Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed swathes of occupied Ukrainian territory on Friday and has sworn to defend them using everything in Russia’s arsenal, including nuclear weapons, reviving fears of nuclear conflict as Moscow grows increasingly desperate to shore up its flagging war effort. Here’s what to do.
When a nuclear bomb explodes, it creates an intense flash of light, a huge fireball, unleashes large amounts of energy and produces a devastating shockwave, though the effects depend on how big the weapon is and how and where it is detonated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people near the blast protect themselves by turning away and shielding their eyes, dropping to the ground with their face down and hands tucked underneath and, if possible, covering their nose and mouth with cloth.
The best thing survivors can do is to “get inside and stay inside,” Kathryn Higley, a nuclear science professor at Oregon State University, told Forbes.
Seeking shelter is vital to avoid harmful radioactive material, or fallout, drifting back to Earth after a nuclear blast, and while any building is safer than being outside, the best shelters are multi-story brick or concrete buildings with few windows or basements.
Survivors should shut off ventilation systems and seal doors and windows until the fallout cloud has passed, stay away from roofs and outer walls where fallout settles and those caught outside during the blast should remove contaminated outer layers of clothing and wash exposed parts of the body.
Higley said we have learnt that the impacts of a nuclear blast “diminish rapidly with distance from the epicenter” after following survivors of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, adding that moving people out of contaminated areas is the “best solution” and “avoiding fallout and not consuming contaminated food” is the best way for people to protect themselves if further afield.
Putin formally annexed four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine on Friday following a string of referendums held this week. The votes were widely viewed as an obvious pretext for annexation and have been widely denounced as an illegitimate “sham.” Putin made it clear that Moscow now considers the regions—not all of which are completely under its control—non-negotiable parts of Russia that will be defended by all means necessary. This includes using nuclear weapons, Putin said last week, reiterating a threat he has uttered numerous times before but world leaders are treating seriously.
The specter of nuclear power has long haunted Ukraine and it has loomed large throughout Russia’s invasion. Within days of invading, Russian troops seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, digging trenches, looting and disturbing materials at the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Moscow also showed little regard for longstanding international norms and rules governing conflict and nuclear power and its forces also took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia. The situation at the plant sparked global concern and ignited fears of another nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine as it repeatedly came under fire on the front lines, with both Kyiv and Moscow trading blame and accusing the other of courting disaster. The United Nations has proposed making the area a demilitarized zone and the future of the plant—which is located in territory Russia now claims but does not completely control—is uncertain.
Health authorities warn against using hair conditioner when showering or washing after a nuclear explosion. Rather than washing away radioactive materials, conditioners can trap them in the hair and prevent it from rinsing out easily.
What We Don’t Know
It is hard to predict the specific details of a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine. Experts told Forbes that Putin would be very unlikely to deploy the larger weapons in Russia’s arsenal as this would leave Moscow very little room to maneuver or escalate further if desired. Instead, Putin would probably opt for a tactical nuclear warhead, a smaller, short-ranged device designed for use on the battlefield. Tactical weapons are much smaller than the strategic long-range warheads designed to destroy cities but they can still be devastating, Dr. Rod Thornton, a security expert at King’s College London, told Forbes. With nuclear weapons, however, power is a relative concept. The largest tactical devices can still be as big as 100 kilotons, where 1 kiloton equals the power of 1,000 tons of TNT. For comparison, the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had respective estimated yields of 15 kilotons and 21 kilotons. Predicting possible targets is also difficult, though Thornton said it is unlikely Putin would target a Ukrainian city in an initial strike. The odds of Moscow targeting anywhere outside of Ukraine are incredibly slim. A nuclear attack would be mostly a symbolic “signaling device” for Moscow to show it is serious and is willing to defend itself, he explained. Putin could try and avoid casualties all together in an initial strike, Thornton said, floating Snake Island, the Black Sea outpost taken early in the war by Russia that was recaptured and became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, as one possible target.
The looming threat of various nuclear disasters has increased demand for iodine pills in Ukraine and surrounding countries. The pills—in the form of potassium iodide—can help protect against the radioactive iodine that can be released in a nuclear accident. “They saturate the thyroid with iodine and block the uptake of the radioactive form,” Higley explained. They need to be taken regularly to remain effective if there is radioactive iodine in the environment, however, and Higley warned the pills could provoke “severe reactions” in people with certain medical conditions such as an allergy to iodine. Even in Russia, sales of iodine pills and radiation meters have spiked as nuclear concerns mounted during the war.
5,977. That’s how many nuclear warheads Russia has, according to an estimate by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), more than any other country. It narrowly trumps the U.S., which follows with an estimated 5,428 warheads, according to FAS. Collectively, Russia and the U.S. have approximately 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus inherited weapons in the fall of the Soviet Union but returned these to Russia. South Africa is the only country to have relinquished nuclear weapons after building its own.