So you’re minding your own business when all of a sudden, a nuclear bomb goes off, there’s a shock wave, fires all around, general destruction and you, having somehow survived, need a drink. What can you do? There is no running water, not where you are. But there is a convenience store. It’s been crushed by the shock wave, but there are still bottles of beer, Coke and diet soda intact on the floor.
So you wonder: Can I grab one of those beers and gulp it down? Or is it too radioactive? And what about taste? If I drink it, will it taste OK?
This could happen, no? Not to everybody, but let’s say it happens to you. Have you been wondering what to do?
Well, wonder no longer.
Thanks to my friend, science historian Alex Wellerstein, we are now in possession of a 1957 U.S. government study called “The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages,” which addresses this very question: After the bomb, can I drink the beer?
Written by three executives from Can Manufacturers Institute and the Glass Container Manufacturers Institute for the Federal Civil Defense Administration, the study says that after placing cans and bottles of soda and beer next to an actual atomic explosion, after measuring subsequent radioactivity and after actual taste tests, go ahead: Grab that can, pop it open and drink away.
“These beverages could be used as potable water sources for immediate emergency purposes as soon as the storage area is safe to enter after a nuclear explosion.”
If you can make it to the store, you can drink. How do they know this?
Well, in 1956, the Atomic Energy Commission exploded two bombs, one “with an energy release equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT,” the other 30 kilotons, at a test site in Nevada. Bottles and cans were carefully placed various distances from ground zero. Notice, on this list, some of them are “returnable.”
The closest containers were placed “less than a quarter-mile away,” says Alex, “a mere 1,056 feet,” the outliers a couple of miles off. Some were buried, some left in batches, others were placed side by side. These images, copied from bad photocopies, are in the report. The cans, as you can see, survived.
Lots of bottles survived, too. Some were shattered by flying debris, fell off shelves, or got crushed by collapsing materials, but a surprising number stayed intact.
Will the beer be radioactive?
As for radiation, they checked, and found that bottles closest to ground zero were indeed radioactive, but only mildly so. Exposure, the authors say, “did not carry over to the contents.” The sodas and beer were “well within the permissible limits for emergency use,” which means, says Alex, “It won’t hurt you in the short term.”
Will it taste good?
But what about taste? Post-bomb beer might not poison you, but will it keep its flavor?
The report says, “Immediate taste tests [gotta wonder who got that job] indicated that the beverages, both beer and soft drinks, were still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1,270 feet from Ground Zero.” The most blasted beers were “definitely off.”
The first tasters then passed samples to selected laboratories for further testing, and this time the contents were rated “acceptable.” So here’s your government’s considered advice: Should you find yourself near an atomic blast and run short of potable water, you can chug a Coke or a beer, but don’t expect it to taste great.
What’s the lesson here?
There’s a second lesson here, Alex thinks. Because beverages in bottles and cans keep you safely hydrated in dire emergencies, it makes sense to keep a six-pack or two or three (or four), in the basement, just in case. What if there’s no lootable convenience store conveniently close by?
“For me, the takeaway here is that the next time you find yourself stocking up on beer, remember, it’s not just for the long weekend,” he says. “It might be for the end of days.”
With all of the World’s conflicts, terrorist activity, political unrest, combined with rouge nations like North Korea and Iran racing towards nuclear power, the threat of dirty bombs grows.
What is a dirty bomb?
A dirty bomb is a mix of explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive powder or pellets. When the dynamite or other explosives are set off, the blast carries radioactive material into the surrounding area.
A dirty bomb is not the same as an atomic bomb
An atomic bomb, like those bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, involves the splitting of atoms and a huge release of energy that produces the atomic mushroom cloud.
A dirty bomb works completely differently and cannot create an atomic blast. Instead, a dirty bomb uses dynamite or other explosives to scatter radioactive dust, smoke, or other material in order to cause radioactive contamination.
What are the main dangers of a dirty bomb?
The main danger from a dirty bomb is from the explosion, which can cause serious injuries and property damage. The radioactive materials used in a dirty bomb would probably not create enough radiation exposure to cause immediate serious illness, except to those people who are very close to the blast site. However, the radioactive dust and smoke spread farther away could be dangerous to health if it is inhaled. Because people cannot see, smell, feel, or taste radiation, you should take immediate steps to protect yourself and your loved ones.
What immediate actions should I take to protect myself?
These simple steps—recommended by doctors and radiation experts—will help protect you and your loved ones. The steps you should take depend on where you are located when the incident occurs: outside, inside, or in a vehicle.
If you are outside and close to the incident
- Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth to reduce the risk of breathing in radioactive dust or smoke.
- Don’t touch objects thrown off by an explosion—they might be radioactive.
- Quickly go into a building where the walls and windows have not been broken. This area will shield you from radiation that might be outside.
- Once you are inside, take off your outer layer of clothing and seal it in a plastic bag if available. Put the cloth you used to cover your mouth in the bag, too. Removing outer clothes may get rid of up to 90% of radioactive dust.
- Put the plastic bag where others will not touch it and keep it until authorities tell you what to do with it.
- Shower or wash with soap and water. Be sure to wash your hair. Washing will remove any remaining dust.
- Tune to the local radio or television news for more instructions.
If you are inside and close to the incident
- If the walls and windows of the building are not broken, stay in the building and do not leave.
- To keep radioactive dust or powder from getting inside, shut all windows, outside doors, and fireplace dampers. Turn off fans and heating and air-conditioning systems that bring in air from the outside. It is not necessary to put duct tape or plastic around doors or windows.
- If the walls and windows of the building are broken, go to an interior room and do not leave. If the building has been heavily damaged, quickly go into a building where the walls and windows have not been broken. If you must go outside, be sure to cover your nose and mouth with a cloth. Once you are inside, take off your outer layer of clothing and seal it in a plastic bag if available. Store the bag where others will not touch it.
- Shower or wash with soap and water, removing any remaining dust. Be sure to wash your hair.
- Tune to local radio or television news for more instructions.
If you are in a car when the incident happens
- Close the windows and turn off the air conditioner, heater, and vents.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth to avoid breathing radioactive dust or smoke.
- If you are close to your home, office, or a public building, go there immediately and go inside quickly.
- If you cannot get to your home or another building safely, pull over to the side of the road and stop in the safest place possible. If it is a hot or sunny day, try to stop under a bridge or in a shady spot.
- Turn off the engine and listen to the radio for instructions.
- Stay in the car until you are told it is safe to get back on the road.
What should I do about my children and family?
How do I protect my pets?
Should I take potassium iodide?
Will food and water supplies be safe?
How do I know if I’ve been exposed to radiation or contaminated by radioactive materials?
Where do I go for more information?
For more information about dirty bombs, radiation, and health, contact:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protects people’s health and safety by preventing and controlling diseases and injuries; enhances health decisions by providing credible information on critical health issues; and promotes healthy living through strong partnerships with local, national, and international organizations.
Your thyroid gland may be seriously damaged as it absorbs this radioactive chemical. One way to protect this gland and prevent absorption is to make your thyroid “full” by taking non radioactive (KI)Potassium Iodide tablets.
The CDC recommends the following dosages upon advisories emergency officials. They may recommend taking one dose every 24 hours up to a few days.
The CDC advises that KI “can protect only the thyroid from radioactive iodine, not other parts of the body”…and will not reverse damage that has already occurred.
We recommend the following educational site for more information: http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp