Responding to the threat of nuclear warfare
A year ago at 8.07am local time, thousands of people in Hawaii received a terrifying message on their mobile phones from the state’s Emergency Management Agency: “Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound To Hawaii. Seek Immediate Shelter. This Is Not A Drill.”
This alert was repeated on television and radio, and amplified dramatically through social media. It took 38 minutes for officials to send an official follow-up alert saying that it was a false alarm. Sent in earnest by a state emergency employee, the alert was not — as widely reported originally — a case of simply clicking the wrong button.
In that interval, individuals had a variety of responses, often involving terror and panic. One question was often repeated in interviews: “What should we do?” Following on its heels was another: “What can we do, besides say goodbye?”
Surprisingly to many, the answer is “more than you might think”. Despite the initial, often fatalistic, reaction to nuclear threats, there are clear, recommended steps one can take to greatly increase one’s odds of survival. Research from the Cold War has shown that laying flat inside a building — any building — dramatically increases your chances of survival — the old “duck and cover” approach. More recent work that models radioactive contamination suggests that hundreds of thousands of people could avoid becoming “preventable casualties” should they just stay inside their house for at least 24 hours while the fallout clears. Survivability greatly improves if you find better shelter such as a basement or by moving to the centre of a larger, multistorey building.
There is no guarantee of survival, of course. If a nuclear bomb went off directly over your head, your chances are essentially nil. But if you’re in between the distance of “dead before you know it” and being able to ask, “what was that?”, then your next actions can dramatically affect survival and health outcomes.
Unfortunately, the absolute worst choices to make are the ones that many people want to take: either searching for and reuniting with your family or getting into your car and fleeing the area. While we understand that instinct, think of it this way: if you survived the blast, you won’t be able to change whether your loved ones did. Traffic congestion would probably result in you not getting very far, and you’d be outdoors or in an automobile with minimal protection from the blast, heat or radiation. And the longer you are exposed to radiation, the more dangerous the health consequences. At high levels of exposure, it can lead to radiation sickness and potentially death. At lower levels, it can increase the incidence of cancer and other maladies.
With these reactions in mind, two of us — Karl and Lytle — conducted a national study of more than 2,000 American citizens in April and June to understand whether they know how to respond in aftermath of a nuclear attack, measure how engaged they are with the topic of nuclear threat and determine what they remembered from the false missile alert. Would those who knew details from the Hawaiian incident have a better sense of how to respond in the wake of a nuclear disaster? After all, if anything was going to get Americans to think about these weapons, perhaps this brush with terror might. (The research was funded by the Thompson Family Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York as part of the Reinventing Civil Defense Project.)
We asked respondents what they would do first if they received a text message similar to the Hawaii alert. The bad news: many people — 43 per cent — said they would do the exact things that could increase their chances of dying or being severely injured by trying to reunite with their family or evacuating the area. The good news: those who paid attention to the Hawaiian false alert were significantly less likely to say they would take these wrong actions. In fact, they were significantly more likely to say they would take the correct action of “getting inside”.
More reassuringly, experimental evidence from our research shows that exposure to the recommended nuclear disaster response — “Get Inside, Stay Inside, Stay Tuned” — significantly increases citizens’ willingness to take the correct action and their belief that it would help to keep them alive in the event of a nuclear attack. This is good news for emergency preparedness, as it reveals that exposure to these messages can increase knowledge and influence intended behaviour.
But there is still a larger problem. On the whole, our research clearly shows that Americans do not see nuclear issues as particularly important, they do not like to think or talk about it and they prefer to ignore news about it. The data bears this reluctance “to talk about the bomb”: 76 per cent of Americans reported being indifferent or preferring to ignore the idea that nuclear attacks could occur. Similarly worrying, a majority — 53 per cent — reported that they deliberately avoided reading news about nuclear threats. That is understandable; the world is scary enough. But it’s a bad instinct.
Media attention on nuclear peaked around the time of the late 2017 war of words between Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and the early 2018 false Hawaiian missile alert. As coverage faded, so did citizens’ attention. Our data shows significant declines in how often citizens talked to friends and family about nuclear topics and how importantly they ranked nuclear threat among current events just from April to June.
Yet we still live in a nuclear world. Tellingly, 64 per cent of our sample reported in April that they had not heard recommendations about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, even after the firestorm of media coverage surrounding nuclear issues. The nuclear threats that caught most Americans by surprise last year are still lurking just around the corner. That our citizens deliberately avoid confronting this, even in the face of something as dramatic as the Hawaii false alarm, should worry all of us.
This lack of attention and short attention span bodes ill. Most nuclear experts are deeply worried that the situation between the United States and North Korea could go back to being dangerously antagonistic in a short amount of time, as miscommunications between the two countries have made it clear that any real progress on disarmament made last year was ephemeral, and the leaders of both nations have mercurial and occasionally bellicose personalities. As Kim’s recent new year’s announcement has indicated to many analysts, North Korea has no plans to disarm in the short term and is willing to play a long game. So, to many, the threat may feel paused right now, but it will probably be back soon enough.
Martin Amis, in his 1987 book Einstein’s Monsters, questioned whether anyone really could avoid thinking about the bomb.
“Everyone is interested in nuclear weapons, even those people who affirm and actually believe that they never give the question a moment’s thought.” he wrote. “We are all interested parties. The man with the cocked gun in his mouth may boast that he never thinks about the cocked gun. But he tastes it, all the time.”
• Kristyn Karl is a professor of political science and Ashley Lytle is a professor of psychology at Stevens Institute of Technology. Alex Wellerstein is a historian of nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, runs the website Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog
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