How to Survive a Nuclear Attack – The Skills You Need to Stay Alive

How Can You Make it Through a Nuclear Attack?

Since nuclear weapons (aka nukes, nuclear bombs, atomic bombs) were first used during WWII, the world has been asking itself how to survive a nuclear war. Now, with nuclear threats popping up around the world, Google searches for are on the rise.

Initial Planning

Have a plan before there is a threat.

Everything starts with 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. Families with a designated shelter in place room are much more likely to survive.

survive a thermonuclear attack
Moving out of the city is key to surviving a nuclear war.

Choose where you live based on likely targets.

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.

surviving a nuclear attack
Canned food and bottled water are easy to store.

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.

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.

Ensure that your pets have water as well. How much water they need is going to be dependent upon how large they are.

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.

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.

how to survive radiation
Store the right kinds of first aid supplies.

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 them 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.

surviving a nuclear attack

You’re going to need to go to the bathroom.

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 too 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, a light source (candles, hand crank lights, etc.), dust masks, rubber gloves, tools needed to turn off utilities.

A pry bar or metal handled survival axe, could be good to have in case you need to move rubble or other debris.

If you already have a bug out bag, then you could always keep it in your SIP room and use that as a base for your shelter in place supplies. Another good place to look is premade survival kits to give you a solid starting point.

Follow these steps to protect your home.

Immediately get inside, seal your house and SIP room, and await further instructions.

When you see a nuclear detonation or are notified in some way, do the following in order to ensure you’ve sealed your home and shelter in place room as best as possible.

  • Close and lock all windows and exterior doors.
  • Shut down any furnaces, air conditioners, exhaust fans and vents.
  • Close the fireplace damper.
  • Gather any pets and head to your designated shelter in place room.
  • Using the plastic sheeting or heavy trash bags and duct tape, cover all vents, windows, and doors.
  • Once you’re sealed in your SIP room, you should stay in place until you hear an “all clear” on your radio or you are forced to leave.

Expect additional attacks to follow. They may come in the form of more nuclear attacks or conventional forces, missiles and aircraft.

how to survive nuclear war
Nuclear detonations that occur over water will create clouds that rain radioactive material.

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 an Attack?

How to Survive a Nuclear War
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.

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.

Understand how to protect yourself.

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.

surviving a thermonuclear attack

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.

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.

Before the 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.

how to survive nuclear fallout

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.

Apartment buildings as shielding
Buildings provide good protection from nuclear fallout.

 

After the 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 with a cloth or article of clothing. Any contaminated particulates you breathe in are going to get lodged in your lungs and nose, continuously radiating you from the inside out.

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. 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.

Inside your makeshift bunker.

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.

surviving a nuclear attack

Basic Decontamination Skills

surviving a nuclear attack

Most people who have been in the military have gone through some kind of decontamination line either during an exercise or for real-world purposes. In order to survive after a nuclear attack, decon skills are going to be key to limiting the amount of time you spend exposed to nuclear fallout.

There is no magic way to get just be completely free of residual contamination, but you can greatly limit the amount of contamination on you by following the simple steps below.

survive a thermonuclear attack

The first part of decontaminating yourself is to remove your clothing. This removes the dirtiest layer and allows you to separate it from you and other people.

Asking strangers to get naked may be a problem! Explain to them that it’s a life and death situation and don’t let them inside until they dispose of their clothing.

how to survive a nuclear war

The main point to take away from here is the cover cuts, scrapes, and wounds so you don’t wash any material into them. Even the wounded need to be fully deconned!

surviving nuclear attacks

I would highly suggest trying to find clean clothing or only putting back on items of clothing that have the lowest possibility of being contaminated. Shaking them out may get a lot of the contamination off but it isn’t something I’d bet my life on!

surviving nuclear attack

When you get to the point of helping others, you need to make sure that you allow as little contamination back on you as possible. Then, clean yourself again as soon as well as you can.

It doesn’t do you any good to decon yourself, then someone else, only to get contaminated and not clean yourself a final time. Minimizing the spread of contamination is going to have to become a part of your life if you want to learn about surviving a nuclear attack.

Conclusion

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 dying. This changes if we were within some kind of structure that prevented the radiation from getting to us and protects us from the fallout. We still need to wait out the next 48 hours with little to no supplies but we’re in better shape than a lot of people.

Anyone lucky enough to be at home, and be prepared is probably going to survive a nuclear attack pretty well.

Ultimately, a nuclear attack is survivable as long as you aren’t right in the initial blast area. So be prepared, stay calm and hope for the best!

Be sure to check out our other emergency preparedness articles.

Do you have ideas on surviving a nuclear attack? Let us know!

About Joe Ready 101 Articles
Joe “Ready” is an active duty Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician with more than 20 years of service and multiple ground combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also has a bachelors degree in Emergency and Disaster Management and has been interested in prepping and preparedness for close to two decades.

2 Comments

  1. How about after a limited exchange of 30 weapons each by the US, Russia, China, UK, France, India, and Pakistan? Survival and expectations at 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months, and 2 year marks. Assume only minimum supplies were stocked but disorder was kept strongly in check by government forces and martial law.

    • Arthur,

      It’s really hard to say what the world would look like after something like that. I just don’t have the numbers to even guess where we’d be more than a couple days after the attack.

      I can assume that the power grid would be gone, just in time delivery of food and supplies would come to a halt and that’s just the beginning. Having minimum supplies stocked is going to hurt there just isn’t going to be anywhere to buy food.

      Martial law is going to get a lot of people killed, even if you can get the military and government agencies involved. Government employees and military members are people too. They’re not going to want to police the remaining populous if they still have families left.

      It’d be tough for the survivors to say the least.

      What do you think it’d look like?

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