Today’s nuclear-intensified rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea elicits a haunting familiarity for many — a feeling analogous to the Cold War.
Suddenly, like the 1960s, nuclear war has returned as a highly political topic for daily conversation.
The concept of Dooms Day. The engulfing mushroom cloud. The instantaneous incineration. These conceptions saturated the second half of the twentieth century with ideological combat, propaganda and an ever-lingering fear of obliteration.
Moscow resident Tammy Poe remembers her childhood during the Cold War, which consisted of air raid drills, hiding under her wooden desk and begging her father to build a family bunker. When she was 12, she watched the nuclear war film, “The Day After.” She suffered the same nightmare for weeks: a mushroom cloud that consumed people, burning them “to a crisp.” The image is still engrained in her mind.
Behind the evolving fear is pure science — clusters of atoms transforming into weapons of mass destruction.
Skylar King, a licensed TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotope Production and General Atomic) nuclear reactor operator at the Washington State University Nuclear Science Center, explains it happens through a process called nuclear fission, derived from the element Uranium.
“U-238 makes up 99.3 percent of what you find in natural Uranium, and the leftover .7 percent is U-235,” King said. “That U-235 is what people are interested in. It’s the only bit of Uranium that can regularly and efficiently undergo fission.”
Nuclear fission occurs when Uranium’s combination of protons and neutrons destabilizes as slow-moving neutrons are absorbed. To correct itself, the combination emits radioactive particles.
A nuclear warhead illustrates uncontrolled fission — atoms continuously break apart and multiply until the Uranium dissipates.
“Imagine the atoms stretched like a rubber band,” King said. “They eventually snap and accelerate away from each other. It’s kinetic energy.”
The warhead is placed inside the nose of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which self-guides and delivers the warhead to its intended target.
When a warhead detonates on the Earth, it creates a crater and irradiates dust particles into the atmosphere. More contacted surface area means more radioactive fallout.
With an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a pressure wave is produced to fry power and electronics — or cause nuclear reactor meltdowns. In this case, the warhead is detonated prior to hitting the earth. The higher it detonates in the atmosphere, the fewer particles it irradiates.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the three largest factors that determine nuclear impacts are distance, shielding and time.
King said different warhead sizes yield different fallout distances. Immediate fallout generally produces a 50-mile radius, placing Moscow on the cusp of the nearest, but unlikely potential targets, like Spokane, Coeur d’Alene or the Hanford Nuclear Site.
So, unless Moscow was directly — or accidently — hit, there would be no mushroom cloud, no third-degree burns, no shock waves, no fires and certainly no incineration.
If facing an EMP, the pressure wave would increase in distance and Moscow citizens could feel some seismic activity, but would not experience broken windows and shattered eardrums.
Then there is the paranoia of nuclear reactors exploding across the country with apocalyptic impacts. One is in Moscow’s very backyard — the WSU Nuclear Science Center.
King said federal regulations require unimaginably strict policies, making this scenario unlikely. If power is ever lost, or temperatures rise above the standard, there are gravitational failsafes that shut down the reactor’s production without any power necessary.
If a nuclear blast occurred, FEMA stresses citizens should have a designated place to take cover — “The heavier and denser the materials between you and the fallout particles, the better.”
Mike Neelon, Latah County’s disaster service coordinator, said the safest place for students is inside university campus buildings, which provide shelter with concrete, steal, metal and basements. A 1962 civil defense archive shows University of Idaho had 17 designated shelters in buildings like Wallace, Hays Hall and the library. Their old framework still offers the best shielding today.
Time would be Moscow’s largest challenge. Fallout particles spread, and unpredictable winds can expand them into a 300-mile radius, bringing ash fall, climate changes and sickness from radiation.
But, FEMA reports 80 percent of the fallout occurs in the first 24 hours, and radiation loses its intensity fast. Depending on the fallout’s magnitude, citizens can leave their shelter anywhere from a few days to two weeks. At two weeks, radiation of particles generally decreases to 1 percent.
Matt Dorschel, the executive director of UI Public Safety and Security and a former U.S. Airforce colonel during the Cold War, said the university would close if the threat of nuclear war became increasingly tangible.
“The university’s policy cabinet and emergency management team would convene to figure out what our options are,” Dorschel said. “The primary focus would be to feed, shelter and keep students from immediate harm.”
Neelon said students would be prioritized because they are displaced from home, often carless, far from family and live without many of their usual belongings. Students should be as prepared as feasibly possible, Neelon said.
“There’s always going to be hysteria regardless of what it is. We’ve seen it with tornadoes, hurricanes,” Neelon said. “Everyone panics and hits the supermarkets first. That’s going to be the first out. That’s why you want your own supplies.”
Water. Food. Flashlight. First-aid kit. Warm clothes. Personal documents. Bank account numbers — just to name a few.
“If I told you to stay in your house, can you survive?” Neelon said. “In theory, I’m telling you to prepare yourself. Whether its fire, flooding, nuclear blast. You need the basics first, then you can start looking at specifics after that.”
Dorschel said the city would experience overcrowding because Moscow, like other neighboring towns, would receive an influx of displaced people from the west coast.
The Local Emergency Planning Committee pre-identifies places where shelters could be set up, like the Kibbie Dome or Hamilton Indoor Recreation Center. But, Dorschel said a crisis embodies unpredictable circumstances. Nothing is guaranteed.
Florian Justwan, an assistant professor in the UI Department of Politics and Philosophy, said the root cause of North Korea’s animosity spurred from aggressive U.S. involvement in the Korean War, which initially sparked the Cold War’s beginning in 1950.
The animosity and nuclear focus escalated when the U.S. invaded Iraq and ousted President Saddam Hussein. It sent shock waves through dictatorial regimes and prompted the question, “who’s next?”
Justwan said international deterrence is also a card to prove dominance in a domestic game.
Previous administrations, Justwan said, contributed to North Korea’s nuclear improvement by providing foreign aid incentives for dismantling their program. Now, the country remains viable with Chinese food and oil imports, which compromisingly reassures stability on China’s border.
Justwan said the unpopular but realistic option is recognizing North Korea will not surrender its nuclear weapons.
“If we accept part of the reason they have (nuclear weapons) is to deter the U.S., it won’t work to threaten with U.S. military power,” Justwan said.
Justwan said the current presidential administration has not yet created clear red lines that would warrant military response if crossed.
“Don’t think about North Korea as an isolated incident. Political leaders around the world are watching,” Justwan said. “With this strategic ambiguity, somebody at some point will test the waters, and it won’t be good.”