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Nuclear Fallout: Health Issues and Emergency Planning

  • Published: 2016-01-09 (Revised/Updated 2017-05-29) : Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Article looks at consequences of radioactive fallout from a nuclear blast, and includes emergency planning tips.

Quote: "Fallout from a nuclear explosion might be carried by wind currents for hundreds of miles if the conditions are right."

Main Document

A nuclear blast is an explosion with intense heat and light, a damaging pressure wave and widespread radioactive material that can contaminate water, the air and ground surfaces for a number of miles around the explosion.

Nuclear fallout is defined as the residual radioactive material propelled into the upper atmosphere following a nuclear blast or a nuclear reaction conducted in an unshielded facility. A nuclear weapon detonated in the air, called an air burst, produces less fallout than a comparable explosion near the ground. Fallout can also refer to nuclear accidents, although a nuclear reactor does not explode like a nuclear weapon. The isotopic signature of bomb fallout is very different from the fallout from a serious power reactor accident such as Chernobyl or Japan's Fukushima.

A nuclear device can range from a weapon carried by an intercontinental missile launched by a hostile nation or terrorist group, to a small and portable nuclear device carried by a person. All nuclear devices cause deadly effects upon explosion, to include:

Radioactive Fallout

Even if people are not close enough to the nuclear blast to be affected by the direct impacts, they might be affected by radioactive fallout. Any nuclear blast results in some degree of fallout. Blasts that happen near the surface of the Earth create far greater amounts of fallout than blasts that occur at higher altitudes. The reason why is because the incredible heat produced from a nuclear blast causes an up-draft of air which then forms the familiar mushroom cloud.

When a blast happens near the surface of the Earth, millions of vaporized dirt particles also are drawn into the mushroom cloud. As heat diminishes, radioactive materials that are vaporized condense on the particles and fall back to the Earth. The phenomenon is called, 'radioactive fallout.' Radioactive fallout material decays over an extended period of time and is the main source of residual nuclear radiation.

Fallout from a nuclear explosion might be carried by wind currents for hundreds of miles if the conditions are right. Effects from even a small portable device exposure at ground level may be potentially deadly. Bear in mind the fact that nuclear radiation cannot be smelled, seen, or otherwise detected by an average person's senses.

Radiation can only be detected by radiation monitoring devices. Due to this fact, radiological emergencies are different from other types of emergencies such as hurricanes or floods. Monitoring can project the arrival times of radioactive fallout, which will then be announced via official warning channels. Any increase in surface build-up of gritty dust and dirt; however, should be a warning for taking protective measures.

Health Effects of Fallout

The earliest concern about health effects from exposure to radioactive fallout concentrated on potential genetic alterations among children of those exposed. Heritable effects of radiation exposure; however, have not been observed from decades of studies of populations exposed to either medical X-rays, or to the direct gamma radiation received by survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. Instead, such studies have demonstrated radiation-related risks of thyroid cancer and leukemia within a decade following exposure, followed by increased risks of other solid tumors in later years. Studies of populations exposed to radioactive fallout also point to increased risk of cancer as the main late health effect of exposure. As studies of biological samples such as thyroid glands, bone, or other tissues have been pursued, it has become increasingly clear that specific radionuclides in fallout are implicated in fallout-related cancers and additional late effects.

Preparing for a Nuclear Blast

You might be wondering if there is anything you can do to prepare for a nuclear blast, and quite reasonably. Yet there are things you can do to protect yourself, your family members, as well as your property if there is a nuclear blast. For example, you can:

Learn Where the Fallout Shelters Are Located:

Find out from officials if any public buildings in your community have been designated as fallout shelters. If no shelters have been designated, make your own list of possible shelters close to your home, school, or workplace. Shelters would include basements, or the windowless center area of middle floors in high-rise buildings, as well as tunnels and subways.

Taking shelter during a nuclear blast is utterly essential. There are two kinds of shelters; blast and fallout. Blast shelters are specifically built to offer people some level of protection against blast pressure, heat, fire and initial radiation. Bear in mind that even a blast shelter cannot withstand a direct hit from a nuclear explosion. Fallout shelters do not need to be specially built for protection against fallout. Fallout shelters can be any protected space, provided the walls and roof are dense and thick enough to absorb the radiation given off by fallout particles.


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