If you’ve been paying attention to current events lately, you might have noticed that relations between the United States and Russia haven’t been so tense since the Cold War. Both sides have their agendas, which include competing visions for a future world order. Currently, they’re using various proxy forces to fight for control over the nation of Ukraine, much as they did during the Russo-Georgia war, and throughout the entirety of the Cold War. This isn’t the first, nor the last proxy war we’ll see with Russia in the years ahead. It should go without saying that since the same tensions we faced in the Cold War are coming back, we should expect the dangers of that era to make a comeback as well.
Interest in surviving a nuclear attack was my first foray into the survival and preparedness movement, way back when I was in middle school. Given that it was more than a decade after the Cold War ended, you could say that it was a peculiar obsession for a 13 year old boy to have at the time. While most people were prepping for a dirty bomb and checking their mail for white powder, I was asking my parents for Nuclear War Survival Skills for Christmas (I was a strange child with different priorities I suppose). Nonetheless, I learned a lot about making it through a nuclear attack, and had many myths dispelled on the subject. One of the biggest myths is that a nuclear attack would extinguish all life on earth (based on the unproven theory of nuclear winter), or that living in a major city is practically a death sentence.
Well…maybe it is, but not because of the nuke that just went off. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that in any breakdown of society, our vast cities, which are filled with unprepared, delusional, and violent people, will quickly turn into a murderous hell holes. I don’t doubt this, but that’s a people problem, not a nuclear problem. Since so much has been written on the subject of surviving an urban collapse, I’m mainly going to focus on surviving a nuclear blast, and the radioactive fallout that follows.
Location of The Blast
I should start this by showing you this nuclear war simulator. I suggest you bookmark it. Here you can select any location on Earth and see what the effects of a nuclear blast would be. You can decide whether it is an air or surface burst, the direction of the wind and the amount of radioactive fallout that would deposit (measured in rads), the size of the blast and an estimate of the casualties. Trying to figure out where the bombs will land is difficult to discern. Obviously the Russians aren’t going to tell us what they plan on bombing, and any map you see that shows you where the bombs will drop is based on educated guesswork.
That said, military bases, naval yards, or any industrial or economic structure that would be crucial to fighting a war, would be the most likely targets in any given city. The priority of a nuclear attack would be to obliterate our military, and civilians would be secondary targets. It’s still only a guess, but you can get a good idea of where the bombs will fall. In the simulator you can select the yield, and I would suggest you select anything from between 500 kilotons to 1 megaton, which is what the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the U.S. mainly consist of. Those twenty megaton nukes you see listed don’t really exist, or aren’t launch ready. During the Cold War, both sides realized you could do way more damage with twenty 1 megaton nukes, than you could with a single twenty megaton nuke.
Since we can’t be sure where a nuke will hit, the next best thing is knowing where the fallout will land. You should study the weather in your area and get a pretty good idea of where the wind is going on any given day, and if it changes during different seasons. If you happen to check the weather every morning before going to work, it might just save your life. When the attack occurs you’ll know where the bomb landed (I promise), and you can gauge where the fallout will settle.
The worst of the blast radius will be around 3 miles in diameter. Obviously there will be massive structural damage in that range. Most structures outside of that range would survive though, so it would be wise to take shelter in just about any building you can if this is on short notice. If it’s not short notice, then you should be at home with your preps, and most likely your house or apartment complex will be outside of the blast radius. Remember, we don’t know for sure where the nuke(s) will strike. Your best chance for long term survival is where your family and supplies are. There may be a sturdier structure nearby that would better withstand the blast, but could you really take your supplies to a public building where other survivors will be waiting it out, and not expect to be robbed? If you can help it, you’ll want to avoid any public shelter.
Speaking of which, if you used that simulator, you probably observed that the radiation is going to be significantly worst in the outlying suburbs than in the city, and that’s an important observation to make. Hiding in a parking garage a mile north of the blast radius and the fallout, means you can leave once the blast is over. But if you took shelter in a building anywhere from a mile to a hundred miles downwind, and you’re there when the fallout lands, you’re going to be stuck with a bunch of scared strangers until the radiation dissipates to manageable levels (two weeks at most). I imagine it will start looking like Lord of the Flies in short order. Once that blast is over, you might only need to flee for a couple miles to get out of the way of the fallout. You should do so without delay and by any means. That close to the blast, you’ll probably have about 10-30 minutes before the fallout begins to touch the ground
Whatever shelter you’re hiding in, there will be certain precautions you have to take. Many of the lessons you’ve heard about surviving earthquakes, hurricanes, and explosions are applicable here, because frankly, surviving a nuclear blast is like withstanding an earthquake, hurricane, and an explosion all at the same time.
I hate to say it, but you should probably duck and cover. I know I know, just like Bert the Turtle. It sounds ridiculous these days. Duck and cover drills have become the longest running joke of the Cold War, as if the government was trying to convince everyone that they could survive a nuclear explosion by hiding under their desks, but in reality it would be a wise thing to do. For many miles in all direction, windows are going to shatter. You could be safely out of the blast radius, but still die from a face full of glass and debris. So quit giggling and get under a table. Try to cover your body in any fabric you can find. While the blast radius will be around 3 miles in diameter, the next 3 miles will give you third degree burns, so cover your skin and close your eyes to prevent the blindness that can easily occur from looking at the blast (thankfully it’s usually temporary, only a handful of people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered permanent blindness).
And finally, keep your mouth open. Depending on how close you are, you would most likely be faced with 1-50 psi of overpressure (20 or more being pretty unsurvivable without shelter). You can read this to get a good grasp of the effects of overpressure. The shock wave will shred any air filled organ, and by keeping your mouth open (don’t hold your breath), you can relieve a lot of that pressure.
Dealing With Fallout
Even if you escaped the worst of the fallout, you’ll still need to take precautions against the radiation. Even 1-10 rads per hour can wreck your body, it’ll just take longer. By looking at the simulator, you can tell that even if you escape the heavy 1000 rads per hour area, the fallout area is so large that there’s a good chance that your home will be under 1,10, or 100 rads per hour. Luckily, these levels will dissipate rather quickly into a more manageable level.
The radioactive decay of a nuclear bomb goes by the 7/10 rule. Every 7 fold, the radiation level is reduced to 10 percent of its original power. So if we’re talking about being in an area that’s facing 1000 rads per hour(R/hr) then 7 hours after the blast it will be reduced to 100 R/hr. After 49 hours it will 10R/hr. A little over two weeks later it will be 1 R/hr. So if you’re in an area that has only 100 R/hr, then after a couple of days it will be safe to leave your home or shelter for an hour or so at a time. (see how much radiation you can receive without getting sick)
When deciding where to take shelter, dirt and concrete are your best friends. 2 feet of concrete and 3 feet of packed earth will stop 99.9 percent of gamma radiation. So being in the interior of an apartment building would probably be pretty safe. You’ll want to seal off the windows and doors with duct tape to prevent fallout particles from getting in (many of which will be microscopic), and stay away from the ground level if you can help it. You have to think about shielding yourself in all directions, so depending on how the building is constructed, you may not have a lot of shielding above you on the top floor, and you may not have enough around you on the bottom floor.
If you live in a townhouse, you’ll want to get in the basement and start moving furniture and everything else in a concentrated area above you, and adding things like dirt and water into those items to make it as dense as possible You want to get as much material as you can between you and the fallout, like so:
You may also need to shovel some dirt over the basement windows, since most of this fallout is going to be on the ground level. If you happen to be stuck in a 1000 R/hr zone, then only a proper fallout shelter made of brick or concrete will save you. And don’t forget to incorporate some kind of system of ventilation while you’re at it.
I see I’m beginning to run this article a little longer than I intended. This isn’t a complete guide on the subject, and all of the factors and strategies involved in surviving a nuclear war could fill several books. Consider this a primer on the subject to get you thinking about it, and consider that a nuclear war is a survivable disaster, even in the city. Granted, it is still harder to survive than in the countryside, and the conditions will be a little more out of your control, but you can survive! I will suggest again that you check out Nuclear War Survival Skills by Cresson H. Kearny, which you can read for free on several websites because the author wanted the material accessible to everyone. So good luck, and I’ll see you after the apocalypse.