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Not taking any chances, Guam issues guidelines on surviving a nuclear attack

It’s still really unlikely to happen.

The US territory of Guam is preparing for a possible missile attack from North Korea.

North Korea on Wednesday announced detailed new plans to fire four ballistic missiles at an area just 19 to 25 miles off Guam’s shore.

But though it has given zero indication that those missiles would be armed with nuclear warheads — and few experts believe that’s something the North would do, since it would be suicide — the government of Guam is not taking any chances.

Friday morning, Guam’s Office of Civil Defense issued official guidelines on how to survive a nuclear missile strike. Written as dryly as possible, the guidelines are still terrifying.

“If caught outside,” the fact sheet notes, “do not look at the flash or fireball” of a nuclear strike, “as it can blind you.” It recommends taking cover, lying on the ground and covering your head if caught outside, and getting underground as quickly as possible.

Guam’s Pacific Daily News didn’t help ease people’s fears any, either. In inch-high bold font, Friday’s front-page headline simply read “14 MINUTES” — the amount of time Guam residents would have to duck and cover before a North Korean missile would hit.

The nuclear threat may thankfully still be remote, but Guam’s concern about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities isn’t idle. The North has tested a long-range missile that is theoretically capable of hitting Guam with a nuclear weapon.

And as Vox’s Alex Ward noted earlier this week, Guam is a strategic target. Two US military bases — Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam — are located on the island, which sits 2,200 miles southeast of North Korea.

The nuclear threat is remote. It’s worth reading the guidelines anyway.

During the Cold War, the US government regularly put out guidelines for surviving a nuclear strike. Schoolchildren were taught how to duck and cover under their desks, and teachers held practice drills to simulate an imminent attack.

Students at a Brooklyn middle school have a “duck and cover” practice drill in preparation for a nuclear attack; silver print, 1962. From the New York World-Telegram archive.
Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Since the end of the Cold War, the US government has been noticeably quiet on promoting these sorts of guidelines. That’s partly because the threat of nuclear annihilation suddenly seemed much less immediate now that the world’s two largest nuclear powers had stopped pointing their missiles at each other.

It’s also because few people probably believe any of those old-timey recommendations would actually be useful in the event of a nuclear strike. But experts caution against that kind of thinking.

“There is a lot of fatalism on this subject, the feeling that there will be untold death and destruction and there is nothing to be done,” Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told NBC News back in April. “But the thing that is frustrating for me is that, with some very simple public messaging, we could save hundreds of thousands of lives in a nuclear detonation.”

In turns out the Guam guidelines are actually practical, offering the best chances of survival in the event of a nuclear strike. Here’s what they say, in part:

Take shelter as soon as you can, even if you are many miles from ground zero where the attack occurred — radioactive fallout can be carried by winds for miles. Remember the three protective factors: Distance, Shielding and Time.

If you were outside during or after the blast, get clean as soon as possible, to remove radioactive material that may have settled on your body.

Remove your clothing to keep radioactive material from spreading. Removing the outer layer of clothing can remove up to 90% of radioactive material.

If practical, place your contaminated clothing in a plastic bag and seal or tie the bag. Place the bag as far away as possible from humans and animals so that the radiation it gives off does not affect others.

When possible, take a shower with lots of soap and water to help remove radioactive contamination. Do not scrub or scratch the skin.

Wash your hair with shampoo, or soap and water. Do not use conditioner in your hair because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.

Gently blow your nose and wipe your eyelids with a clean wet cloth. Gently wipe your ears.

The US government has many of these guidelines at the website Ready.gov. The two most important safeguards are distance — being as far away from the blast as possible — and time. That means staying underground or in a shelter for up to two weeks while the radiation threat recedes.

Although the best option, of course, is to not have an attack at all.