Duck and Cover from the 50’s and 60’s. Should We Be Concerned About Dirty Bombs or EMP’s?

I recall as an elementary student the “duck and cover” exercises conducted at my grade school during the Cold War. In essence we were being trained to get under our desks and cover our heads in the event of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. The school drills, which were part of President Harry S. Truman’s Federal Civil Defense Administration program, aimed to educate the public about what ordinary people could do to protect themselves. That Federal Civil Defense Administration eventually morphed into the Federal Emergency Management Agency created by President Carter in 1979.

But the purpose of duck and cover, as easy to mock as it was (after all, how would hiding under a desk protect you from the spread of radiation or the blast of a nuclear bomb nearby?) nonetheless was borne of the idea the public needed to be educated about how to best protect themselves if, indeed, a nuclear device was exploded near them. It was, by all reasonable measures, the first public education program designed to teach Americans what to do during a crisis.

But the threat of a thermonuclear laydown by a state actor, has largely, but not entirely disappeared. The threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) has made that threat less likely.

But what about other nuclear threats? What about so-called dirty bombs or a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP)? Both are very real concerns and are in the arsenal or some state actors and non-state actors.

Depending on the situation, a dirty bomb would most likely create fear and panic, contaminate property, and require potentially costly cleanup. The government – and the public – would have to decide how clean is clean? How much radiation is acceptable? And what point would the public be willing to work, shop, live-in or travel through an area contaminated by a dirty bomb?

Imagine the largest commercial, shopping area in your community. Now imagine that area being contaminated by a dirty bomb, with radiation off the chart. How much do you panic? Where do you shop now for food and clothing? When are you comfortable returning to that area? When government tells you it’s safe? Or, when a private organization tells you? The disruption would be significant, which is why a dirty bomb is a terrorist’s dream.

Similarly, imagine everything electronic around you right now. Televisions, cellphones, automobiles, the grid supplying electricity to your home or business. An electromagnet pulse created by the detonation of a nuclear device in the atmosphere (as opposed to a bomb exploded at ground level) would disrupt virtually the entire U.S. economy.

The US carried out the Starfish Prime test in July, 1962, exploding a 1.44 megaton bomb 250 miles above the mid-Pacific Ocean. This demonstrated that the effects of a high-altitude nuclear explosion were much larger than had been previously calculated. Starfish Prime exposed those effects for the first time to the public because the explosion 250 miles above the earth and almost 900 miles from Hawaii, set off burglar alarms and damaged microwave links.

This article is not designed to frighten. Nor is it written to provide a solution (a Faraday cage is probably impracticable but worth considering if you’re an active prepper). It is simply to remind us that the amazing electronic world we live, which provides so many creature comforts, entertainment, transportation, food, et al, is nonetheless subject to a risk that might seem low, but which has catastrophic consequences.

Just knowing about risk, and considering risk, is more than most Americans do. Understanding the risk situation is inherently part of planning for and mitigating against that risk.

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