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Understanding Radiation: Fallout



Worldwide Fallout

After an air burst the fission products, un-fissioned nuclear material, and weapon residues which have been vaporized by the heat of the fireball will condense into a fine suspension of very small particles 0.01 to 20 micrometers in diameter. These particles may be quickly drawn up into the stratosphere, particularly so if the explosive yield exceeds 10 Kt.

They will then be dispersed by atmospheric winds and will gradually settle to the earth's surface after weeks, months, and even years as worldwide fallout. The radiobiological hazard of worldwide fallout is essentially a long-term one due to the potential accumulation of long-lived radioisotopes, such as strontium-90 and cesium-137, in the body as a result of ingestion of foods which had incorporated these radioactive materials. This hazard is much less serious than those which are associated with local fallout and, therefore, is not discussed at length in this publication. Local fallout is of much greater immediate operational concern.

Local Fallout

In a land or water surface burst, large amounts of earth or water will be vaporized by the heat of the fireball and drawn up into the radioactive cloud. This material will become radioactive when it condenses with fission products and other radio contaminants or has become neutron-activated. There will be large amounts of particles of less than 0.1 micrometer to several millimeters in diameter generated in a surface burst in addition to the very fine particles which contribute to worldwide fallout.

The larger particles will not rise into the stratosphere and consequently will settle to earth within about 24 hours as local fallout. Severe local fallout contamination can extend far beyond the blast and thermal effects, particularly in the case of high yield surface detonations. Whenever individuals remain in a radiologically contaminated area, such contamination will lead to an immediate external radiation exposure as well as a possible later internal hazard due to inhalation and ingestion of radiocontaminants.

In severe cases of fallout contamination, lethal doses of external radiation may be incurred if protective or evasive measures are not undertaken. In cases of water surface (and shallow underwater) bursts, the particles tend to be rather lighter and smaller and so produce less local fallout but will extend over a greater area.

The particles contain mostly sea salts with some water; these can have a cloud seeding affect causing local rainout and areas of high local fallout. For subsurface bursts, there is an additional phenomenon present called "base surge." The base surge is a cloud that rolls outward from the bottom of the column produced by a subsurface explosion.

For underwater bursts the visible surge is, in effect, a cloud of liquid (water) droplets with the property of flowing almost as if it were a homogeneous fluid. After the water evaporates, an invisible base surge of small radioactive particles may persist.

For subsurface land bursts, the surge is made up of small solid particles, but it still behaves like a fluid. A soil earth medium favors base surge formation in an underground burst.

Meteorological Effects

Meteorological conditions will greatly influence fallout, particularly local fallout. Atmospheric winds are able to distribute fallout over large areas. For example, as a result of a surface burst of a 15 Mt thermonuclear device at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954, a roughly cigar-shaped area of the Pacific extending over 500 km downwind and varying in width to a maximum of 100 km was severely contaminated.

Snow and rain, especially if they come from considerable heights, will accelerate local fallout. Under special meteorological conditions, such as a local rain shower that originates above the radioactive cloud, limited areas of heavy contamination may be formed.