How To Survive A Nuclear Attack

How To Survive A Nuclear Attack

So, you consider yourself prepared for an emergency. 

You have smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and escape routes in case of a fire.

You keep a supply of non-perishable food on hand in case the power goes out, and candles and flashlights are ready to go.

You even have a duffle bag packed with a change of clothes in case you need to evacuate suddenly.

All is well and good.  But are you prepared for the ultimate disaster – a nuclear attack?

Whether it is a nuclear war due to a regional or international conflict, or a lone terrorist with a suitcase nuclear device, surviving a nuclear blast and the ensuing nuclear fallout will present you with the most difficult survival challenge you have ever faced. 

That’s where this post comes in.

I’m going to provide you with the fundamentals you can use to increase your chances of surviving nuclear attack.

Depending on where you are when the blast happens will have a large bearing on the strategies and steps you take to do your best to survive. 

Let’s dive into some steps you can take to increase your chances of survival in the event of a nuclear attack. 

Blast proximity dictates your initial response

Most likely, any nuclear explosion will occur in or near a major metropolitan area. 

In the case of all out nuclear war, some isolated areas will be targeted as well if they contain military targets, airports, or support major infrastructure such as power grids.

If the attack is due to a terrorist, an area with large numbers of people is the most likely target.  After all, why waste a nuclear device on empty countryside? 

If you are close to the hypocenter, unfortunately, though intuitively enough, your chances of survival drop dramatically. 

Depending on many factors such as size of the device, whether it’s a ground burst or air burst, the weather conditions, and geography, the area of total destruction and death could reach as far as five miles from the detonation point. 

The farther away from the blast you are, the better your initial chances of survival are. 

For the sake of planning for a worst case scenario, let’s assume you are two to five miles from the blast…

Heat, Blast, and Radiation Effects

The majority of energy from a nuclear detonation is converted into thermal and blast effects.  The first thing you will experience is the flash of blinding light.  Cover your eyes any way you can, and duck down behind something if you are able.  The old “Duck and Cover” rules work just as well today as they did in the 1950’s. 

Shielding your eyes will help prevent flash injury and temporary blindness. 

Since the initial radiation burst travels as fast as the speed of light, you will most likely receive a dose of gamma and neutron radiation.  However, if you are far enough away to be out of the total destruction zone, your dose will be minimal.  If you can find a way to shield yourself behind thick metal, concrete or earth, your exposure will be even less.

Within a fraction of a second after a bomb is detonated, the heat wave arrives.  Depending on your distance, the temperature of the heat wave can be millions of degrees, or low enough it would only resemble a minor sunburn.  Close to the center of the detonation point, flammable materials will burst into flame.  Farther out, items such as paper and darker materials may smolder, but these can be extinguished easily with a fire extinguisher.  Again, shielding is your best bet.  If you can get behind something solid, the chance of burns decreases dramatically.  

A few seconds after the light and heat effects, the blast wave will arrive.  The blast wave, or overpressure, is the mass of air that has been pushed out from the explosion. 

Overpressures can range from over 20 psi to .5 psi.  20 psi is equivalent to a wind speed of over 500 mph.  At that pressure, nearly all structures are totally destroyed. 

Pressures over 10 psi can rupture eardrums, cause internal organ damage, as well as temporary confusion.  Pressures less than 5 psi would result in substantial damage to non-reinforced structures, but they won’t be completely destroyed, and shouldn’t affect your physical well-being.

The best protection from the blast wave is to get into a strong structure if you can.  If out in the open, hide under something strong, or behind an embankment or other strong barrier.  The blast wave will be short lived, less than a minute.

After the blast wave passes, you have some time to get your bearings and take steps to reduce any further danger.  Stay away from any unstable buildings or electrical lines, and render First Aid to yourself or anybody nearby who is injured.

EMP

Another effect of a nuclear blast is Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP.  Think of EMP as a voltage surge, like an invisible lightning bolt.  Depending on factors such as blast size and altitude, EMP can travel a few or hundreds of miles.  If nuclear apocalypse occurs, there is a very good chance the entire country would be subject to EMP.

EMP will essentially render any device with an integrated circuit or microprocessor useless.  The effect is instantaneous. 

Radios, computers, digital clocks, cell phones, watches, and nearly all vehicles made after the mid 1970’s instantly become nothing more than paperweights and scrap metal. 

Electronic pacemakers and most hospital equipment will stop functioning.  Nearly all electrical power generating plants, cable and internet providers, and modern communication systems will fail. 

Plan on reverting to a pre-1930’s living standard if this happens, at least for a time. 

Infrastructure damage

Infrastructure will be hit hard in a nuclear blast.  Water mains will break, there will be large scale fires, and even if EMP has not killed communications, the systems will be overloaded to the point of failure. 

There will be massive traffic jams caused by abandoned vehicles and accidents.  Emergency services will be sporadic, at least for the first 12 hours, so plan on handling any medical issues yourself. 

Electricity will likely be off.  Candles, lanterns, and flashlights can be used for illumination.  Power may be out for a long time, so you will want to ration your candles and batteries, unless you can get more.  Another option is a hand crank light that generates its own power.

Since municipal water systems may be compromised, or your well pump won’t work without electricity, plan on using hand operated pumps for water or transferring gasoline and other fuels. 

Sanitation can be a challenge…you can bag your solid waste by placing plastic bags over the toilet, or force flush toilets with a bucket of water.  Long term solutions would be an outhouse over a sewage pit.

Communication

Due to EMP or overloaded circuits, your phones will be virtually useless. 

Your best bet for news and emergency information would be an old fashioned tube type radio set.  These do not have modern electronics and would not be affected severely in a nuclear blast.

If you have a modern radio that was in a basement or other shielded area, it may still work.  You can use this to get news updates and emergency response information.  Make sure your emergency radio is battery operated, and that you have spare batteries. 

Another great choice is a radio that is dynamo driven – in other words, hand cranked.  These generate their own battery power and can even be used to charge cell phones and other electronics.

Escape vs Shelter in Place

At some point, you will have to decide if it is better to stay where you are and wait for help, or evacuate to a safer location.  Many factors are going to impact this decision and you will need to weigh each one carefully.

One important factor to consider is where you are in relation to the blast site, and which way the wind is blowing. 

Being downwind of the blast zone is the most dangerous place to be. 
If you are upwind, fallout should be minimal.  In most areas, the prevailing winds are West to East, but pay attention to local weather patterns.

If you decide to evacuate, what are your transportation options?  Can you find a running vehicle, and enough gas to make it somewhere?  Are the roads passable enough?  Is there a place to go, and do you know how to get there?  Do you have enough food and water to take, or will you need to find more on the way?

If you choose to stay, is your location safe and secure?  Can you get food and water?  Are there weather issues you need to consider, such as cold temperatures?  Is it likely that emergency responders will get to you? Can you protect yourself and your family? 

All these need to be considered and dealt with, and since you’re reading this you’re likely already thinking through these types of scenarios.

Transportation and Mobility Concerns

Unless you are far away from the blast, you will probably not get far in your vehicle.  EMP might have fried the electronics and debris will likely make the roads impassable. 

In this situation, using an old fashioned bicycle is better than walking, unless you are lucky enough to own a vehicle made before the middle 1970’s that has a distributer type ignition and no computerized engine controls.

Some older motorcycles or mopeds may still work, and can get through debris covered streets better than a full sized car.

You will not be able to get gasoline if the power is out, so carrying a hose to siphon gas out of other vehicles is a must.  Anything that runs on gas is a good source; even lawnmowers can give you a gallon or two.

Food and Water

Expect to lose running water soon, if not right away. 

If you have a private well, gather as much water as you can as soon as you can, and use any container that can be covered. 

If you have to use water from a surface source like a lake or river, get as much as you can as soon as you can. 

Nuclear fallout will contaminate open water sources within hours, so you need to get it before that happens.

Don’t gather rainwater until you are sure any fallout has passed.  Once you are sure there is no radioactive dust in the air, rainwater is a great source of potable water.

Stockpile as much canned food as you possibly can as soon as you can.  If you can get to a grocery store, get as much canned food as possible.  They are least likely to be contaminated with radiation, and have a long shelf-life.  Avoid anything refrigerated, unless you can guarantee electricity for food storage.

Don’t forget non-food items, such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies for eating utensils, vitamins, and antiseptic for treating wounds.  If you have a firearm, extra ammunition is a good idea as well.

Personal protection

In a situation like this, normal law and order may fail. 

It’s a good idea to have some sort of protection just in case this occurs for any period of time.  Protection can be in the form of a firearm or securing your environment barricades and locks to prevent people from getting in. 

If you have to go scouting for any resources, working in groups and carrying a firearm is a good idea.  When it’s a life-or-death situation, other people are likely after the same things as you and may be willing to fight you for it.  You’re better to be safe than sorry.

If you do need to travel somewhere, do not go alone if you can help it.  Have a plan of how you will get there, and when you will return.

Medical and First Aid

Without medical facilities in operation, you are on your own when it comes to medical care.  This is where a good, well stocked First Aid kit will be worth its weight in gold.  It’s a good idea to have more than one and spread in the mostly likely locations you would be such as home, car, and office just in case.

In the case of broken bones, any straight board or even a branch can be used as a splint and alcohol can be used as an antiseptic in a pinch. 

Whether you’re planning for a survival event or just being more prepared in your everyday life, it’s a great idea to take a First Aid course now, so you are prepared later.

Signaling For Help

If you need to signal for help, tying a white cloth to a pole or tree may attract help.  A signal fire is not a good idea, as it may be considered just another blast caused fire. 

If you have the supplies, painting a HELP sign on a roof or large open space will be visible from the air.

Don’t waste your flashlight batteries randomly flashing the light, hoping someone will see it.  Wait until you have definite evidence that rescuers are nearby before using resources like that.

Conclusion

You’ve learned some of the basics when it comes to surviving a nuclear attack. 

As you can see, pre-planning is very important, because it’s possible you will have no resources to rely on if you’re close to the blast point.

The more you can do today, the more secure your position will be if you are near a nuclear blast.  Ensuring you have adequate survival supplies, first aid kits, food, water, and hand operated electronics such as flashlights and radios could make the difference between life or death. 

To the extent you can distribute resources to improve your chances of accessing your supplies after the blast you only boost your chances of surviving and succeeding during the crisis.

The more you do today will have a direct impact on how well you will manage in the event of nuclear apocalypse or attack.

If you have any questions about any of these concepts, just leave me a comment below.  Also, if you have any other considerations for surviving a nuclear attack, share it with everyone.

About the Author

Douglas Birlingmair has an extensive 20 year background in emergency preparedness and terrorism response. He has served on numerous commissions and State level committees, is certified as an instructor for terrorist bombing response protocol, and has been recognized three times by the US Army for his role in coordinating civilian and military response procedures for mass casualty disasters. Now retired, he continues to to Subject Matter Expert consulting on safety and emergency preparedness for various clients.


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