If the thought of Salt Lake residents motoring en masse to Salina to wait out a nuclear attack, then motoring back afterward to resume their lives strikes you as a simplistic response to nuclear war, you aren't alone.
Utah's civil defense plan is being criticized by some who think the planners don't grasp the scope and duration of nuclear devastation.The state's 1986 plan calls for the temporary evacuation of people along the Wasatch Front or near military installations to remote parts of the state not targeted for nuclear attack. It is built on the premise that Gov. Norm Bangerter will have 72 hours advance notice of a nuclear attack and will then order evacuation.
It also presumes little health hazard from radiation in the weeks and months following the attack and little difficulty finding safe food and water. The state's plan assumes food supplies in the safer, rural towns will be sufficient to feed the thousands of guests spending the nuclear war there.
Stuart Breisch, immediate past president of the Utah Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, says the plan's premises are simply wrong.
State officials are wrong when they suggest people who survive the initial heat and blast will suffer few health problems, he said. "People died after Chernobyl from radiation injuries several months after the explosion."
The same thing happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said. A person can appear fine immediately following an explosion and several weeks later his skin can start sloughing off his entire body. "They can be long, horrible deaths - taking up to six weeks."
The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion people would die in a nuclear war, he said. Another 1.1 billion would be injured with no medical facilities.
Breisch pointed out that most of Utah's medical facilities are in the populous areas likely to be hit by warheads, leaving thousands of those injured by radiation in remote areas with few options.
"The injured would die without medical care," he said. "It would become a ceaseless war against hunger and disease in a world stripped of civilization."
The deaths would be so horrible that the injured would end up envying those killed by the initial blasts, he said.
Deaths related to the nuclear blasts would continue for decades, Breisch said. Four chemicals, in particular, present a deadly hazard: Iodine 131, Strontium 90, Cesium 137 and plutonium.
Iodine 131 affects the thyroid; strontium 90 deposits in teeth and bones; cesium 137 deposits in muscles and glands; plutonium is absorbed into blood cells, liver, spleen and bone marrow. All four cause cancer.
Plutonium, in particular, is so intense a carcinogen that "one pound of plutonium distributed everywhere on Earth would kill everybody on the planet."
Three of the four chemicals will continue to emit radiation for decades. Iodine is harmless after eight days. But strontium has a half-life of 28 years while cesium's is 30 years. The half-life for plutonium is 24,000 years.