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4 Key Factors for Surviving Nuclear War

Full-blown nuclear war is, without a doubt, the mother of all nightmare scenarios.

Striking with instantaneous speed and unleashing a firestorm of unimaginable proportions, a nuclear warhead can pulverize thousands of tons of earth, irradiating and ejecting it into the upper atmosphere—gradually spreading radioactive fallout over hundreds of miles.

Each tiny particle will be radioactive for weeks, months, and years to come, exposing anyone that comes in contact with them to dangerous radiation.

Legendary scientist Carl Sagan and his peers agreed in a study that “for many simulated exchanges of several thousand megatons, in which dust and smoke are generated and encircle the Earth within one to two weeks, average light levels can be reduced to a few percent of ambient, and land temperatures can reach -15 to -25 degrees C.” They concluded that such a nuclear winter would reduce rainfall worldwide by up to 75% and visibility in areas near the blast by up to 90%.

As rain diminishes and temperatures crash, global ecosystems will feel the pressure. Plants, livestock, and wild animals would perish in substantial numbers as cultivated crops die without the water they need to survive. And if as little as 10% of crops die off, famine could spread around the globe.

Without sufficient water or food, in the aftermath of an unprecedented nuclear conflict and facing another unprecedented crisis, it goes without saying that society would be hard-pressed to maintain order.

One 1965 study placed several women from the British town of York into a fallout shelter to simulate surviving just the first few days of isolation and boredom following a nuclear explosion. Despite being aware that the scenario was just a test, the women still suffered psychological effects ranging from anxiety and depression to hallucinations.


Now imagine survivors emerging from their fallout bunker to see a world under the cloud of nuclear winter, drying out, cold, and caked in radioactive fallout.

For decades, the world lived in fear of mutually assured destruction—a premise that would see both Cold War superpowers unleashing their entire active nuclear arsenal and wiping entire continents off the map, ushering in nuclear winter.

The scale of such an all-out Nuclear War is practically impossible to comprehend.

Perhaps the best way to contextualize the damage and outrageous expense that would be necessary to safeguard America’s population is to look back at the infamous “Bunker Plan” funded by the Ford Foundation back in 1957.

(Image source: US Department of Civil Defense)

This sweeping plan was designed to minimize casualties in the event of nuclear war by creating a network of bunkers across the United States. In the event of an attack, civilians could take stairs or drive down ramps to reach bunkers that would protect them from the fallout of a nuclear explosion. Each bunker would be packed with supplies to sustain hundreds, if not thousands, of people for months or years.

The massive, mall-sized shelters would provide protection from even multi-megaton warheads while forcing survivors into a strictly regimented lifestyle of patiently waiting.

The cost of such a massive plan was correspondingly huge. Back in 1957, the construction would’ve cost 86% of the country’s GDP—an impossible sell even in wartime. Naturally, it was shelved. Hardened facilities were built in places like Cheyenne Mountain to safeguard critical wartime assets.

(Image source: Defense Civil Preparedness Agency)

The only country to undertake widespread nuclear protection measures in earnest was Switzerland, where 80% of the population had immediate access to hardened protection by the 1980s. As the Cold War came to a close, countries stopped entertaining notions of widespread nuclear war.

But even with the Cold War behind us, the Doomsday Clock still sits at just two minutes to midnight.

Because even a limited skirmish, coordinated terrorist attack, or missile launch by a rogue state could potentially unleash the most devastating disaster in the history of our Planet.

And there’s no shortage of rogue actors in today’s volatile political climate, and some have truly horrifying intentions.

A German journalist, for example, was able to successfully embed himself with an active ISIS terrorist cell. In doing so, he discovered that the organization was eagerly seeking nuclear weapons so they could wipe several hundred million people off the face of the Earth.

Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency agree that Iran is on the verge of having enough enriched uranium for a functioning nuclear weapon, regardless of whether or not they have made a deal with foreign powers.

Even North Korea presents a clear nuclear threat—with former National Security Advisor John Bolton saying the country wouldn’t hesitate to pass nuclear secrets and materials to paying buyers. “The north is never going to give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily,” Bolton explained, “We’ve seen that over 25 years.”

While these threats may seem limited or smaller scale than full-blown nuclear war, they also lack the crucial element of deterrence that kept us all safe during the Cold War. Deterrence was a logical consequence of mutually assured destruction. “Nuclear deterrence only works if your opponent believes you’ll risk Los Angeles for Moscow or Beijing,” explains security expert Herman Kahn. If your opponent doesn’t have a high-value target like Los Angeles or Moscow to lose…if they’re a rogue state or a non-state actor, then anything is possible.

This has become the nuclear reality of the 21st Century. A world where anything is possible at any moment, and practically nothing is predictable. But even so, there are a few key factors that never change between one type of nuclear event and the next, and there are four key steps to each type of event:

(Image source: The EurAsian Times)

Today, we’re going to break down each of these steps and look at how understanding and mastering each can maximize your chances of surviving—even thriving—in the face of full-blown nuclear war.

Let’s get started…


PHASE #1

Knowledge

Knowledge is power—especially when it comes to the complicated challenge of navigating and surviving a widespread nuclear conflict. That includes steering clear of the initial blast and preparing for fallout and weeks, if not months, of emergency rationing and patient survival.

(Image source: Popsci.com)

This is without a doubt the single greatest challenge you’ll face in terms of preparation; it requires combining specialized knowledge with disciplined disaster planning and logistics. So, having at least a passing knowledge of each step in this process will make your work infinitely more effective.

That way you can break the challenge down into its component steps…starting with understanding the threat… When it comes to nuclear weapons, there are three basic types:

 

Like the weapons detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these are the most basic nuclear explosives. Firing neutrons into an unstable atom, much like a gun, these bombs trigger a chain reaction of concentrated fission that releases an unspeakable amount of energy. These are the only nuclear weapons to have been used in military conflict (so far at least), and their power is proven and devastating.

 

Hundreds of times more powerful than the fission bombs used at the end of World War II, H-bombs are the next generation of WMDs. Perhaps the best way to understand their power is simply to say that they use smaller A-bombs just to trigger the fusion needed to detonate an H-bomb. Using the insane amounts of heat generated by the A-bomb, H-bombs fuse deuterium and tritium to release enough energy to create a miles-wide fireball.

 

Just to be clear, no dirty bomb will ever hold a candle to the destructive power of an A- or H-bomb. Dirty bombs cannot cause nuclear reactions. Instead, they work by dispersing radiological material over a small area. The real threat lies in the original explosion itself, and the fact that you don’t need any amount of weaponized uranium to make a weapon—just some radiological/nuclear waste.

Stockpiles of weapons have fluctuated over the years, with the American arsenal reaching its highest level shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis before a large number of its ICBMs and smaller weapons were disarmed in recent decades:

(Image source: US Department of State)

Russia’s arsenal peaked much later in the Cold War, with approximately 68,000 nuclear weapons in 1990. They’ve since disarmed many of their missiles as well, but the combined US and Russian arsenals account for 90% of the world’s total stockpile.

Despite these jaw-dropping numbers, it’s important to keep an eye on small states with their own inventories, specifically countries like Iran or North Korea, that could potentially sell weapons to non-state actors. Or the on-and-off conflict between India and Pakistan, that could go nuclear if left unchecked.

After all, if even one or just a few of these weapons were to be detonated, the results would be cataclysmic.

Talking about these kinds of weapons in the abstract, it’s easy to glaze over and get “analysis paralysis” from looking at numbers and tables for too long. Instead, let’s put the devastating power of these weapons into context.

For the sake of illustration, let’s look at what would happen if a terrorist or rogue actor detonated a nuclear weapon in downtown New York City.

(Image source: Nuke Map, Alex Wellerstein)

The nuclear fireball (denoted by the yellow circle above) would span just a few blocks, erasing skyscrapers and melting cars—depending on the altitude of the detonation. A 20 psi air blast would stretch a few blocks further, shattering concrete buildings and causing nearly 100% fatalities. Third degree radiation burns would be widespread among survivors, and all of downtown New York would be off limits for the foreseeable future.

All this from a tactical nuke that could fit into a vehicle parked somewhere on a back street or simply detonated in traffic.

Now what about a larger, more devastating H-bomb?

(Image source: Nuke Map, Alex Wellerstein)

While an A-bomb detonation would be nothing short of tragic, an H-bomb detonation is practically unthinkable. Especially once you consider the corresponding fallout and long-term consequences… a nuclear holocaust unleashed in an instant.

Unfortunately, large cities and population centers like New York would be the top targets in a nuclear conflict. Looking back to 9/11, it’s plain to see that terrorist groups will sink to any depth to get their desired result, regardless of the human cost.

So what can you do about that?

The best solution, if possible, is to live away from bigger cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. If that’s not possible due to work or family, then having somewhere you can shelter or friends/family you can stay with in the event of a serious nuclear threat is key.

Although there’s a good chance that a nuclear strike wouldn’t be telegraphed ahead of time, you could still respond to escalating threats by taking a vacation or just removing yourself from the threat area if a triggering event seems like it might be on the horizon. So, keep a close eye on the news and keep yourself abreast of global politics as much as possible.

Now that you have an idea of what to expect and how things might play out, you can start preparing for the reality of a nuclear strike.


PHASE #2

Preparation

We’ve covered the reality of preparing for nuclear fallout in another post, so we’ll quickly cover the material preparations for a nuclear war. If you want something more in-depth, take a look at that article for a thorough explanation.

In short, preparing for such a complex challenge requires a modular approach.

That means combining your standard disaster preparation (food, water, medical supplies, emergency radios) with a few key additions like Thyrosafe tablets to protect your system from radioactive iodine and a reactor-rated NBC/CBRN mask and filter combo.

That’s why we offer a specialized NBC Nuclear Survival Kit, combining Thyrosafe tablets with our proven CM-6M mask, NBC-77 SOF Reactor filter, and a drop-leg pouch to carry it all. With a 20-year shelf life on the filter and robust, military-grade construction on the CM-6M, you’ll have peace of mind heading into one of the most stressful experiences anyone can face.


If you do nothing else to prepare for a nuclear strike, then picking up something like an NBC Nuclear Survival Kit could save your life. Combining this kit with a good hazmat suit like our MIRA Safety HAZ-SUIT can provide even more protection and flexibility should you need to travel in hostile environments.

Another key factor of modular physical preparation is staging your preparations.

After all, you’re only going to have 15 minutes to seek shelter in the aftermath of a nuclear strike. So it’s prudent to pack a 72-hour bug-out bag with your mask, tablets and a limited amount of food, water and meds. That way if you’re stuck at work or out of town in the event of a nuclear strike, you’ll still be at least somewhat prepared. If you can make it back home to your larger stockpiles, then more power to you.

But despite the comfort you’ll get from assembling the necessary tools to survive a nuclear strike, it’s important to remember (once again) that knowledge is the real power and knowing the unique challenges of your situation is crucial to survival.

So, take out a map and find the high-value targets in your immediate area. Look at potential evacuation routes and places you could hunker down in case of emergency and start to determine your exit strategy. Maintaining an active passport can be key in terms of maximizing your options.

Are you comfortable taking shelter in your house or apartment over the long-term?

Would you need to evacuate after the dangerous first 72 hours of fallout?

What’s your backup plan? And what’s the backup plan for that?

Everyone will have a different set of challenges when it comes to surviving nuclear conflict, and being aware of your own personal challenges—being prepared to overcome them—could mean the difference between life and death.


PHASE #3

Survival

If and when it happens, and if you’re not removed from the area, then surviving a nuclear attack becomes all about exposure and time.

Exposure is measured in terms of roentgens (R). Much like it’s safe to have an X-Ray exam every now and then, low-level radioactive exposure can be safe—so long as it’s not too much.

 

No detrimental effects.

 

You’ll start to experience radiation-induced nausea, with a slight chance of needing medical attention.

 

Things become dramatically more serious. Serious radiation sickness sets in and approximately 50% of those exposed to this level of radiation will die in 2-4 weeks.

 

Serious radiation sickness sets in, with medical attention absolutely necessary and a 50% death rate in just 1-3 weeks.

 

Virtually a death sentence, with a 100% chance of death in just two weeks.

The key takeaway is that low-level exposure is acceptable, but things can turn fatal in a matter of minutes.

(Image source: Joint Base Langley Eustis)

That’s why the first few minutes after a blast are critical; with most of the fallout still suspended in the atmosphere, survivors will have about 15 minutes to seek hardened shelter before the air is filled with radioactive particles and exposure will skyrocket. We won’t cover nuclear fallout in too much more detail here since we’ve got an entire post covering the topic, but suffice it to say that you’ll want to find somewhere safe with enough supplies to shelter in place for a few days (if not weeks).

There are three big factors when it comes to determining fallout exposure and your chances of survival:

 
Distance

Getting at least a mile away from ground zero is crucial for maximizing your chances of survival. Even just a few feet of added distance within your home; going into a basement or a central closet and away from the windows/doors can radically reduce your exposure to fallout particles in the hours and days following a nuclear blast.

 
Shielding

Basic shelter can shield you from a great deal of nuclear fallout, but thicker shielding helps block other forms of radiation as well. Thick, concrete walls like you’d find in a storm shelter are ideal protection. Just make sure it’s a place you can get to in a couple minutes.

 
Time

Radiation from fallout crashes in intensity over a matter of days. Within 3-7 days, you’ll be able to safely leave your shelter (for short periods), and in another week you should be able to evacuate as radiation will have declined to approximately 1% of its original level at that point.

It’s truly amazing how much your location, even within a building, or something as seemingly trivial as the thickness of a wall, can make such a massive difference in terms of surviving the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

To understand what we’re talking about, look at the image below from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, demonstrating the different levels of protection you can expect from a single family home compared to something like a larger apartment building with a reinforced basement:

(Image source: Brooke Buddemeier/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

So, if you can’t evacuate ahead of time, focus on getting a safe distance between you and ground zero while sticking to places that will provide superior protection and minimize exposure.

Even if it means being limited to the food and water in your bug-out bag, it might make more sense to shelter in place somewhere like a subway station instead of spending crucial minutes trying to make it across town.

None of these are easy decisions, of course, but it’s crucial to prepare for them one way or another.



PHASE #4

Stability

The dust has settled. It’s been days, if not weeks, since the initial nuclear strike.

Background radiation has diminished by orders of magnitude. Emergency services are working frantically, and the population is seeking some sort of normalcy in the wake of a living nightmare.

It might seem like putting the cart before the horse to prepare for a return to normalcy before knowing the context of a nuclear strike, but the long-term aftermath is part of the preparation, part of the reality and something you should be getting ready to face.

So, what can you expect?

As mentioned above, the first 72 hours to 7 days will be absolutely crucial. Shelter in place, minimize exposure and wait for the gamma radiation to die down. If it’s a one-off attack like a terrorist strike, then you can at least expect some effort at a return to normalcy in the following weeks. You’ll be able to expect help in making your way to a safe zone.

If you’re experiencing a sustained nuclear conflict like full-blown thermonuclear war, all that goes out the window.

Emergency services could be triaged to deal with a more severely affected area, and you might be on your own in finding your way to safety. In both scenarios you can expect blocked roads, broken-down transit systems and other impediments to travel.

Then there’s the human factor…

Remember, you’ll be facing the single most devastating experience of a lifetime. And you’ll be experiencing it alongside thousands, if not millions of others. Expect practically everyone to be in a state of shock, worried about friends and family or just coping with the extreme stress of the situation. Few will be prepared, and practically no one will know what to do.

Once again, the severity of the attack will play a crucial role in determining the aftermath. If the attack is severe enough, nuclear winter and subsequent famine could wreak havoc on society and the economy for months if not years following the attack. Famine alone would be terrifying, but in the context of a world that’s already resorted to nuclear conflict, it’s likely to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Nothing at this stage of the process is guaranteed or certain. And that’s probably the biggest threat of the whole situation and the reason it can be so difficult to prepare for the aftermath of nuclear conflict.

So the more you can stockpile in terms of food, water and other supplies, the more flexibility you’ll have when it comes to surviving the long-term aftermath of nuclear conflict. Ideally, that includes property that’s off the grid but that’s not necessarily within everyone’s grasp.

Surviving Nuclear War: The Challenge of a Lifetime

Nuclear War is the ultimate crap shoot—with the potential to erase millions of lives in the blink of an eye and without any warning.

But chance still favors the prepared.

Despite the complexity, the various factors and the unpredictability of nuclear conflict, it’s still something you can prepare yourself (and your family) to face.

You can stock up on basic supplies like food and water, while keeping a healthy stash of gas masks, filters and Thyrosafe tablets on hand. You can familiarize yourself with the politics of the world’s nuclear players and plan an exit strategy that will help you retreat to safety.

Are any of these things guaranteed to help? Not necessarily. But each is something you’d rather have and not need than need and not have.