Tennessee Archaeology and Nuclear War


Let Us All Hope So

Last year at this time, if you had asked me if I would be writing a blog post like this one, I would have said:  “No. Not a chance.”  Yet, here we are living under at least the very real potential for a war with North Korea and the possibility that Kim Jong-Un might actually succeed in lobbing at least a few low-yield nuclear warheads onto the continental United States.  Could they make it as far as Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, or Chattanooga?  Who knows? It all depends on North Korean missile trajectories, fuel burn times, atmospheric re-entry shielding for warheads, and accuracy in targeting—all things that are partially unknown at this point in time.  One thing is for sure though.  If Tennessee archaeologists and their civilian supporters end up dead in a nuclear war, not much archaeology is going to get done in Tennessee for quite a while.  Therefore, one of the best things you could do for Tennessee archaeology and protecting our cultural resources would be to stay alive with all that archaeological knowledge in your head. Because I am the only professional archaeologist in Tennessee who has lived in Oak Ridge for 34 years and worked at various U.S. Department of Energy nuclear facilities around the country, I can offer up a few basic survival tips that most people might not know. I will do it in a listing format:

(1)  Some of you who attended public schools in the 1950s and 1960s may remember the advice to “duck and cover” under your little school desk.  Forget it!  Forget anything like that! You have to protect your whole body from powerful kinetic blast effects, intense heat (6,000 – 11,000 degrees C some distance from ground zero and > 1 million degrees C at ground zero), and intense ionizing radiation. Unless your name is Clark Kent, duck and cover is not going to do the job. You need to follow much better basic advice if at all possible.  You can get some of that here:

How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

More on How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

Even More on How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

(2)  What is radioactive fallout (a.k.a. radioactive contamination)? A nuclear weapon has a few highly radioactive materials in it—mostly highly unstable isotopes of uranium and plutonium. Upon detonation, quadrillions of particles of these materials (and their radioactive decay/daughter products) become airborne by themselves, can attach themselves to dust particles, and can be carried very long distances by the wind. Think of each tiny particle as a “little sun” that is constantly emitting dangerous waves of radiation. Like almost everything else that goes up, most of these tiny particles will inevitably come down and settle on the landscape and anything sitting, standing, or moving on that landscape. After settling, these particles will continue emitting dangerous radiation wherever they settle and sit. If a particle settles into a vat of molten lead, it will become part of the lead metal when it cools. This is called fixed radioactive contamination, meaning it has become part of the hardened lead and cannot be easily removed. If a particle lands on an unopened can of chili, it is called removable radioactive contamination, which means it can be cleaned off the can like any other kind of dust particle.

(3)  Depending on where you are on the landscape when a nuclear weapon is detonated, if you can do so safely, it is best to stay out of the area where most of the radioactive fallout is blowing to in the wind as a large, elongate, airborne plume.  This will depend on the weather conditions and winds at the time of the blast—including normal prevailing winds. If the wind is blowing from southwest to northeast, like the prevailing winds in Nashville, you will want to stay out of the area to the northeast of the ground zero blast. For example, if a blast has occurred in downtown Nashville under these wind conditions, the airborne radioactive fallout plume would be the most concentrated and highly dangerous about 100 miles out in the direction of Madison, Hendersonville, Gallatin, Bethpage, Westmoreland, and farther on in that direction into Kentucky.

If you would like to get an an idea of what damage a nuclear explosion would do to you in your city, which way the airborne radioactive contamination plume would blow, and how it would spread out on a map, you may use the famous NUKEMAP application developed by Alex Wellerstein. It is integrated with Google Earth. Just click on the following safe link and read the directions on how to use this application:

NUKEMAP Application

(4)  The most basic thing to know about protecting yourself from ionizing radiation is the initialism TDS, which stands for:




You may read a little about that here:

Time, Distance, and Shielding

(5)  Apart from TDS, your next biggest problems will be finding safe food and water.  The best thing to do is have enough stored food and water in a properly shielded place that is a substantial distance from a source of radiation or radioactive contamination. Yes, I know you are a professional archaeologist, and you know how to go Paleolithic or Archaic for subsistence. However, that is not going to help you in a nuclear war situation, at least not for the first two weeks or thereabouts.

For one thing, you are going to have to hunker down in a place were you are protected by TDS, which means you cannot go outside for at least two weeks. If you do, you will breathe in radioactive particles, the particles will settle on your skin and clothes (which you will take back inside your shelter with you), and you may accidentally ingest the particles while outside. (Note: Plutonium is both radioactive, and chemically speaking, highly poisonous.)  All of this can kill you.  This means no roving around outside for deer, hickory nuts, or water from the creek. The deer may be covered with radioactive particles and may have ingested them. If you dress and consume a deer or any other animal still alive, you will get that radioactive contamination on you and inside of you after eating the meat, which may kill you if you get a high enough dose of radiation from the particles. Any gatherable foods in the natural world, such as hickory nuts, may be similarly contaminated with radioactive particles. The water in the creek may also be highly contaminated with radioactive particles that make it unsafe to ingest. See the problem?  If you have enough stored water in your fallout shelter, enough stored food, and a lot of body fat, then praise Jesus.

(6)  Once upon a time, I watched an episode of The Twilight Zone where people in a rural area away from a nuclear blast zone were afraid to eat canned food that had been stored in a limestone cave. What was the key fear?  They were afraid the food in the cans had been contaminated with alpha, beta, and gamma rays, meaning that all of the rays that had penetrated the walls of the can had somehow collected on the food inside the can. In other words, they were afraid of ingesting the equivalent of canned sunshine.  It does not work that way folks. Alpha rays, which can be blocked by one piece of copier paper, cannot even get inside the can. Beta and gamma rays go right in one side of the can and out the other side.  They do not collect inside the can or in the food.  The food inside the can is perfectly safe to eat as long as it has remained tightly sealed inside the can where airborne radioactive particles cannot settle. Got it? Good!!!  Many people do not know that simple fact.

Once again, the danger is any airborne radioactive contamination particles that may have settled on the outside of the can. That is removable radioactive contamination, which means it can be cleaned off before opening the can, and as long as none of it gets inside the food when you open the can, then you are good to go munching.  The only trick—and this is a really serious trick—is getting the outside of the can cleaned off if it has radioactive particles on it and making sure your fingers, food preparation utensils, and  eating utensils are free of such particles. You would have to be wearing appropriate radiation protection gear to clean a can and the utensils (bearing in mind the amount of radioactivity present and limiting your time of exposure during cleaning). You would also have to get rid of all the dirty water, cloths, and tools used to clean the can—including all the gear you were wearing—if the gear cannot be cleaned safely.  It would all have to be disposed at a location that provides sufficient TDS relative to where you are. Most people will not have the knowledge, equipment, and instrumentation (Geiger counter and dosimetry instruments) necessary to do all of this safely.  Those of you who have had some sort of radiation protection training in a past life situation (X-Ray Technician, Environmental Cleanup Technician, Radiation Safety Specialist) might be able to do this successfully if your life depends on it.

If you emerge from your fallout shelter after two weeks or more and you do find a bunch of canned food or drinks somewhere that has remained normally sealed and safe from radioactive particles settling on it, the food or drink inside the cans will be safe to ingest. Just make sure your hands, cooking utensils, dishes, and eating utensils are free of radioactive particles too.

(7) Disorientation. The aftermath of a nuclear war will be culturally and socially disorienting.  When you emerge from your fallout shelter after two weeks or more, many of the cultural and social systems that were once in place to ease you through your day may be gone. Expect that and find personal ways to adapt to the absence of electricity, running pipe water, medical services, and in many cases, an absence of people—because very large numbers of them are dead. Do not despair. Other people have survived besides you. You will just have to hang on and find them.  Many may be sick or dying in very large numbers. Many may be horribly burned.  (Note: Deep nuclear flash burns are often so deep that the nerves in the skin have been destroyed—so if a burn looks really bad—the person may not be in much pain—if at all.)  Be prepared for that emotionally if you can—just accept it as the new normal for a while. Other survivors will be just fine—but perhaps emotionally shaken. Remember the one key thing most prisoners of war learn.  The ones who survive are the ones who hold out no hope of early release and just accept that things are going to go badly for quite a while. The following National Geographic documentary shows you what life will be like near ground zero in the aftermath of a nuclear attack:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

(8)  Do not let the contents of motion pictures and survivalist magazines be your guide for what human culture and society will be like after you come out of your fallout shelter after two weeks or more. Motion pictures and many survivalist magazines paint a picture of a Mad Max, free-for-all world where everyone has gone crazy, people are killing each other right and left to steal food/water, and the only person who is going to survive is the “Lone American Who—All by Himself—Is Armed to the Teeth with Firearms and Explosives and Ready to Kill on Sight.” If you know as much about anthropology as I do, you know that this lone survivalist guy will be among the first to go down. He is dead meat by his own hands. Human beings are by nature social, and cooperation among human beings is how and why we (as a species) have survived and adapted well to our various environments over the past couple of million years. That is not going to change—even after a nuclear war.  The ones who survive, get back on their feet, and thrive again will be the social and cultural cooperators. Be cool, be one, and share.  Love your neighbor as yourself, and all will be well—eventually—maybe.

(9)  You might not need any of the above advice for one very good reason.  It is the only ship in the U.S. Navy named after the Volunteer State.  The USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) is an Ohio Class nuclear submarine in current operation around the world. (There are several other submarines exactly like her.) For all we know, the USS Tennessee may be lurking in the waters off the east or west coast of North Korea right now—and Kim Jong-Un is no doubt aware of that possibility. The USS Tennessee carries on-board 24 Trident II D-5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM). Each of these 24 missiles is equipped with eight MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle) D-88 nuclear warheads. Each D-88 nuclear warhead has a yield of 475 kilotons. What does that mean in simple terms?  When just one of these SLBMs is launched from the USS Tennessee beneath sea level, it can drop eight D-88 nuclear warheads on eight different, widely spaced targets in North Korea or drop all of them on just one target—like say Pyongyang—the capitol of North Korea.

What would just one D-88 nuclear warhead do to Pyongyang?  Click on NUKEMAP  and do the following when you get there:

Type in the Name of the City: Pyongyang.  Click “Go.”

Enter a Yield: 475 kt

Basic Options:  Select “Airburst” and Check the Radioactive Fallout box

Advanced Options:  Click on “Burst Height” and enter 1,000 ft

Click:  Red Detonate Button

Use the plus and minus buttons in the lower right corner of the map to zoom in and out on the map and see the maximum perimeters of the various types of damage that would occur in Pyongyang. Notice how the deadly radioactive fallout plume would spread across North Korea after just this one detonation in Pyongyang. Can you imagine what eight of these D-88 detonations occurring simultaneously in different parts of North Korea would do?  The radiation plumes from each blast would blanket nearly the entire nation of North Korea, killing nearly every living thing in their path. If the USS Tennessee were to launch all 24 of her missiles, 192 D-88 nuclear warheads would fall on North Korea, and about the only thing left alive above ground surface across the entire country would be the insects. (Experiments have shown that insects are far more resistant to lethal ionizing radiation than humans.)  Kim Jong-Un knows all of this, which is why you might not need any of the above advice.

1 thought on “Tennessee Archaeology and Nuclear War

  1. hbsuefred

    I learned two very interesting things from this post. (1) It might actually be possible to survive a nuclear bomb and (2) “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy may actually be a pretty realistic prediction of what a post-nuclear world might look like. My conclusion is that I don’t think I would care to survive.


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