As unthinkable as nuclear war is, the bottom line, some experts say, is that nuclear war is survivable.
"But some people don't want to survive a nuclear war," said Lorayne Frank, director of the Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management. "Perhaps some people don't want to survive the aftereffects of nuclear war. But I hope that decision is based on accurate information."Then if they still don't want to survive, fine. But for me, I'm going to go kicking and screaming all the way. And I think most people feel the same way."
Most people have certain beliefs about what would happen in the event of a nuclear attack, but all too often those beliefs are based on myths perpetuated by the popular media, state experts said.
"A lot of people think a nuclear attack is non-survivable," said Bob Halloran, who coordinates the state's nuclear evacuation and population protection plans.
"I hear it all the time: `I'm going to take my lawn chair to Rice Stadium and watch the mushroom' or `the best place to be when the bombs go off is at ground zero.' I guess that's their choice, but human nature is to survive, and we are developing a plan to give people that choice."
Unfortunately, Halloran said, most people haven't taken the time to educate themselves on the basic facts on which to make a rational decision. Instead, there is an alarming lack of basic understanding of the effects of nuclear weapons and fallout, and a prevalence of "nuclear myth."
A nuclear war would result in radioactive clouds circling the planet for years? Nuclear war would make a wasteland of the entire world? Starvation and drought would kill those the bombs didn't?
No way to survive a nuclear war?
Not true, according to state experts.
And, said Halloran, perhaps the biggest myth of all is that people will simply run to a pre-stocked fallout shelter once the Soviet missiles are on their way.
"Nine out of 10 people who call our office ask where the nearest fallout shelter is," said Halloran. "They don't even realize fallout shelters were discontinued in the 1960s. Today's weapons are so powerful, it is cost prohibitive to build and stock shelters that can withstand nuclear blasts."
The nuclear war scenarios as portrayed by the media are very unrealistic and certainly not based on scientific evidence, he said. "If every nuclear weapon were launched, only 5 percent of the U.S. land mass would be affected. And even if no protection were taken, 20 percent of the population would survive."
Most people fear the effects of radioactive fallout, and many reputable scientific organizations believe that fear is justified. (Please see accompanying story.)
"But that (fallout) is the least of our worries," said Halloran. "If you want to survive, you must be able to protect yourself from the initial blast and heat."
Another common myth, said Halloran, is that Utah will be drowned in radioactive fallout, which will linger for months or longer. But fallout, he said, will not be a major factor in the event of nuclear attack. Only ground bursts create massive levels of radioactive fallout (Utah is believed targeted primarily for air bursts).
Scientific evidence reveals that seven hours after a nuclear blast, only one-tenth the radiation remains. Two days later, there is only one-one hundreth the radiation. After two weeks, there is only one-one thousandth.
Consequently, Utah population evacuation plans "call for a two-week stay in emergency shelters," Halloran said. "By then, there is no danger whatsoever of radiation," even in the areas of greatest devastation.
But the key to surviving a nuclear exchange is surviving the blast. Halloran said there are four kinds of nuclear blasts: high-altitude bursts to knock out communications, air bursts to cause maximum destruction, ground bursts to dig out hardened military facilities and sub-surface bursts, "for what reasons I can only speculate, maybe to trigger earthquakes."
Experts have predicted 10 warheads are targeted at Utah, eight of them air blasts. But air blasts result in very little radioactive fallout - certainly not lethal levels.
"Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both air bursts" detonated at about 1,800 feet above the cities, Halloran said, "and the experts now say that those who died died from the heat and the effects of the blast. But no one died from fallout."
It's those same kind of air blasts that will likely be directed at Utah, Halloran said. "Once we've got people away from the blast and heat, we've accomplished 90 percent of our goal."
Evacuation is by far the best way to ensure survival, and Utah's emergency response plans are geared almost exclusively around that idea. Once the population has been moved to rural areas outside the target area, they will be temporarily housed in schools, churches and private businesses that meet minimum fallout shelter capabilities.
"That's just to ensure an extra measure of protection," Halloran said. "There's still going to be fallout out there, though it will not be significant."
Perhaps the most important element of disaster preparedness is a "72-hour kit" with enough food, medicine, clothing, fuel and water for each member of the family for three days.
That's for short-term survival. Long-term survival is less of a concern. Cattle and other livestock will continue to be edible, even if bombarded by radiation ("everything will be edible except the internal organs," Halloran said). Enclosed water supplies, such as water tanks, underground wells and even moving streams, will also be safe to drink.
"There could be radioactive dust on top of the tank, but the water inside should be perfectly safe to drink," Halloran said.
"Nuclear war may not be winable, but it is survivable," he said.