In Time of Emergency – US Cvil Defence Film 1969

This interesting US film, produced by the Office of Civil Defence and Department of Defence, is analogous to Britain’s Protect and Survive. Like Protect and Survive this film is basic advice to the population on what to do under conditions of nuclear attack. It follows largely the same pattern; what immediate action to take should a nuclear explosion happen whilst you are out in the open and the second part of how to prepare your home should international tensions rise and attack may seem possible.

There are some obvious differences beyond presentational style – Protect and and Survive is stark and impersonal (“chilling” might be a more fitting description) and this is a much more paternalistic approach. One obvious difference is that Protect and Survive doesn’t shy away as much from the less pleasant aspects of its subject – for all both films are about nuclear attack, “In Time of Emergency” avoids too much discussion of blast effects, the extent of radiation and fall-out and ultimately any discussion of casualties. For all the many shortcomings of Protect and Survive it was reasonably unblinking about the effects of nuclear attack; it admitted that if you were within 5 miles of the explosion you stood almost no chance, that the minimum shelter time was probably 14 days, that medical, rescue and fire-fighting attempts were pretty unlikely and that ultimately you may have to bury your own dead. Chilling stuff.

I couldn’t help but feel “In Time of Emergency” avoided much in-depth discussion of this. It even avoided much discussion on your sanitary requirements – even Protect and Survive had to admit you were going to have to pee and poo in your own shelter space. Perhaps the originators of “In Time of Emergency” realised how absurd many of the more realistic preparations were and were thus better left unsaid.

One very notable difference were the elaborateness of some of the preparations and the huge gulf between the wealth of the United States and Britain. The US had a system of public shelters and whilst not absolutely comprehensive, the UK had whatsoever. In Britain there had been no public shelter space provided since World War II and successive governments had rejected calls for any public shelter programme, generally on the basis of cost.

The difference in wealth is even more striking at the individual level; the American film shows large detached homes with extensive basements, and whilst it can be said was the case for every American family, it was another world from the homes of Britain. Another key difference were the level of supplies families had, both the 1963 British Civil Defence film “Civil Defence Bulletin no. 3” and Protect and Survive’s “Food Consumption” (1976) show very modest amounts of food and water being taken to the shelter. Contrast this to “In Time of Emergency’s” vast supplies of water in large plastic and glass containers, the huge tins of food and other storage items. In fairness “In Time Of Emergency’s” supplies were far more realistic for any kind of long stay in the shelter, the British versions had supplies that looked like what you might have if you were snowed in for a few days. They certainly didn’t look like they’d sustain a family for a week.

Chernobyl: The Final Warning

In 1991 a dramatised version of the Chernobyl disaster was made called “Chernobyl: The Final Warning” that had a cast of well established stars such as Jon Voight and Jason Robards (Robards was also the lead character in the 1983 nuclear war film The Day After).

The film centres itself primarily on the effects of the disaster on the Ukrainian housewife Yelena Mashenko (Sammi Davis) and her firefighter husband, Alexandr (Steven Hartley) and the rest of the Chernobyl firefighters – six died from the immediate effects of the accident. The other part of the story if the involvement of Dr. Robert Gale, a specialist in leukemia from California and the philanthropist Dr. Armand Hammer.

What sets this drama apart is that it tells the story of Chernobyl from an intimate perspective of those trying to cope in the aftermath; there have been many documentaries and films that speculate on the causes and wider aftermath such as The Battle of Chernobyl or the BBC “Horizon” documentary Inside Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus broadcast the same year as The Final Warning.

I found the film really quite good – the production is a bit dated but in telling the story of how devastating the world’s worst nuclear accident played out in the lives of individuals is a powerful and haunting experience. It demonstrated how this silent killer haunted the lives of utter innocents, from firemen, old people, children; people who had no responsibility for causing the accident were the primary victims of its effects.

The repeated message in the is the one from which it’s title is derived: that Chernobyl could be our final warning; that the accident was by no means unique or could not happen again.

Cabinet Secretaries’ notebooks – plain speaking on Civil Defence

In the Cabinet Secretaries’ notebook series released in 2010 by the National Archives, there are some interesting and cryptic comments about Civil Defence, made on 21st December  1960.

In CAB 195/19 there are some very revealing comments about official thoughts regarding Civil Defence and its effectiveness:

“S.LI” (John Selwyn-Lloyd) Says:

If we were strictly logical, we shd. conclude that none of this is worth while.  But believe it is politically impossible to scrap C.D.

This is a very interesting comment as it seems to admit at least some in government already believed there was little point in Civil Defence and this was also long before the disbandment of the CD Corps in 1968. This admission is completely at odds with the fact that the CD Corps was also just about at its highest headcount as an organisation.

An additional comment reveals that mass evacuation may never been a realistic policy:

“H.B.” (Henry Brooke):

Evacuation.  No Govt. wd. ever order planned evacuation – for it wd. start 100% rush from big cities.  On that basis, our problem is one of presentn.  The 12 m. plan is un-workable.  At 6 m. plan is possible (tho’ I believe nonsensical : because vulnerable cities wd. be proclaimed non evacuable and because area of devastn. wd. be larger than evacuation area).  On balance recommend opening discn. with l.a.’s on basis of 6 m. – w’out commitment to the plan.

Even long before Peter Watkins suggested in The War Game that evacuation might fail, many years before this government officials in this document already seemed to have no illusions about the limits of an evacuation policy. As early as 1964 in official government films the general “stay put” policy had already been made explicit.

SL-1– One of America’s Worst Nuclear Accidents

On 3rd January 1961 America suffered one of its worst nuclear accidents at the SL-1 experimental nuclear reactor at Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The accident killed the three men on duty, two almost immediately and one shortly after. The cause was a prompt criticality accident, a control rod in the reactor was removed too far causing a sudden surge in power.The power surge was later established to have jumped to 10 gigawatts in less than 4 milliseconds causing the water coolant surrounding the reactor core to form a water hammer and cause the entire pressure vessel, weighing 11.7 tonnes, to jump more than 9 feet.

The SL-1 disaster is important in many respects because it demonstrates human inability to confront the dangers of nuclear power, our creeping complacency towards the energy being unleashed and not to truly learn from these accidents.

In many respects SL-1 was an accident waiting to happen; the reactors were not inside true containment buildings, the reactor design allowed this accident to happen and its arguable whether the crew was experienced to enough to supervise the running of a nuclear reactor.

America, and most of the world’s nuclear powers had already experienced nuclear accidents before the one at SL-1. There was the disastrous fire at Pile no. 1 at Windscale in 1957 in the UK which revealed just how much wasn’t understood about nuclear power, there was also the Kyshtym disaster in the USSR when the cooling system for a tank of highly radioactive waste failed resulting in an explosion, also in 1957. Against this background of disasters, two young men in their mid 20s and a 22 year old trainee were allowed to operate the SL-1 reactor.

Further reading:

  • Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident, William McKeown (not strictly the “first” accident, a criticality accident killed Harry Daghlian in December 1945 with what became known as the “demon core”)
  • Final report of SL-1 recovery operation, General Electric Company Idaho Test Station SL-1 Project, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Idaho Operations Office
  • Video: SL-1 The Accident: Phases I and II, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the Internet Archive

Government films accessioned by The National Archives

The UK National archives have a list of all government films they have accessioned – some 4800 films in total dating from pre-1939 almost up until the present day. The full list – available as a spreadsheet – contains a suprisingly small number of films that seem to be relayed to nuclear matters:

BRITISH NUCLEAR FUELS   COI + British Nuclear Fuels
FUEL FOR NUCLEAR POWER 1962 UKAEA
INTRODUCTION TO THE PRESSURE WATER REACTOR – NUCLEAR STEAM SUPPLY SYSTEM 1985 UKAEA
MANAGEMENT OF NUCLEAR WASTE 1982 DENE
NUCLEAR FUEL SERVICE 1985 UKAEA British Nuclear Fuels
NUCLEAR FUSION: ENERGY FOR THE 21ST CENTURY 1983 COI / DENE
NUCLEAR POWER REACTORS 1977 UKAEA
NUCLEAR POWER REACTORS 1961 UKAEA 
NUCLEAR POWER TODAY AND TOMORROW 1967 UKAEA
NUCLEAR SHIP SAVANNAH   COI
REPROCESSING NUCLEAR FUEL 1964 UKAEA
TECHNOLOGY OF NUCLEAR FUEL REPROCESSING 1986  
ZETA ZERO ENERGY THERMO-NUCLEAR ASSEMBLY 1954-8 COI

Civil Defence seems also not very well represented:

CIVIL DEFENCE CARTOON 1958 none listed
CIVIL DEFENCE IN 1962 (HOME SECRETARY’S BROADCAST) 1962 none listed
PROTECT AND SURVIVE 1976 COI/HOME OFFICE
SHOULD DISASTER STRIKE  1987 COI PRODUCTIONS (1977 – 1992)

Unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of a description and some titles don’t adequately describe the contents of the film so there is a chance much interesting material may be very hard to spot.

Nuclear Madness | Gwynne Dyer.

“15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust”

via Nuclear Madness | Gwynne Dyer.

As much as I admire Gwynne Dyer as a great military historian, I genuinely also believe that repeating the 15 cancer deaths as a direct effect of Chernobyl is fundamentally wrong. The truth is that no one really knows how many people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident. 

The World Health Organisation estimated (PDF) there were 600,000 “liquidators” who worked at Chernobyl after the accident. In that same report, the WHO come to the conclusion there were many more deaths than just 15 and there is sufficient evidence to support the argument that the long term health effects of these many thousands of workers was never tracked in detail.

Your own common sense tells you the likelihood of “just” 15 deaths from the world’s worst nuclear accident is far too low and that arguments to minimise the apparent numbers of victims does the cause of nuclear safety no favours at all.

“MAD” At the BBC

The BBC’s online magazine has recently run a features called “How did we forget about mutually assured destruction?” The Beeb generally does a good job of fact checking and rarely do I have much serious complaint. The problem with How did we forget about mutually assured destruction? is that it repeats many of the same fallacies around Mutually Assured Destruction that have been around for years.

For decades its never been imagined that any nuclear war would be an all-or-nothing offensive over in a few hours (to quote John Pilger in his “The Truth Game” documentary from 1983). Since the 1960s there has been ongoing development of sub-strategic, tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons that in one sense lowered the possibility of a nuclear strike being strategic but also had the perilous side-effect of lowering the bar at which nuclear weapons might be used.

Medium and intermediate range nuclear weapons were part of the main sign that mutual assured destruction was less the objective and that political and military bodies believed that could engage in nuclear war-fighting on a limited scale. Whether this was ever a safe or sensible policy is unlikely as once the nuclear threshold was crossed it seems pretty unlikely a nuclear conflict would stay limited. However as Pilger noted in his documentary, the British Army Land Battle Tactics Manual from the early 1960s noted that “nuclear weapons would be used in large but not unlimited numbers.”

In other words, almost no sooner had Robert McNamara suggested assured destruction following the Cuban Missile Crisis than we already were planning for nuclear war-fighting on a smaller scale. The theory was that assured destruction would work because no victory was possible and thus deterrence would be achieved. This policy was ultimately undermined by newer and and more surgical weapons.

Assured destruction was first dealt a serious blow with advent of MIRV‘ed nuclear missiles, which the US began to deploy in the 1960s in the form of the Minuteman missiles. Missiles with multiple warheads, all independently targetable ultimately upset the very notion of assured destruction. The reason for this is they could be used in a decapitation strike upsetting the nuclear balance as it became tempting to believe you could destroy your adversaries political and military leadership as well as their missile silos weakening or destroying their ability to strike back.

From their on more modernised weapons also lowered the possibility of assured destruction leading to a climax with the USSRs SS-20 and the United States’ cruise (Tomahawk) missiles. Both missiles were highly mobile, very difficult to target and almost impossible to intercept in flight. They were only intermediate missiles that fundamentally were to fight a European nuclear war without nuclear weapons falling on either Russian or American soil.

The combination of MIRVed missiles and highly accurate, intermediate ranged nuclear missiles had effectively ended the era of assured destruction. Both sides of the Cold War had, by no later than the 1970s, had decided that you could fight and win a nuclear war, possibly a development more dangerous than the era of assured destruction had ever been.

Postscript (19 Feb 2012)

I have recently found a John Pilger documentary called “Mr. Nixon’s Secret Legacy” in which John Pilger looks at the abandonment of assured destruction in favour of “Counterforce” i.e. nuclear war fighting. This documentary is nearly 40 years old.