Fallout Facts: Assessing mid-Missouri's nuclear threat

Experts say North Korea's nuclear arsenal could threaten the United States if it falls into terrorist hands. (File)

On the outside of Lincoln University's Richardson Fine Arts Center hangs a faded memento of the Cold War.

A metal sign, not much bigger than a parking sign, bears the words, "Fallout Shelter." If you look closely, you can make out its capacity of 326 people.

At one time, these signs were commonplace, a staple of Cold War America. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's predecessors funded these shelters in the early years of the Cold War, but ultimately abandoned the public fallout shelter effort due to cost.

Fears of a nuclear confrontation are again creeping into the headlines as North Korea tests increasingly powerful warheads. In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its famous Doomsday Clock at 2.5 minutes to midnight, the closest its been to the metaphorical symbol for nuclear armageddon since the 1950s.

Mark Prelas, a longtime nuclear engineering professor at the University of Missouri, worked on President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s and assisted the State Department with nuclear disarmament efforts at the end of the 1990s. Prelas said the risk of an all-out nuclear war like that Americans feared during the Cold War is much lower, but the risk of nuclear terrorism is higher. There are fewer total warheads now than there were during the Cold War, but he said more countries have nuclear arsenals.

Prelas said North Korea's nuclear arsenal is particularly destabilizing. If Kim Jong Un's regime believed it was in danger of collapse, he said it might turn over nuclear materials to terror groups. Prelas said terrorists would want to strike a high-visibility target such as New York City for maximum impact, so the likelihood of a nuclear terror attack in mid-Missouri is very low.

Prelas said nuclear fallout consists of radioactive particles that mix with dust generated by a nuclear explosion. These particles fall to the earth after a nuclear blast and continue to give off radiation for weeks, months or years afterward. Prelas said any sturdy building will provide some protection from this radiation. He said concrete and earth both do a good job of cutting your radiation exposure. The best protection can be found in a basement or an interior room.

"What you want to do is make sure the radiation falls to a level that's low enough that you can leave the shelter," he said.

Depending on how close you are to the blast, Prelas said this could be anywhere from a few days to a month. In the meantime, he said you can shelter in place much like you would other disasters. Canned food will be safe from contamination. Prelas recommends sealing off most airways with duct tape and plastic sheeting. If you cannot afford dedicated air filters, he said duster inserts can do the same job. Apple has a Geiger counter app that can be paired with dedicated Geiger counter attachments for a smartphone.

Ashley Parkinson knows a thing or two about maintaining large supplies of food. Parkinson is a member of the LDS church, which encourages its members to maintain up to a year's supply of necessities in case of unforeseen disasters, personal or widespread. The Columbia resident and mother of four keeps several shelves of canned grains, fruits and vegetables in a spare basement bedroom. If her family needs to evacuate, there is a backpack for each person loaded with 72 hours' worth of provisions. To keep her supplies fresh, Parkinson said she feeds her family out of this pantry and uses her grocery runs to replenish her long-term stocks.

Parkinson doesn't spend much time worrying about the nuclear threat. She said tornadoes, ice storms and earthquakes pose a more immediate threat, as do more personal disasters such as job loss. Moreover, keeping a large supply of food means she can help her neighbors if they are in trouble.

"If I had food, and my neighbor didn't, I couln't live with that," she said. "If everybody were to have a good supply of food storage in their home, then we could all help each other and not be worried when things do come."

Parkinson's all-hazards approach to preparedness echoes the state of Missouri's policy. State Emergency Management Director Ernie Rhodes said any large-scale disaster has implications for public health, utilities, transportation and a host of other issues. The state regularly practices for large-scale infrastructure breakdowns.

"Every day, we publish a situation status where we're looking at what's going on in the state, what's going on in the nation," he said.

Rhodes said emergency-response units in mid-Missouri regularly train for an accident at Ameren Missouri's nuclear reactor east of Fulton. He said many of the equipment and techniques for reactor emergencies could be applied to the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

Rhodes said it's easy to prepare for emergencies even if you're on a limited budget. He recommends buying a couple more cans of food than you need each time you visit the grocery store. Over time, this will turn into a good supply. In the event of a large-scale disaster, Rhodes said it will take at least a few days to restore basic services. Being able to shelter in place lets first-responders concentrate on helping those who truly need it.

Rhodes' headquarters at the state emergency operations center includes a credenza containing an old Civil Defense ration tin from the 1950s-era fallout shelter program. Such equipment might have been found in the fallout shelter on the Lincoln University campus. The program was discontinued in the 1970s due to budget constraints, and Rhodes said civil defense now emphasizes all-hazards preparedness rather than focusing on any one particular threat. Rather than stocking public shelters, state and federal agencies urge people to shelter in place whenever possible and have enough supplies stockpiled that they can remain in their homes for weeks.

Stevens Institute of Technology Professor Alex Wellerstein created an interactive map that simulates the effects of nuclear blasts of different sizes. Wellerstein said his map is based on publicly-available government data. If you would like to simulate the effects of a nuclear blast in your area, go to the map, type in your location, and then select the desired size of the blast, called the yield. You can also set the map to show different effects such as the minimum distance at which you would be guaranteed not to suffer any burns if you are caught out in the open.

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