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April 10: Carnegie Mellon Researchers Question Protection Advice for Nuclear Attack


Chriss Swaney

Jonathan Potts

Carnegie Mellon Researchers Question
Protection Advice for Nuclear Attack

PITTSBURGH—In the Fox television adventure series "24," a terrorist explodes a small nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. In the May 2007 issue of the journal Health Physics, Carnegie Mellon researchers Keith Florig and Baruch Fischhoff offer simple, practical advice that ordinary citizens can use when faced by such threats.     

Specifically, the two scientists address whether it is worth citizens' time to stock supplies needed for a home shelter, how urgently one should seek shelter following a nearby nuclear detonation and how long survivors should remain in a shelter after the radioactive dust settles.     

Carnegie Mellon's Florig, a senior research engineer in the Engineering and Public Policy Department, and Fischhoff, the Howard Heinz University Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy, report that many families simply can't afford the government stocking guidelines and need help to protect themselves.     

"A number of emergency-management organizations recommend that people stock their homes with a couple dozen categories of emergency supplies," Florig said. "We calculated that it would cost about $240 per year for a typical family to maintain such a stock, including the value of storage space and the time needed to tend to it."

Their research also suggests that many families that could afford to follow the stocking guidelines might think twice about whether the investment is really worth it, given the low probability that stocked supplies would actually be used in a nuclear emergency.     

"Government Web sites, such as, recommend that people take shelter or evacuate following a nuclear blast, but provide no information that might help people determine how much time they have to react before a fallout cloud arrives," Florig said. "We advocate a more nuanced message with simple rules for minimizing risk based on how far people are from the blast. If you are within several miles of the blast, there will be no time to flee and you will have only minutes to seek shelter. If you are 10 miles from the blast, you will have 15 to 60 minutes to find shelter, but not enough time to reliably flee the area before the fallout arrives," Florig added.      

Finally, the researchers analyze how long people should remain sheltered in a contaminated area before it is riskier to stay than to evacuate.

"The answer depends on how good their shelters are and how long it would take to evacuate. Those who have poor shelters, limited stores and no access to a vehicle will need the most help to escape," the researchers say.      

Understanding these simple rules can help people plan for themselves and help officials plan for them.     

"More generally, I think our research illustrates how relatively simple analyses that consider citizens' circumstances can help make the best of a bad situation," Fischhoff said.