Thursday, April 23, 2009

How To Survive a Nuclear Attack

How to Survive a Nuclear Attack

from wikiHow - The How to Manual That You Can Edit

The Cold War has been over for two decades, and many of this article's current readers have never lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. Nevertheless, a nuclear attack is still a very real threat. Global politics are certainly not completely stable, and human nature has changed none in the last two decades. "The most persistent sound which reverberates through man's history", as one wrote, "is the beating of war drums".[1] For as long as nuclear weapons exist in the armories of human beings, there will always be the danger that they will be used.
It is not known whether nuclear war is survivable at all; only predictions exist. Some say it is very survivable, others say no one will live to see the end of it. For some people, especially those in large population centers, it may seem like an entirely futile endeavor.[2] If it is survived at all, it will be by those who are mentally and logistically prepared for such an event. What should you do? Where should you take shelter?


  1. Keep an eye on the news. A nuclear attack will unlikely come out of the blue from an enemy nation. Such an attack would likely be preceded by a deteriorating political situation. A war with conventional weapons between nations that both have nuclear weapons, if not ended swiftly, is very likely to escalate towards nuclear war; and even limited nuclear strikes in one region are likely to escalate towards an all-out nuclear war elsewhere.[3] However, a nuclear attack by terrorists could come without warning.
    • Many countries have a rating system to denote the imminence of attack. In the USA and Canada, for example, you should know the DEFCON (DEFense CONdition) level:
      • DEFCON 5. Normal peacetime readiness
      • DEFCON 4. Normal increased readiness, increased intelligence and national security measures. (Cold War.)
      • DEFCON 3. Increased force readiness above normal, American radio call-signs are changed to classified call-signs. Air Force ready to mobilize in less than 15min.
      • DEFCON 2. Increase in force readiness, just below maximum. All forces ready to mobilize and deploy within 6hrs. (Declared only once during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
      • DEFCON 1. Maximum force readiness; the use of nuclear weapons has been authorized. This has never been used for the national condition, though at times certain military units were placed at DEFCON 1, for certain conflicts.

  2. Learn as much as you can about the different types of nuclear weapons. Know exactly what you are going to be up against:
    • Fission (A-Bombs) are the most basic form of nuclear weapon, and the principles are incorporated into many of the other types. The principle behind this bomb is to bombard heavy nuclei (usually plutonium or uranium) with neutrons; this forces the uranium or plutonium to split, releasing great amounts of energy. The split particles hit other particles and cause those to split to create a nuclear chain reaction. This is the only type of nuclear bomb used in a war.
    • Fusion (H-Bombs) require two lighter nuclei (deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen) to combine into a heavier unstable element which releases immense amounts of energy. Fusion weapons are also known as thermonuclear weapons since high temperatures are required to complete the fusion; hence, most of the time a small yield fission based weapon is detonated within the fusion weapon. Such weapons are usually many times more powerful than the weapons that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
    • EMP Weapons. A nuclear weapon detonated at a very high altitude to generate an electromagnetic pulse so powerful that it destroys electronic and electrical devices. Placing radios, flashlights in a SEALED metal container (a "Faraday cage") would provide sufficient protection from EMP for the things therein, as long as the item being protected is not in contact with the Faraday Cage-like device. The metal shield must surround the protected item completely - and it helps if it is grounded. The item to be protected must be insulated from the conductive shell by at least a couple of inches, since the EMP field washing over the shield can still induce voltages in solid state circuit boards. Even something as simple as a metalized "space blanket" (costing about $2.00 USD) wrapped securely around a device wrapped in newspaper or cotton can act as an effective Faraday shield. Another method is to take a cardboard box and wrap the box in silver (best), copper (#2), or aluminum foil. Place the item in there and plug the device into the ground.

  3. Seek shelter immediately. Aside from the geopolitical warning signs, your first warnings of an imminent nuclear attack will most likely be an alarm or warning signal; if not, it will be the blast itself. The bright light from a detonation of a nuclear weapon can be seen tens of miles away from ground zero. If within the vicinity of the blast (or ground zero), your chances of survival are virtually nonexistent unless you are in a shelter that provides a very (VERY) good blast protection. If you are a few miles out, you will have about 10-15 seconds until the heat wave hits you, and maybe 20-30 seconds until the shockwave does. Under no circumstances should you look directly at the fireball. On a clear day, this can cause temporary blindness at very large distances.[4]
    • If you can't find shelter, seek a depressed area nearby and lay face down, exposing as little skin as possible. If there is no shelter of this kind, dig as fast as possible. Even around 8 kilometers (5 miles) you will suffer third degree thermal-burns; still at 32 kilometers (20 miles) the heat can burn the skin off your body. The wind itself will peak at around 960 kilometers per hour (600mph) and will level anything or anybody caught in the open.
    • Failing the above options, get indoors, if, and only if, you can be sure that the building will not suffer significant blast and heat damage. This will, at least, provide some protection against radiation. Whether this will be a viable option depends on the construction of the building and how close you will be to the likely ground zero of a nuclear strike. Stay well away from any windows, preferably in a room without one; even if the building does not suffer substantial damage, a nuclear explosion will blow out windows at enormous distances.[5]
    • If you live in Switzerland, check whether or not your home has an atomic shelter. If not, find out where your village/town/district atomic shelter is and know how to get there. Remember this: no matter where you are in Switzerland, you will be able to find an atomic shelter. When the sirens go off in Switzerland, you are advised to inform those around you who may not be able to hear the siren (e.g. they are deaf) and then tune in to the National Radio Services (RSR, DRS and/or RTSI).
    • Be sure you are not surrounded by anything flammable or combustible. Substances such as nylon or any sort of oil based material will catch on fire from the heat.

  4. Keep in mind that it's not the initial blast that will account for the high number of deaths; it's the exposure to radiation. There are two threats of radiation:
    • Initial (prompt) radiation. This is radiation released at the moment of detonation. Prompt radiation is short-lived and can only travel short distances. With the large yields of modern nuclear weapons, it is thought that this will kill few who would not be killed by the blast or heat at the same distance.[6]
    • Residual radiation. More commonly known as radiation fallout. If the detonation was a surface blast or close enough for the fireball to hit the earth, then there will be large amounts of fallout. The dust and debris kicked into the atmosphere will rain down, and bring with it dangerous amounts of radiation. The fallout may rain down as contaminated black soot also known as "black rain," which is very fatal and may be of extreme temperature. Fallout will contaminate anything it lands on.
      • Once you have survived the blast and the initial radiation (for now at least; radiation symptoms have an incubation period), you must find protection against the burning black soot.

  5. Know the types of radiation particles. Before we continue, we should mention the three different types:
    • Alpha particles. These are the weakest and, during an attack, are virtually non-existent as a threat. Alpha particles will survive for only a couple inches in the air before they are absorbed by the atmosphere. They possess a minuscule threat from the exterior, however, they will be fatal if ingested or inhaled. Standard clothing will help protect you from Alpha particles.
    • Beta particles: These are faster than Alpha particles and can penetrate further. They will travel for up to 10 meters (10 yards) before they are absorbed into the atmosphere. Exposure to beta particles is not fatal unless exposed for prolonged periods; which may cause "Beta burns," almost like painful sunburn. They pose a serious threat, however, to the eyes, should they be exposed for a prolonged period. Once again this is harmful if ingested or inhaled, and clothing will help prevent Beta burns.
    • Gamma Rays. Gamma Rays are the deadliest of the bunch. They can travel for nearly a mile in the air and penetrate just about any kind of shielding. Therefore gamma radiation will cause severe damage to the internal organs even as an external source. Sufficient shielding will be required.
      • A shelter's PF against radiation will tell you how many times less a person inside the shelter will receive radiation compared to open space. For example, RPF 300 means that you will receive 300 times less radiation in the shelter than in the open.
      • Avoid exposure to Gamma radiation. Try not to spend more than 5 minutes exposed. If you are in a rural area, try finding a cave, or a fallen log into which you can crawl. Otherwise just dig a trench to lie in, with stacked earth around you.

  6. Begin reinforcing your shelter from the inside. Do this by stacking dirt around the walls or anything else you can find. If you are in a trench then create a roof, only if the materials are nearby; you don't want to expose yourself when it isn't necessary. Canvas from a parachute or tent will help stop fallout debris from piling on to you, though it will not stop the Gamma rays. It is impossible, at a very fundamental physical level, to completely shield from all radiation. It can only be reduced to a tolerable level. Use the following to help you determine the amount of material you'll need to reduce radiation penetration by one half:[7]
    • Steel: 21 cm (0.7 feet)
    • Rock: 70-100 cm (2-3 ft)
    • Concrete: 66 cm (2.2 ft)
    • Earth/Wood: 2.6 m (8.8 ft)
    • Soil: 1 m (3.3 ft)
    • Ice: 2 m (6.6 ft)
    • Snow: 6 m (20-22 ft)

  7. Plan on staying in your shelter for a minimum of 200 hours (8-9 days). The radioactive material has a half-life that decays exponentially. For instance, after 7 hours the contamination will be 50% of what it was, after 14 hours the contamination will be 25% of what it was during maximum contamination, etc. Under no circumstances leave the shelter in the first forty-eight hours .[8]
  8. Ration your supplies. You will need to ration to survive, obviously; therefore you will eventually expose yourself to the radiation (unless you are in a specific shelter with food and water).
    • Processed foods are okay to eat, so long as the container has no punctures and is relatively intact.
    • Animals may be eaten but, they must be skinned carefully with the heart, liver and kidneys discarded. Try not to eat meat that is close to the bone, for bone marrow retains radiation.

    • Plants which are in a "hot zone" are edible as well. Plants with edible roots or undergrowth such as carrots, potatoes, etc. are highly recommended. Use an edibility test on the plants. See How to Test if a Plant Is Edible.
    • Open water may have received fallout particles and is harmful. Water from an underground source is your best bet, such as an underground spring or a covered well. (You can also make a basic pit-style solar still, as described in How to Make Water in the Desert.) Use water from streams and lakes only as a last resort. Create a filter by digging a hole about 1ft from the bank and drawing the water which seeps in. It may be cloudy or muddy so allow the sediments to sit, then boil the water to ensure safety from bacteria. If you are in a building, it is usually safe to use the water. If there is not water (which there most likely won't be), you can use the water already in the pipes. To do this turn on the faucet at the highest point of the house to let in air, then open a faucet at the lowest point of the house to drain the water.

  9. Maintain all of your clothing including hats, gloves, goggles, closed sleeve shirt, etc., especially when venturing outside. This will help prevent Beta burns. Decontaminate yourself by shaking your clothes constantly and washing in any water. Be sure to wash any exposed skin; settled residue will cause burns over time.
  10. Treat radiation and thermal burns.
    • Minor Burn. Also known as a Beta burn (though it may be from other particles). Should you or an individual receive a beta burn then immerse it in cold water until the pain subsides (usually 5 minutes).
      • If the skin starts to blister, char or break; wash it with cold water to remove any contaminants, and then cover it with a sterile compress to prevent infection. Do not attempt to break the blisters!
      • If the skin does not blister, char or break; there will be no need to cover it, even if it may cover a large portion of the body (almost like sunburn). Instead wash the area and cover it with Vaseline or a solution of baking powder and water. If none of this is available, moist (uncontaminated) earth will do.

    • Severe Burn. This is what is known as a thermal burn, meaning it comes mostly from the high intensity heat from the blast, rather than ionizing particles, though it can be from the latter. This can become life threatening; everything becomes a factor: water loss, shock, lung damage, infection, etc. Follow these steps to treat a severe burn.
      • Protect the burn from further contamination.
      • If clothing covers the burn area, then gently cut and remove the cloth from the burn. DO NOT try to remove cloth which has stuck or fused onto the burn. DO NOT try to pull clothes over the burn. DO NOT put any ointment on the burn.
      • Gently wash the burned area with water ONLY .
      • Put a sterile dressing over the burnt area. In a mass casualty situation (which there likely might be) a clean sheet may be used instead.
      • Prevent shock. Shock is the inadequate flow of blood to the vital tissues and organs. If untreated it can be fatal. Shock results from excessive blood loss, deep burns, or a reaction to the sight of a wound or blood. The signs are restlessness, thirst, pale skin, and rapid heartbeat. They may be sweating even if their skin feels cool and clammy. As it becomes worse they breathe short fast gasps, with a stare of vacancy. To treat: maintain proper heartbeat and respiration by massaging the chest and positioning the person for adequate respiration. Loosen any constrictive clothing and reassure the person. Be firm yet gentle with self confidence.

  11. Assist people with radiation sickness, also called Radiation Syndrome. You will eventually encounter them, and radiation sickness is not contagious, so feel free to assist any who might need it. Everything depends on the amount of radiation the individual has been exposed to. Here is a condensed version of the table:
    • Less than 5 RAD. No visible symptoms.
    • 5-50 REM. REM = Röentgen equivelant man. 1 REM = ~1 Röentgen. Temporarily decreased red blood cell count.
    • 50-150 RAD. Decreased production of immunity cells; susceptible to infections; nausea, headache, and vomiting may be common. This amount of radiation is usually survivable without any medical treatment-
    • 150-300 REM. 35% percent of exposed die within 30 days. Nausea, vomiting, and loss of hair all over the body.
    • 300-400 RAD Severe radiation poisoning, 50% fatality after 30 days (LD 50/30). Other symptoms are similar to the 2–3 Sv dose, with uncontrollable bleeding in the mouth, under the skin and in the kidneys (50% probability at 4 Sv) after the latent phase.
    • 400-600 RAD Acute radiation poisoning, 60% fatality after 30 days (LD 60/30). Fatality increases from 60% at 4.5 Sv to 90% at 6 Sv (unless there is intense medical care). Symptoms start half an hour to two hours after irradiation and last for up to 2 days. After that, there is a 7 to 14 day latent phase, after which generally the same symptoms appear as with 3-4 Sv irradiation, with increased intensity. Female sterility is common at this point. Convalescence takes several months to a year. The primary causes of death (in general 2 to 12 weeks after irradiation) are infections and internal bleeding.
    • 600-1 000 REM Acute radiation poisoning, near 100% fatality after 14 days (LD 100/14). Survival depends on intense medical care. Bone marrow is nearly or completely destroyed, so a bone marrow transplant is required. Gastric and intestinal tissue are severely damaged. Symptoms start 15 to 30 minutes after irradiation and last for up to 2 days. Subsequently, there is a 5 to 10 day latent phase, after which the person dies of infection or internal bleeding. Recovery would take several years and probably would never be complete. Devair Alves Ferreira received a dose of approximately 7.0 Sv (700 REM) during the Goiânia accident and survived, partially due to his fractionated exposure.
    • 1200-2000 RAD. Death is 100% at this stage; symptoms appear immediately. The gastrointestinal system is completely destroyed. There will be uncontrollable bleeding from the mouth, under the skin and the kidneys. Fatigue and general illness takes its toll. Symptoms are the same as before with increased intensity. Recovery is not possible.
    • More than 2000 RAD. The same symptoms set in instantly, with increased intensity, then cease for several days in the "walking ghost" phase. Suddenly gastrointestinal cells are destroyed, with a loss of water and excessive bleeding. Death will set in with delirium and insanity. When the brain is no longer able to control the bodily functions such as breathing or blood-circulation, the individual will die. There is no medical therapy available to reverse the effects; medical help is for comfort only.
    • Unfortunately, there may come a time when you have to accept that a certain individual may no longer survive. It may sound harsh, but you should refrain from using up rations or supplies on someone who will soon die of radiation sickness. Attempt to keep the rations for the fit and healthy, should supplies be in demand. Radiation sickness is prevalent among the very young, the old or sick.


This is a 25-minute lecture that mostly describes the context and history of a nuclear attack. The final quarter of the video, however, addresses what to do in case of a nuclear attack.


  • Build a home fallout shelter beforehand. Home fallout shelters can be created using a basement or cellar. However, many new developments no longer have cellars; if that's so, consider constructing a community shelter or a private one in your backyard.
  • Be sure to wash just about everything, especially food, even if it's in your shelter.


  • Do not expose yourself unless absolutely required. It is uncertain how many roentgens a person can receive without having radiation sickness. Normally, it takes 100-150 roentgens to get a mild sickness which is survivable. Even if you don't die of radiation sickness, you can still get cancer later.
  • Know if there is a retaliatory attack or a second detonation in your area. If so, you must wait another 200 hours (8-9 days) from the last detonation.
  • Even after it is safe to leave the shelter, local law and the federal government will be in crisis mode. Incidents of chaos and anarchy may occur, so remain hidden until it is safe or the federal/local enforcement seizes power and seeks stability. Generally speaking, if you see tanks, some type of order has been restored.
  • Do not drink, eat, or allow object-to-body contact with any plant, stream water or metallic object found in an unknown area.
  • Never lose your cool, especially if you are in charge. This is important in maintaining a high level of morale amongst others, which is essential in such dire situations.

Related wikiHows

Sources and Citations

  1. Attributed to Arthur Koestler.

  2. Wiseman, p. 279.

  3. Giraldi, Philip (2007). What World War III May Look Like].

  4. Ehrlich 1985, p. 167, gives a distance of 13 miles on a clear day and 53 miles on a clear night for a one-megaton weapon.

  5. For an example, one (albeit abnormally large) nuclear test in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in Russia was known to knock out windows in Finland and Sweden.

  6. Ehrlich, p. 175; Langford, p. 106. The reason for this is that unlike the blast and heat effects, the prompt radiation dose received decreases in relation to the square of the distance from the blast. Ehrlich points out that a 100 kt weapon would only give 1/500th the lethal dose of radiation at the 5 psi overpressure distance.

  7. Wiseman, p. 280.

  8. Wiseman, p. 280.

Article provided by wikiHow, a wiki how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on How to Survive a Nuclear Attack. All content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons license.


Worn Out said...

Great post and excellent resource!

Tracy said...

Thanks, Worn Out! While I don't personally think this is a high probability, it certainly pays to learn about the danger and at least minimal steps we may take to be prepared.