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This is what will happen if someone fires a nuclear bomb at the UK

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Tom Victor
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This is what will happen if someone fires a nuclear bomb at the UK

Recent events have got us thinking about the prospect of nuclear war a little more than usual, and indeed a little more than is probably healthy.

Last month, a war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has left many concerned that one misstep on either side could be catastrophic.

Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury that the world has never seen”, while Kim is thought to be “carefully examining” a strike on the American Pacific territory of Guam.

North Korea has claimed it is capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear weapon, following a series of recent tests, and the distance between Pyongyang and London is shorter than that between Pyongyang and Los Angeles by several hundred kilometres.

We haven’t exactly received a lot of reassuring news since then, with North Korea carrying out more tests and Trump threatening to destroy North Korea if he feels his country is under threat, calling Kim a “rocket man” on a “suicide mission”.

While it is impossible to know how worried we should be, it’s still worth considering what happens if the unthinkable occurs and a nuclear bomb comes our way. Just for peace of mind, if nothing else.

How long will we have to prepare?

If a nuclear weapon is fired at the UK, multiple sources have suggested it would take a matter of minutes to reach its target. We can anticipate it taking less time to reach the UK from Russia or mainland Europe than from North Korea, due to the distance covered, but ‘about half an hour’ is an appropriate working premise.

This, naturally, does not allow for much creativity in terms of short-term preparation for a blast. Indeed, it may be a challenge for many to even find suitable cover.

According to the United States Department of Homeland Security’s ready.gov website, you are advised to look for immediate shelter, as ‘any protection, however temporary, is better than none at all’. While some protocols will differ from one country to the next, these are just as applicable to the UK as they are to the US.

Should we hide out in old tube stations?

The best potential shelters are those with distance from a blast location, plus thick walls and materials to stand between you and any blast.

Some old and new tube stations fit this description. Hampstead is the deepest tube station at 192 feet below the surface, while Aldwych station – out of use for decades – is one of a number current and former Piccadilly Line stations which have the characteristics required, alongside York Road (near King’s Cross) and Down Street in Mayfair.

Do the old ‘secret bunkers’ still work?

In theory, yes, though civilians would not necessarily have ready access. These are mostly dotted around the English countryside, and it is not known whether any suitable structures remain in London.

The bunkers were never likely to survive a direct hit, but during the Cold War they would have been able to function as de facto safe houses for figures of authority to use as bases.

The watertight bunkers, some of which are still dotted around the UK, were designed to prevent outside forces entering, and would therefore theoretically offer protection against radiation in the aftermath of a blast.

However, these bunkers would now only be usable as fallout shelters (if at all), according to experts, and citizens would be encouraged to take measures to build shelters of their own if given enough warning of a credible nuclear threat.

What would the blast radius be?

If a one megaton nuclear warhead were to hit central London, the Nuke Map website estimates a fireball radius of just under 1km, or an area of just shy of 3km. However the impact goes far beyond that distance.

Within a radius of 7km, most residential buildings are likely to collapse, causing further fatalities. If a nuke were to strike Big Ben, the air blast radius is anticipated to stretch as far north as Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in Holloway and as far south as Streatham Hill station.

The thermal radiation radius extends even further, however. Encompassing an area of 466km², from Kew Gardens in the west of the capital to City Airport in the east, those affected would be at serious risk of third degree burns and/or permanent scarring.

That’s just for a 1 megaton bomb, remember. The largest ever recorded nuclear weapon ever designed – the USSR’s Tsar Bomba – would carry a fireball radius of 6.1km and a thermal radiation radius stretching as far as Sussex or Bedfordshire.

It would be likely to kill as many as six million people in and around London, and leave a further six million with injuries.

Will there be a mass evacuation?

A 2015 UK government document entitled ‘Nuclear Emergency Planning and Response Guidance’ lays out the theoretical protocol in line with the risk assessments and contingency planning that form a part of the preparations for such an eventuality.

The document points to three potential emergency actions for the population, depending on the level to which they have been affected: in some instances, people will be merely advised to take shelter and lock all doors and windows

The decision whether or not to evacuate will be made by the STAC, and will likely come in situations where ‘the risk to public health posed by an off-site release of radioactive contamination has been identified or is predicted’.

For now, here’s the original 1980s broadcast, from a time when the Cold War left the country at a very real risk of nuclear action.

We imagine it has been updated since.

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What will the BBC do?

The BBC is officially considered the UK’s ‘emergency broadcaster’ and has its own crisis planning in place.

From the point of view of the authorities, priorities lie with online and local radio coverage from the BBC, rather than television, as well as dispersing relevant information over social media where possible.

In 2008, a pre-recorded message designed to be made public in the case of a nuclear strike (but which was, thankfully, never required) was heard for the first time.

The script, which those at the time were keen to have read by a ‘familiar’ voice, read as follows:

“This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons.

"Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known.

"We shall bring you further information as soon as possible.

"Meanwhile, stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes."

How about the government?

A ‘Central Government War Headquarters’ was established with a view to being used during the Cold War, but this was ultimately never required.

The HQ is located 120km underground in Wiltshire, four miles from Chippenham, and occupies an area of 240 acres including a ‘virtual city’, designed to be self-sustaining in the event of an attack.

It remained active into the 21st century, and might have remained a viable location for government in the event of a fresh nuclear attack, however it is unclear how habitable the location is.

In 2015, it was placed on the Historic England’s At Risk Register, while an unspecified amount of the site is being converted into a storage facility for secure data.

What will the medium and long-term impact be?

A ‘preparedness’ document, part of the same series of government papers, suggests the public health impact of a nuclear strike would likely be twofold. As explained in the document:

‘The first category is possible health effects due to the public being exposed to radioactive materials.

‘The second category is health effects that are not related to radiation exposure but occur instead as the result of stresses (mainly psychological but possibly also physical) that the public experiences.’

Of these two potential impacts, the latter has been most common among previous nuclear crises overseas, though there is no UK-specific example to draw upon.

(Images: Rex Features)