Jun 252013
 
A NOAA map showing average wind speeds for the month of May.

An NOAA map showing average wind speeds for the month of May.

This is the third part of a three-part article series on using wind data to evaluate the risk of nuclear fallout at your retreat location.

If you arrived here directly from a search engine or link, you should probably go to the first part of the series – Using Wind Data to Estimate Fallout Risk – and read that first, then continue on to the second part – The Two Types of Wind Effects to Consider – before returning to read this final part.

We are fortunate to have a great deal of information available to us which can be used to help us understand which way the wind blows.

But before we look at the data sources, we need to consider four additional issues when interpreting the data.

1.  Use Data Averaged Over Many Years

We know that winds vary by the season, month, day, hour and even sometimes by the minute.  We know that some days are unusually windy, and others are unusually calm.

Clearly we can’t base our expectations for future wind patterns on only one day of observations and history.  Instead, we need to average the data – but not by taking the average of many days together, but rather by taking an average of the wind on the same day of many different years.

You want the wind data for, eg, 15 July, to be the average of the winds on the 15th of July over each of many previous years – the more previous years, the better, although there comes a point where adding more years no longer really adds much extra value to the data.  An average of ideally ten or more years will give you a better feeling for what the general probability will be for the next 15 July.

It would help also to understand the ‘SD’ or standard deviation of the averaged number.  This is a statistical term (click the link for a detailed explanation if you’d like) that simply measures whether most of the data points that you are averaging are close to the average number or not.

For example, if you had seven numbers  1 5 9 13 17 21 25, and another seven numbers, 10 11 12 13 14 15 16, in both cases, the average of the numbers is 13.  But the spread of values is much wider in the first series than the second series.  In the second series, the average is 13, and the maximum is only a bit more, and the minimum only a bit less, but in the first series, the maximum is almost twice the average, and the minimum is 13 times less.  All values are close to the average in the second series, but only a very few values are close to the average in the first series.

In the case of the first series, it has a standard deviation of 8.6, in the second series, a standard deviation of 2.2.  The smaller the standard deviation, the closer the individual data values are to the average and so the more accurately the average predicts the reality of individual days.

2.  Use Monthly Wind Values, Not Annual Wind Values

Sorry, but you’re going to have to do these calculations twelve times (or use data already calculated for you).  As the seasons change, so too can wind patterns – not only wind speeds, but also prevailing wind directions, too.

While ideally you’d do the calculation for every day of the year, you’ll end up drowning in data, and with wind being variable and unpredictable at the best of times, probably it is good enough to simply look at monthly data.

We suggest you create 12 maps, one for each month, and then plot wind directions at your retreat location and other close weather stations to it for each month, and also, as per the examples in part two, also ‘walk back’ the wind to see where it is coming from.

If there are nuclear targets or power plants within 200-300 miles or so of your retreat location, you want to add them to your maps and add wind directions to their locations too, plus then move forward to follow those winds from the possible fallout release points.

3 & 4.  Consider All the Varying Speeds and Directions that Wind Blows Each Month

Okay, now it is time to start to use the understanding you’ve developed and to look at the specifics for what to expect.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind now that you are looking at actual data.

Understanding wind direction descriptions

The first point is very important.  When you are looking at wind direction information, is it telling you the direction the wind is coming from, or the direction that the wind is going to?  Some data will provide information one way, other data will provide data the other way.

To explain, say there is a wind that is moving its air in a direction such that air to the south of you blows past you and then continues traveling north.  This is what is traditionally called a southerly wind – wind is coming from the south, from a 180° direction on a compass heading.  If you had a traditional weather vane, it would swing and point to the south.

But if you were flying a flag, the flag would extend out to the north of the flagpole – the opposite direction to the weather vane.  The wind is blowing to the north (ie 0° or 360°) (as well as from the south).  If you were talking about a car instead of wind, you would say the car was going in a northerly direction.

How should this wind be described.  Is it a wind from the south, or to the north?  It could be either, and it is both!  So be very certain to understand which descriptional method is being used.

Wind height measurements

Wind speeds are slower, the closer to the ground they get.  At 1/10″ above the ground, they are close to zero, and then they increase up from that until reaching a point of maximum speed, then they start decreasing again above that.  It is even possible to have winds traveling in different directions at different heights above the ground (balloonists use this to help them steer their balloons).

When you are comparing wind speed measurements, you need to know at what height the measurement was taken.  Clearly if you are comparing a measurement at one location that was taken at 3 feet above the ground with a measurement somewhere else that was taken at 30 ft or 300 ft, you’re not comparing like with like.

These days the standard measurement height for wind speeds is 10 meters (about 33 ft), and if you are reading official wind data from a weather service, that is probably what is being provided.  Often the actual measuring device is not at exactly 10 m above the ground, and so the speed it displays is then converted to display the theoretical/probable speed at 10 m.

But if you are using data prepared for siting a wind turbine, that will have data on wind flows at much greater heights.  This is useful information too, but be careful not to mix together data from different sources at different heights.

Data Sources

To get you started, here’s a nice simple map showing annual average wind directions and mean speeds.

But this map – while giving you a nice overview, is potentially very misleading.  The national averages can mask huge differences from season to season.  You need to drill down from the annual information to monthly information, and ideally, you want to get information from more locations, too.

First, however, to compare like with like, here’s a series of maps drawn from the same source for each of the twelve months.

January  February  March  April  May  June  July  August  September  October  November  December

(If the links no longer work, you can hopefully recreate them from this page.)

Here is an alternate series of monthly averages for wind speeds and directions, calculated for the period from 1930 (or later) until 1996 here.  That gives you another perspective for monthly variations, and has been provided for a much larger number of locations.  Hopefully the data you see here is sort of consistent with the data in the previous links.

The National Climatic Data Center and its US Climate Reference Network has a lot of data, but only from a few reporting stations, and while it gives wind speeds – typically measured at a nonstandard height of 5 – 15 ft above ground, it does not report wind direction.

If you’d like to see the wind information in a more visual manner, albeit slightly abstracted, here’s a fascinating series of maps.  It seems they only provide monthly data, without averaging the same month over several years, but if you click the link for any given month/year, it then provides both information on the specific month/year and also shows you the 30 year average for the period 1971 – 2000 and thirdly shows you how the specific year’s monthly average varies up or down from the typical month.

But wait, there’s more.  These first maps just show wind speed, not wind direction.  There are two more sets of maps, which between them show direction.  One shows what the call the U component, which is the east-west direction of the wind, and the other shows the V component, the north-south direction.  This is very interesting to see split out.

Wow.  Are you starting to get overloaded with data, yet?  Well, there’s one more wonderful source of summary data for many different locations.  That starts from this page here, and you can then choose the locations you want data about and the data you wish, either from their map interface (perhaps the easiest) or from data searching and other options.

One more resource.  If the previous resources have not had sufficient information for you, go to the appropriate regional climate center (choose from this main menu/map) and you’ll find an enormous amount of extra data for very many different reporting stations in the region.

But, wait – we’ve still not finished.  There are two more things to show you.

Leaving the best until last, remember when we spoke in the previous part of this series about wanting to know not only the average speed and direction of wind each month, but also the range of actual values?  Here’s a totally marvelous site which does exactly that.

Zoom in to the region of the map you are interested in, and you’ll see little wind roses appear for each reporting site.  Click on one of the wind roses, and that brings up a page showing you detailed information.  You can then click on the months in the circle as you wish.  Note if you keep clicking months ‘on’ you get averages of all the months clicked ‘on’; you need to click months off again so as to see the single month patterns.

And, lastly, some eye candy which gives you a fascinating feel for how it all ties together.

You can click to zoom in on any part of the map you wish, and when you start clicking to zoom in, an ‘unzoom’ button appears on the left.

The ‘problem’ with this map is that it is limited to showing you only the wind patterns right now.  It doesn’t give you a feeling for average flows.  But just seeing the ‘right now’ flows is still fascinating and helps you to understand how winds don’t flow consistently in straight lines for long distances.

Summary

Nuclear fallout may be transported from the location it was generated to your retreat either by high atmosphere jetstream winds, or lower down ‘regular’ winds.  The jetstream winds move swiftly and in doing so, tend to thinly disperse fallout over a wide area, while the lower down winds, moving much more slowly, tend to drop more concentrated fallout patterns within 200 – 400 miles of the nuclear release.

If you are within several hundred miles of a nuclear power station or a nuclear target, you should understand the degree of risk associated with fallout traveling to your retreat.

Winds are unpredictable on an hourly basis, but they follow certain trends and are more likely to be blowing in some directions than others on a daily and monthly basis.  There are lots of online resources to help you understand exactly what type of wind flows to expect at your retreat, and at potential fallout release sites too.

This was the third part of a three-part series about using wind data to estimate your retreat’s potential risk of being affected by nuclear fallout.  If you’ve not yet done so, we recommend you also read parts one and two of the series.

We have additional information on nuclear power related vulnerabilities in its own section too, and lots more information on weather related topics also.

Jun 122013
 
A spectacular fire at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in March 2011.

A spectacular fire at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in March 2011.

Even the most stubborn of non-prepper types might be worried about living too close to a nuclear power plant.

Indeed, the concerns about safety are not just at a personal level (some people attempt to keep their distance from nuclear power plants) but also at a national level – many countries forbid their construction, and more recently, some countries which have been reliant on nuclear power for a substantial part of their total electricity needs are abandoning nuclear power and closing down their plants, again due to concerns about the safety of the reactors.

There’s probably not a single person in the US who doesn’t know about the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant’s near total meltdown, even though it occurred 34 years ago in 1979, and there’s even fewer people in the entire world who are not acquainted with Chernobyl (a 1986 event).  Most recently, even if people don’t remember the name of the location, the Japanese nuclear power plant crisis at Fukushima had so many people stocking up on Iodine tablets that they became as scarce as ammunition is at present.

So it is unsurprisingly common to see on typical sorts of hazard and ‘do not locate here’ prepper retreat selection maps, that prominent marking is given to not just the location of currently operating nuclear power plants, but also to the location of decommissioned plants as well.

All this focus on nuclear power plants begs the question – just how much of a threat do they pose?  Let’s have a look, first of all, at the potential dangers of what has gone wrong in past nuclear power plant accidents, and then secondly, evaluate the risk of such events in the future.  The results are surprising.

The Implications of a Nuclear Power Plant Mishap

Problems with a nuclear power plant can vary from trivial to catastrophic.  Trivial mishaps occur from time to time, but they never escalate to an emergency because backups and safety systems kick in and resolve the issue before it escalates.

If backups fail, there are other design features that are intended to minimize the extent of any worst case scenario events, chief among which is the containment structure around the power plant itself.

But, of course, Murphy’s Law applies to nuclear power plants and even to triple redundant safety systems, just as much as it does to anything and everything else.  So we have, on occasion in the past, seen events that have resulted in the release of nuclear/radioactive materials.  A chilling consideration is that even the ‘worst case’ scenarios that have occurred to date (especially Fukushima) weren’t truly worst case – as bad as they were, they could have been much worse than they ended up as being.

So what is prudent to consider in terms of possible worst case events?

According to this document, local government authorities plan for two rings of danger around a nuclear power plant.  The first has a 10 mile radius, within which there’s a danger of direct radiation exposure, the second is a much larger zone with a 50 mile radius where radiation and fallout might contaminate food and water.

These are fairly nonsense measures with little science underlying them.  Let’s compare this plan with the reality of what we’ve seen in past events.

The problems at the Japanese nuclear reactor complex at Fukushima are interesting to consider.  According to this page, the Japanese created a 20 km radius exclusion zone (ie about 13 miles), but considerable radiation was received at much greater distances and small levels of fallout made it all the way across the Pacific and landed in the US.  Furthermore, some commentators have suggested maybe the Japanese understated the amount of radioactivity released and its impacts.

Going back to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, for which there is still a 30 km radiused exclusion zone around the power plant (18.5 miles) there are also remaining radiation hot spots in places out as far as almost 200 miles from the reactor – see the map on this page.  In the early period shortly after the release of radiation, some hot spots existed as much as 300 miles from the reactor.

On the other hand, our own Three Mile Island event in 1979 involved the partial meltdown of a reactor, but only a very limited release of radiation, and according to this page, no-one has subsequently died from the radiation released.  At the time of the event, initially a 5 mile radius evacuation zone was suggested, and then that was briefly extended to recommending voluntary evacuation within 20 miles of the plant, but many people quite sensibly ignored this.

Our point is simply that there’s little way of predicting what the impacts of a problem at a nuclear power plant may be, but worst case scenarios can see seriously elevated levels of radiation from fallout, even over 200 miles from the plant, depending of course not just on the nature of the event but the prevailing winds.

The Scope and Scale of Nuclear Accidents

Clearly, there is a huge difference between trivial and massive nuclear accidents.  This page from the International Atomic Energy Agency has  an interesting explanation of the INES – International Nuclear Event Scale.  The scale is logarithmic, like the Richter scale for earthquakes, which means each level is ten times more serious than the level before.

Events that occur at levels 0 – 3 on this scale are trivial and probably of no impact to people outside the power plant.  Level 4 events are ones which there might be some local release, but of a minor level – you could leisurely walk away from the contaminated area and be safe.

Level 5 is where we start to become at more widespread risk, although as this Wikipedia list of INES events points out (somewhat obliquely) ordinary members of the public have apparently never died as a result of a Level 5 event at a power plant.

Level 6 definitely involves casualties, but there has only ever, in the entire history of nuclear power, been one such event, in the Soviet Union in 1957.

Level 7 events – the maximum level on the scale – have only occurred twice, at Chernobyl, also in the Soviet Union (now Ukraine) and Fukushima.

Part of the reason for the high number of resulting deaths from Chernobyl was the slowness of the Soviet authorities to acknowledge the events at the reactor, and the slowness of them subsequently evacuating civilians from the affected area.

In contrast, the Fukushima event was reasonably responsibly handled, with apparently – so far – only two directly related deaths, and neither from radiation (two employees who drowned).

Here’s an interesting table comparing the Fukushima and Chernobyl events.

Here’s a helpful Wikipedia page with a reasonably complete listing of accidents at all civilian nuclear facilities (not just power plants) and – for the sake of completeness, although not part of this discussion of nuclear power plant risks, here is a similar page on military nuclear accidents.

The Degree of Risk

Now it is time to put these past events and present risks in perspective.

Sure, we all are very aware of Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.  But how many others have also occurred?

The answer might surprise you.  As you can see from the preceding section, very few other problems have occurred at a level that resulted in the release of any radiation outside the power plant itself.  Furthermore, although it is hard to appreciate this from the hysterical coverage given at the time and for ever after, the Three Mile Island accident was trivial in nature and scope.

So, let’s now look at the two – only two – accidents involving appreciable releases of radiation.

The first of these – Chernobyl – involved a type of reactor design that is not used in the west.  It has a terrible weakness inherent in its design – if temperatures increase in the reactor, this creates a positive feedback loop that causes the reactor to increase its level of activity, which increases the temperatures further, which speeds up the reactor more, and so on until, all of a sudden, you have a Chernobyl disaster.  All western style reactors have a negative feedback loop design – if the temperature increases, the nuclear reaction decreases, and so the temperature drops back down again.

In other words, a Chernobyl type accident could not happen in the west.

As for the Fukushima event, this was precipitated not by any problems originating from the reactor itself, but by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  The reactors shut down because of the earthquake, and so stopped generating power, which was needed to keep the cooling pumps operating.

The earthquake also caused a loss of outside power coming into the facility, so the on-site emergency generators started up.  All was good until the tsunami arrived, flooding the generator rooms, floating away the fuel tanks, and causing the generators to fail.  With loss of cooling, the power rods heated up beyond safe limits and melted down.

The Fukushima event was the result of poor planning and lack of consideration of external vulnerabilities.  Everything actually worked perfectly and as it should until the tsunami swamped the generators.

Our point is simply that the two disasters that occurred were each unique and not symptomatic of systemic weaknesses that apply to other or all nuclear power plants in the US.

So, let’s think about this.  In some 60 years of civilian nuclear power plants being in operation, there have been only two accidents that involved serious amounts of radiation being released.

Now, remember that one of those two accidents could not occur in the US due to different reactor design, and the other is very unlikely.  But let’s still consider the Fukushima event as relevant, because maybe there are other unexpected vulnerabilities hidden within US reactor designs.  So, in approximately 15,000 reactor years of operation, there has been only one significant and arguably relevant accident.

People feel perfectly safe living next to a volcano that erupts maybe once every 15,000 or so years.  You should feel similarly safe having a nuclear power plant in your back yard.

Oh yes – the number of radiation deaths from the accident at Fukushima?  Zero.

Extending the Analysis

As of May 2013, there are 436 nuclear reactors operating within 127 power plants around the world, and another 70 reactors under construction.  Within the US, there are 104 reactors operating within 65 power plants.

There are also tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, none of which have ever accidentally exploded all by itself.

There are also many hundreds of other nuclear reactors.  You might live close to one without even realizing it – some universities have nuclear reactors on campus for teaching and research.  Military and research facilities also have nuclear reactors.

Then there are nuclear powered submarines and surface vessels – perhaps 200 or more in total.  And – oh yes – don’t forget other nuclear power sources, even if not involving critical reactors – that are located in many other places, below the earth, on the earth, and above the earth in satellites.

Consider all these things, and then contrast the two significant nuclear accidents we’ve seen, neither of which directly exposes any similar vulnerability in US reactors.

Bottom line – there are more nuclear reactors ‘out there’ than you’d think, and fewer nuclear accidents than ‘conventional wisdom’ seems to perceive.  Nuclear power plants are extremely safe.  Many more people die from the pollution released by coal and oil-fired power plants than by radiation that is (not!) released by nuclear power plants.

Based on this analysis, you should have no concerns whatsoever in locating yourself close to a nuclear power plant.  Unfortunately, we’ve not yet finished our analysis.

Two More Vulnerabilities?

There are however two types of vulnerability not yet considered.

The first of these is the potential for a deliberate radioactive release as the result of some form of sabotage or terrorist attack.

For sure, all nuclear power plants have security forces protecting them, but alas, equally for sure, we have to fear that a determined and clever terrorist attack may have an appreciable chance of gaining at least temporary access to the control circuitry and the physical reactor and related parts of the power plant.

We also have to concede that a well researched terrorist exploit of power plant vulnerabilities could result in grave harm being inflicted on the reactor, possibly to the point of a melt-down and an uncontained release of radioactive materials.

It is necessary to also assume that terrorists could infiltrate the actual power plant staff – if, as we’ve seen, an organization as security obsessed as the NSA can allow a contractor (Edward Snowden) with some obviously non-conformist and pro-privacy views to not only work for them but to walk off with large amounts of ultra-highly classified materials, and if we see muslims infiltrating the army before massacring soldiers (13 killed and 30 wounded by Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood), we have to accept that nuclear power plants are every bit as much at risk of infiltration and subtle sabotage, and maybe more so.

So it seems we have to accept that enemy terrorists can attack a power plant equipped with inside knowledge on security measures/capabilities and reactor vulnerabilities and how to exploit them.  That’s a little bit scary, isn’t it.

There’s one more way of terrorists attacking nuclear power stations, too.  By computer.  We can only guess at what possible vulnerabilities lie within all the computerized control systems at a nuclear power station.

And – wait.  We said there are two extra vulnerabilities.  That was only the first, even though there were three parts to it.  The second category of additional vulnerability is to wonder what would happen if an EMP attack disabled the control circuitry in a nuclear reactor.

We expect that nuclear power plants would have some degree of ‘hardening’ of their control circuits to make them semi-resistant to some types of EMP effects, but probably they would not be 100% invulnerable to all levels of EMP intensity.

We also understand that there are physical ‘fail safe’ design features, such as enabling the fuel rods to literally fall out of the reactor, causing the reactor to lose its criticality and stop functioning.

But we also then think about what happened at Fukushima – the fuel rods correctly fell out of the reactor in a SCRAM type action when the earthquake hit.  The problem there was when the power to drive the cooling pumps to keep the fuel rods cool failed.  That’s not a mechanical failsafe device – it requires electricity and electronics, which might be vulnerable to an EMP attack, and if this ended up with a similar type of Fukushima failure event, the result could be massively disastrous.

These are all hypothetical scenarios, and happily improbable.  But are they impossible?  No, alas, they are not.

You’ll have to decide how much importance to ascribe to such risks when making your own decisions about the risks associated with being close to nuclear power stations.

Summary

The popular perception of elevated risks associated with being located close to a nuclear power plant is generally wrong and hysterically overstated.

The well-known Three Mile Island accident was trivial in nature, no-one has died from radiation released at Fukushima (with the whole series of events at Fukushima not being due to anything going wrong with the reactors themselves), and the Chernobyl accident was directly related to a bad unsafe reactor design that is not used in the US.

As for other nuclear accidents, none have involved significant releases of radioactivity.

You’re more at risk of a nearby dormant volcano erupting than you are from dangerous levels of radioactivity being released from a nearby nuclear power plant.

But.  There is one unknown vulnerability that can’t really be quantified.  That is the risk of deliberate failure and intentional release of radioactive materials, caused by terrorist actions.  We don’t know how likely that might be, but we have to accept it is not totally impossible, and while we also don’t know what extent of release could be caused by deliberate action, we also have to accept that it could be very high.

So – nuclear power plants.  The good news – they have proven themselves to be very safe in terms of ‘normal’ risks.  But, the bad news?  They are potentially vulnerable to unusual risks and deliberate attack/sabotage.

Depending on other factors, it is probably wise to keep some distance from power stations accordingly.  Depending on the wind patterns between you and the power station, ‘some distance’ could mean as much as 300 miles.

Apr 052013
 
Potassium iodide is a white crystalline powder.

Potassium iodide is a white crystalline powder.

If the statements coming from North Korea at present are to be believed, there’s a possibility they’ll be launching a nuclear attack on us some time after Wednesday 10 April.  Whether this happens or not, it is well to be prepared for such a situation.

Defending against a nuclear attack is both easy and difficult, and for sure you need to understand that a nuclear bomb detonation is not an Armageddon like event that will destroy all life, everywhere, for hundreds of miles around.  Quite the opposite of what popular media would wish you to believe, a nuclear blast is a surprisingly limited impact event and very survivable.

So, if you survive the immediate gamma and neutron radiation, heat and overpressure wave (see our article on Radiation and Fallout Risks for a detailed explanation of these issues) what should you do next?

What you do next really depends on if the blast was a ground or an air burst.  If the former, you’ll be exposed to an appalling mess of radioactive fallout for some time and everything around you will have the fallout on it.  That’s really nasty and probably your only practical option is to quickly evacuate the area, getting some tens or ideally hundreds of miles upwind of the event.

An air burst creates much less fallout, and that which is created is spread thinly over a much greater region.

There is one easy and inexpensive thing you can do as a protective or prophylactic measure, and that is to take Potassium Iodide tablets.  These act to block your thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine from the fallout.  They do not protect you against any of the dozens of other forms of radioactivity, but the iodine in particular can be a concern because it potentially will injure the thyroid due to being absorbed and concentrated in the thyroid for a period of time.

Furthermore, the inexpensive tablets do little other harm, so on the basis of ‘Better Safe than Sorry’ it is usually considered prudent to go on a course of Potassium Iodide tablets if you are exposed to radioactive contamination of a type that might include radioactive iodine.

This article tells you what you need to know.

The Difference Between Iodine, Iodide, and Iodate

Iodine is the name of the element that we are talking about.  Its chemical symbol is the letter I.

Iodide is used to refer to a form of Iodine that has reacted with another material to create a chemical compound.  The most common form we see this in, for our purposes, is in a ‘salt’ (the chemical term ‘salt’ refers to a type of compound, rather than specifically to Sodium Chloride or common table salt as we know it) called Potassium Iodide – chemical formula KI.

Iodate is another type of chemical including Iodine, and is commonly found in another type of ‘salt’, Potassium Iodate – chemical formula KIO3.  Potassium Iodate is usually the type of Iodine that is added to iodized (table) salt.

There are other materials that also include iodine, and you might sometimes see reference to Potassium Iodite.  Our understanding (Hello, Undergrad Chemistry classes – remember us, all those decades ago? 🙂 ) is that Potassium Iodite is an unstable non-natural compound and not likely to be found in the real world, and if you see a product being sold as Potassium Iodite it is probably a misspelling of Potassium Iodide.

Our suggestion – if a supplier can’t even spell the name of the product they are selling correctly, best to steer well clear of them!

Pure iodine is difficult to take and toxic in other than very small quantities, so when people are choosing to take iodine supplements, they will usually choose either Potassium Iodide or Potassium Iodate.

Which is Better – Potassium Iodide or Potassium Iodate?  Tablets or Liquid?

You’ll see some websites making extravagant claims about the relative merits of either Potassium Iodide or Potassium Iodate.  Ignore these comments.  In reality, there’s very little difference between the various forms of iodine you’ll come across.  But, while there are only small differences, there are indeed better and not so good forms, so let’s understand which are (slightly) better choices than others.

The most authoritative source we could find – and trust – is a World Health Organization report (linked in the reference section below) which on page 17 says :

Stable iodine can be used either as potassium iodide (KI) or potassium iodate (KIO3).  KI is the preferred alternative, since KIO3 has the disadvantage of being a stronger intestinal irritant.

There is no decisive difference in shelf life between KIO3 and KI.

So there’s your answer.  Both are okay, but Potassium Iodide is slightly to be preferred over Potassium Iodate, if you find yourself with the luxury of being able to choose between them.  (And note, below, that the dosage levels are different.)

You’ll also notice different forms of packaging for the chemicals.  Again, let’s use the WHO report as our source, with their comment (also on page 17 of their report) again giving clear guidance :

Stable iodine can be given in either doubly scored tablet or liquid form.  Tablets have the advantage of easy storage and distribution, including predistribution.  Also, stable iodine is likely to cause less gastrointestinal irritation if administered in tablet form.  Tablets can be crushed and mixed with fruit juice, jam, milk or similar substance.

Tablets should be stored protected from air, heat, light and moisture.  Age-dependent dosage and contraindications should be on the labeling.

Tablets packed in a hermetic alufoil and kept in a dry and cool place preserve fully their iodine content for 5 years.

So – tablets are better than liquids.

Officially Approved vs Unofficial Tablets

Potassium Iodide tablets do not require a prescription.  You can buy them in many different places, even (of course!) on Amazon.

The FDA has approved three brands of Potassium Iodide tablets – Iosat, ThyroSafe, and ThyroShield .  These are the only brands of tablets which can claim to be FDA approved, but many other brands of tablets are also available.

If you buy an FDA approved brand, you know for sure that you actually have the iodine ingredients as promised, and in the quantity claimed.  If you buy any of the other brands of non-FDA approved products, unless you have the ability to test and analyze the tablets, you have no way of knowing what ingredients may – or may not – be present.

Other brands are probably exactly as they claim to be.  But do you really want to risk your future health based on a hope that the generic product truly is what it claims to be, when an official product is only a few dollars more?  No, we didn’t think so.  🙂

Risk Factors

Stated simply, the older you are, the less you have to worry about any type of radiation exposure, because you’ll probably be dead of natural causes before the radiation has an effect.  Indeed, the World Health Organization does not recommend that adults over the age of 40 should take Potassium Iodide at all, unless it is certain they were exposed to a very high level of radioactive iodine (ie 500 times greater than the level that would require taking the tablets in young children, and 50 times greater than the level required by adults under the age of 40).

On the other hand, the younger you are, then clearly the greater the risk you have and the more years hopefully ahead of you.

So if you have a shortage of iodine, give it first to the younger people in your group, and last to the older members.

Dosages

You need to urgently start taking iodine tablets as soon as possible after a radiation exposure event.  There is no value or reason to take them before a radiation event (ie wait until the bomb goes off nearby).

You should take one tablet each day during the period of radiation exposure, stopping as soon as radiation levels have declined below a level of concern (most likely meaning you’ve evacuated the area).

Recommended dosages are equivalent to 100 mg of actual iodine, which requires 130 mg of Potassium Iodide or 170 mg of Potassium Iodate.

Age Raw Iodine mg Potassium Iodide mg Potassium Iodate mg Liquid* ml
Birth to 1 month 13 16 21 0.3
1 month – 3 years 25 33 43 0.5
3 – 12 years* 50 65 85 1
Over 12 yrs* 100 130 170 2

Note 1 :  This assumes a typical strength of liquid solution.  There is no guarantee as to what strength a liquid solution may be, so check with the guidelines given by the provider – and this uncertainty is another reason to prefer tablets over liquids.

*  Note 2 :  The FDA and WHO disagree about when children should be switched to adult dosage levels.  The FDA says wait until children are over 150lb or over 18.

Summary

You should keep a stock of Potassium Iodide tablets in a cool dry place as part of your prepping supplies.

In the event of a nearby radioactive release (either from a nuclear weapon, a ‘dirty bomb’, or a power plant accident) those of you 40 and under in your group should immediately start taking daily iodine tablets until you have evacuated the area.

References

Here is an excellent but somewhat technical document from WHO.

Here is the US CDC sheet on Potassium Iodide.

Here is the US FDA fact sheet on Potassium Iodide and here is their more detailed PDF.

Oct 092012
 

A classic Geiger counter, this one a government design made in the 1950s and 1960s.

If you’ve ever seen any movie that features a radiation risk to the characters, you know what they do to measure the radiation.  They have a ‘Geiger counter’ device that makes a clicking noise, which increases in intensity until it sounds like a hailstorm on a tin roof when the characters are at risk of too much radiation.  Easy and simple, yes?

Well, as you’ve probably already guessed, there’s a lot more to measuring radiation than simply buying a ‘Geiger counter’ from the Universal Studios Prop department.

The first thing to appreciate, in deciding how to detect and measure radiation levels and risks, is what types of radiation may be present and need to be detected and measured.

In our recent article on radiation and fallout risks, we explained the essential properties of five different types of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron and X-ray).  All of these five types are potentially harmful, but not all need to be detected.

You can eliminate any need to detect neutron radiation right from the get go.  Neutrons are released as part of a nuclear explosion, but they are not released by normal radioactive materials on an ongoing basis.  You may possibly be exposed to a brief ‘flash’ of neutrons as part of a nearby nuclear explosion, but if you are close enough to be harmed by the neutrons, you’ll almost certainly be killed by the heat or blast from the explosion anyway.

So now we are down to only four types of radiation to consider.  According to this source, most of the residual radiation to be found in fall-out comprises beta and gamma radiation.  There are relatively trivial amounts of alpha radiation also present.

Alpha particles are both good and bad.  They are good inasmuch as they only travel a very short distance (an inch or so) and are blocked by even a single sheet of paper.  But they are very bad if an alpha-emitter (anything that is giving off alpha particles) is ingested into your body – the damage from alpha particles is estimated to be 10 – 100 times more serious than the damage from beta and gamma radiation.  In other words, it doesn’t matter if there are alpha emitters all around you, as long as they are at least an inch away, and as long as there is no danger of accidentally ingesting them.

The short range of alpha particles also makes them harder to detect.  This contrasts with beta radiation, which typically travels 6 ft – 10 ft and will usually be stopped by heavy clothing or thin sheets of metal or plastic.  Gamma rays are the easiest to detect from a point of view of how close you need to be to the radiation source, because they can travel a huge distance, and they also require considerable shielding to block.

From the point of view of measuring the radiation from external sources that travels inside a retreat, the only type of radiation you are likely to need to worry about is gamma radiation.  Neither alpha nor beta radiation will make it in through the walls.

It is important to understand the range of the different sources of radiation so that you know how to use and interpret the results of any radiation testing and measurement you are conducting.  To consider these three sources, an alpha detector will only give valid results if it is within half an inch or so of the potential source of radiation, whereas a gamma detector can sense radiation over a broad area.

Measuring Radiation Inside Your Retreat

It is of course sensible to measure the level of gamma radiation inside your retreat.

You might think there’s little point in this, because there’s nothing you can do in response to the radiation that is reaching inside your retreat, but that’s not entirely correct.  Even if it is correct, it gives you an understanding for if your entire retreat has been compromised and you need to evacuate it or not.

If radiation levels are becoming significant, you can then use a measurement device to find the safest part of your retreat and concentrate your time in that area, and add extra barriers around that inner part of your retreat to keep the levels inside it as low as possible.

Measuring Radiation Outside Your Retreat

The other main use for radiation measuring devices is to see how safe it is outside.  Because most (but not all!) of the radioactive materials created and released by a nuclear event (typically a bomb explosion or power plant release) have relatively short half-lives, if you detect a significant level of exterior radiation, you’ll hopefully find that it will decline appreciably within a reasonable period of time and reduce down to acceptable levels.  This will of course require taking regular readings and surveys of the radiation levels around your property.

If the radiation levels are high but not dangerously high, we’d probably measure them every day until such time as they stopped increasing, and then perhaps every week as they decrease again.

Remember that fallout may take anywhere from a day to a month or more to reach the ground, and if the event that created the fall-out is ongoing (either multiple bombs or a power plant with a continuing problem), there could well be days or weeks that pass before the maximum radiation levels are reached.

If the radiation levels become dangerously high, we’d suggest you go outside less frequently.

If after a month they still remain very high indeed and have not reduced substantially, you’re going to have to make some hard choices – can you realistically continue to wait out the radiation decline inside your retreat (and are the radiation levels safely low inside?), or do you need to consider abandoning your retreat and moving somewhere less contaminated?

There’s no real way to predict in advance if you’ll be ‘lucky’ and suffer only a low-level of radiation with a short half-life and rapid reduction in activity, or if you’ll be unlucky with a higher level of radiation and/or a much slower decline in radiation levels.

Considerations When Measuring

Measuring the radiation inside your dwelling is easy.  Just walk around the inside with a radiation meter and make notes of the radiation levels observed.  The radiation you are detecting is almost always gamma radiation.

Outside, you need to consider the impacts of alpha, beta and gamma radiation on the total readings.

It could be thought that to understand the level of alpha radiation in an area – say, for example, your front yard – you would need to therefore do a painstaking sweep over the ground in a series of lines each only half an inch apart from the other – this would be like mowing the lawn, but rather than with a mower that might have an 18″ – 24″ diameter blade, a mower with a half-inch blade.  In theory this is indeed the case, but in reality, it is generally acceptable, for our purposes, to assume that the fallout and contamination you are seeking to detect and measure is somewhat evenly distributed.  In other words, if you detect a certain level of radioactivity in one square inch of ground, the chances are that a square inch that is a foot or a yard away will have a similar level of radioactivity.  ‘Hot spots’ from fallout are more likely to be anywhere from several square feet in size to thousands of square feet in size.

So while you still need your alpha detector to be very close to the ground, it is acceptable to only selectively sample parts of the ground.  As long as the samples are reasonably consistent, you don’t need to test every square inch of every acre of your property in order to get a general feeling for radioactivity levels.

The lower the levels of radiation found, the less detailed you need to have your survey. The more radiation you find, the more carefully you want to understand where it is.

Establishing a Baseline Set of Data

We suggest you keep a record of the results, and that to make them consistent, you should have some specific locations (both inside and outside) where you place the meter and record the levels from those locations.  Not only should you get readings at the same places, and with the meter pointed the same way each time, you should also try to do it at the same time of day (the sun is a source of gamma radiation so you’ll get different results depending on where the sun is).

You should start doing that immediately, so you understand what the ‘best case’ baseline scenario is prior to any releases of radioactive materials.  Once you’ve built up a baseline, there’s little need to continue measuring during ‘normal’ circumstances, although repeating the measuring once every year or so would be interesting just to see if there are any surprises, and to make sure the meter is still reading the same as before (this is not a complete calibration process though – all you are doing here is checking the meter’s consistency at reporting low levels of radiation, a proper calibration exposes it to a high level radiation source as well to test its functionality when radiation is present).

Device Calibration

We mentioned calibration in the preceding section.  Radioactivity meters need to be calibrated and re-calibrated on an occasional basis – you should check with the manufacturer to see what their recommended frequency of calibration might be (and then perhaps arrange for recalibrations at intervals twice as long as recommended).

Some of the more modern devices have much less need for calibration, some of the older devices recommend annual recalibration.

You can do some calibrating yourself if you have a known source of radiation that is also sufficiently powerful to be meaningfully detected by your device.  Unfortunately (?) most common radiation sources that you might have (night sights on your firearms, watch hands that glow in the dark) release levels of radioactivity that might be too low to register on your device.  Plus they probably have tritium as their source, and tritium has a 12.4 yr half-life, so it is not giving a constant level of radioactivity itself to start with.  Old watches (from the early 1900s through about the 1960s) used radium, with a 1600 year half-life, but they are hard to find, and also have very low levels of radioactivity (about 1 mR/hr).

If you are getting your device recalibrated, you should ask if you can get a report to show how much adjustment was needed.  Clearly if the device was close to perfect, you can lengthen the interval between recalibrations.

Distinguishing Between Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Radiation

It can be helpful to understand the different types of radiation that is present on your property.  Note that many times, your device may be detecting a mix of all three types of radiation.

You can distinguish between the three different types simply.  If the radiation level drops off when you move the sensor just an inch or so away from the radiation source, then you know that you have some alpha radiation – it will be the difference between the radiation level measured right next to the source and the lower level measured a couple of inches away.

This can also be done by simply placing a sheet of paper between the source and the sensor, or by moving the sensor itself so the small window that allows relatively unimpeded movement by alpha particles is moved away from the source.

The next step is to distinguish between gamma and beta radiation.  Place a thin sheet (about 1/8th inch) of aluminum between the sensor and the source.  The reduction in radiation between the unobstructed and obstructed readings is the beta radiation from the source.

The balance is gamma radiation, both the normal background level of gamma radiation plus any additional coming from sources around you (and, in decreasing levels of intensity, from sources further and further away as well).

How Much Radiation is Safe?  When Does it Become Dangerous?

These are difficult questions to answer exactly.  To a certain extent, all radiation is cumulative, and so there is (sort of) no such thing as ‘safe’ radiation.  On the other hand, it takes a certain amount of radiation to have a measurable impact on a person’s health, and furthermore, we are all exposed to radiation every day – background ‘cosmic’ radiation, radiation from radon and other natural sources, and so on.

The ongoing low-level of exposure is used to justify additional radiation from things such as X-rays, airport security devices, and so on.  The reasoning is ‘Well, it is only a little bit more than you’re getting anyway from natural causes, so surely it doesn’t matter all that much’.  That reasoning is somewhat true, but also somewhat false, because, as we started off by saying, all radiation is cumulative.

Think of a person’s safe tolerance for radiation a bit like a bucket, and think of radiation like a tap.  Whether the tap fills the bucket slowly or quickly, the bucket still holds the same amount of water, doesn’t it.  The only difference is how long it takes, not how much water is required.

This analogy could possibly be slightly modified to consider the bucket as being one with a small little hole in it.  So if the tap is only open a crack and water very slowly pouring into the bucket, the tiny leak will have an effect on how much water it takes to eventually fill it, but if the tap is full on, then the bucket will quickly fill before any appreciable amount has leaked out the tiny hole in the bottom.

Lower levels of radiation can also be thought of a bit like cigarette smoking.  If you smoke cigarettes, you increase the chances of getting lung cancer, but you don’t guarantee that you’ll get lung cancer, and you don’t know if you’ll suffer the cancer in ten years, twenty years, or forty years after you start smoking.  Of course, if you smoke twice as many cigarettes, you’re more likely to get cancer and sooner than if you smoke very few.  Similarly, low levels of radiation increase the chances of you getting various types of cancers, but they don’t guarantee you’ll get them, and they don’t say exactly when you’ll get them.

High levels of radiation however work differently, and can be thought of instead as akin to a poison, and the only issue with very high levels of radiation is how quickly you get sick and die, rather than if and when and how.

We discuss this subject in more detail in a separate article.

Choosing Radiation Detectors

Different types of devices can detect different types of radiation and at different levels of radiation intensity.  There is no such thing as one single device which will do a good job of simultaneously detecting all the different types of radiation.

This is a complex subject, and so we’ll write about it in a separate article.

Summary

If some type of event results in a release of radioactivity in your area, you need to know what levels of radiation are entering your dwelling and surrounding you outside.  There is no accurate way of predicting the type or amount of radiation that might settle in your area, the only thing you can do is measure it subsequent to its arrival.

Radiation comes in three main forms, with different requirements for detecting and measuring.

Depending on the levels of radiation detected, and whether they are increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same, you will then be able to decide if your strategy will be to evacuate the area, to wait out the radiation until it declines to a safe level, or if the radiation is not significantly elevated to start with.

Please read the other articles in this series for more information about radiation.

Oct 082012
 

Radiation is nasty, for sure. But it can be survived, if you know what it is, what to expect, and what to do.

One of the classic doomsday scenarios, often inappropriately given way more prominence than it deserves, is some type of nuclear event that results in a massive release of radiation.

We think this is one of the reasons why underground bunkers are so popular.  But as we’ve analyzed in earlier articles, underground bunkers are seldom a good idea for preppers.  By the time you get to the underground bunker, it might be too late.  And, assuming you got to the bunker in time, and survived whatever the event was, you’d find the underground bunker a very inconvenient living space into the future.  By all means stick a basement underneath your retreat, but don’t make a basement or bunker the entire retreat!

Let’s understand the nature of radiation and fallout risks – from that understanding can follow a better appreciation of what one needs to protect against and how to do so.  The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are importantly different.

What is Radiation

The term ‘radiation’ covers a lot of different things.  Light is a form of radiation.  So are radio waves.  But for our purposes, radiation can be split into two types.  The first type is relatively safe, and is termed ‘non-ionizing’ radiation, and this includes radio and light waves, plus heat, sound, and various other things.  Non-ionizing radiation is a type of radiation that isn’t thought to make changes to the atomic structure of things it comes into contact with, but it may cause other sorts of changes or side-effects (as you’ll know any time you stick something in a microwave oven, which uses non-ionizing radiation to cook the food you placed in it), so it is not necessarily completely safe.

Our discussion in this article however is about ionizing radiation.  This is radiation that can change the make up of the individual atoms in things it comes into contact with.  That is almost always a bad thing, and in particular, it can break up DNA in living tissues, which can lead to the formation of cancers.

There are five major and relevant types of ionizing radiation, termed alpha, beta, gamma, neutron and X-ray.  Cosmic rays (primarily protons) are also ionizing, but they are a constant thing that does not change with a nuclear explosion, and so we can ignore them for this article’s purposes.

Let’s consider the main properties of these five types of radiation (and for the nuclear physicists reading, yes, we have simplified things somewhat, but hopefully have not compromised the overall accuracy of the article).

Alpha radiation

Alpha particles are the same as Helium-4 nuclei.  They comprise two protons and two neutrons.  They travel at about 5% of the speed of light (ie at a speed of about 10,000 miles in a second) but they are very short range – they typically only travel a couple of inches in air, and can be stopped by a single sheet of paper.

Because of their short-range and low penetration, alpha particles are not much of a problem.

Beta radiation

Beta particles are typically electrons (if you wanted to be fastidious you could say there may be some anti-matter positrons briefly present too, but let’s not dwell on that).  They are typically very fast-moving, and can travel greater distances than alpha particles, and will penetrate further as well (which is sort of implied by their greater range, of course).  They will be blocked by about 1/10th of an inch of aluminum or other metal, or by an inch or more of plastic.

Gamma radiation

Gamma rays are ‘highly energetic photons’.  In case that doesn’t explain much to you, they are fast-moving things (they travel at almost the speed of light) with no mass and no electric charge.  This makes them hard to block, and they can penetrate a considerable distance through most materials.  As a simplification, the more mass of material between you and the gamma rays, the better the material will act to attenuate (ie reduce) the amount of gamma radiation passing through it.

Gamma rays have an effective danger range of only a few miles, by which stage so few will remain as to no longer be harmful.  Depending on the magnitude of the original explosion and the amount of gamma rays released, this danger range is anywhere from under one mile to perhaps three miles.

Neutron radiation

Neutron radiation is – as its name implies – a stream of the sub-atomic particles we call neutrons.  It is also fast-moving, at a similar speed to that of alpha particles.

This type of radiation is nasty.  When a neutron hits an atom, it can change the atom into a different substance, and it can change a stable substance into an unstable (and therefore radioactive) substance.  Neutron radiation of a given level is generally said to be ten times more damaging than gamma or beta radiation.  Oh – and did we mention that they also penetrate very well, requiring a substantial thickness of material to block them.

Water and concrete are good blocking materials.

Neutron radiation has slightly less range than gamma radiation.

X-rays

X-rays are similar to gamma rays and are sometimes released as secondary radiation as part of a radiation event, but are not a primary product released by radioactive material, and so can be ignored for the purpose of this article.

The Shared and Relevant Characteristics of Radiation

The previous section looked at five different types of ionizing radiation, all of which is harmful to living creatures.  They share a couple of important properties – they are all very fast-moving (even the slowest moves at a rate of about 10,000 miles per second) and they are all very small – some are so small as to have no mass or size at all (yes, we know that doesn’t sound sensible, but it is what it is).

They also have moderately short ranges – generally less than 5 miles, and sometimes less than 5 inches.

A nuclear explosion will almost instantly release lots of radiation, and in only a second or so, not only will this radiation have been released, but it will have also traveled as far as it is going to go.  In other words, if you see a nuclear explosion, by the time your eyes have blinked from the bright flash, you’ve already received all the radiation you’re going to get from the immediate explosion itself.

Depending on where you are, that is either a good thing or a bad thing.

What is Fallout

So, what is fallout?  Fallout is all the ‘stuff’ that was in and around the bomb.  Some of this was radioactive to start with – by which we mean, it was emitting ionizing radiation.  Some of the rest of it has become radioactive, as a result of neutron radiation changing the properties of the elements and making them into new radioactive elements.  To be pedantic, you could term this ‘radioactive fallout’ but it seems to often be referred to merely as ‘fallout’, even though not all fallout is necessarily radioactive (but, to a greater or lesser extent, most of it is).

In the case of a bomb that is exploded in the air, most of this fallout material is simply the remains of the bomb itself.  But if a bomb is exploded close to, on, or in the ground, then the neutrons from the initial explosion will react with the soil and any other materials close at hand (buildings, cars, people, whatever) and will make some of that material radioactive, and the force of the explosion will blow all this material up into the air as well, massively increasing the amount of radioactive stuff up in the air.

So far so good.  Now for the ‘fall’ part of the word fallout.  All that stuff in the air is going to gradually settle back down to earth.  An air explosion will typically blow its remaining ‘stuff’ way up into the upper atmosphere, and it will spread perhaps all around the world and gradually settle, more or less evenly, over a huge portion of the earth’s surface.  This is actually a good thing – there is unlikely to be any massive concentration of radioactive fallout in any one place as a result.

But the ground and near ground bursts are very different.  Some of the material will be hurled up into the upper atmosphere, and will slowly fall down over the weeks and months that follow, all around the world, the same as air burst type fallout.  But some of it will only go up a relatively small distance and will fall back to earth more quickly (usually within 24 hours), and more intensely.  Depending on things like wind and rain, this material is likely to come back down to earth in the area downwind of the explosion, and perhaps spread out over 50 – 300 miles.

A ground burst not only creates a massively greater amount of radioactive fallout, but it deposits it more quickly and in a more concentrated pattern.  This is all bad.

Fallout particles range in size from less than 0.1 microns in diameter up to many microns in diameter.  They are dangerous because wherever they land, they are emitting whatever type of radiation it is they will emit.  They can potentially be breathed in to your lungs, and – for example – if you then have an alpha radiation emitter in your lungs, it doesn’t matter that the alpha particles only travel an inch or two and are stopped even by a sheet of paper, because wherever it is they stop, and whatever damage they then do, it will be inside you and to part of you.

Not only can you breathe fallout particles in, you can ingest them from the water you drink, and the food you eat.  Plus, the vegetables and animals you in turn eat or take milk from are doing the same things, and so your food may not only have surface contamination, but may have internal contamination too.  You can reasonably wash fallout off the outside of some food, but you can’t get rid of it once it has become a part of the thing, itself.

How Long is Fallout Dangerous For?

There’s no exact answer to this, any more than there’s an answer to the question ‘How high is up?’.  The danger life of fallout depends on several things – the level of radiation being emitted, and the half-life of the radioactive materials in the fallout.  Fall-out has a veritable soup of different radioactive substances in it, all with different properties.

The ‘half-life’ of something is the time it takes to reduce in activity by 50%.  Half-lives can range in duration from the tiniest fraction of a second at one extreme, to thousands of years at the other extreme.

To give an example of how half-lives work, let’s say there is a product with a 10 day half-life.  If it is emitting 1024 units of radiation a second at the start of the measuring period, then in 10 days it will be emitting half that rate, 512 units/second.  Now for the trick.  In another ten days time, it doesn’t use up the other half, and drop to zero.  Instead, it uses up half of what remains, so it loses half of the 512 units, and at the end of the 20 days, it will be emitting 256 units of radiation/second.

In another 10 days (30 days total), it will be down to 128 units of activity per second.  At the 40 day point it is down to 64 units, at 50 days it is 32 units, and at 60 days – two months – it is now down to 16 units.

So the rate of reduction of radioactivity slows down.  The first 10 days saw a drop from 1024 units of radiation a second down to 512 units/second.  But the ten days from 60 days to 70 days sees a reduction from 16 down to 8 units – not really much of a change at all.  Furthermore, it sort of never ever gets all the way to zero.  When it is down to 1 unit, the next half-life period takes it to 0.5 units, then to 0.25, and so on down and down but never quite reaching zero.

If the acceptable level of radiation is, say, 10 units/second, then at the 70 day point, when it is down to 8 units a second, it has become relatively ‘safe’, and at the 80 day point and only 4 units a second, it is even safer still, and at 100 days (1 unit/second) you sort of forget about it entirely.

The good news is that many of the most radioactive substances have relatively short half-lives – their half-lives are short because they are so radioactive.  So while you read about radioactive contaminated materials with half-lives of thousands of years, it is usually the case that these very long-lived substances only emit low levels of radiation.

Defending Against Radiation and Fallout From a Nuclear Explosion

Your best defense against the initial release of radiation is to choose your location carefully, so you’re not within range of any likely targets.  If you’re a ‘glass half full’ kinda guy, the ‘good news’ is that if you are within range of the initial radiation release from a nuclear explosion, that is probably the least of your worries.  You’ll probably be toasted to death from the heat, or crushed by the blast, long before the radiation kills you.

The bigger risk is the fallout from the blast.  Again, you should choose your location as wisely as you can.  As long as you can keep at least 20 miles from all air-burst targets, you’re probably going to be okay from air burst effects.  Unfortunately, the ground bursts are much more troublesome, because who is to really know which direction for sure will be downwind on the day?  You don’t want to be within several hundred miles of targets that are likely to receive ground bursts.

What types of targets will qualify for ground bursts?  Only specialized targets, because for general effect and damage, air bursts are much more effective.  But things like missile silos will definitely get ground bursts, and depending on their nature, other ‘hardened targets’ may also get ground bursts.

There’s another factor at play, too.  Fratricide and general errors, failures and mistake.  Not all missiles that are sent in our direction are guaranteed to explode exactly on their designated targets, and at the heights programmed into their warheads.  Some may explode high, others low, and some might go way off target.  Not only are ICBMs a little-tested technology, but routes over the North Pole are difficult to navigate, and with the very high re-entry speeds, even  a slight second of delay can mean a missile is way off course or too high or too low.  Add to that possible distortions caused by anti-missile events, and also what is termed ‘fratricide’ – the result of one missile’s detonation impacting on other missiles close to it, and a high intensity exchange of warheads could well end up with explosions going off hundreds of miles from where they were planned.

So the further away you are from anywhere that might receive any type of attack, the better you’ll be.

Now, for the fallout protection.  If you end up getting a bucket load of high intensity fall-out dumped on you, and survive the initial experience, then you’re just plain completely out of luck for the next some decades, possibly even hundreds of years.  Your only strategy will be to shelter until the fallout has all settled, and then to evacuate to a safer area, probably tens or even hundreds of miles away.

If you however get only a mild level of fallout, you’d be well advised to stay inside and to filter your air supply until the fall-out has done its thing and settled.

Your initial forays outside (ie to sample the area for radioactivity levels) should involve you wearing protective clothing (ideally exposing no skin at all), a breathing mask and goggles, and a decontamination process outside your dwelling prior to re-entering it, so you don’t bring in any radioactive material upon your return.

Opinions differ as to how long to expect radiation levels in fallout to subside – perhaps because different types of nuclear weapons, and different scenarios for their use, result in different mixes of radioactive materials, with different levels of radiation being emitted and different half-lives..  It seems that using three to five weeks as a prudent period to allow for levels to appreciably drop might be appropriate, and so you should factor the ability to survive, entirely inside, for at least twice that period of time, so as to be reasonably well prepared for such situations.

You should also be measuring radioactivity levels yourself, and keeping a record of them so you can try to see what the trend lines suggest (although this is difficult because there are a mix of different materials with differing half-lives, so there is no simple curve that you can plot and extrapolate).

Note also that radiation will probably not be evenly distributed everywhere on your property.  You’ll want to survey the property, and to map out ‘hot spots’ and safe zones, and to then keep away from the hot spots (and/or take steps to mitigate the dangers they pose) while concentrating your ongoing activities in the safer areas.

Beyond that point, practical considerations also intrude.  If it is winter, and there’s no need to be outside, then of course you can play it safer and stay inside more.  But if it is summer and there is work to be done outside, you need to decide what to do, and maybe rotate outside assignments between different people in your community, spreading the exposure more widely.

A Different Scenario – A Nuclear Power Plant Problem

The good thing about a bomb is that it does its work all in a fraction of a second, and after that fraction of a second, it is done and finished.  Sure, you might have to live with the consequences for a long time, but at least the initial event that created the problem has ceased.

But a nuclear power plant problem can be an ongoing issue, that releases nuclear material not just for a split second, but for hours or even days or weeks.  You may have ongoing releases of new material for an extended time.

Perhaps the best (worst?) example of such a scenario occurred in Japan in March 2011 at the Fukushima Daichii power plant in Japan.  An earthquake caused the working reactors at the multi-reactor site to shut down, and emergency diesel power generators started up to keep the cooling pumps circulating water through the power plant cores.  The subsequent tsunami flooded the generator rooms, causing the generators to fail, and without power, the cooling pumps stopped, allowing temperatures in the reactor cores to go dangerously high, with three reactors melting down.

The problems started on 11 March, and significant releases of nuclear materials continued for two weeks or longer (depending on where you draw the line on ‘significant’ releases), and material was still being released a month after the event started.  Here’s a great timeline.

It is probable that less radioactive material, in total, was released at Fukishima than at Chernobyl, but it occurred more recently, over a longer time line, and in full real-time view of the world’s news programs, making it a higher-profile event.

Furthermore, the Chernobyl disaster was relatively short-lived (pretty much all over and done with in less than a day), and we in the west only got wind of it (almost literally so) some time after the problem had been controlled, so there was less opportunity for angst and anguish.

There are a lot of variables at play with a nuclear power plant release of radioactive material.  It could involve any or all types of radiation, and it might be released into the upper atmosphere or instead have a short ride up and a fast ride down again, pooling in concentrated area.  Have a look at this map of contamination levels that were still in place in 1996, ten years after the event, to get a visual feeling for how strange the pattern of radiation concentration can be.

Try and locate up wind of nuclear power plants, and the further away you can be from them, the less risk you’ll run (although note the distribution pattern from Chernobyl where there was a relatively safe zone in the middle distance, with more dangerous areas both closer to the power plant, as you’d expect, but also further away, too).

Summary

Releases of radioactivity, whether from power plants and other accidental/peaceful means, or from nuclear weapon explosions, are definitely not a good thing, but they can be planned and prepared for, and generally, most times, can be survived as well.

As regards nuclear explosions, if you survive the blast and heat itself, you’ve also probably survived the initial release of radiation.  But the impacts of fallout are less predictable and will take place over a longer time.

You need a way to seal your retreat and filter the air you allow in, you need procedures to monitor and measure the radiation levels around you, and you need decontamination procedures when people leave your retreat, go into potentially contaminated areas, and then wish to return back into the retreat.

Interestingly, almost none of the challenges posed by radioactivity releases require, or are solved by, an underground bunker.

Jul 092012
 

The 1962 Sedan shallow underground nuclear test in NV saw a 104 kT device create a crater 1280 ft wide and 320 ft deep, displacing 12 million tons of earth, and creating two fallout plumes across the US, primarily way over in IA.

The good news is that we have had nuclear weapons for almost 70 years.  The ‘other side’ has had them for about 60 years, although only in militarily significant quantities for the last 45 or so years.

And, excepting of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in all that time, there’s not been a single nuclear weapon exploded other than for ‘peaceful’ testing purposes.

Does that mean we can look forward to another 45+ years of peace and safety?

Some optimists might hope that the disbanding of the Soviet Union, and the reductions in nuclear weapons by both Russia and ourselves has reduced the risk of nuclear warfare in the future.  That might be true, but we’re uncertain about that, and (this always surprises people unacquainted with military tactics) the weaker that conventional military forces become, the greater the reliance such states necessarily must have on nuclear weapons.

In addition, we have new nuclear ‘players’ these days – new nations with nuclear weapons, and more nations on the verge of adding nuclear capabilities, too.  The dynamics of the situation have changed.

In the Cold War, the doctrine of ‘mutual assured destruction’ or MAD as it was known was clearly successful.  We knew that any strike by us on the Soviet Union would see tens of thousands of nuclear weapons raining down everywhere in the US homeland.  That dissuaded us from attacking the Soviets.  And they in turn knew that an attack from them on us would see a similarly massive response.

Additionally, we both had ‘second strike’ capabilities.  Even if a first strike by the other side caught us off-guard, we had sufficient second strike capabilities from submarines, from B-52s already in the air on patrol, and from whatever land based missiles we could either launch before they were destroyed or which survived the first round of attack.

These days our second strike abilities are massively diminished.  Yes, we still have 5 or 6 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines at sea at any given time, each with up to 288 nuclear warheads on 24 missiles, but our finest ground missiles (the MX Peacekeepers) have been voluntarily retired, leaving only three fields of Minuteman III missiles (at Warren AFB, WY, Minot AFB, ND and Malmstrom AFB, MT), all of which have been voluntarily downgraded from carrying three warheads each to now only carrying one, and we no longer have B-52s in the air.

How Many Nuclear Weapons Do Potential Enemies Have?

That’s a very relevant question, of course, and not one that allows for an exact answer, unless we are to assume that everything we have been officially told by potentially opposing nations is true.

For example, while it is officially stated that Russia has about 10,000 nuclear warheads and another 4,500 awaiting dismantling (as of 2012) some sources suggest that Russia has concealed large numbers of warheads which it is not officially revealing to the US.

We can’t comment on this, of course, but while we’re pleased that Russia’s total inventory is way down from its high of about 45,000 weapons in the mid 1980s, the simple fact is that however many thousands of warheads it still has are way too many for us to feel good about.

This page is often used as a definitive summation of the world’s nuclear weapons inventory, but some of the information on the page strains one’s credibility – for example, a claim that neither Israel, Pakistan, India, or China have any operational nuclear weapons.  Both India and Pakistan are obsessed with each other and with the possibility of a sudden attack – the thought that neither nation has weapons ready to fire seems unlikely.

As for Israel, as the country knows only too well, it could be overrun by enemy forces in a week or less – it needs to have its weapons ready for instant deployment.

Most of all, to suggest that China also has no weapons in operational status seems very unlikely, as does the suggestion that in total China has no more than about 240 weapons – fewer than France (and note the footnote which says France may have lied about its total number of weapons!).

Even Wikipedia contradicts the claim that China has no operational nuclear weapons, referring to currently deployed Chinese ICBMs such as the Dong Feng 5 and 31 and 31A and possibly other models too, plus whatever China might have in the way of sub launched weapons such as the JL-2, which might be in service on up to four Chinese Type 094 SSBNs that may currently be in service, and in the future on the successor Type 096 boats.

Furthermore, while the Soviet Union understand the concept of MAD, allowing us an uneasy stand-off during the Cold War and to the present day, it is unclear but unlikely as to if the Chinese government also accepts such a concept.  With their much more distributed economic and industrial base, they are naturally more resilient to any nuclear attack, and an attack, if it were to be mounted against China, would require a huge number of warheads to be effective.

It suits the purpose of people advocating for nuclear disarmament to underestimate the count of weapons ranged against us by other countries.  It is easier for them to say we should reduce our weapon numbers based on a suggestion that the other side either doesn’t have many weapons or has already reduced their numbers.  So take the numbers you see on the FAS and other sites with a grain of salt.

Where Would an Enemy Strike?

It is anyone’s guess what and where in the US might be targeted for nuclear attack, either as part of a super-power high-intensity all out conflict, or as a suicidal type attack by a minor nuclear power, or even as a single bomb launched by renegades acting outside of state control.

However, we can make some estimates, and there are actually two very different sets of targeting criteria as between an attack by a minor power and a major power.  For clarity, let’s look at them separately.

Nuclear Attack by a Minor Power

If we have a nuclear war with a minor nuclear power, we can expect them to launch or in some other way transport only a small number of weapons towards us.  These weapons will probably be designed to ‘punish’ us, rather than to take out our nuclear response and military capabilities.

The good news is that not many countries have nuclear weapons.  The two smaller countries that seem to be biggest risks are Pakistan and North Korea.  They will doubtless be joined by Iran some time soon; indeed it is estimated Iran probably has enough nuclear material to make five bombs, even now.  It is thought Pakistan has about 90, and North Korea probably fewer than 10 nuclear weapons.

One other risk is the possibility of ‘loose nukes’.  These are most likely to originate from the former Soviet Union, and due to the confusion and corruption that surrounded the final days of the USSR and the first few years of the new countries formed out of the USSR, it is entirely possible that some weapons disappeared, notwithstanding the official assurances that this never happened.

One final (?) risk is the possibility of surreptitiously built nuclear weapons by groups of terrorists.  This is somewhere between easy and difficult – it is extremely difficult if you don’t have the appropriate materials and equipment, but if you do, it becomes acceptably simple.  If a group of terrorists were able to simply acquire the various materials, from various sources, over time, it becomes no more complicated that putting together furniture from Ikea to assemble them into an explosive device.

Although we for sure can’t read the minds of terrorists and the crazed leaders of countries that hate the US, we’d guess that a list of targets for such an attack would more or less follow a list of major US cities and best known/best-loved US icons, rather than attacking our nuclear warfare capabilities, for the simple reason that a minor power can’t hope to neutralize enough of our nuclear weapons as to have any appreciable impact on our likely response.

So, for sure, New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago would be targeted.  Other major cities that might also be targeted would probably include Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose, and Dallas.

Note that this list ignores the huge ‘obvious’ strategy of detonating one or a series of warheads as EMP devices.  In our opinion, this is the most likely strategy that any minor power would use – see our separate article for a discussion on the effects of an EMP attack on the US.

There’s one other possibility – nuclear blackmail, which might include a demonstration of ‘good faith’ where the enemy power attacks a target (city) and threatens additional attacks if certain demands aren’t complied with.  In such a case, we’d guess the attacker would go for a secondary level city rather than a primary city; because the goal would be to coerce and cower, not to enrage.

If the attacking power had recently suffered an attack by us of a specific nature, it might choose to respond in similar manner – a submarine launched cruise missile strike might see some of our submarine bases attacked, for example.  But our guess is most of the time, the highest risk from minor power attacks will be to major civilian population centers.

Nuclear Attack by a Major Power

There are two potentially dangerous major nuclear powers – China and Russia.  The other nuclear equipped major powers – Britain and France – don’t seem to pose such a level of threat.

Russia and official western sources says it has an inventory of about 10,000 nuclear weapons, of which perhaps 1,800 are immediately deployable and operational.  China’s nuclear capabilities are less clear – probably less than Russia’s, but probably more than we officially concede they may have..  Both countries have multiple delivery methods to get nuclear weapons to pretty much anywhere on the planet.

The good news – such as it can be – is that a first strike from a major power would probably be designed more to take out our own military and nuclear capabilities rather than to ‘punish’ our citizens.  Unlike a minor country, Russia and probably China too have the weaponry necessary to credibly attempt to destroy our own nuclear response abilities as part of their first strike, and as long as they have neutered our war-making, and perhaps our industrial base, they have no further need to destroy our population as a whole.

More or less in priority, here are some of the targeting considerations that an enemy power would keep in mind – and, the same as in our discussion of minor powers, this list ignores the EMP option, which we feel to be an overwhelmingly attractive approach for any nuclear aggressor of any size.

Whether an aggressor nation decides to limit their first strike merely to targets in the first category, or how far down the category list they end up going, is impossible to guess at.  It depends on the circumstances at the time.

1.  Our nuclear strike capabilities :  The few remaining missile silos would all be targeted for high yield ground bursts – the absolutely worst type of nuclear explosion from a point of view of subsequent fallout.  Also targeted would be all Strategic Air Command bases, naval installations, military command and control facilities, and major naval assets – especially aircraft carriers and submarines – wherever in the world they were.

2.  Non-nuclear military capabilities :  Most military bases and installations.  Major airports.  Also nuclear research establishments.

3.  Industrial capabilities :  Major manufacturing facilities such as vehicle plants, aircraft plants, and any other major/heavy manufacturing facilities that could be repurposed for building military equipment.

4.  Economic capabilities :  Ports.  Major transportation hubs and bottlenecks.  High tech industries.  New York/Wall St.  Major dams.  Concentrations of industry such as refineries, power generation and pipelines.

5.  Leadership :  Washington DC, of course (if not already targeted in a preceding category).  Major cities and state capitals.  ‘Undisclosed safe locations’ that our politicians plan to retreat to – we mightn’t know their whereabouts, but the other side probably does.

6.  Civilian :  Major population concentrations.  Universities.  Iconic American locations.  Other infrastructure.  Maybe warheads at locations that may trigger volcanic eruptions or earthquakes.

A Note on Accuracy

It is thought that most modern ICBMs can deliver a warhead to a target, thousands of miles away, with an accuracy of about 0.1 miles.

It is not known what disruptive effects there may be when the first missile warheads start exploding in terms of ‘blowing’ other missiles off course.  This phenomenon, known as ‘fratricide’ may well have some impact, causing some warheads to malfunction (either in the form of failing to explode, or perhaps a limited reduced yield explosion, or detonating at an unexpected altitude and/or somewhere off course.  When you have a missile traveling 5,000 – 10,000 miles, it only takes a very small amount of error to result in tens of miles of ‘miss’ distance at the destination.

When calculating your vulnerability to nuclear strikes, you need to consider not only the effects of accurate hits on probable targets, but also the effects of moderately near misses, too.

There’s one more type of accuracy to consider – the accuracy of the target lists the other side has adopted.  There are lots of US military installations that have closed down over the last decade or two – installations that, in their heyday, would have been prime nuclear targets, but which of course, now that they have been closed and abandoned, no longer have any military target value at all.

But has the other side kept its targeting lists up to date?  And, for that matter, does it truly believe that abandoned de-activated facilities have been truly abandoned and de-activated?

Summary

Major cities are at risk of a minor power attacking us with nuclear weapons.  Military facilities are for sure at risk of a major power attacking us, as are probably industrial and economic targets too in a first strike, and more general leadership and civilian targets in any second strike.

You need to consider your retreat’s location in terms of where possible nearby nuclear targets may be, and you need to consider your travel route to your retreat based on possible targets on the way.

Jun 232012
 

Is this a summer picture in Arizona? Or a winter picture in New England? A nuclear winter could make the latter into the former.

One of the risks you probably consider is that of our country being attacked by nuclear weapons.

In scientific terms, that would be termed ‘a helluva bad thing’ and we of course hope it never happens.  But if it does, we also hope that we’re not at any of the ground zeros, and that our preparations will enable us to survive through the difficult times that would inevitably follow.

But what say two other countries get in a nuclear shouting match?  Without wishing to ascribe exact risk levels, it is probably more likely that, say, India and Pakistan, or Israel and Iran might start lobbing nuclear weapons at each other, than we and the Russians will duke it out.

Other than for humanitarian reasons, do we – should we – care at all if two other countries, both far from us, engage in a nuclear exchange?

While in theory a couple of nuclear explosions, half-way round the world, plus or minus, will be no more harmful to us than have been the hundreds we’ve set off ourselves, mainly in Nevada, but also in Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi and New Mexico as well as around the Pacific, there are issues associated with an actual nuclear war, wherever it occurs, that should give us concern.

Our hundreds of tests took place over an extended period of over 45 years from 1945, and in the latter half were underground.  Most were of moderate strength only, in deserted areas, and seldom was there more than one or two a month.

Compare this with what would happen in a nuclear war between two secondary powers.  Although they don’t have the thousands or tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that Russia and the US each has, India, Pakistan and Israel all are thought to have more than 100 devices a piece.  It is not known how many North Korea has (probably less than 10) and probably there are not yet other nuclear powers in the Middle East (although every day brings Iran closer to having nuclear weapons).

It is reasonable to fear that a nuclear war would see the aggressor power send anywhere from 10 to 50 nuclear missiles at the country it was attacking, and it is probable that the attacked country would reciprocate with most of the nuclear weapons it was able to deploy in return.

In other words, within the space of an hour or two, there could be 100 or more nuclear explosions.  Furthermore, it is likely that at least some of the targets will be cities and other areas of concentrated industrial development, meaning that the initial nuclear blasts will be followed up by major secondary effects – massive firestorms as the targeted cities and factories burn.

The side-effect of all of this is thought to be the nuclear winter concept that was first discussed in the mid/late 1980s.  The smoke from the nuclear bombing and subsequent firestorms would darken the upper atmosphere, reflecting away and/or blocking the sun’s rays, causing the surface of the planet to cool.

This effect could last for more than a year, destroying crops, changing weather patterns, and generally destroying our entire food system.  See the discussion on this page from the Scientific American site, for example.

The good news is that the nuclear winter scenario is not without its critics and is far from guaranteed.  The major conventional bombings and firestorms that occurred late in World War 2 did not seem to have significant impacts on the global climate.  But if a nuclear winter effect does happen, either totally or in some reduced but still measurable amount, we have to consider the consequences, which are likely to impact on the entire planet.

There are several implications for us as preppers.

The first is to be aware that the solar power that probably figures prominently in our planning as an energy source in a Level 2/3 scenario would not be as effective as we hope.  If we lose 50% of the sun’s power, we lose – yes – 50% of the energy the solar cells would otherwise generate.

As for wind turbines, and at the risk of making an over-generalization, we’ll guess that if there is less energy from the sun reaching the earth, there will be less wind.  Wind and pretty much all other weather is a byproduct of the sun’s energy and if there is less energy from the sun, there’ll be less strong weather, too.  Wind turbine power production could fall even more dramatically than solar power generation, because wind turbines require a minimum amount of wind before they even start to generate any electricity at all, whereas solar cells will still at least generate a reduced level of power in low light conditions.

The second implication is that our plans to immediately start raising crops and animals if LAWKI ends may need to have a fallback contingency.  If the earth’s overall temperature falls, there could be one or more than one growing season completely lost before things recover back to something sufficiently close to normal again.

So, it would be prudent to lay in another few thousand gallons of propane or diesel as an energy source and a few more buckets of dried food concentrate.

May 272012
 

The Iranian Flag

The war drums are beating ever louder in prelude to a possible war with Iran.  What will this mean for us back in the US?

Although it might seem at odds with our current President’s world-view and values, it is hard to overlook the increasing amount of news stories that are being released or strategically leaked, all of which seem to indicate that we may be initiating war with Iran shortly.

For our part, we don’t understand how it is for year after year after year Iran has so successfully played us for the fools that, alas, our State Department so often truly is on the world stage, while at the same time, inexorably getting closer and closer to having a credible arsenal of nuclear weapons, and research facilities so hardened and so far underground as to be impregnable to anything we might bring to bear.

It is a bit like blackberry bushes in spring.  You can cut them back when they first start to spring up, this being an easy simple process that takes but a few minutes.  But if you delay, each extra day you do nothing makes the eventual task so much harder when you subsequently reach your wife finally insists you attempt to recover your yard and garden from now dense infestations of blackberry bushes.  Iran is getting stronger and more resilient with every passing day.

It is hard to know what Iran’s capabilities are at present.  They’ve been lying to everyone for years, and most countries (many of which would prefer to see Iran succeed than the US) and UN organizations have been happy to accept the lies at face value rather than to confront the ugly and deepening reality of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Just because we’re being told various stories, some contradictory, about the lack of threat Iran currently poses does not mean this is so.  It is interesting to contrast all the publicity surrounding Iran’s nuclear program with the silence with which other countries have developed nuclear weapons.  It seems other countries successfully completed nuclear weapons programs in less time and with less fuss or commitment (for example South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, even Israel).  If these other countries can make nuclear weapons, and can secure support from more advanced nations in their efforts, why not Iran, too?

Until now, our various misadventures in the Middle East have been against countries with no nuclear weaponry, and no ability to project power much beyond their own borders.  And so while we’ve been able to swamp them with our high-tech weaponry and resources, they’ve not been able to fight back, and most of all, they’ve not been able to bring the battle back home to us.

A Quick Backgrounder on Iran

Those issues do not apply quite so directly with Iran.  Iran is the 18th largest country in the world (in terms of its landmass size – slightly smaller than Alaska), and is overwhelmingly Muslim (89% Shia, 9% Sunni).

Iran – formerly known as Persia until 1935, has a population of 79 million.  Since its revolution in 1979, it has a complicated government – think of it perhaps as having way too many checks and balances.  It has a steadily growing albeit somewhat troubled economy – largely oil based – but not much wealth, and an official unemployment rate of at least 15%.

Iran produces 4.3 million barrels of oil a day.  Iraq, in comparison, produces 2.6 million and Kuwait produces 2.5 million.  It is the fourth largest oil producer in the world – Saudi Arabia produces 10.5 million, Russia 10.3 million and the US 9.7 million.

Iran has the world’s second largest proven natural gas reserves, and the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves.

In part because of its oil production and exports, Iran has a massive positive balance of payments and steadily increasing reserves of gold and foreign exchange – $79 billion in 2010, rising to $110 billion in 2011.

The Iranian Military

Iran has a strong military, with 20 million males 18 – 49 fit for military service (and, theoretically, another 19 million women).  Men are required to spend 18 months of military service, and each year, another 715,000 males reach the age of military service.

Leading US generals have described the Iranian military as the strongest in the Middle East.  However, they probably were not talking about its Air Force, which is made up largely of older planes (many of them from the US) and only a few of which seem to be airworthy.

But Iran does have a moderately capable navy, and indeed, in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, and the Straits of Hormuz in particular, their ships could fire their anti-ship missiles at US naval targets without leaving port.  The ability of US aircraft carriers to withstand any type of missile attack has never been tested in real life, and there have to be real concerns about their survivability in the event of a massed attack of multiple missiles launched for a simultaneous time on target strike.

As well as surface ships, Iran also has three Russian Kilo class submarines.  These are diesel-powered, but are typically quieter than most nuclear powered submarines when operating on their batteries.

One wonders if the US military command are willing to risk the loss of one, two, or more of their 11 aircraft carriers, particularly when you consider that each aircraft carrier has almost 6,000 personnel on board.  While aircraft carriers are great for effective force projection, their vulnerability is a matter of concerned debate, and the US has been fortunate not to have deployed them – so far – against an enemy with credible anti-ship missile capabilities.

If the US can not use its carriers, and with difficult relations with countries that border Iran (ie Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq – not even Iraq seems to like us much even more) and an always complex relationship between Saudi Arabia and both Iran and the US, the US would not have a lot of places for forward bases to support any operation.  Turkey is another uncertain ally, and Israel – the country with apparently the greatest vested interest – is too far away for practical support purposes, and would require over-flight permission from Jordan and Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

That’s not to say the US couldn’t prevail.  It would almost certainly follow the standard pattern of an initial high intensity surprise attack with cruise missiles to disable as much of Iran’s air defenses as possible, supplemented in this case by an attack on naval targets too.  Once it had control of the skies, it could have ground attack aircraft patrolling the country with impunity, and taking out targets as and when they wished.

But how it could move from there to a ground war is less clear.  Where would it pre-stage 100,000 or more troops, and all the tanks, trucks, and other equipment needed to occupy the ground?

It is helpful to keep in mind that in the war with Iraq, the US was facing a country with less than half as many people and only one quarter the land mass.  In the war with Afghanistan, the US was (is?) facing a country with one third the land mass and 40% the population.  Iran is very much larger in every respect.

On the other hand, the chances are that the Iranian army would be no more effective than the Iraqi army was when faced with the modern capabilities of US forces.

We’re not saying a war with Iran is not winnable at all.  It almost certainly would be, inasmuch as you can consider our war with Iraq was a ‘success’ and the same with our war against Afghanistan.  We could overwhelm the country’s armed forces, for sure, but what about the peace that follows?  That is the bit we’re not quite so good at optimizing!

While there are some opposition elements in Iran, it is hard to see any truly pro-western factions rather than merely different elements but still Muslim oriented and primarily anti-western.  It is appropriate to remember that the 1979 revolution was a very popular uprising by the country as a whole against the US supported previous regime; there is little evidence of any broad base of opposition to the present regime and even less evidence of any pro-western sentiment among the opposition forces that might be present.

Although we probably could win a war with Iran, we do make the point that there may be more damage inflicted on US forces than we’ve experienced in other recent conflicts, and the logistics of supporting an Iranian conflict look to be more complex than supporting the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan.  (The US has lost 2000 people in the Afghan conflict so far, and 4500 in Iraq).

Anyway, these issues are secondary to the main topic of this article.  The implications of a war with Iran for us, hopefully safely located back in the Continental US.

Other than a possible increase in ‘one off’ type terrorist attacks that might be regrettable but hardly life changing for most of us, we see three areas of risk to LAWKI.

Risk 1 :  Nuclear Attack

We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that we’d be totally unsurprised to learn that Iran already has nuclear weapons.  It probably hasn’t tested them yet, but we’re going to say that, other than tightening down the last few screws in the cover and charging up the batteries, Iran is probably in possession of 98% completed nuclear weapons.

This report suggests Iran sort of has enough materials for five weapons already.  Let’s take that number and instead of ‘could build five weapons in the future’ change it to ‘has five weapons now’, just for the sake of this discussion.

The bigger issue, as we see it, is one of delivery.  How would Iran get nuclear weapons to the US?

It seems that its longest range missiles currently can reach no further than 2,000 miles.  So we’re safe, right?  The shortest distance from Iran to the US is 6,000 miles.

Wrong.  Go play on Google Earth and see what places are within 2000 miles of the US.  For example, Washington DC is less than 2,000 miles from the closest parts of Venezuela, and with a dying President there who hates the US, is it impossible to foresee a situation where he agrees to go out in a splash of shared glory with Iran?  The two countries are becoming increasingly friendly and cooperating on a range of different projects.

Alternatively, what’s to stop Iran from forward positioning missiles on freighters and simply sailing the ship to within 2,000 miles of a US coast.  There’s no shortage of tempting targets on either coast.

One other possibility is to smuggle the weapons into the country in shipping containers, or, for that matter, as airfreight cargo in an airfreight LD-3 container.  Isn’t this the ultimate ‘cruise missile’ – a civilian passenger or freight jet, flying on a regular approved flight plan.

So maybe Iran couldn’t conveniently use traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver its warheads.  But it has plenty of other choices.

How/Where to Target Five Missiles/Bombs

What would a country do as part of a ‘suicide’ mission to detonate five nuclear weapons on US soil?  Where would it send the missiles?

A good answer to that question can be seen from the actions of the 9/11 attackers.  While we don’t know if the urgent landing of all airborne planes forestalled other pending attacks (probably not, but who knows for sure) what we do know is that with four ‘weapons’ (ie planes) the terrorists decided to send two to New York and two to Washington DC.

It is almost certain that these two cities would be the prime targets of a nuclear attack, too.  And while one nuclear explosion above DC and Manhattan would be more than sufficient, we’d expect that due to the unreliability of both the weapons and the missiles taking them to their targets, the attacking force would at least ‘double up’ and send two to each target, which would leave a single ‘bonus’ fifth weapon.  That too could be sent to NY or DC, but it might perhaps instead be sent as a ‘bonus’ to a third target; most likely to be another major US city chosen for its iconic status and economic impact rather than for any strategic/military value.

An attack on the US would not be designed to win the war.  It would be designed to inflict maximum civilian and economic damage in relation.

Risk 2 :  EMP

This is the risk that really has us worried.  Instead of sending five bombs to DC and NY, which while having a devastating impact on these two population centers, would have little impact on the rest of the country; why not just send one for a high altitude airburst with an EMP that will destroy much of the entire nation’s electronic and electrical infrastructure.

Indeed, with five weapons, why not detonate one, then a second one two days later so as to take out much of the backup systems that may be held in protective storage, then a third one two weeks later to zero out any remaining backed up backups, leaving two more for ‘bonus’ attacks in the future.  Or perhaps, the two spares to Europe to take out the rest of the western world at the same time.  Imagine that :  No US and no EU – two continents instantly reduced to a non-mechanized farming level of subsistence.

With all due respect to New York and DC, and the people living there, the country would survive their loss.  But a staged series of EMP attacks?  That would plunge all of us back to the near-stone age.

Many of us have prepared for some degree of EMP response, although none of us really know how protective our ‘do it yourself’ Faraday cages may be, and even if we did survive the first round and start deploying our backed up equipment, what happens when the second EMP takes out our backups?

This, we feel, is the greatest vulnerability of all – a second EMP strike several days after the first.  It is hardly an innovative idea.  World War 2 saw the use of delayed fuse bombs, with the concept being that the first wave of explosions would destroy buildings, and the delayed explosions would then take out the responders, leaving the area vulnerable to a future bombing attack, due to having killed the firemen, paramedics, etc, and having destroyed their vehicles.  There is every reason to believe that any nation planning to launch one EMP device would choose to launch others subsequently to take out whatever level of backup equipment was being taken out of protective storage and deployed.

We can not overstate the danger of EMP attacks.  They are ‘low tech’ and easy for an attacking nation to stage (assuming it is nuclear capable), and at present our country is massively vulnerable to such an attack.  Using nuclear weapons merely as high explosive devices these days is old-fashioned and no longer the best use of the weapons.  Much better to reprogram their missile delivery systems to activate them at high altitude for maximum EMP effect with a 1,000 mile or greater radius, rather than at relatively low altitude for a blast with a lethality radius of ‘only’ five or so miles.

Risk 3 :  Cyber Attack

Iran is one of five nations known to be developing a ‘cyber army’ – soldiers who do battle not with a gun and bullets, but with a computer mouse and datalink.

This is perhaps only fair, being as how Iran has been on the receiving end of a shadowy cyber-attack itself – the Stuxnet virus intended to destroy its centrifuges that are used to separate Uranium 235 from the regular mix of primarily Uranium 238.

Our nation’s increasingly fragile infrastructure is largely computer controlled.  Real people aren’t standing watch in power stations, pumping stations, distribution points, and so on, with their eyes locked on a battery of gauges and dials, and their hands ready to spin control levers in response to changing indications on the readouts.  Indeed, even if that were the case, the chances are the readouts are digital rather than analog – that is, they have gone through microprocessors prior to appearing on displays, and the controls too are probably ‘fly by wire’ type controls that would just control a computer rather than be physically linked to huge big valves and switches and things.

Anything that harms the control computers can destroy the structures that are being controlled.  It is all too easy to mis-direct control system computers so that they send the wrong instructions to the equipment they are controlling, destroying the equipment in the process (this is, simplistically, one of the things the Stuxnet virus did to Iran).  It is possible to reprogram the logic of the controllers, causing nuclear power stations to melt down, for example.  To overload transformers in the national grid.  To allow turbines to overspeed and break in our hydro-electric power stations.  To over-pressure and rupture our gas and oil pumping lines (or just to open the wrong valves and pump oil or gas into sensitive areas).  To open up floodgates on dams, sending tidal waves of water downstream (and also then emptying the dams of the water needed for regions and their agriculture and people to survive).

Truly, there is no limit to the mischief one can create.

Furthermore, our infrastructure is also increasingly networked and linked up through public internet channels.  Anyone who believes that utility companies and government departments have adequately secured their computer systems to make them invulnerable to cyber-attack needs to do some internet surfing to disabuse themselves of such notions.

For example, look at the case of Gary McKinnon, the eccentric English guy and Asperger’s victim who allegedly penetrated to the highest level of NASA and DOD computer networks.  If one single amateur UFOlogist (ie McKinnon) can gain access to the tightest security computer networks and do damage to them inadvertently, what can military teams of dedicated opponents do?

A cyber attack could be almost as damaging as an EMP in terms of massive widespread disruption to our support systems and infrastructure.  It could not just knock out our power grid and our oil and gas pipelines, but it could also damage their physical structures such as to take years to repair.

Best of all (from Iran’s perspective) the attacking nation doesn’t need any nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles.  It just needs a regular computer and a connection to the internet.  Indeed, it is possible to disguise the location where the attack originated from – Iran (or any other country with national hacking capabilities) could destroy our nation’s economy and we might never even know for sure it was Iran who did it.

Summary

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan had nuclear weapons, and neither did they have much in the way of cyber capabilities.

On the other hand, Iran may already have nuclear weapons, and definitely has cyber warfare capabilities.  It also has an extremist leadership who views not just our armed forces and our politicians as their enemies, but who views the entire American value system and way of life as an evil to be exterminated and replaced by their Muslim ideologies.  We are all the enemies of these people, whether we are soldiers or not.

It seems likely that if Iran’s leadership felt its future was being credibly threatened, they’d have no hesitation at all in inflicting the maximum amount of damage on the US civilian population and economy.  They wouldn’t even care if this resulted in us abandoning our attack on Iran or not; all that would matter is that they managed to inflict maximum damage on the US.

In our long time stand-off with Russia/the former Soviet Union, the doctrine of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ worked, because neither we nor the Soviets wanted to risk the certain destruction of our own world as a cost of destroying the other country.  We both feared MAD.

But Iran shows no fear of the concept of MAD.  It almost seems to welcome it.

Iran may or may not be able to mount a nuclear attack or to detonate an EMP device in the US, but it does seem to already have capacity to bring cyber-attacks against who knows what broad range of vulnerable computer control systems across the nation, disabling our supply lines and support systems as a result.

A war with Iran is a high-risk venture, accordingly – not just to our military, but to ourselves back home, too.

Apr 102012
 

1950s school bomb drills were one way of prepping. Hopefully you adopt more effective methods.

Neither threat is new, but both have been uttered again this week, and with more vehemence than before.

Threat 1 :  Iran

Our good friends the Iranians (not!) are reputed to be preparing an army to launch against the US, waging war against the country’s infrastructure such as our power grid, water supplies, and other public infrastructure components.

But this ‘war’ would not be fought on American soil, and wouldn’t see combat between our troops and theirs.  This would be a cyber-war, with the Iranian forces being hackers rather than soldiers, and rather than risking their lives on US soil, they’d be attacking our systems from the comfort of their living room tables.

The results to us would be the same.  There’s no difference to us, as between dynamite bombs and logic bombs, when it comes to destroying the control system for a major power substation, a hydro-electric dam, or a water treatment facility.  If when we turn the tap, no water comes out, or if when we flip the switch, the light doesn’t go on, we’re identically affected, no matter what the cause.

More details about this threat here.

Threat 2 :  North Korea

The North Koreans also had a message of hate to share with us this week.  Their top soldier – their Army Chief of Staff – claimed they had unspecified weapons that could ‘defeat the US at a single blow’.

No-one is sure what this would be, and it may well be based more on rhetoric than real substance, but it isn’t a good feeling to have the top soldier of a country that is still technically at war with us to threaten to destroy us completely.

More details about this threat here.

Analysis and Comment

Modern warfare is totally different to that of 50 years ago.  Fifty and more years ago, warfare was low intensity, it occurred over an extended period of time, and the ultimate victory would almost invariably go to the country able to allocate the most men, money and industrial manufacturing to the conflict.

With the US having by far the strongest economy in the world, and one of the largest populations, it was able to field huge armies and both supply and resupply its armed forces at rates vastly greatly than any opposing forces.  Our ability to win any conflict that we fully committed to was close to assured.

But these days warfare is high intensity and can be all over and done with in a matter of minutes (if nuclear), or days/weeks (if conventional).  High intensity wars are not so dependent on a country’s economic strength or even its pool of available manpower, because the war is generally over and done with during the first round, based on the forces and material that the opposing sides have on day one of the conflict.

There is no time to induct and train up and deploy more troops, there is no time to start producing more planes, tanks, and ships.  The war has been won or lost well before then.

With the US running down the size of its standing forces, with it reducing not only the number of planes, tanks and warships, but also its stocks of missiles, bombs, and even bullets, we no longer have an unstoppable lead up front.  And even if we did survive the first round of a high intensity conflict, how long would it be before we could start resupplying?  How long does it take to build a new warship?  A year or more, sometimes five years or more.

How long does it take to build a new plane?  While a new plane only takes maybe a week on the assembly line, the real question is ‘how long does it take to build a new assembly line, and new factories to manufacture the sub-assemblies for the planes?  The answer there is again measured in years, not weeks or months.

The other feature of modern warfare is that it is like guerrilla warfare on steroids.  The key thing about guerrilla warfare is the imbalance of forces.  Traditionally, an attacking force needs to be two to three times the size of the defending force to win an encounter; with guerrilla warfare, tiny teams of men can tie up tens or hundreds of times more of the opposing force.

The concept of guerrilla warfare on steroids is that whereas before it would have taken a team of maybe ten special ops soldiers days or weeks to hit each target in enemy territory, and they would have been vulnerable to enemy countermeasures, now it takes only one clever hacker perhaps no more than a few hours to destroy the control systems for the target that previously would have been destroyed by tons of high explosive instead.  A hacker could wake up in his bed at home in the morning, then after breakfast work from his kitchen table.  By lunchtime he might have destroyed multiple high value enemy targets, then after a comfortable lunch, he could repeat the exercise again for the afternoon, never having personally put himself at risk.

These are the problems and these are the vulnerabilities the US now faces, totally like any threats of ever before.  Our military might – such as it may be these days – is powerless to protect us against a ‘suitcase nuke’ or a biotoxin strike or a remote hacker.

Oh – two more things.  First – this type of future war won’t be fought on a distant battlefield in a far-away foreign country.  For essentially the first time in our nation’s history, this war will be fought in the American homeland, and its casualties will be ordinary US citizens – people like you and me.

Second – the overall vulnerabilities of US society magnify the disruptive effects of attacks on our infrastructure.

The loss of power is more than no lights at home.  It means no power for the factories that make the food we eat, no power for the hospitals, and so on and so on (okay, to be exact, most hospitals have emergency power systems that provide unknown amounts of power, of unknown reliability, for unknown periods of time, but you get our point).

The New Great Equalizers

Back in the days of the wild west, the gun was referred to as the great equalizer.  No longer was the outcome of a fight dependent on the person with the greatest physical strength.  Even the puniest of men and the frailest of women could compete on equal terms, based not on physical prowess but instead on skill at arms with a gun.

Today we have two new great equalizers.  The first is computer hacking.  For the first time in our country’s history, threats to our national security do not require a stronger country with a more powerful economy and a larger army; any puny little country with a handful of clever computer hackers could potentially bring us to our knees more quickly than a super-power with a 10 million man army.

The second is the NBC threat :  Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.  A drop of toxin in a city water supply, a suitcase nuke exploded downtown in the center of your city, or – worst of all – a single EMP pulse which could destroy most of the electronics and electrics of the entire country – these weapons are trickling down to smaller and smaller countries.

The ‘nuclear club’ of countries that possess nuclear weapons, once the exclusive preserve of the US, UK, France and USSR, is now getting crowded with around ten countries now having nuclear weapons, and plenty more working their way towards that goal.  And with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ‘out there’ – particular those formerly belonging to the Soviet Union before it broke up, who’s not to say there are a few stray ones in the hands of evil doers.

Chemical and biological weapon capabilities are even more widespread.

Bottom Line

If it isn’t already obvious – our country is massively at risk of man-made disruption – of ‘The End of the World as We Know It’.

And with our fragile society and its lack of reserves and redundancies in supply lines and sources, any disruption will threaten much broader consequences.  Whether such disruptions might take three months or three years to resolve becomes irrelevant when society starts to collapse after three days of disruption and is completely destroyed after three weeks.

How long could you manage with no food, no water, and no utilities, and roving gangs of desperate citizens keen to take whatever you might still have from you, by force if necessary?

We need to be prepping.