How Can You Survive a Nuclear Attack?
Since nuclear weapons (aka nukes, nuclear bombs, atomic bombs) were first used during WWII, the world has been asking itself if it’s possible to survive a nuclear attack or nuclear war.
In the past we’ve been protected from the threat of nuclear attack and nuclear war by things like the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD). This is where countries like the US and (at the time) the Soviet Union would never attack each other because it was understood that if it would end in the complete destruction of both countries.
Which Countries Have Nukes?
Today, the idea of MAD doesn’t keep us safe. The US and Russia still have nukes, but so do 7 other countries. France, China, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea all have nuclear weapons now.
Only 5 of these countries legally possess nuclear weapons, the US, UK, Russia, China and France.
Of these countries, Russia and the US still have more nukes than everyone else. It makes sense as the US was the first country with nukes starting in 1945 and Russia was second in 1949. North Korea was the last country to develop nuclear weapons in 2006.
The power of nuclear weapons has increased dramatically since 1945 as you can see in the two examples below.
This is what the blast radius would look like if Little Boy, the first nuke the US dropped on Japan, was dropped on Washington, D.C.
This is what the blast radius would look like if the largest tested Russian nuclear weapon, a 50 megaton device, was dropped on Washington D.C.
Current nuclear weapons have the potential to be about 3,000 times more powerful than the weapons used in WWII.
How Many Nuclear Weapons Does Each Country Have?
These numbers are estimates, but they’re accurate enough to give us a pretty clear picture of who has what.
- Russia has around 7,000 nukes.
- The US is close behind with 6,800.
- France is in a distant third with 300.
- China has 260.
- The UK has 215.
- Pakistan has 140 and India has 120.
- Israel has 80 and North Korea currently has between 8 and 60 depending on who you ask.
- Countries in light blue (US, Russia, China, France, and UK) are legal nuclear States.
- Countries in red (Pakistan, India, North Korea, Israel) own nuclear weapons.
- Countries in dark blue are NATO nuclear weapons sharing states (Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Turkey).
- Countries in green (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, South Africa) are States formerly possessing nuclear weapons.
How Can We be Prepared for a Nuclear Attack?
A lot of what goes into preparing to survive a nuclear attack is the same as prepping for any other disaster.
Have a plan before a nuclear attack is likely
Everything starts by planning ahead. If you’re already of a preparedness mindset, then you’re most likely well on your way. If you aren’t already getting prepared, it’s never too late! Taking action today could save you and your family in the event of a nuclear attack or even a full scale nuclear war.
Your plan will mostly revolve around the storage of food, water, medical supplies, etc. These will allow you to spend several days indoors and sealed up away from the radiation outside.
This plan should also include choosing a room in your house to use as a shelter in place room. This room should be the area that provides the most shielding from radiation for you and your family. It should normally be where you store your supplies as well since this will allow you to already have everything in one place in the case of a nuclear attack. Rooms below ground level, with no windows, will work the best.
Choose where you live based on
In order to drastically increase the likelihood of surviving a nuclear attack, live away from areas that provide targets of opportunity or strategic value. These areas include: strategic missile sites and military bases, government centers like Washington, DC and capitals, transportation hubs and communication centers.
Manufacturing, industrial, technology, and financial centers as well as refineries, power plants and chemical plants are also targets of value.
Store food that will not go bad
Long term food storage is the backbone of most good preparedness plans. Foods like rice, beans, honey, powdered milk, wheat, sugar, oats and pasta are all great ways to begin storing food.
By buying in bulk, you can get a good head start on your food storage. For instance, a 50 lb bag of rice costs roughly $15-20 and has almost 30,000 calories. A 20 lb bag of pinto beans will cost you about the same and has a little more than 30,000 calories. For $30-40 you can start off with enough food for a family of four for a full week! You could stretch it out even further if you really needed to.
Adding other types of food like dried fruits and vegetables or freeze dried meats will keep your food from getting boring and provide some added comfort in a time of amazing stress.
Make sure you include food for any pets.
Store water for you and your family
One gallon of water per day, per person, is a good rule of thumb. Normal tap water will last for a long time, without needing any kind of treatment, as long as it’s kept away from sunlight and stored at room temperature. This prevents algae from growing in the container.
Some people advise rotating water out at least every year. This certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s not totally necessary. As long as there isn’t anything growing in the water, you’re good to go.
Ensure that your pets have water as well. How much water they need is going to be dependent upon how large they are.
Other water storage tips:
- Use food grade containers to store your water.
- Commercial water filters or unscented household bleach can be used to disinfect water. Use 8 drops of bleach per gallon of water.
- You can improve the taste of water that has been stored for long periods by pouring it back and forth between two containers.
Have a means of communication available
At a minimum, you’ll want to have a hand crank radio available. If you get one that monitors the NOAA emergency channel, even better! This will let you listen in to emergency broadcasts that will hopefully be providing updates about the attack and other information like how long you should stay under cover, the status of the surrounding area or if someone will be coming to rescue you.
Keep your cell phone with you. I’d suggest turning it off to preserve the battery and turning it on every so often to see if you have a signal. Many hand crank radios also have USB ports to charge things like cell phones. You may even want to keep a spare charger cable with the radio just in case.
Keep enough medical supplies to treat common injuries
I would suggest having a basic first aid kit at a minimum. This should have basic bandages, antibiotic ointment, rubber gloves, etc. You’re going to want to be able to treat cuts and other minor wounds with this kit.
If you want to be even more prepared, then you’ll need to have items that let you treat injuries that could be common following a nuclear attack. SAM Splints would be great to immobilize any broken bones or serious sprains caused by falling debris from the initial detonation. Lacerations from flying glass and debris can also occur. A few tourniquets, bandages and some quick clot impregnated gauze will give you the ability to treat severe bleeding.
Radiation burns will be common depending on your distance from the initial blast. Minor radiation burns (like a sunburn) can be cleaned and covered with Vaseline to prevent cracking. If they begin to char and blister, cover then with a sterile wrap. More severe burns will need to be treated more carefully. Cut away clothing around the burned area and wash the area with water only. If you’ve stored some burn dressings (you probably should), apply them to the burned area. If you don’t have a burn specific dressing, you can cover it with plastic wrap or anything else that will not stick to the burn.
Have a way to keep yourself clean
This isn’t going to be the difference between life and death after just a few days, but it will make you more comfortable and make being sealed in a room with your entire family more bearable.
Baby wipes, deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste can help you not only smell better, but also help you feel more normal and comfortable. It can go a long way to aid your mental well being.
You’re going to need to go to the bathroom
You can either purchase something like a Luggable Loo or build your own.
A 5 gallon bucket, some heavy duty garbage bags and cat litter make a great makeshift toilet. Line the bucket with the garbage bag, put some kitty litter in the bottom and go to the bathroom. When you’re done, cover your waste with some more kitty litter. When the smell gets to bad, tie the bag up and replace it with a fresh one.
Build a shelter in place kit
A shelter in place (SIP) kit will allow you to seal your SIP room from dangerous radioactive fallout. (This same kit can protect you from the effects of a chemical spill or an attack with chemical or biological weapons.)
The kit should include plastic sheeting or heavy gauge trash bags, duct tape, flashlights, light source (candles, hand crank lights, etc.), dust masks, rubber gloves, tools needed to turn off utilities.
Other items to consider for your SIP room
Books, board games, puzzles and other items to keep your mind occupied and off the fact that you have just experienced a nuclear attack.
If a nuclear attack occurs
Immediately get inside, seal your house and SIP room, and await further instructions.
Expect additional attacks to follow. They may come in the form of more nuclear attacks or conventional forces, missiles and aircraft.
If the attack was part of the early stages of a nuclear war, then you can expect follow on forces. If the attack was the act of a rogue state or terror group, then follow on attacks may not be likely.
What Happens During a Nuclear Attack?
This scenario assumes the worst case scenario, you’re in a high population city of strategic importance, stuck out in the open and you don’t have anything other than what you’re carrying. Hopefully, if a nuclear attack ever did occur, you’d be in a much better position than that.
In the event of a nuclear war, many more nukes would be detonating in other large cities. This would significantly increase the amount of nuclear fallout experienced across the nation.
Understanding how to protect yourself from radiation
Before we talk about what happens in a nuclear attack, we should probably discuss the factors that keep you safe from radiation. It all comes down to three things, shielding, time and distance.
Shielding is anything that will physically block the radiation from coming in contact with you. Some forms of radiation can be blocked by something as thin as your skin. What we really want to block is the high energy radiation that will penetrate most items. In order to block this type of radiation (x-rays, gamma radiation, etc) we need thick, dense materials. There are things like earth, concrete, lead and water.
Time simply refers to the length of time that you’re exposed to the radiation. The less exposure the better.
Finally, we have distance. By putting distance between you and the contaminated area, you’re decreasing the amount of radiation that can reach you.
The initial detonation
If a nuclear weapon was to strike the US without warning, it would be devastating. With the most likely threat being a nuke from North Korea, we’re going to take a look at a scenario using one of their 10 kiloton weapons. That would make it slightly smaller than the nuke dropped in Hiroshima which is their most powerful nuke to date.
Any of us that were within a mile of the blast from one of these weapons, would most likely be dead. The detonation would level most buildings out to .94 miles and anyone unprotected would suffer 3rd degree burns with a 100% probability. Up to 3 miles out, the windows of buildings will be blown out, sending glass shards flying.
If you happen to be near a window and see the blast, get away from the window right away and try to get under cover. You only have about 10-15 seconds before the blast wave makes it to you and smashes the windows and throws things around.
In this case, the old duck and cover technique would serve you well. Get under a table or a desk, cover your head with your arms and open your mouth. Try not to hold your breath. This prevents the blast wave from popping your lungs.
Before the nuclear fallout touches down
Surviving a nuclear attack goes beyond just surviving the initial blast, we would still only have 10-15 minutes to get to shelter before the radioactive fallout starts making it to the ground. Fallout is the small particles of radioactive dust and debris that the explosion threw up into the atmosphere.
For those of us that make it to cover before the fallout makes it to the ground, it’s best to try to get into a building with thick concrete walls, underground facilities like a subway or parking garage, or the basement of an apartment building. The fallout is going to land on the rooftop, so the closer to the ground floor you can get the better.
This infographic from FEMA goes more in depth in its coverage of how buildings can shield you. Numbers represent a dose reduction factor. A dose reduction factor of 10 indicates that a person in that area would receive 1/10th of the dose of a person in the open. A dose reduction factor of 200 indicates that a person in that area would receive 1/200th of the dose of a person out in the open.
After the nuclear fallout begins to land
Getting stuck outside once the fallout begins to land is going to leave you in a bad spot. You should try to cover your mouth and nose. Any contaminated particulates you breathe in are going to get lodged in your lungs and nose, continuously radiating you from the inside out. Get to cover as soon as you can. Once you’re in cover, try to gently brush any dust or other contamination off of you. If you have running water, try to rinse it off yourself.
It’s hard to figure out how much radiation you may have absorbed by this point. If you begin vomiting from the radiation, that’s a sure sign that you have pretty severe radiation poisoning that has a good chance of being fatal. Even if you survive, the chances of long term cancers like leukemia are very high. Prussian blue will decrease the level of radiation in your body if you can find some.
Prussian blue reduces the biological half-life of cesium from 110 days to around 30 days and it reduces the biological half-life of thallium from 8 days to about 3 days. This doesn’t mean that the radiation isn’t going to affect you, but it could give you a chance of making it.
Unfortunately, prussian blue is not readily available and there are not any programs that are currently in place to distribute it out to the public. With the threat of nuclear attack growing the way that it is, maybe the government will look into distribution plans through agencies like FEMA.
Inside your makeshift bunker
If you’ve made it inside in time, you’re probably in an area with many other people. It may be crowded and people are probably panicking. Chances are they’ve never even considered something like a nuclear attack. You will probably have to be one of the people keeping other calm.
Try to spend at least 48 hours indoors if you can. This will give the fallout time to lose a lot of its energy. It’ll still be dangerous, but it’ll be much less dangerous than it was two days earlier.
Have we survived the attack? Well, that really depends.
If we were within a mile of ground zero, then we’re almost definitely dead.
If we were within three miles of ground zero, we’re still most likely dead or dieing. This changes if we were within some kind of structure that prevented the radiation from getting to us and protects us from the fall out. We still need to wait out the next 48 hours with little to no supplies, but were in better shape than a lot of people.
Anyone lucky enough to be at home, and be prepared is probably doing pretty well.
Ultimately, a nuclear attack is survivable as long as you aren’t right in the initial blast area. So be prepared, and hope for the best!
Be sure to check out our other emergency preparedness articles.
NukeMap – NukeMap is an overlay for Google Maps that allows you to place simulated nuclear weapon detonations anywhere on the globe.