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Dear Matthew:

During a nearby nuclear accident (like the ones recently in Japan and Korea), is it safer to stay in your house until the authorities say it's okay to leave, or should one skip town a.s.a.p.?

-- Curious, North Park

We've collected this week's questions in our "Apocalypse Now" file so we could handle them all at once in our little salute to the Y2K frenzy. The elves plan to spend New Year's Eve under their beds with their fingers in their ears. They've stockpiled Oreos and canned chili, just in case.

And just in case of a nuclear event of some kind, no matter what anybody says, most of you would hop in the car and boogie. FEMA, the federal disaster folks, know this from experience. I suggest we might stay put if there's something good on TV. But FEMA, the federal disaster folks, suggest we calm down and follow orders, which would be broadcast over the Emergency Broadcast Network. Most likely those orders would be to close windows, doors, vents, chimney flues, and stay where you are. And it would probably only apply to people within ten miles or so of the event. But, as usual, it all depends. Depends on what type of nuclear accident it is, what type of radiation (if any) has been released beyond the concrete barriers, how windy or rainy it is, which direction the wind is blowing, how far away from the accident you are. Most radiation couldn't penetrate the walls of your house. But the biggest thing FEMA and the Nuclear Regulaory Commission know is that ever since Three Mile Island, nobody believes anything said by the government or the businesses that operate sites with fissionable material. (The Japan event wasn't in a power generator like San Onofre, it was in a facility similar to General Atomic.) The odds on a Chernobyl in the U.S. are minuscule. But when we think "nuclear accident," we imagine mushroom clouds and two-headed frogs and glowing vegetables, no matter what anybody says. And that apparently translates into "Let's make a run for it, Ethel!"

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