Managing Radiation Emergencies
Guidance for Prehospital Emergency Services
Recommendations for Managing a Nuclear Weapons Accident
In the United States, nuclear weapons may be transported by aircraft, truck, train, or naval vessel. In each case, weapons and other components are installed in special containers which are securely fastened to the transport vehicle by carefully designed tie-downs and mountings. Stringent safety measures have also been incorporated into the design of all nuclear weapons and should enable them to survive all but the most severe, abnormal accident conditions. A nuclear detonation can be produced only upon proper functioning of the weapon in the normal sequence of arming and firing. Therefore, the greatest threat to emergency response personnel is not nuclear detonation; it is highly doubtful whether any nuclear weapon involved in a transportation accident would, or could, detonate in a nuclear fashion.
Most nuclear weapons will contain conventional high explosives in varying amounts up to many hundreds of pounds. These high explosives constitute the major hazard associated with accidents involving nuclear weapons. Accidents or fires involving such shipments should be treated like similar accidents involving conventional high explosives. If a nuclear weapon is enveloped in the flame of a gasoline fire, the high explosive may ignite, burn, and, in some cases, detonate in one large or several small explosions. Large quantities of burning high explosives are extremely difficult to extinguish, and torching (an emergence of jets of white flame from the weapon) might be observed but is not always evident.
Regardless of the nature of fires or detonations of high explosives in nuclear weapons, the major radiological threat will be the release of plutonium. When associated with a fire, metallic plutonium may burn, producing radioactive plutonium-oxide particles, which may present serious hazards if inhaled or deposited in wounds. Also, detonation of the high-explosive component in nuclear weapons may pulverize plutonium into very small particles, which can cause contamination over a large area. If the high explosives burn instead of detonating, the amount of plutonium dispersed into the atmosphere usually is small and represents a serious health hazard only in the immediate area and from the smoke cloud. Plutonium is not a radiation hazard if it remains outside the body, because it is an alpha-emitter. While alpha particles have a very short range and lack the ability to penetrate the skin, plutonium contamination can be a very serious hazard if inhaled or ingested.
Unless it is necessary to approach a nuclear weapon to rescue injured individuals, first-on-the-scene responders at such an accident should establish an exclusion zone with a radius of 2,500 feet from the weapon. To reemphasize, no attempt should be made to extinguish fires or otherwise approach a nuclear weapon involved in a transportation accident except to recover injured personnel. Notify the nearest military installation and the Joint Nuclear Accident Coordinating Center (JNACC) of the accident.
JNACC is a combined Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) and Department of Energy central office for the exchange and maintenance of information regarding radiological assistance capabilities in connection with accidents involving nuclear weapons and other radioactive materials. JNACC offices are located in Albuquerque, N.M. (505-845-4667) and in Alexandria, Va. (703-325-2102).