Duck and Cover

I remember being six years old, sitting in a small plastic chair in the first grade classroom.

I don’t remember what we were doing, but I was probably bored. This was before they sent me to read with the third graders for 40 minutes every afternoon in an effort to keep me engaged. In retrospect, I probably should have used the time to develop my math skills so modern-day me wouldn’t have to reach for a calculator every time he has to do basic addition or subtraction.

Anyway, the bell rang. Not the lunch and recess bell, which rang for three seconds and then stopped. And not the fire bell, which I’d become acquainted with some time before during a drill. That one rang continuously until someone in their mercy shut it off.

This bell sounded in three short bursts, followed by a brief pause, and then three short bursts. We looked expectantly at our teacher, who calmly said the words that chill me to my core even 40 years later:

“Duck and cover.”

She also mentioned something about staying calm, but it was too late for that. I was being told to tuck myself under my desk and put my head between my knees. And since we clearly weren’t having an earthquake – and those drills involved the teacher shrieking “Earthquake!” and no bells – I inwardly panicked.

Ring, ring, ring.

Ring, ring, ring.

After five minutes, someone shut the bells off. A kid asked the teacher what it was all about, but all she’d say is that we have to be ready in case something happens.

A soothing thing to tell a first grader unfamiliar with the horror of a nuclear attack, but not a great thing for a kid with an overactive imagination to hear.

I hadn’t thought about those drills for years. By 1980, we’d convinced ourselves that we had enough nuclear weapons to make us invincible – or that no amount of duck-and-cover was going to save us from annihilation. Then came perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The European Union swelled with new members, we painted over the “fallout shelter” stenciling on buildings and all seemed (relatively) right with the world.

We fell asleep.

The new millennium brought new horror, with commercial aircraft being used as missiles against innocent people. But despite seemingly endless wars to “fight” terrorism in distant lands most of us can’t find on a map, we haven’t given the threat of nuclear war much thought since Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982.

Until now. Between a deranged despot in North Korea and the distinctly un-perestroika saber-rattling of Russia’s current president, the threat of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil grows by the day. A threat, I might add, that our own president does little to allay between what comes out of his mouth and his tweeting thumbs.

Not that an attack will necessarily come from either nation or in the form of a bomb.

Recently, I edited a story about our esteemed nuclear regulators and their refusal to force nuclear power plants to be smarter about storing their fuel rods. Instead of sealing them in dry casks, they pack them into vast radioactive pools. The problem with the pools over dry casks is that, ironically, the fuel kept in the pools is prone to fire, as the residents of Fukushima, Japan, discovered first-hand in 2011.

Thanks to Congress and nuclear-industry lobbyists who feel $50 million per pool is just too much to pay to prevent our own Fukushima, the regulators backed off and plants can keep packing in spent rods like flammable, radioactive sardines. Problem is, as the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in their study about the regulatory boondoggle, terrorists probably can’t wait to exploit the situation.

So between the cheapskate Congress and nuclear regulators, terrorists, a North Korean despot and a KGB chief-turned-Russian president, it may be time to dust off the “duck and cover” routine once again.

Especially given the latest dire news out of Washington, that North Korea’s nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile program is far more advanced than we knew, and that San Francisco or Seattle could be wiped off the face of the earth as early as next year if someone in Pyongyang gets trigger-happy.

To wit: the fun-yet-terrifying interactive Nukemap shows what would happen if a 20-kiloton nuclear device – the equivalent of the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II – were detonated above the heart of residential San Francisco, at 21st Street between Guerrero and Dolores streets.

Nearly 70,000 killed outright, and 175,000 injured in the initial blast. While the fireball radius would be relatively small – but far greater if the warhead hits the ground – the air blast would level buildings from Twin Peaks to Potrero Hill.

Move the detonation point to Union Square – where San Francisco’s hordes of tourists and business folks collide – and the fatality figures become more dire, probably because the buildings that would collapse in the blast are much, much larger. In that scenario, nearly 200,000 people would be killed. And that’s with a “small” bomb, at least by today’s standards and compared to what’s in the U.S. arsenal.

None of these scenarios account for downwind drift of fallout which, if the wind blows just right, could reach well beyond Sacramento and almost to Lake Tahoe. Or with a slight adjustment in direction, into my little corner of the Central Valley.

Call me a skeptic, or a pessimist. But after a few minutes of playing with the Nukemap and running what could happen if the North Korean despot makes good on his threats, the value of “duck and cover” as a lifesaving measure has definitely lost its appeal.

As has the idea of a fallout shelter.

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