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Friday, 02 February 2018 06:43

The CDC's Prescription for Nuclear War

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Nuke 0202wrp opt(Photo: Dr Case / Flickr)Donald Trump's wrecking-ball approach to governing has left Washington in a shambles. Instead of presiding as a caretaker, Trump has proven to be more comfortable in the role of an undertaker.

One would hope the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would be spared. If only. Under Trump, the nation's premiere health protection agency has been given an unsettling new task: to promote acceptance of the greatest looming threat to human life -- nuclear war.

Under Trump, the CDC was recruited to host a January 16 press briefing on the "Public Health Response to a Nuclear Detonation." The intent appeared to be normalize the prospect of nuclear war by offering US families a checklist they could use to eke out a living in the smoking rubble of a post-nuclear landscape.

As it turned out, this attempt to put a positive spin on the specter of nuclear annihilation didn't happen. Instead, a real-life outbreak of influenza put the plan on hold, and the CDC opted to substitute an event boosting the "Public Health Response to an Influenza Pandemic."

"Fire and Fury" and False Alarms

With Trump and Kim Jong-Un exchanging infantile insults and threatening to exchange nuclear noogies for weeks, the CDC's nuke-war seminar would have been perfectly timed -- especially since it would have fallen in the middle of two attention-grabbing false alarms. On January 13, Hawaii was stampeded into an apocalyptic panic by a fake announcement that a North Korean missile was heading toward Hilo. This was followed, on January 17, by a false alarm from NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, warning that Pyongyang had just fired a missile at Tokyo.

The CDC had invited eight experts to the January 16 event to address such topics as "Preparing for the Unthinkable," "Using Data and Decision Aids to Drive Response Efforts" and "Roadmap to Radiation Preparedness." However, the flu epidemic called the CDC back to its proper, core mission.

Ordinarily, when faced with major health threats (an influenza epidemic, for example), the CDC's response includes preventative measures. Scientists work to prepare vaccines to fight the spread of the disease. The public is reminded to avoid crowds, wash hands frequently and sneeze into their handkerchiefs.

Expecting the CDC to help "normalize" the threat of nuclear war is antithetical to the organization's mission. If prevention tactics were no longer part of the equation, the CDC's response to the influenza outbreak would be limited to informing the public that the flu was unavoidable and everyone should just get plenty of bed rest, drink lots of fluids and stockpile a month's-worth of tissues.

Normalizing the Unthinkable

The goal of the cancelled January 16 briefing seemed clear: If people can be persuaded that nuclear war is survivable, they will be less interested in pursuing solutions to remove the threat.

While the CDC may have been the oddest government agency ever recruited to promote the meme of "well-prepared nuclear survivalists," it was not the first. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was already on record with some handy advice for dealing with unwanted nukes in your neighborhood.

"If your community has no designated fallout shelters," DHS suggested, "make a list of potential shelters near your home, workplace and school, such as basements, subways, tunnels, or the windowless center area of middle floors in a high-rise building." And be sure to gather enough "disaster supplies" to last for "up to two weeks." (Recommended supplies include: a flashlight and extra batteries, battery-operated radio, first-aid kit and manual, emergency food and water, nonelectric can opener, medicines, cash or credit cards, and "sturdy shoes.")

While radiation levels are "extremely high immediately after an explosion," the DHS advised, the good news is that "they go down quickly (they reduce by 80 percent in one day)" -- so just "stay inside" for at least 24 hours. However, "If there is a large blast, people in areas closest to it may have to shelter for up to a month."

But there is something odd about these depictions of this post-Fire-and-Fury America. The only inconvenience addressed is fallout. There is no mention of the dead -- no accounting for hundreds of thousands of charred bodies, instantly vaporized corpses, stumbling crowds of mangled bodies, or the screams and moans of the injured and dying.

It's Nuclear War: Have a Blast

On August 25, 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Radiation Medical Emergency Management division offered a more comprehensive guide to the physical aftermath of a nuclear attack on an urban target. The HHS described three levels of nuclear blast damage.

Light Damage Zone:

"Damage is caused by shocks, similar to those produced by a thunderclap or a sonic boom, but with much more force."

Moderate Damage (MD) Zone:

"[S]ignificant structural damage, blown out building interiors, blown down utility lines, overturned automobiles, caved roofs, some collapsed buildings, and fires." "Many casualties in the MD zone will survive, and ... will benefit most from urgent medical care."

Severe Damage (SD) Zone:

"Few, if any, buildings are expected to be structurally sound or even standing in the SD zone, and very few people would survive; however, some people protected within ... subterranean parking garages or subway tunnels ... may survive the initial blast."

The CDC's Comforting Message

Oddly, the HHS guidelines -- like the CDC's -- are based on the unlikely premise: that a nuclear attack would involve only one bomb and that it would be the smallest possible bomb -- a 10-kiloton (kt) device, tinier than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Under this least-apocalyptic scenario, the SD zone of utter destruction would still extend to cover a radius of a 0.5-mile.

In reality, a nuclear attack could involve several weapons, each capable of much-higher yields. If North Korea masters the ability to place a warhead atop a Hwasong-14 ICBM, it would likely have a yield of 15-250 kt. By comparison, the Pentagon's W88 (delivered by sub-launched Trident II missiles) has a destructive yield of 475 kt. The B83 nuclear warhead has a yield of 1.2 megatons -- 75 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

A modern bomb with a yield of 1 megaton would destroy 80 square miles. In a millisecond, the mile-wide fireball from a W88 warhead would release a 200-million-degree-Fahrenheit flash -- four to five times hotter than the center of the sun.

Tens of square miles would be incinerated and torn apart by winds topping 700 miles per hour. Three miles from Ground Zero, clothing would burst into flames and uncovered skin would be instantly charred by third-degree burns. (Here's a survival tip: if you are far enough from Ground Zero, wearing a white outfit will give you more protection than wearing dark clothing, which would likely burst into flames.)

While a 15-kt Hiroshima-scale bomb detonated in mid-town Manhattan would immediately kill 145,350 and spread deadly fallout over the Hudson Valley, a 50-megaton bomb (styled after Russia's massive "Tsar Bomba") could incinerate about 89 percent of Manhattan's 8.5 million residents. (Note: The US only has enough severe-burn facilities to treat 1,000 or 2,000 cases: A single nuclear blast could produce more than 10,000 victims.)

By choosing to focus on the impacts of a single 10-kt "mini-nuke," the CDC's overall tone remained reassuring: "Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness. Most people don't realize that sheltering in place for at least 24 hours is crucial to saving lives and reducing exposure to radiation."

The CDC noted that the effects of a nuclear attack "depend on the size of the bomb and the distance the person is from the explosion." Among the risks:

• "Eye damage ranging from temporary blindness to severe burns on the retina." (There is no mention of permanent blindness; no mention of eyeballs blown from their sockets by blast pressures, as happened in Hiroshima.)

• "People may experience moderate to severe skin burns." (Once again, there is no mention of those who would be instantly incinerated.)

• "Individuals near the blast site would be exposed to high levels of radiation and could develop symptoms of radiation sickness." Symptoms would range from "mild, such as skin reddening, to severe effects such as cancer and death."

The CDC's Nuclear Survival Tips

The CDC's Interim Document begins by noting that "many people have expressed concern about the ... possible health effects" [emphasis added] of nuclear war before suggesting "what you can do to protect yourself."

Here are some of the survival tips from the CDC's Fact Sheet:

Before a Nuclear Blast

• If an attack warning is issued, take cover as quickly as you can, below ground if possible, and stay there until instructed to do otherwise.

• Find the nearest building -- preferably brick or concrete -- and go inside to avoid radioactive material.

• Take shelter in the center of a tall building. [Note: Large buildings can be destroyed by bomb blasts, winds and fire.]

During a Nuclear Blast

• When a nuclear bomb explodes, turn away and close and cover your eyes.

• Drop to the ground face down and place your hands under your body.

• Remain flat until the heat and two shock waves have passed.

• Cover your mouth and nose with a scarf or handkerchief until the fallout cloud has passed. (This could take 24 hours.)

After a Nuclear Blast

• Move to a shelter, basement, or other underground area-- preferably upwind.

• Listen to the local radio or TV for information.

• Clean and cover any open wounds on your body.

• Remove clothing to keep radioactive material from spreading.

• If practical, place your contaminated clothing in a plastic bag and seal or tie the bag so the radiation does not affect others.

• Shower with lots of soap and water to remove radioactive contamination. Do not scrub or scratch the skin.

• Wash your hair with shampoo or soap and water. Do not use conditioner because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.

• Wipe your eyelids, eyelashes, and ears with a clean wet cloth.

• Gently blow your nose.

Follow these simple guidelines and everything will be fine. Feel better now?

The Best Medicine: Prevention

If the CDC was really interested in prevention, it might prescribe the following remedies:

Require Washington to sign and ratify the United Nations' Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Adopted by 122 nations in July 2017, the world's first legally bindingtreaty outlawing nuclear weapons will enter into force 90 days after it has been ratified by at least 50 countries.

Oppose Washington's plans to spend $1.2 trillion to "modernize" the US nuclear arsenal.

Support legislation that would prohibit a president from unilaterally launching anuclear first-strike.

• Implement Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton's "Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic and Energy Conversion Act."

Establish a Peace Tax Fund and remove penalties for people whose religious beliefs compel them to refuse to pay taxes that finance killing and war.


Gar Smith is an award-winning investigative reporter, editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, cofounder of Environmentalists Against War, author of Nuclear Roulette: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012) and editor of The War and Environment Reader (Just World Books, 2017).