In Depth

What should Brits do in the event of a nuclear attack?

Doomsday clock update sparks new fears of nuclear war

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has announced that its symbolic “Doomsday Clock” has moved forward to 100 seconds to midnight, which symbolises the likelihood a man-made catastrophe will destroy humanity.

The panel said the situation facing the planet is “profoundly unstable” as the threat of nuclear conflict, climate change and cyber-based disinformation push it to the brink of catastrophe.

“The warning comes as nuclear arms control is in danger of dying out altogether,” says The Guardian.

The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty lapsed in August after the US accused Russia of cheating and Donald Trump declared he would leave the treaty altogether.

With a recent escalation in tension between the US and Iran after the  assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, fears of a nuclear exchange have risen.

The immediate aftermath

An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with nuclear warheads fired from Moscow or central Asia would probably take about 20 minutes to strike London, The Daily Telegraph says.

US-style sirens are unlikely to be used as a warning if an attack occurs, however. The “four-minute warning” air raid signals operated during the Cold War were almost entirely dismantled by the 1990s, so it is more likely that TV and radio would instantly switch to the news.

While a text message warning is a likely option, the UK doesn’t appear to have a system in place specifically for the purpose of a nuclear attack. According to a BBC report: “A spokesman for EE told the BBC News website the UK government was ‘working with the mobile industry to put this capability in place’.”

However, this might change soon. The Times says the government has called on the Telecoms industry to create a way to send the alerts to all British mobile phones in the event of a national emergency.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office’s Civil Contingencies Secretariat, responsible for emergency planning in the UK, told the BBC that emergency management arrangements were “robust... and include the capability to warn and inform the public through a range of channels including social and broadcast media platforms and direct alert such as the flood warning system”.

In 2016, the BBC revealed the contents of the so-called War Book, which was drawn up during the Cold War and contained detailed plans for broadcasting in the event of a nuclear strike, but current broadcasting arrangements are not public knowledge.

On the military front, if an attack came from North Korea, the UK’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, along with 12 F-35B fighter jets, could be brought into service to join US warships off the Korean Peninsula, says the Daily Mail. The carrier and 700-strong crew could be escorted by Type 45 destroyers and Type 23 frigates, the newspaper adds.

It is worth noting that missiles are prone to failure in multiple ways, especially those in early development, The Independent says, so a warning could be simply that. “A North Korean ICBM tipped with a nuclear warhead might miss its target by a significant distance, or explode en route,” notes the newspaper.

What’s the official advice?

The US Department of Homeland Security’s ready.gov website says that home or office basements offer more protection than those on the ground floor, and recommends shielding behind dense materials such as thick walls, concrete, bricks, books and earth. Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks, by the end of which it has declined to about 1% of its initial radiation level, the website says.

While the UK considers the likelihood of a large-scale chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack “highly unlikely”, it cannot be ruled out, according to the 2017 UK National Risk Register Of Civil Emergencies.

Depending on the situation, UK authorities generally suggest moving away from the immediate source of danger and following the instructions of the emergency services, who may ask residents to remove outer clothing, or undergo some form of decontamination such as showering. In some situations, residents may be advised to take shelter in the nearest building, tune in to local and national news media, and await further instructions.

Back in 1980, facing a threat from Russia, the UK issued Protect and Survive, a 30-plus pamphlet advising Britons how to make a fallout room in their home; for example, in an understairs cupboard. Families were told to stock food supplies for at least two weeks and to store three-and-half gallons (16 litres) of water in baths and basins, The Guardian reports.

“The matter-of-fact advice included everything from stocking up on loo roll and packing a tin opener to remembering to pack a warm coat and toys to entertain the kids while holed up in a bunker,” says the Daily Mirror.

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