Americans’ fears of nuclear war have reached levels not seen since the tensest days of the Cold War. In a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 71 percent of adults said they think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the possibility of nuclear weapons being used, and nearly half are “extremely” or “very” concerned such weapons will target the United States.
While the chance of a U.S.-Russia nuclear war appears low, if it did occur, the death toll for a single strike easily could reach into the tens of thousands, with many more injured, and widespread destruction and contamination from radiation. Which American cities would likely be targets? In Rochester, what safety measures has local government taken? And what precautions can individuals take? Such questions now have an immediacy that did not exist before Russian launched its attach on Ukraine in late February.
In the 1960s, Monroe County maintained shelters in hundreds of buildings—schools, office, warehouses—that could provide protection for radioactive fallout. At its height, this civil defense program, as reported recently by City newspaper, offered enough space and supplies to sustain as many as 375,000 county residents.
But those shelters are long gone. None are maintained and have not been since the 1970s or 1980s, wrote Gary Walker, Monroe County director of communications, in an email to the Beacon. The county has been getting “a lot of questions” about this topic lately, he noted. “We have nothing in our files . . . on the old fallout shelter locations other than old relics like fallout shelter signs, air raid warden helmets.”
In a follow-up email, Walker noted that the county Office of Emergency Management “routinely reviews action plans and schedules periodic incident management exercises for possible nuclear events at Ginna—as well as for scenarios for things like natural disasters, weather emergencies, terrorism, derailments and other scenarios that impact air and water quality, infrastructure, electric power and other threats to the public.”
In the event of an accident at the R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant in Wayne County, the Monroe Office of Emergency Management maintains response plans—including possible evacuation—for a 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone surrounding the nuclear plant.
As for an attack on the U.S. with nuclear weapons, Walker noted: “We have not specifically planned for nuclear war in recent years, though our emergency preparedness plans are relevant.”
Walker said the county also shares a Federal Emergency Management Agency advisory, which focuses on what individuals can do if they are exposed to a nuclear explosion.
Indeed, FEMA does not discount the current possibility of nuclear attack on American cities. In its Planning Guidance for Response to Nuclear Detonation (3rd edition, 2021)—a publication aimed at state and local emergency managers—it includes such attacks on a list of possible disasters for which preparation is advised.
“There isn’t a single jurisdiction in America that has anything approaching an adequate plan to deal with a nuclear detonation,” Irwin Redlener, a physician and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told Business Insider for a story published in December 2019.
Cities most likely to be targets of a nuclear attack, said Redlener, are those with large populations and that house infrastructure vital to national security, such as financial hubs, government facilities, and energy plants. He cited as likely targets: New York City, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
Would Rochester also be attacked?
Rochester is not known today as a hub of defense manufacturing, but it does sit between two significant energy facilities: the five power stations operated by the U.S. and Canada 85 miles to the west in Niagara Falls, and Ginna, 20 miles to the east in the town of Ontario, Wayne County. The hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls produce one-quarter of the energy used throughout New York and Ontario; Ginna powers nearly 500,000 homes and business.
Though these are major energy plants, it’s probably unlikely they put a target on Rochester’s back. But the odds of a nuclear missile strike here are not zero, either.
Blast simulator: Liberty Pole
What would an attack on Rochester look like? To answer that morbid question, there’s “Nukemap.”
Nukemap is a nuclear blast simulator showing the concentric circles of destruction that would result if a nuclear bomb were detonated in a given location. Users can customize location and size of the bomb. It’s the creation of Alex Wellerstein, an historian of science and nuclear weapons and professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
Nukemap’s traffic has surged since Russia invaded Ukraine, Wellerstein recently told the Atlantic magazine. Since Nukemap came online in 2012, traffic had been about 20,000 people daily. “Right now,” he said, “we’ve been at more like 150,000 people every day.” At times, the site has crashed.
So, what would happen if a blast of, say, 100 kilotons (substantially greater than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but a size, according to Nukemap, that is now common in nuclear arsenals) were detonated in Rochester about 1,450 meters above the Liberty Pole?
Nukemap estimates we’d sustain 72,700 fatalities and 146,240 injuries, as:
■ a fireball of tens of millions of degrees instantly vaporizes everything within about one-half square kilometer (encompassing Eastman Theatre to the east, Xerox Auditorium to the south, the Convention Center to the west, and the Amtrak Station to the north). Radioactive dust and debris would rise over downtown in a mushroom cloud;
■ high doses of radiation, within a radius of about 1.11 kilometers (Memorial Art Gallery to the east, Alexander Street to the south, Frontier Field to the west, and Kelly Street between Joseph and Hudson avenues to the north) kills most people there within a month;
■ a shockwave damages most buildings within a radius of 3.26 km (Cobbs Hill to the east, Highland Park to the south, Bullshead to the west, North Marketview Heights to the north), causing widespread fires and damage to power, phone, and gas lines, water mains, roads, and bridges. Injuries are universal.
■ an electromagnetic pulse, caused by ionization of the atmosphere around the blast, disrupts electronic equipment and networks.
■ thermal radiation extending some 4.38 km (Browncroft to the east, Brighton to the south, 390N to the west, and Irondequoit to the north) results in 100 percent probability of third-degree burns in those exposed (often painless because it destroys pain nerves) with resulting severe scarring, disablement, or amputation.
■ light blast damage including broken glass and resultant injuries to those who come to windows after seeing the explosive flash (which travels faster than the pressure wave) up to 9.18 km (from Penfield to the east, Henrietta to the south, Gates to the west, and the Lake Ontario shore to the north).
■ fallout, resulting when radioactive material condenses and falls back to earth, contaminates food and water and other surfaces up to hundreds of miles, depending on weather patterns.
Are there precautions individuals can take to increase their chances of surviving such a blast? Obviously, much depends on where a person happens to be—within which of those Nukemap concentric circles—at the time of a blast, and that’s not something most of us can control.
In the absence of community-sponsored shelters, some people are laying out substantial sums for personal bomb shelters—much as people did in the lead-up to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. One company, U.S. Buildings Group, told Business Insider that since Russia invaded Ukraine they have seen a 130 percent increase over the prior year in consumer inquiries about its home bunkers.
Another firm, Rising S Co., reports a similar surge in orders. The firm offers a pre-fab mini-shelter for $45,000 plus installation. It includes bunk bed, air filtration system, kitchen counter and sink, and water pressure pump. Prices for their “Xtreme” and “Luxury” series of shelters—which include private baths, composting toilet, fresh water inlet, showers, and sleep areas to accommodate a large family or group—rise into the millions.
In Europe, the demand has been even greater. “We have found ourselves in the midst of this giant cyclone of demand,” Giulio Cavicchioli, whose Italian company, Minus Energie, builds nuclear shelters, told the New York Times.His firm has gone from working on 50 bunkers in the past 22 years to fielding 500 inquiries in the past two weeks. “It’s a hysteria for construction of bunkers,” he said.
Short of laying out large sums to build a private shelter, individuals can at least familiarize themselves with guidelines on how to shelter-in-place in case authorities say a nuclear attack is imminent.
The city of Los Angeles, for example, urges residents to “pre-identify” the best room in their home, workplace or school for a shelter. “The goal … is to put as many walls as possible between you and harmful radiation.” A good shelter is “an interior room with no windows on the lowest floor” that’s close to the center of a sturdy building. Residents are further advised to keep handy “7 to 10 days of emergency supplies” like water, food, and medicine; and “a battery powered flashlight and AM/FM radio” in case electricity is lost.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in a webpage about nuclear explosions, says that “fallout is most dangerous in the first few hours after the detonation when it is giving off the highest levels of radiation. It takes time for fallout to arrive back to ground level, often more than 15 minutes for areas outside of the immediate blast damage zones. This is enough time for you to be able to prevent significant radiation exposure” by following steps such as:
■ Get inside the nearest building to avoid radiation. Brick or concrete are best.
■ Remove contaminated clothing and wipe off or wash unprotected skin if you were outside after the fallout arrived.
■ Go to the basement or middle of the building. Stay away from the outer walls and roof. (On a related webpage, DHS advises that getting “a level below ground” can reduce radiation by “about 90%.”)
A nuclear bomb blast can release radioactive iodine into the atmosphere, which, if inhaled or ingested, can cause cancer of the thyroid gland. DHS notes that potassium iodide (also referred to as “KI”) in liquid or pill form, “while not a general cure-all,” can help block the uptake of radioactive iodine if taken “before or just after” inhalation or ingestion.
Currently, only KI products that are FDA-approved may be legally marketed in the U.S. As of March, these KI products are FDA-approved and are available without a prescription:
- iOSAT tablets, 130mg, from Anbex Inc.
- iOSAT tablets, 65mg, from Anbex Inc.
- ThyroSafe tablets, 65mg, from BTG INTERNATIONAL, Inc.
- Potassium Iodide Oral Solution USP, 65mg/mL, from Mission Pharmacal Co.
The Centers for Disease Control cautions that KI cannot protect parts of the body other than the thyroid from radioactive iodine, nor does KI protect the body from radioactive elements other than iodine. The CDC advises consumersto take potassium iodide pills only on the advice of health officials.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one KI manufacturer, Anbex Inc., has reported a rush of up to 15 million tablet orders from individuals, hospitals, municipalities, and governments worldwide. “In the past five days,” Anbex vice president Troy Jones recently told CNN Business, “we’ve probably sold as much as what typically would take us half a year to sell.”
FDA-approved KI products do not appear to be readily available to Rochester residents.
“We can only provide (KI) tablets that we receive from the (state Department of Health) to customers who live within a 10-mile radius of Ginna,” Wegmans spokesperson Marcie Rivera told the Beacon. (In September 2020, Wegmans in partnership with Monroe County, distributed KI pills free to people who live within 10-miles of the Ginna plant, as part of regular emergency planning for Ginna.
Added Rivera: “Potassium iodide is not currently available through (Wegmans’) wholesalers for us to order for other customers as all supply is being directed to the government and military at this time.”
CVS and Walgreens did not respond to the Beacon’s requests for information on KI availability at their Rochester-area stores.
One online retailer, Nukepills.com, a distributor of FDA-approved Anbex KI tablets, says it’s currently out of stock but anticipates new supplies as soon as this month.
The best hope against there ever being an exchange of nuclear weapons between the U.S. and Russia—or other nuclear powers—was always the military doctrine known as “mutually assured destruction.” Aptly abbreviated as “MAD,” the idea is that self-preservation will prevent one nuclear nation from waging full-scale nuclear war against another because such a war would cause both nations to be annihilated.
We hope and expect that the MAD doctrine will continue to prevent catastrophe. Some experts, however, see MAD as outdated due to the rise of tactical nuclear weapons. The concern is that these weapons—generally smaller in explosive power and designed to be used in a battlefield situation—may increase the risk of a nuclear exchange while falling short of a full-scale nuclear war. The Federal of American Scientists estimates that Russian has nearly 2,000 tactical—or “nonstrategic”—nuclear warheads. The U.S. tactical arsenal numbers in the hundreds.
Still, we take what precautions we can—such as bunkers and pills—to protect ourselves. They are, in their own way, small signs of hopefulness.
As Guilio Cavicchioli, of Minus Energie, the European maker of bomb shelters, has observed, there is a misplaced view of bunker owners as doomsday enthusiasts.
“Someone who has a bunker is an optimist,” he said. “They believe there will be something afterwards—that life will go on.”