Nuclear attack: risks, survival, what to do?

US President Joe Biden warned Thursday, October 6 of the risk of a nuclear 'apocalypse' in the war between Russia and Ukraine following threats from Vladimir Putin. What are the risks for humans in the event of a nuclear attack? How far does the nuclear bomb spread?

[Updated October 7, 2022 at 10:06 a.m.] In the midst of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the possibility of a nuclear war haunts people's minds. Thursday, October 6, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, warned against a risk of ' 'apocalypse' nuclear following threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Poutine  'is not joking when he talks about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because its army, one could say, is very inefficient' said Joe Biden, at a fundraiser in New York. 'We haven't faced the prospect of an apocalypse since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis' in 1962, he added. Concretely what are the risks for populations in the event of nuclear attack ? How far distance can you be touched? What effects in case of accidents ? The point with Abraham Behar, president of the AMPFGN , Association of French Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, French branch of the IPPNW , International Association of Physicians for the Prevention of War.

What are the effects and risks of a nuclear attack for humans?

'In the event of a nuclear attack, if it is a missile unique , impossible to survive if we are in the absolute lethal zone' explains from the outset, Abraham Behar, former nuclear doctor in Paris, president of the AMPFGN, former nuclear doctor at the AP-HP and director of a radiobiology laboratory. For the others, it all depends on the size of the missile, the level and the time of radiation exposure notably. Most-at-risk populations suffer:

radiation syndrome (former radiation sickness). 'No acute radiation syndrome (SAI) is a combination of several syndromes. He appears after high-dose whole-body irradiation. The magnitude of the IAS depends not only on the total absorbed dose, the duration of the irradiation and the type of radiation, but also on the distribution of the dose in the organism. , explains the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety ( IRSN ). We first suffer from the initial syndrome in the first 24 hours. Depending on the doses absorbed, the symptoms are:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • asthenia
  • diarrhea
  • hyperthermia
  • hypotension
  • headaches
  • early erythema

A latency phase then appears. Finally, a state phase comprising 'clinical and biological manifestations that can lead to death'.

hematopoietic syndrome : the bone marrow, which manufactures blood cells, stops functioning, which leads to aplasia that can cause the death of the patient.

Le syndrome gastro-intestinal : 'It is characterized by the appearance of diarrhea, abdominal cramps, sometimes even digestive bleeding and sepsis due to rupture of the intestinal mucosa and digestive ulcerations. It can lead to death in one to two weeks' says IRSN.

The neurovascular syndrome 'lethal in a few days, it is characterized by temporo-spatial disorientation, ataxia, convulsive seizures and coma, caused by the presence of cerebral edema, intracranial hypertension and cerebral anoxia', explains the IRSN.

In the short term, there is also what is called localized radiation syndrome , again according to the IRSN. It's about a burn radiological, which, unlike thermal burns, is extensive on the surface and in depth. It can lead to necrosis.

Radiation-induced diseases : the effects are variable in the more or less long term, 'impossible to predict', emphasizes Abraham Brehar. 'They are responsible for many cancers, so-called radioactive cataracts and can appear decades after exposure!' , he adds. Breast cancer, thyroid cancer, leukemia, skin cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer ... Many diseases are said to be radiation-induced. In the event of a nuclear attack, these illnesses concern the populations that survived but were irradiated . After the attacks d'Hiroshima and Nagasaki , the Japanese who survived were exposed to very high risks of cancers of the thyroid, a gland very sensitive to radiation . A study conducted in 2012 and published in the International Journal Of Cancer shows that children and adolescents were at high risk of developing cancer 50 years after being irradiated. After the age of 20, the researchers observed that there was no evidence of an increase in this type of cancer.

Are some people more sensitive to radiation?

'The effects of radiation will be extremely differentiated depending on the power of the missile and also very heterogeneous according to what is called individual radiosensitivity to ionizing radiation . The distribution of sensitive, very sensitive or resistant subjects is totally random', explain Abraham Behar. “However, we know that the most sensitive people are pregnant women and the embryo or fetus. Babies born after in utero exposure are four times more likely to develop radiation disease throughout their lives.' Children and then adolescents are also among the populations most at risk.

'After an atomic explosion, we observe the rise of a mixed cloud in which there are radioactive elements'

How far does the nuclear bomb travel in the event of an explosion?

' Everything will depend on the caliber of the missile used. For a bomb that would have twice the power of the one sent to Hiroshima and which would be sent to Paris , all the boroughs would be affected. Above all, it is a projection for 20 Megatons ( Mt) but currently most missiles have much higher power. it is no longer a single target that is planned but multiple targets. For instance, a projectile can fall on Place Vendôme, another in Seine-et-Marne, another in Seine-Saint-Denis. These multi-head rockets have a power at least ten times the power of Hiroshima ' develops the president of the AMPFGN. the Nukemap simulator , an online simulation software created by Alex Wellerstein, historian of nuclear science and weapons, allows to realize the damage caused by a nuclear explosion . On inform the city targeted and the power of the bomb. It is also possible to choose from the list of known nuclear missiles. For a 100 Mt bomb, everything would be vaporized within 117 km two constituting the nuclear fireball. Within 3,350 km two , buildings collapse and multiple fires break out, the death toll is considerable. The risk of developing radiation syndrome spans 17,080 km two . Blast blast can cause windows to explode up to 26,450 km away two surroundings. “Regarding radiation exposure for peripheral populations who would have survived, the consequences are very unpredictable because the atmospheric circumstances, and especially the wind, change everything ' , emphasizes Abraham Behar. ' After an atomic explosion, we observe the rise of a mixed cloud in which there are radioactive elements and all possible debris. Depending on the wind, this mixture moves through the atmosphere and falls back in variable regions. .' These fallouts are dangerous for the health of the populations concerned.

What to do in the event of an attack is to flee very far if you can.

What to do in the event of a nuclear attack?

'The peripheral populations who survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to drink radioactive water. It is in this population that the greatest number of radiation-induced diseases has been observed. Indeed it is not enough to survive an explosion, it is also necessary to create the living conditions so as not to add to the radioactivity : supply of water, food...' , warns the former nuclear doctor. What to do in the event of an attack is run very far if you can. 'But as we saw during the Fukushima disaster, there are so many people on the roads, the traffic jams are such, that in reality, we know that it is not not a real option in the field' adds the retired doctor. The deep dug shelters can allow populations to survive . 'Practically from the first minutes, everything around the area is radioactive. Shelters are then effective against neutrons, in particular capable of making everything they touch radioactive, what is called neutron activation, which increases the secondary effects of an explosion. Moreover, the persistent character of the radioactivity ruins the hopes of survival of those who managed to take shelter. According to the most recent calculations, you would have to wait months before you could get out of a shelter . In this perspective, we cannot keep our stocks for such a long period or it is a solution for a handful of people only' details Abraham Behar. However, if you reach a shelter, you have to remove your clothes, your shoes and immerse your whole body in water to remove all the radioactive particles.

What is iodine used for in a nuclear attack?

During a nuclear attack, radioactive iodine is released into the atmosphere. It is found in the body, inhaled or ingested via contaminated water or food. The thyroid gland stores iodine until saturation. If it is radioactive iodine, then the person is at an increased risk of developing thyroid cancer. In the event of a nuclear threat, authorities may recommend taking non-radioactive iodine, available in tablet form . 'The goal is to saturate the thyroid with stable iodine so that it does not store radioactive iodine in the event of an attack or accident. The thyroid is very active during adolescence and decreases over time, but in older subjects, the thyroid being already at rest, it is useless.However even if the population has access to iodine, it's ultimately ridiculous in the event of a nuclear attack ', explains the specialist.

Indeed, this iodine does not protect against other radioactive elements that can be released during an accident or a nuclear attack. : l'uranium, le plutonium, le tritium, le lithium... And the pill should be taken before the nuclear attack and radiation exposure. 'Prevention is really the only possibility: our AMPFGN movement was born in nuclear madness, when each of the two countries, USSR and USA, between them had enough to destroy the planet 10 times . And in my job, we know that sometimes, the curative is powerless, this is the case after a nuclear explosion' concludes Abraham Behar.