Would the Catskills notice a North Korean attack?

(J.B. Hill)

This page periodically explores the harmful radiation on Mars, and the radiation hazards of space travel, and even the natural annual levels here on Earth. Some of the wonderful and most-appreciated reviews of my new book Zapped, like in the Wall Street Journal, specifically mention my chapters on the health effects of various unseen electromagnetic and particulate hazards that now envelop us.

But lately, people sometimes ask about North Korea. They want to know if, in an attack upon New York City, people here in Ulster County would be at risk. Although outside my field, I can actually answer this because of courses I completed in radiological defense four decades ago. So let’s get right to it:

This assumes that North Korea someday succeeds in hurling a small H-bomb at New York City, or else some terrorist group manages to sneak one into the harbor via a shipping container. The former scenario would produce the greater loss of life, simply because an airburst at a height of around 1,300 feet does more damage and produces more casualties than a ground burst. There is no sense minimizing the effects on the City. Certainly the casualties would be in the six figures, and maybe seven.


Both types of blasts create prodigious fallout. It is the fallout that is of primary concern for those more than six miles from Ground Zero. The intensity and lethality of this radioactive material depends on the winds on the day of the blast.

We actually live in the safest possible direction from the Big Apple. The danger zone after such an explosion is to those downwind. Since our prevailing winds are westerlies, the greatest health hazard is to those on Long Island and the Connecticut coast. The second-most-common surface and high-altitude winds are from the north, which would affect those along the Jersey shore. Our own area would get lethal radiation only if the winds were southerly that day.

If so, the radiation would start to arrive three to ten hours after the blast, and consist of fine dust particles. Breathing these could deliver fatal doses, with death expected in six to eight days. The good news is that radiation diminishes fairly rapidly with time, from two separate mechanisms: Winds dissipate it, while the radiation itself decays in what’s called the seven-ten ratio. Let me use actual figures.

A fatal dose for half the exposed people is around 400 rems. And let us say that the initial radiation level here is 2,000 rems. Now, in seven hours this will naturally diminish to one-tenth that value, or 200 rems per hour. You still don’t want to breathe this, because you’d experience radiation sickness and probably would get cancer in ten to 20 years. But after seven times seven – or 49 hours, or two days – this level will further diminish by another tenth, to just 20 rems an hour. (Actually, you don’t want to breathe that, either, even though it’s just one-twentieth of a fatal exposure.)

So if you can hide out and wait another seven-factor – meaning two days times seven, which means two weeks – the level will be down to two rems an hour. And now you can venture outdoors a few hours a day, gather food or firewood or whatever. (In another “times-seven,” or 14 weeks, the flux is down to 0.2 rems, and probably much less than that thanks to wind dissipation.)

The main takeaway is that those living here must either quickly flee north (or preferably northwest, like along the Thruway, and take your chances with traffic) or else hide out for two weeks after a nuclear blast and not breathe the air. You don’t need a “blast shelter,” because people living here are so far from the blast that you wouldn’t even know it had happened. But you do need a fallout shelter. That’s a refuge with sufficient water, canned or dried food and safe air to last you and your companions two full weeks.

The ideal place would be partly or wholly underground, which means a basement. If you have a basement, you can make it into a fallout shelter rather easily. Here’s how:

Yes, you need it stocked with sufficient water, unless your house has a well and also an electricity supply if the grid has gone down (very likely), such as a backup generator. But the most critical issue is the air. Every basement has leaks. How do you stop contaminated air from filtering in during those two weeks?

The shelter standards of the Israeli government call for a fresh air supply of 60 cubic feet a minute for up to 19 people in your shelter. For around $2,000, you can purchase an air filtration unit that takes in outside air (through a hole drilled through your basement wall) and then fully filters and screens it from everything harmful. Using AC power and a DC battery backup, it then supplies 60 cubic feet of good air per minute, and automatically does so with overpressure.

The overpressure is important. This means that your basement (with all doors leading upstairs closed and sealed with duct tape) now has a slightly higher-pressure air than the atmosphere outside your house. Thus, air will slowly leak from inside to outside. No outside air can fight the overpressure to find its way to the inside.

Bottom line: For about $2,000 (e.g.: www.americansaferoom.com/nbc-air-filter) you can make your home into a shelter for 19 people. Of course, this setup must be installed ahead of time. Anyone who does this would easily survive anything that North Korea decides to do.

Am I advocating this? Well, I’ve been tempted, I’ll admit it. But I probably won’t do it. So don’t come knocking.