). These are designed for occupational exposure or hazmat applications and would be worse than useless for fallout from a nuclear attack. (See DDP Newsletter September 2013, http://tinyurl.com/mp2n6hf, which includes key dosage comparisons).
“Dot monitors” were developed by our special projects director, Stephen Jones, as an emergency measure. These are made by cutting up the sensor strips on RadTriage cards to stretch the number of available sensors. A refinement is to place the dot on a business card with a scale for comparison: unchanged yellow color is “safe.” Changing color (which appears greenish) is “not safe,” and black (“oh shucks!”) means a probably lethal level of exposure. The “Oh Shucks! Meter” (http://tinyurl.com/ndvuxdx) includes key facts from the 60-second training card:
“Drop and cover if you see a flash or a very bright light. Stay down for two full minutes with eyes closed. Breathe through your mouth.” (DDP November 2013, http://tinyurl.com/mv6g6o5).
“Nuclear fallout looks like sand, ash or grit and will be visible on cars and smooth surfaces. If you see it, take shelter. If no radiation then keep America working. Do not shelter.”
The training is indisputably needed and timeless. The dot monitor becomes obsolete immediately when first responders have RadTriage cards. These can be mass produced quickly, if funding is available, but they need to be pre-deployed, before a warhead detonates. Some facts about expedient dot monitors:
Cutting the sensor strip exposes the edges to oxygen. The warranty is voided. Calibration is lost, and the color cannot be compared with standards on the RadTriage card.
False positives can result from exposure to ultraviolet (as from sunlight), aging, or from dirt on the monitor.
False negatives occur if the sensor falls off; cutting must be done with great care over a dark background. If fallout is visible, the area must be assumed to be “not safe.”
The meticulous testing done for RadTriage cards is not applicable to dots, although dots have been tested with cesium sources, x-rays, and the americium foil from smoke detectors. The lowest dose tested was around 35 rads. The sensor does turn color with radiation exposure, but the color change might not be perceived much below 50 rads. One foreign government did not want dosages below 50 rads (500 mSv) to be recognized, so as not to frighten people.
What is “safe”? The radiation protection industry is happy to have people believe that no dose is truly safe. Regulatory agencies set “allowable” (very low) doses. Post-nuclear detonation, the world is changed. To stop rescue efforts or essential activities like trucking means countless avoidable deaths. Acute radiation sickness is unlikely at less than 100 rads.
It is a scandal that people in the world’s number 1 nuclear target have to resort to cutting up and degrading good sensors.
What You Should Do Now
You should buy as many RadTriage cards as you can afford. Carry one in your wallet; store the rest in the freezer to slow aging. They are available now, but probably won’t be in a crisis. Buy a NukAlert ER also if you can afford it.
Surely you already have a copy of Cresson Kearny’s indispensable Nuclear War Survival Skills or have downloaded and printed a free copy from www.oism.org/nwss/. If not, do it right now. Read at least the introduction and first 3 chapters.
Obtain a copy of Allen Brodsky’s 2014 Handbook for Survival: Information for Saving Lives During Radiation Releases and Other Disasters, available from amazon in paperback (good for ease of reading and marking up) and Kindle (good for carrying with you).
Testing Your Radiation Monitor
You can do a nondestructive demonstration on your RadTriage card by placing the smoke detector foil on the sensor strip. In 4 days, it will make a detectable dot. Americium is primarily an alpha emitter; the yellow plastic cover blocks most of the radiation. I peeled the plastic dot and yellow coating off a dot monitor and got a distinct blue color (which looks green when you put the coating back on) within 8 hours. If a thin clear coating comes off with the yellow one, the color will develop within minutes.
Jones discovered that you can discharge a KFM with several smoke detector foils, if you remove the clear plastic lid. Cresson Kearny was surprised to learn this.
Jones routinely tests RadTriage cards as well as his dots. “That is why I have absolute confidence in Dr. Patel’s work.”
While sophisticated electronic instruments are far more accurate when functioning properly, the end-user cannot independently test them in the field.
Why not rely on the radiation experts? In case of a radiation emergency in Utah, the state director of emergency management thought there were only two knowledgeable people he could call. In the event of multiple simultaneous events, federal resources would be overwhelmed. The RadNet fallout monitoring system is wholly inadequate (it has fewer than 200 monitors nationwide, mostly unable to measure > 10 R/hr, and not always functioning, http://tinyurl.com/mp2n6hf). Having hundreds of agents at various locations, even with the simplest equipment, would be a vast improvement. Also, health physicists are steeped in the linear no-threshold theory (LNT), and are focused on low doses. Almost all persons with first-hand civil defense knowledge and experience from the early years of the atomic age are dead.
What good is an inaccurate dose measurement? The scale on the RadTriage50 card reads reference, 50, 100, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, and 4000 mSv. Hazmat instruments can read low doses in microsieverts (one-thousandth of a mSv). How does it help to know that you have a dose of 510,000 μSv (51 rem)? It sounds terrifying and is 10.1 times the allowable annual dose for radiation workers (http://tinyurl.com/prlt6mc). You could use the dose to calculate, from the LNT, to some fraction of a percentage, your theoretically increased risk of getting cancer 2 to 30 years in the future. (The LNT is almost certainly wrong, and your dose could actually be beneficial, http://tinyurl.com/k6d7ner). But in an emergent situation, the question is what action to take. If the area is “not safe” (visible fallout and/or color changes on the sensor and/or a NukAlert reading showing that exposure will soon reach a dangerous level), people need to take the best possible protective shelter. If the area is “safe,” there is not an immediate life-threatening danger from radiation. People can carry on essential work or traverse the area, while continuing to monitor the situation. (If a suitable, reliable, calibrated dose-rate instrument cannot be obtained, making a KFM would be a good idea.)
What if the dot turns black? This information is useful for identifying those likely to suffer acute radiation syndrome—and for warning of an unsafe area. If your dosimeter shows “safe” (< 500 mSv) and you don’t have an obvious medical problem, do not go to an overburdened emergency room. It can neither detect nor treat a low-level exposure. An aged dot that has lost its bright yellow color will darken from its new baseline, but it is better to use a fresh one to avoid overestimation of the hazard.
What about potassium iodide? This is a good idea if food or water is or might be contaminated with radioactive iodine—negative monitor readings are not helpful in making this determination. See CDP, March 2011, http://tinyurl.com/q5mdqzw, and Dr. Donald Miller’s lecture at the 2006 DDP meeting, www.ddponline.org/ppt/06miller.pdf, for more information on iodine. Potassium iodide can be obtained now from www.ki4u.com. Don’t wait for an emergency.
Why bother? The Cold War antinuclear propaganda that the “living will envy the dead” is one important reason for America’s lack of civil defense. In fact, the majority of people will not be at Ground Zero and will survive the initial bomb effects. By prudent action (drop and cover and fallout protection), millions of casualties could be prevented. See Shane Connor’s www.GoodNewsNuke.com. Connor will commit up to $5,000 to match funds with the first reader who wants to put up the “Good News About Nuclear Destruction” billboard in his own community as a public service.
At first, survivors might have to work as hard as their great-grandparents did, but for long-term effects, compare current photos of Hiroshima and Detroit (http://tinyurl.com/n8zwnzk).
Disclaimer: Dr. Patel and others criticize the Oh Shucks! Meter. We do not recommend it—unless there has been a nuclear explosion and first responders have nothing better, when the alternative is ignorance and panic.
As when using Cold War era instruments that have not been recently calibrated, compare readings from several instruments if possible. If a number are in agreement, one can have more confidence in those readings. [Note the confusion in units and decimal points: 1 roentgen, R, is 0.877 rad, 0.877 rem, 8.77 mSv.]
Difficult decisions will have to be made based on imperfect information. Avoiding an extra 50 R of radiation will not necessarily be the first priority when there are other threats.
Expedient measures like the KFM and Oh Shucks! Meter are not meant to substitute for proper civil defense. It is hoped that they will serve as catalysts to encourage the development and production of equipment such as the NukAlert ER and RadTriage card, which have languished because of lack of demand. The main message is that survival is possible. The dot is an antidote to helplessness, panic, and despair.
Civil Defense Perspectives 31(3): March 2015 [published May 4, 2015]