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Getting Bombed with Beer, not the Usual Way

January 2013

Happy New Year! How many people did you hear talking about something like "grab a case of beer and get bombed" leading up to the New Year parties? Well, some recently released research from the 50's gives a whole different meaning to this kind of expression.

It turns out that among the many other important tests done around exploding a nuclear bombs, they did some tests to determine whether cans and bottles of beer would survive, and if so whether they'd be drinkable. Containers were put as close as 300 m away from the blast and then tested afterwards. So next time you think your job sucks, just think about some poor private being handed a very blasted looking bottle by an officer in a radiation suit who tells him "We picked this up next to the blast site and want you to drink it. Let us know if it still tastes good, but quickly because we're also testing to see if this kills you."

...or at least that's how the various articles I first saw described it. I am curious how they picked who would drink the stuff, but have suspected there were a lot more beverages tested than just beer. If the point was to determine what is drinkable, a very basic survival question (and survival would be a big concernin a post-nuclear war world), then it wouldn't make sense to only test beer. However, it does make for a nice article headline. I recently came across the NPR article on this story. To their credit they show actual summary sheets from the tests and talk about the various beverages that were blasted.

So, suppose one day you emerge from a bomb shelter to a devastated world and are wondering what to drink considering safety and for taste... I can certainly sympathize with the temptation to get bombed, to go for any kind of booze. However, in fairness to beer it has often been regarded as a basic food more than as a drink. Personally, I would be inclined to look for drinks that had been sealed before the bombs fell. Next criteria, the thicker and heavier the container the better. As a general guideline, the more mass there is in the way, the less of anything whether radiation or chemical contamination is going to get through. Finally, given a choice between a beer bottle and a water bottle (assuming equivalent containment), I'd pick the water. Here's my thinking:

  • There is some chance of radionucleides penetrating the container. That is a property of the container, so the liquid doesn't matter.
  • Some number of neutrons will enter the container and some fraction of those will attach to lighter atoms in the liquid, or break up heavier atoms, either way generating new isotopes. I doubt there will be much heavy atoms in a drink. As for the light atoms, water seems pretty safe. Add another neutron to hydrogen or oxygen and you've still got something pretty stable. However, it doesn't seem like alcohol would be much worse. Carbon 12 going to carbon 13 is still stable, and going to carbon 14 is still not bad in reasonable amounts. So alcohol doesn't seem to be much of a problem here.
  • Ionizing radiation seems to be the most likely problem to me out of the radiation related effects. So beta ray, gamma rays, x-rays. In all cases you generate some number of broken chemical bonds which then reform, but possibly not as they were. Hence mutations etc. in living organisms, but the possibility of poisons in a generic liquid. However if one just has water, break it up all you want, it returns to the standard balance of H+, OH- and H2O, so no long term damage is done. Maybe the changed taste of the beer was related to the radiation, but...
  • ... what I would wonder most about is plain old heat. I would think that the containers closest to the blast got hot. Seem reasonable? Heating a liquid can certainly effect chemical changes. Again though, out of a variety of drinks, if I was told they had been heated up by some unknown amount then cooled down again, I would think water would be the safest bet.

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