Why You Shouldn’t Use Conditioner After a Nuclear Attack

Individuals can only do so much if the worst happens—but the government’s response is a mystery by design.

By , , and
A man wearing a nuclear biological protection suit
A man wearing a nuclear biological protection suit
A man wearing a nuclear biological protection suit stands at the entrance to a decommissioned nuclear bunker in Kelvedon Hatch, England, on Oct. 3, 2001. Sion Touhig/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the city of New York released a short video, seemingly out of the blue, informing residents what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. The 90-second video—which opens with the line, “So, there’s been a nuclear attack. Don’t ask me how or why, just know that the big one has hit. OK?”—left many New Yorkers scratching their heads. 

In defending the video as “a very proactive step,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams acknowledged that the public safety announcement had come in response to the changing nature of the global security environment with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Spiraling tensions between Washington and Moscow, nuclear superpowers that between them hold around 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, stirred Western fears, largely dormant since the Cold War, of nuclear winter. “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in March. In the early days of the war, demand surged in the United States and Europe for potassium iodine, a chemical compound that can be used to protect against some of the harmful effects of radiation exposure.

Earlier this month, the city of New York released a short video, seemingly out of the blue, informing residents what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. The 90-second video—which opens with the line, “So, there’s been a nuclear attack. Don’t ask me how or why, just know that the big one has hit. OK?”—left many New Yorkers scratching their heads. 

In defending the video as “a very proactive step,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams acknowledged that the public safety announcement had come in response to the changing nature of the global security environment with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Spiraling tensions between Washington and Moscow, nuclear superpowers that between them hold around 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, stirred Western fears, largely dormant since the Cold War, of nuclear winter. “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in March. In the early days of the war, demand surged in the United States and Europe for potassium iodine, a chemical compound that can be used to protect against some of the harmful effects of radiation exposure.

While experts and government officials agree that the likelihood of Moscow following through with its periodic nuclear saber is basically zero, both the federal government and New York state updated their guidelines on what to do in the unlikely event of a nuclear attack. 

“We do not believe a domestic nuclear event is remotely plausible. Nor do we believe a deliberate nuclear event in Europe is at all likely,” Craig Branson, spokesperson of the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, told Foreign Policy. 

Nevertheless, for the anxious—or morbidly curious—hungry for detail beyond New York’s 90-second PSA, here’s what you need to know. 

What do the first minutes after a nuclear attack look like?

Everything depends on what kind of nuclear bomb has been detonated. In the exceptionally unlikely event that the United States were to come under attack from either Russia or China, the world’s other nuclear superpowers, the instructions are fairly simple. “There’s basically zero to do about it from a personal point of view or from a health system point of view,” said Irwin Redlener, a disaster preparedness expert and director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative. “The only real remedy is to prevent it in the first place,” he said. 

In the unlikely scenario that the government received a prior warning of such an attack and had enough time to ring the alarm bells, it would deploy a network of both federal and state emergency notifications to alert people—just like when it falsely notified Hawaiians against an incoming ballistic missile attack in 2018

The kind of attack where public preparedness could save lives, Redlener said, is in the (again, very unlikely) event that a hostile state or terrorist group were to detonate a smaller nuclear device in a densely packed city. If you were to see a detonation—a dazzlingly bright flash unlikely to be confused with anything else—or receive an alert from the government, you should immediately seek shelter in a sturdy building made of brick or concrete. Do not look in the direction of the blast. If you’re stranded far from home, try to find shelter in a building near you instead of getting into a car and driving back home. The aim of the game is to avoid exposure to radioactive fallout. Cars and wooden buildings offer minimal protection. Once inside, get as far away from the windows as you can. Make your way to the basement, if there is one, or to the stairwell, usually the sturdiest part of any building. 

In the wake of the blast, you would have about 15 minutes before radioactive particles started raining down. “What would you do if you have 15 minutes?” Redlener said. “You couldn’t do much except literally prevent yourself from getting severe burns or radiation injuries.”

Once you’re inside, stay inside.

Once safely indoors, do not emerge until officials say it is safe to do so and indicate in which direction you can move. Remove your outer layer of clothing that may be covered in fallout and bag it up if you can. Shower and thoroughly wash your hair and body so as to limit your exposure to fallout—but do not use conditioner, as it may cause radioactive material to stick to your hair. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

If you have pets, make sure they stay indoors, too. Calling to check on your loved ones may seem like the natural thing to do next. But you may not be able to.

“Even without radiation, an atomic blast can do huge amounts of damage to infrastructure and telecommunication,” said Alex Wellerstein, the director of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “The real goal is just to sort of get you off the streets and in a place where you could get better information if you needed it.” A radio operated by battery or a hand crank may be your best bet, as it is likely to continue working in the wake of a nuclear blast, according to Ready.gov, a disaster preparedness website set up by the Department of Homeland Security. The website has an information sheet on the safety of food, water, and medications in the event of a nuclear attack: Sealed food, bottled water, and medications in sealed packages are your best bets. Tap water can be drunk only if you have no other option.

What happens to the government?

In the event of a nuclear strike, officials from the Defense, Homeland Security, and Energy departments, as well as the White House, would present the U.S. president with a menu of policy options on what to do next, Wellerstein said. The president could either choose to not respond and de-escalate matters or to launch a counterattack, risking nuclear escalation. 

“I don’t think even the president necessarily knows what they would actually do in those situations, because they’ve never been in those situations,” Wellerstein said. “To me, that’s one of the really salient features of the American approach to this—there’s just a giant question mark that is deliberate.”

Although the government is hush-hush about its doomsday plans, one of the first acts would be to get the president and officials who are deemed integral to ensuring the continuity of the functioning of the government to a safe location. The president has a number of options. Most immediately is the bunker under the East Wing of the White House known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, built during World War II to protect then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the event of an attack. During the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a number of senior White House officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush, were whisked into the bunker while President George W. Bush remained in flight on Air Force One. 

Another option is the E-4B, a militarized version of the Boeing 747-200, commonly known as the “Doomsday Plane.” The E-4B is fully equipped to double as the president’s command center and keep him in touch with the secretary of defense as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Doomsday Plane was built in the 1970s and is reminiscent of the Cold War era. According to Politico, the plane has spiral staircases, chandeliers, and hardwired phones. 

The U.S. military has four of these super-planes designed to withstand a nuclear attack. In an emergency, the president and other federal officials would be able to remain aboard for up to three days at a time. In regular times, the plane carries the U.S. secretary of defense on his overseas trips, giving him continued access to the communications systems required for command and control of the U.S. military. 

In tandem with the E-4B airplane, the U.S. government also operates various underground bunkers, the most prominent of which is the Raven Rock Mountain Complex—otherwise known as the “Underground Pentagon.” Raven Rock, which is situated in Pennsylvania, is a highly restricted military complex complete with an underground nuclear bunker. Built in the early 1950s, primarily under President Harry S. Truman, it is equipped to run military operations in the event of a nuclear emergency. 

“It’s a free-standing city … with individual buildings, three-story buildings, built inside of this mountain,” Garrett Graff, author of the book Raven Rock, told NPR. The military complex can house as many as 5,000 people and has all the essentials to protect and serve Washington VIPs, from medical facilities to dining halls.  

Members of Congress would also have a place to stay—but exactly where is unknown. Formerly, that would have been a bomb shelter hidden away under the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, but the secret location was exposed by the Washington Post in 1992. 

Greenbrier, once an elite resort for foreign princes and would-be U.S. presidents, was also the shell for a nuclear-grade atomic bomb shelter meant for members of the House and Senate. The walls, “two feet thick and reinforced with steel,” were later covered by concrete and buried under 20 feet of dirt on a hillside, according to the Post. In the bunker sit rows of metal bunk beds and, underneath them, small drawers for policymakers to store their private belongings.

“For 30 years, every one of these 1,100 beds was assigned to somebody,” Greenbrier historian Bob Conte told NPR

At one point during World War II, the resort also served as a “luxury” internment camp for Japanese, German, and Italian diplomats. Today, part of the bunker is open to tourists, and the rest of the defunct facility is used for secure data storage.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Anusha Rathi is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @anusharathi_

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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