Nuclear Age Children

Genevieve Payzer
March 21, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Representative damage zones for a 10 kt nuclear explosion ground burst. Based on zone descriptions for Light Damage (broken windows; minor injuries), Moderate Damage (damaged building structure; serious injuries among survivors), Severe Damage (few buildings or people survive). [1] (Courtesy of the Executive Office of the President of the United States.)

We would rather not discuss nuclear war with children. Even a small blast has horrific effects. Even for a "small" terrorist-improvised 10 KT device, the ground level blast will produce winds that slow to "only" 70 mph once the blast wave has spread out one 1.1 miles. Within this radius, buildings are heavily damaged, or destroyed, depending on proximity to the blast. Windows would be broken over ten miles away. Rescuers would be hampered by debris and everything that is knocked down or overturned and moved around in the blast zone. Fires will break out. Radiation will be an ongoing danger. [1] Anyone with line of sight to the detonation will be subject to flash burns even if they are two miles away and flash blindness can result for people up to 15 miles away. The flash blindness may be temporary, depending on exposure and distance. See Fig. 1 for a depiction of the effects at various distance from ground zero of a 10 kiloton ground burst.

It is no wonder that something as horrific as nuclear war or terrorist attacks is not something we like to discuss among adults, let alone with children. But ignorance in this case does not lead to bliss. Most of the psychological research on looming nuclear war attitudes and effects was concentrated during the Cold War period and tapered off following the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991. The 50 megaton bombs of that era may offer more concentrated destruction in one package, but the fears of today, involving lower-yield smart nukes and Improvised Nuclear Devices (INDs) come from a larger number of potential adversaries, some of which don't even have a country of their own against which we could retaliate.

At Seattle Public Library, there are 86 items returned on a keyword search for "nuclear war". They are all for adults, with the possible exception of a couple of decades-old teachers' guides. As nuclear capable countries and groups proliferate, some of the Cold War-era research into how to talk with children about nuclear weapons becomes even more relevant.

Practical Education

Although ridiculed in popular media and movies, such as The Atomic Cafe, produced in 1982, civil defense education efforts have the potential to greatly reduce casualties and the degree of injury for anyone outside of the radius of total destruction. That radius, in addition, does not increase linearly with the power of the bomb. A rough summary of the geometry and physics involved: a bomb with a definitely-fatal zone of two miles will not extend its zone to four miles if its power is doubled, but rather to 2.5 miles. Substituting a bomb that was 100 times more powerful would extend that radius to 4.5 miles. [2]

In Duck and Cover, a short instructional film from the early 1950's, cartoon character Bert the Turtle models atomic blast survival for children. Child actors in the film provide more realistic examples of what to do. The basic idea taught in the film is, upon noticing the distinctive light flash of a nuclear explosion, to get into a position that puts as much material as possible between potential victims and the atomic blast and reduces exposure of vulnerable areas, such as head, neck, and eyes. Even light clothing or newspapers can reduce or eliminate the danger from flash burns. [1] A related film for families, You Can Beat the A-Bomb, offers further advice on places to seek shelter, avoiding fallout, fallout shelters, and decontamination procedures (scrub, scrub, scrub, and throw away those clothes).

Psychological Aspects

The possibility of atomic attack is the 800 kiloton gorilla in the room that we are not talking about. Even barring a working fission device, thanks to proliferating nuclear power plants and now-unemployed nuclear scientists from the former Soviet Union, terrorists and other adversaries have increasing access to radioactive material with which to construct "dirty-bombs" that present some of the same civil-defense challenges as a nuclear bomb. Nascent nuclear powers, such as North Korea, are openly threatening an attack. [3] Even if adults do not explicitly discuss these hazards with children, they are bound to become aware of them. Studies in the 1960's, during the Cold War,showed that 70% of children in first grade through high school were aware of the bomb. [4]

Age-Appropriate Discussions

Children below the age of six are generally too young to raise these topics with. From six to twelve years old, parents and educators can practice active listening, alert to concerns that children glean from current events, prepare to sympathize with reasonable fears, and explain away exaggerated concerns. [5] With children older than twelve, it is appropriate to ask open-ended questions to initiate discussions and to honestly share feelings without imposing them so that the teens' own positions can emerge. [5]


Even during the Cold War, history and social studies text books paid minimal attention to nuclear issues. As educator and author Paul Fleisher observed, "When 12-year-olds talk about nuclear weapons ... most do not understand the notion of deterrence, the physics ... or the history". [4] This is a form of psychological denial that amounts to thinking only happier thoughts. The physics, history, and ramifications in current events relating to nuclear issues should be front and center where appropriate in the curriculum for older students. Confronting these subjects in the school curriculum can also have psychological benefits. An experiment conducted a few years after the end of the Cold War found that "nuclear war education" helped students achieve "fear reduction, enhanced optimism ..., and decreases in the frequency of worry about the possibility of nuclear war". [6] So inclusion of instruction regarding aspects of nuclear weapons would provide benefits from a psychological health standpoint as well as a means of encouraging future voters to be educated on nuclear issues.


It is important to be careful with too much information, too early, so as not to induce nightmares about the horrors of nuclear war in very young children. For older children, we should insure that they are educated both in the practical aspects of surviving the most increasingly likely types of nuclear attack and that they are provided with educational background on nuclear weapons that will inform their future.

© Genevieve Payzer. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation, 2nd Ed.," Executive Office of the President of the United States, June 2010.

[2] "Survival Under Atomic Attack," Executive Office of the President of the United States, 1950.

[3] "North Korea Releases Propaganda Film Showing Washington under Nuclear Attack," The Guardian, 26 Mar 16.

[4] P. Fleisher, "Teaching Children about Nuclear War," Phi Delta Kappan 67, No. 3, 215 (1985).

[5] W. Van Ornum and M. Van Ornum, Talking to Children About Nuclear War (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002).

[6] D. J. Christie and C. P. Hanley, "Some Psychological Effects of Nuclear War Education on Adolescents During Cold War II," Polit. Psychol. 15, No 2, 177 (1994).