Civil defence and quack nuclear science

Print edition : July 18, 1998

THERE is no reliable system of civil defence that can protect the majority of the civilian population from nuclear war in any of the nuclear weapon states. This is not to deny the fact that several of them have made extensive efforts to design shelters, drawn up rudimentary evacuation plans and so on. The United States, in particular, made some effort to design shelters that could be built by house owners. However, the official advice, given in pamphlets and guides, was wholly inadequate. And even these did not reach the majority of the public.

In general, the U.S. seems never to have been really serious about civil defence, preferring to rely on the doctrine of deterrence in the form of mutually assured destruction. As physicist Freeman J. Dyson states in his book Weapons and Hope, 1984, "Shelters, according to the orthodox doctrine of deterrence, are destabilising, insofar as they imply a serious intention to make a country invulnerable to attack..." Clearly, from the point of view of the doctrine of deterrence, the populations involved are hostages in the hands of those who control the nuclear button.

In India, the subject of civil defence against nuclear attack has given rise to at least one example of outright quackery in the nuclear field. The Head of the Health, Environment and Safety Group of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) declared in an interview published in The Pioneer on April 8, 1998, a full month before Pokhran-II, that India could survive a nuclear war. According to him, in the event of nuclear fallout, the precautionary measures that would be taken in case of accidents in nuclear plants can be applied in the event of a nuclear fallout. Further advice from the scientist, as given in the report, include taking iodine tablets, remaining indoors, consuming only stored water and food and avoiding milk. Small children, continued the report, may be given powdered milk. The final piece of advice was that "people in the danger zone should immediately go to the ground floor and if possible, to the basement." The scientist concluded by asserting his faith in India's anti-missile defences.

Such advice is scientifically inaccurate and outright nonsense. There is no option of choosing between the ground floor and the basement. Fallout shelters have to be constructed according to proper standards, be appropriately shielded and be provided with the means to cleanse the air drawn in from outside in order to avoid contamination. How the millions of poor in India are going to make arrangements for stored water and food (let alone powdered milk), and ground floors and basements when they do not even have proper houses to live in, boggles the imagination.

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