There are many types of fallout, ranging from the global type to the more area-restricted types of fallout.
After an air burst, fission products, un-fissioned nuclear material, and weapon residues vaporized by the heat of the fireball condense into a fine suspension of small particles 10 nm to 20 µm in diameter. These particles may be quickly drawn up into the stratosphere, particularly if the explosive yield exceeds 10 kt.
Initially little was known about the dispersion of nuclear fallout on a global scale. The AEC assumed that fallout would be dispersed evenly across the globe by atmospheric winds and gradually settle to the Earth's surface after weeks, months, and even years as worldwide fallout. Nuclear products were deposited in the Northern Hemisphere becoming "far more dangerous than they had originally been estimated."
The radio-biological hazard of worldwide fallout is essentially a long-term one because of the potential accumulation of long-lived radioisotopes (such as strontium-90 and caesium-137) in the body as a result of ingestion of foods containing the radioactive materials. This hazard is less serious than local fallout, which is of much greater immediate operational concern.
In a land or water surface burst, heat vaporizes large amounts of earth or water, which is drawn up into the radioactive cloud. This material becomes radioactive when it condenses with fission products and other radiocontaminants that have become neutron-activated. Most of the isotopes in the table below mostly decay into the isotopes that many people are more familiar with. Some radiation would taint large amounts of land and drinking water causing formal mutations throughout animal and human life.
A surface burst generates large amounts of particulate matter, composed of particles from less than 100 nm to several millimeters in diameter—in addition to very fine particles that contribute to worldwide fallout. The larger particles spill out of the stem and cascade down the outside of the fireball in a downdraft even as the cloud rises, so fallout begins to arrive near ground zero within an hour. More than half the total bomb debris lands on the ground within about 24 hours as local fallout. Chemical properties of the elements in the fallout control the rate at which they are deposited on the ground. Less volatile elements deposit first.
Severe local fallout contamination can extend far beyond the blast and thermal effects, particularly in the case of high yield surface detonations. The ground track of fallout from an explosion depends on the weather situation from the time of detonation onwards. In stronger winds, fallout travels faster but takes the same time to descend, so although it covers a larger path, it is more spread out or diluted. So the width of the fallout pattern for any given dose rate is reduced where the downwind distance is increased by higher winds. The total amount of activity deposited up to any given time is the same irrespective of the wind pattern, so overall casualty figures from fallout are generally independent of winds. But thunderstorms can bring down activity as rain more rapidly than dry fallout, particularly if the mushroom cloud is low enough to be below ("washout"), or mixed with ("rainout"), the thunderstorm.
Whenever individuals remain in a radiologically contaminated area, such contamination leads to an immediate external radiation exposure as well as a possible later internal hazard from inhalation and ingestion of radiocontaminants, such as the rather short-lived iodine-131, which is accumulated in the thyroid.
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