Introduction 

Although it can be hard to imagine the horrors of nuclear war, with 12,700 active nuclear warheads  in the world, the threat of a nuclear bomb being dropped is a very real global concern. Yet, it is one many forget to acknowledge, until a foreboding message pops up in the news or on their television screen. On July 11th, the NYC Emergency Management Department released a Nuclear Preparedness Public Service Announcement on their youtube channel, where a cheery woman in a black jumpsuit taught New Yorkers what to do in case “the big one” hits. While their channels other PSA’s such as knowing hurricane evacuation zones and having an at home emergency supply kit garnered only a couple hundred views, this PSA shot up to nearly 800,000 views within just a few days after it was posted. Although the other PSA’s on their channel are considered routine safety measures and can often be overlooked, this Nuclear Public Service Announcement being released was a big deal because of how abnormal it was: as nuclear PSAs have not been around since the 50s. Although many people may think that Nuclear Preparedness PSAs are and should only be released if there is a threat, it is important that people be educated on nuclear weapons regardless of whether or not there is a warning, in order to raise awareness to aid the push for nuclear disarmament. 

The History of Nuclear Preparedness PSAs

The PSA released by the NYC Emergency Management marks one of the first New York Nuclear Preparedness PSA’s in over 70 years. The previous Nuclear Preparedness PSA was influenced by Russia’s advancements in nuclear technology and the tension generated by the Cold War. In 1949, at the start of the Cold War, Russia tested its first nuclear device, an atomic bomb known as Joe-1 in Kazakhstan. In response, President Harry Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration program, which was made to educate the public about nuclear weapons and ways they could protect themselves. Then, in 1951, the FDCA filmed a PSA at a school in Astoria Queens called Duck and Cover, which featured an animated turtle named Burt who demonstrated to students ways they could defend themselves if there was an explosion. The film instructed students to “duck” underneath desks or tables and “cover” their faces and the back of their necks. Although this was one of the only PSAs released in America about nuclear preparedness, it served as a blueprint for the drills students practiced all throughout the cold war. “People who today talk about doing duck and cover drills talk about being terrified by them. They talk about them really hammering home that this stuff is real, and… that the world is a really disturbing place.” says Alex Wellerstien, a historian of nuclear weapons and a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology. However, while these PSAs and drills were terrifying, because they hit close to home and helped to show the public that the dangers of nuclear weapons were very much real, they triggered a surge of antinuclear activism which contributed to the reduction of nuclear weapons in the United States. In this way, the Duck and Cover PSA was more effective to get people to appeal for change than to increase their chances of surviving a nuclear weapon. Given the unpredictable and destructive nature of atomic bombs, there isn’t much a singular person or the government could do to preserve lives, which is the very reason they need to be eliminated. 

Why the  PSAs Release Has Spread Fear 

Similar to the reactions of the past when faced with the realities of nuclear weapons, this PSA that was released a few days ago by the NYC Emergency Management, which instructed citizens about what to do if there was a Nuclear Attack, has come as a shock to many people and has spread fear. “I just saw an NYC Nuclear Attack PSA video. Is there something I’m missing!?” wrote one twitter user in response to the video. Because PSAs are abnormal and only considered routine in a time of crisis such as the Cold War, people assume that if it is being released now it is being done because New York is in danger. This general concern and confusion got to the point where several government officials including the Mayor of New York City and even the White House had to address it and issue statements saying that there was no emergency- that it was just, like all the other PSA’s on their channel, released for awareness. “I do not believe that it was the result of any intelligence-sharing from the federal government to New York City that led to this,” said Jake Sullivan, who is the U.S National Security Advisor. 

Why Now? 

But why now? The fact that there hasn’t been a PSA on nuclear weapons or nuclear training in decades makes the release of this video jarring and confusing, despite the government’s statements about it. And while it may be true that the NYC Emergency Managements Youtube Channel is dedicated to preparing people for different potential disasters, a nuclear bomb is a catastrophe of an entirely different scale, and to post it for hundreds of thousands of people to see with no prior information given is irresponsible. When later interviewed about the release of this PSA, the Mayor of New York, Eric Adams, addressed why the PSA was released, and explained the reasoning behind why this PSA was created now. Even though there is no direct threat, the timing of this public service announcement’s release was influenced by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has been ongoing since 2014 but began a major escalation in February of 2022. As the fighting between the two countries became more heated, it began speculations of whether or not Russia might begin nuclear warfare on Ukraine and pose a threat to the countries that aided it. Eric Adams commented, “It was really taking necessary steps after what happened in Ukraine, to give preparedness,” he said. “New York City is a main target for attacks of all kinds”, Adams noted, apparently referencing the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He added on by saying, “I’m a big believer in ‘Better safe than sorry. These are just smart things to do.”   

The Importance of Nuclear Awareness 

Although spreading information about nuclear weapons and nuclear preparedness can create fear, it is important for people to be educated about this topic regardless of whether or not there is a direct threat. Living in a day and age where 9 countries possess powerful nuclear weapons, it is crucial for people to know more about them,  not only for preparedness but to help the push for nuclear disarmament: the abolishment of nuclear weapons. The more that people understand the devastating nature of nuclear weapons, the more that they aid in conversations and in the fight to abolish nuclear weapons for good. In the past, the public have only fought for the abolishment of nuclear weapons when there is immediate concern and otherwise ignored them. It is important to acknowledge and address these weapons even when there is no direct threat. Although some may think that the general public are powerless when it comes to discussions around nuclear weapons, in reality, the non governmental sector of our society has had a significant influence on the current laws and regulations around nuclear weapons in our country, and can continue to do so. For example, in the 1950s, after 2 hydrogen bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasazi, people became increasingly vocal about the dangers of nuclear weapons, which helped to create the first World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. Continuously, the radioactive fallout created by nuclear testing in rural places such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Mississippi had serious health impacts on the people living in the area, and it was their stories and voices that helped to prohibit nuclear tests in the U.S. “At a time when the U.S. government claimed that above ground testing was necessary for national security, it was concerns from parents about the accumulation of strontium-90 in their babies’ teeth that helped create momentum for that 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty.” said Sharon Weiner, a professor at the American University’s School of International Service and a member of the Carnegie Corporation, which is a grantmaking program the supports strengthening international peace and security. Although these protests against nuclear weapons and conversations around them faded during the 1970s as the Women’s Movement and the Vietnam War became the main focuses of activism, the presence of nuclear weapons is still a large social issue and should be addressed as one. 

The Problem With This PSA

Despite the fact that ultimately it is a good thing that the government is starting to inform the public about nuclear weapons and nuclear preparedness, there are still many flaws within this PSA that need to be addressed. For starters, the language within the PSA is vague and brushes aside important questions that people may have. The video begins with a greenscreen background of a city with a siren going off as the narrator says, “So there’s been a nuclear attack. Don’t ask me how or why, just know that the big one has hit.” This is guaranteed to be frustrating for viewers, as those are crucial things that people need to know. The PSA then goes on to address three steps of what to do immediately if there is a nuclear attack, and wraps it up by stating, “All right? You’ve got this.” How wonderfully dystopian. PSAs, especially those about such a serious and harrowing topic such as nuclear weapons should not glaze over the dangers of nuclear weapons, and saying “you got this’ ‘ is misleading when understanding how catastrophic and unpredictable nuclear weapons and radiation are. Additionally, the PSA does not address the aftermath of a weapon of this scale being dropped, and makes it seem as if the government has a solid plan to assist citizens and to deal with nuclear fallout when in reality there is no humanitarian response for nuclear exposure yet available within medicine. 

To continue, although understandably, PSAs are meant to be short and usually only provide people with baseline information, this PSA had told New Yorkers to go to Notify NYC: the city’s emergency alerts app, and could have linked additional resources that people could go to for information. There are many websites and organizations that were created to inform and rally the public such as ican: the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which is a coalition of organizations that promote awareness of nuclear weapons and adherence to the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty created by the UN. Further websites to check out including the  NTI, or Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Global Nuclear Awareness Program.  It is the government’s responsibility to properly inform and educate people about such topics, and while this PSA is a step in the right direction, it did not provide its audience with enough information and additional resources to be successful.  

Conclusion

While the U.S government, even if it is on a more local level, is taking the initiative to inform citizens about nuclear weapons, this is simply the beginning of the awareness that must be raised around them. Nuclear energy and the weapons we can create with it play a tremendous role in the way the world functions, and so it is important for people to understand these topics and the consequences of nuclear weapons. Many people may not think much at all about nuclear weapons or even support their countries decision to possess a nuclear arsenal: until it is something that compromises their safety and looms as a threat over their lives. The public must deconstruct their perception that people should only be informed on the cusp of a nuclear attack about the dangers of nuclear weapons, and the government must play an active role in doing so. The threat that nuclear weapons pose is not something to be ignored. While public marches and advocates, the UN and organizations like ican have made a significant impact on the views and policies regarding nuclear weapons, there is still much more work to do to reach full nuclear abolishment to create a safer and more peaceful world, and everyone’s voice is needed. 

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