It’s a good thing Hollywood likes to defy the odds. In “24,” Jack Bauer has been challenged with disarming nuclear bombs not once, but twice — in the equivalent of five Hollywood days. In a recent episode, Bauer fails to find a small suitcase nuclear bomb, and it explodes near Los Angeles.
In the real world, almost everyone — including the government — would be ill-prepared for such an attack, two Carnegie Mellon University professors conclude in a study published in the May issue of Health Physics, a radiation safety journal.
In the ’50s, fallout shelters became almost trendy, as wealthy individuals built elaborate safe havens. The former Department of Civil Defense built public shelters — 1,086 in Pittsburgh alone — in the basements of factories, banks and government buildings.
Black-and-yellow fallout shelter signs still pop up in places like the Squirrel Hill post office or an abandoned factory in Lawrenceville. But none of these are what they advertise, said Ray DeMichiei, deputy director for the city’s emergency management office.
The City-County building signs had pointed to a fallout shelter in an underground room. In reality, it was used to store office supplies.
“None of the fallout shelters in the entire United States of America are on the inventory list,” DeMichiei said. “The fallout shelters were a dinosaur from the Cold War, and it became even less of a factor after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
The philosophy was that if there was a huge nuclear explosion that decimated most of the United States, “a lot of us were going to be dead anyhow,” he said.
But as “24” recently indicated, today’s threat isn’t from huge A-bombs or nuclear missiles, but rather small terrorist bombs.
“The worry is that a terrorist group could get a hold of a nuclear weapon that previously existed in the arsenal of say the Soviet Union,” said Keith Florig, one of the two authors of the CMU study. “There’s some uncertainty about where all those thousands of weapons that used to be under Soviet control are now.”
The government has compiled a list of items to store in case of an attack. The problem is that the public is largely responsible for its own safety, Florig said.
The Department of Homeland Security advises people to take shelter, go as far below ground as possible, close windows and doors, turn off air conditioners, heaters or other ventilation systems, and avoid radioactive material.
Using the list posted on www.ready.gov, Florig and co-author Baruch Fischhoff determined that it would cost a family of four about $450 for the initial shelter preparations with an added annual cost of $250 for upkeep and the cost of the space.
“One of the things we concluded is the three days (of supplies) the DHS recommends is feasible for many people and infeasible for others,” Fischhoff said. “They don’t have the money. They don’t have the space. They move a lot.”
People also need to take into account the cost-benefits of building their own fallout shelter, Fischhoff said.
For a shelter to be of any use, he said, people would have to be close to the home shelter during a nuclear attack, hear about the attack in time to survive, and have their children and family with them. If there’s time to flee the city, people would leave, not shack up in their shelter.
Considering the small chances of this scenario, most people would rather use $450 to convert their basement into a game room, Fischhoff said.
Pittsburgh has an untested Downtown evacuation plan. In a 2005 interview with the Tribune-Review about the plan, DiMichiei said, “If (something) happens tomorrow, we’re going to do the best we can, but we don’t think it will be good enough.”
He said at the time, the city would use $350,000 from DHS to hire an engineering firm to develop a detailed evacuation plan for Downtown. But the city didn’t contract to an engineering firm until this month. The contract was awarded to Baker Engineering, which has a timeline of one year to complete the study, DiMichiei said. He said nuclear attacks are far down the list of priorities.
“We do address those kinds of things, but it’s not high on the probability list,” DiMichiei said. “That being said, you can never say never.”
Fallout shelter essential supplies
* 3 gallons of water for every person
* Three-day supply of nonperishable food
* Battery-powered radio
* Flashlight and extra batteries
* First aid kit
* Dust mask
* Moist towelettes, garbage bags, and plastic ties for personal sanitation
* Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
* Can opener
* Local maps