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How to survive a nuclear attack and shelter against radioactive fallout debris from a nuclear bomb explosion

Chart showing degradtion of nuclear fallout strenght over time

What is nuclear fallout?

Rare Russian diagram illustrating radioactive fallout from a nuclear bombFallout refers to the process by which wind carries radioactive materials through the air. After a nuclear bomb or other nuclear explosive device is detonated, residual radioactive material is propelled into the upper atmosphere. The material then falls from the sky, showering earth with radioactive debris. Fallout from a nuclear blast, including radioactive dust, ash, and even rain, has unique properties and thus, distinct requirements for sheltering against and surviving its deadly effect.

The danger zones surrounding a nuclear bomb explosion site

The area around a nuclear detonation site (i.e. ground zero) is segregated into zones. Each zone has defining characteristics of dangers, destruction, and risk within the zone.

The four zones of danger around a nuclear attack site

The NG zone – 1 mile from ground zero

Within 1 mile of ground zero (the precise location where the nuclear bomb lands) is the deadly area known as the NG zone. In this zone, the fireball from a large nuclear blast will be a mile or more in diameter with temperatures as hot as the surface of the sun. Few if any structures will remain standing in this zone and rubble may exceed 30 feet or more in depth.

The thermal pulse of energy in the NG zone will ignite flammable materials. Most people will die but a few in underground shelters may survive. Rubble and debris will make travel through this zone impossible immediately after the nuclear explosion.

The MD zone – 1-3 miles from ground zero

At 1-3 miles from ground zero is the MD zone. In this zone, intense light and heat will be followed by a damaging pressure wave with winds greater than the force of a hurricane. Glass will shatter, paint will peel, and thermal radiation will produce third-degree burns on animals and people.

Buildings in the MD zone will sustain substantial damage. Utility lines will be downed and cars will be overturned. Most buildings will collapse but some reinforced concrete structures may remain intact.

Visibility will be limited for an hour or more because of dust raised by the intense shock wave. Movement in the MD zone immediately after the nuclear explosion will be very difficult.

The LD zone – 7 -10 miles from ground zero

In the LD zone, burns will be reduced to first-degree burns. The shockwave at this distance will sound like a thunderclap but with much more force. Glass windows will break and windows and doors will be blown in. Gutters, shutters, and roofs will sustain damage.

The DF zone – 10-20 miles from ground zero

The DF zone is the area at most risk of radioactive fallout. Hold an arm toward the mushroom cloud and sight with the thumb. If the cloud is bigger than your thumb, you’re in the DF zone. You have only 10-15 minutes to get somewhere safe.

The four zones of danger around a nuclear attack site

Can you survive a nuclear attack without going underground?

Most experts agree that there is little likelihood of surviving a nuclear attack but your best chance is to go far underground and stay there. Of course, this will not be possible in most cases. Below I describe the procedures to follow to ensure you have the best chance of surviving a nuclear attack in a wide variety of scenarios.

What to do before the nuclear attack

As with any emergency, your odds of surviving are increased if you plan *before* the event. In a nuclear attack, every second counts.

Build an emergency supply kit

Drawing showing the spreading or radioactive fallout from a nuclear mushroom cloudFirst, build an emergency supply kit. The usual survival supply rules apply (water for 14 days, non-perishable food, radio, batteries, knife, etc.).

Potassium iodide pills (get them on Amazon at iOSAT Potassium Iodide Tablets, 130 mg (14 Tablets)) can help protect against a variety of cancers that result from exposure to nuclear fallout. Potassium iodide pills work by absorbing radioactive elements and thus preventing the thyroid from absorbing those elements.

Have a plan in place

Make sure you have a plan in place. Have an emergency chain of contact in place before the event. If possible, obtain a personal radiation detector (Amazon). Some emergency responders and military personnel carry radiation detectors but not all.

During periods of heightened threat, increase your emergency supply cache.

Ddegrees of nuclear fallout protection offered by various building construction types

List potential shelters near your home, workplace, and school

The more distance between you and fallout particles the better. Make a list of potential shelters in your area. These can include basements or windowless areas of middle floors in a multi-level building.

Fallout shelters do not need to be specifically constructed for protecting against fallout. They can offer adequate protection provided the walls and roof are thick and dense enough to absorb radiation given off by fallout particles.

Your best bet is an underground facility with multiple stories of protection above you.

If advanced warning is given (a day or more), consider building a door-covered or pole-covered trench shelter.

Recognize likely target areas

Recognize areas that are likely to be targets of a nuclear attack. Strategic missile sites and military bases are prime targets as are government centers such as Washington, DC and state capitals.

Other primes targets include transportation and communication centers, manufacturing, industrial, technology, and financial centers. Also, petroleum refineries, electrical power plants, chemical plants, and major airports are prime targets of attack.

The most frequently listed cities as targets of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) are Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle (large cities closest to our enemies).

What to do during the nuclear attack

Listen to radio for official information

During the nuclear attack, listen for official information on a portable radio (a portable hand-crank radio works best) and follow instructions provided by emergency response personnel. You may be asked to take shelter or go to a specific location.  In the United States, emergency information will be transmitted nationwide over NOAA’s National Weather Radio (NWR) stations.  NOAA explains the national emergency service:

Working with the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Alert System , National Weather Radio is an “All Hazards” radio network, making it your single source for comprehensive weather and emergency information. In conjunction with Federal, State, and Local Emergency Managers and other public officials, NWR also broadcasts warning and post-event information for all types of hazards – including natural (such as earthquakes or avalanches), environmental (such as chemical releases or oil spills), and public safety (such as AMBER alerts or 911 Telephone outages).  NWR includes 1025 transmitters, covering all 50 states, adjacent coastal waters, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Pacific Territories. NWR requires a special radio receiver or scanner capable of picking up the signal. Broadcasts are found in the VHF public service band at these seven frequencies (MHz):


If an attack warning is issued, take cover immediately. Shelter under a concrete structure or below ground if possible. Stay there until instructed to do otherwise.

Finding a nuclear blast shelter

Illustration of nuclear fallout spread by wind and jet streamsFind the nearest building, preferably built of brick or concrete, and go inside to avoid any radioactive fallout material outside. A floor near the middle of a multistory building is ideal. Flat roofs collect fallout particles so the top floor is not a good choice nor is a floor adjacent to the top of a neighboring flat roof.

The heavier and denser the building materials – thick walls, concrete, bricks, soil – between you and the fallout particles the better.

If time permits, use plastic sheeting to cover doors, windows, and ventilation to keep as much of the fallout particles out.  Tack sheeting over windows and seal with tape.

If you shelter inside your home, bolster it for protection

Understand that trailers, campers, wood homes, and cabins do not provide adequate protection from radioactive fallout. A brick home can work if it is bolstered. Move to the center of the home. Close off doorways using thick furniture, mattresses, bookshelves, etc. If bookshelves are used, fill as much space as possible with books to add additional protection.

Use plastic sheeting to cover doors, windows, and ventilation. Bolster wall thickness with materials like brick, sand, concrete, wood, and furniture.

Consider building or using a fallout shelter within a fallout shelter. This is especially important during the first few days when the radioactive danger is the highest. A cupboard or even hastily constructed wooden box reinforced with dirt and sand will offer additional protection.

Resist the urge – stay where you are

Stay where you are, even if you are separated from your family. Even though it goes against all survival instincts, experts say parents must leave kids in school or day care rather than drive to them in a radiation-laden atmosphere.

Indoors is the safest place for all people in the impacted area. If you do decide to travel to family members, recognize that your chances or survival are near zero.

Expect to stay sheltered for 24 hours or longer

Fallout radiation loses its intensity rapidly. In time, you will be able to leave a fallout shelter.

Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks at which time it has declined to about 1 percent of its initial radiation level – enough to survive contact with.  The radiation level drops by half in the first 48 hours.  Within 7 days, levels will drop by 90%.  After 14 days, 95%.

What to do if caught outside during a nuclear attack

Illustration showing direction of nuclear fallout debris

Beware of flash blindness

If caught outside during a nuclear attack, resist the instinct to look at the flash or fireball – it can blind you. Previous cases show that even people who observed the flash via peripheral vision incurred “flash blindness”.

Flash blindness occurs due to macular-retinal burns which create permanent scarring of the macula. The effect is worse at night when the pupils are fully dilated.

Take cover and/or shelter any way you can

Take cover behind anything that might offer protection. Any protection, however temporary, is better than none and the more shielding, distance, and time you can take advantage of, the better.

If you are driving, pull over to the side of the road and head to the nearest concrete shelter.

If outside, lie flat on the ground and cover your head. The blast wave can take 30 seconds or more to reach you. After the first mile, the blast wave travels about 1 mile every 5 seconds.

Take shelter wherever you can even if you are many miles away from ground zero (where the attack occurred). Radioactive material can be carried by wind for many miles. Danger decrease beyond 20 miles but fallout deposition at great distances (100 miles or more) still occurs.

Remember the three protection factors (DST): Distance, Shielding, and Time.

Remove clothes and clean your body

Illustration showing direction of nuclear fallout debrisIf you were outside during or after the blast, get clean as soon as possible to remove any radioactive material that may have settled on your body. Radioactive particles left on the body will lead to “beta burns” on the skin.

Remove your clothing to keep radioactive material from spreading. Removing the outer layer of clothing can remove up to 90% of radioactive material. If practical, place your contaminated clothing in a plastic bag and seal or tie the bag. Place the bag as far away as possible from humans and animals. Time constraints will dictate you probably do not have enough time to bury the bag.

When possible, take a shower with lots of soap and water to help remove radioactive contamination. Do NOT scrub or scratch the skin. Wash your hair with shampoo or soap with water. Do not use conditioner because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.

Gently blow your nose and wipe your eyelids with a clean, wet cloth. Gently wipe your ears.

If you cannot shower, use a wet wipe or clean wet cloth to wipe the skin that was not covered by clothing.

Why not flee the area?

Experts concur that any attempt to flee the area will range from difficult to impossible given the droves of people who will gridlock freeways. If you decide to flee, stay off freeways. Only attempt to flee if you have a vehicle capable of travelling off-road. In any case, only flee if you are sure you can get away from the area within 15 minutes or less.

What to do after a nuclear attack

After the attack, continue listening for official information instructing you what to do, where to go, and places to avoid. Stay away from areas marked “radiation hazard” or “HAZMAT”. Remember, radiation cannot be seen, smelled, or otherwise detected by human senses.

Government cleanup crews will begin clean-up activities within a few weeks to months after the attack. They will “fix” radioactive materials in place to stop the spread. Fixative sprays include flour with water mixtures, road oil, or even plain water to wet ground surfaces.

After the event, public officials will control food and water sources. Water should only be taken from taps that draw from deep wells or covered reservoirs. Wells on farms or rural homes are best.

Understand that you cannot boil away radioactive material. If you must drink radioactive water, filter it through a basic clean earth filter first.

A quick note about radiation poisoning

In the short term, radioactive poisoning will cause you to become ill followed by rapid cellular degradation and DNA damage. The physical symptoms include nausea and vomiting followed by more sever neurological effects.

Long term, the risk of cancer is great. If you don’t start vomiting within 4 hours, it’s a good sign. If vomiting begins within an hour of exposure, serious medical attention is required.

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