We Cannot Survive a Nuclear Apocalypse by Ducking and Covering

(Image: Paul Campbell / iStock / Getty Images Plus)(Image: Paul Campbell / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Current fears of the potential use of nuclear weapons — partly resulting from the North Korean weapon program and accompanying threats by President Trump, and mishaps like the errant ballistic missile alert notification in Hawaii recently — have led to a new flush of articles on what to do if there is a nuclear weapon detonation nearby. Articles, such as “What to do in case of a nuclear attack,” in the Washington Post, and “How to survive a missile attack: What’s the official advice?” on the BBC website, offer thoughtful and pragmatic guidance to those who are anxious about protecting themselves and their families under atomic attack.

These articles offer sage tips, such as “get inside, stay inside, stay tuned,” or as it is referred to: shelter in place. An article in the Dallas Morning News advises, “If you’re outside and can’t get inside within a few minutes, lie on the ground and cover your head. Take cover behind anything that could offer some protection.” The BBC article offers guidance mined from the website of the US Department of Homeland Security — “An underground area such as a home or office building basement offers more protection than the first floor of a building. The heavier and denser the materials — thick walls, concrete, bricks, books and earth — between you and the fallout particles, the better.”

News articles such as these fill a need in an anxious public longing to feel as though there are actions that they can take to mitigate the effects of a nuclear attack, and procedures that will minimize the effects of radiation. As a historian working on nuclear issues and living and teaching in Hiroshima, such discourse is not only familiar, but also plays a dangerous role in the national conversation. Articles such as these seemingly well-intentioned advice columns for the apocalypse normalize the use of nuclear weapons: They depict nuclear attacks as events in which we will have agency and the capacity to…

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