The threat of nuclear war is the highest it has been in a generation, with Vladimir Putin using the threat of a nuclear attack as a bully club to get the world to dance to his tune. The problem with that is that eventually someone pushes the person holding that club into a corner and it becomes put up or shut up time. Knowing what we do of Putin, I seriously doubt that shutting up is something he is capable of doing.
The calculus of nuclear war has changed through the years. Back in my youth, both the US and the now-defunct Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles. That number has been greatly reduced, with each side having only 400 missiles.
While there are also gravity bombs that can be dropped from aircraft, it is the missiles which would make any first strike. We used to think that thousands of missiles would turn the world into a nuclear wasteland.
On the other hand, the hundreds available today make nuclear war survivable… at least for some of us.
The old rule of thumb was that we would have 30 minutes’ notice for a nuclear attack. That probably hasn’t changed much, as the next-generation technology that would negate that warning is still in development.
When hypersonic missiles come online, then we would be lucky to have five minutes’ notice.
Thirty minutes may not seem like much time, but when I was a teen, it was enough time for me to get out of town and to a place of safety. At that time, I lived just a couple of miles uphill of the Federal Center in Denver, a known nuclear target.
But where I lived was on the front slope of the first ridge of the Rocky Mountains. I could get in my car and drive to the back side of that ridge in 20 minutes, putting me out of danger of a blast just a few miles from my home.
The Actual Danger Caused by a Nuclear Explosion
In order to understand how to survive it, we need to understand just what it is that we’re surviving.
There’s a myth that nuclear bombs are all-powerful devices that will sweep life off the planet. While it may seem that way at ground zero, the reality is far from it.
Even the largest of nuclear explosives is limited in its power and the range at which it can cause damage.
This damage is caused by four things:
• Fireball – This is the burning of the explosive contained I the bomb.
It would reach out several hundred meters, burning at a temperature to rival the sun and incinerating anything within it.
• Blast – The explosive blast from the bomb will create an enormous pressure wave, causing winds of several hundred miles per hour. Within a two kilometer radius, all buildings would be flattened and the people inside them killed.
As the shockwave moves out from there, buildings would survive with various degrees of damage, based upon the distance and construction of those buildings.
• Heat – While the fireball may be limited to a relatively small area, the heat from the explosion will be enough to ignite wood-frame buildings (homes) for several kilometers.
At 11 km, that heat will be enough to cause third-degree burns. Closer to the blast, clothing will ignite spontaneously from the heat.
• Radiation – A nuclear explosion emits several different types of radiation, amongst the most dangerous of which is gamma radiation.
This is fast enough and strong enough to pass through almost any material and will continue moving in a straight line out beyond the horizon.
Radiation kills more slowly, through a breakdown of the body’s organs, often referred to as radiation sickness.
It is clear that anyone who is within the fireball will be killed instantly. Going out from there, about half of the people between there and 11 km would be killed. Many of those people will die of radiation sickness over the week following the blast.
There is something else to be concerned about with the radiation; that’s fallout.
The signature mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion is caused by the wind from the blast, first moving out away from the epicenter of the explosion and then collapsing back on the low pressure area created by the blast wave.
Dust, created by the explosion is picked up in the air and carried up to the upper atmosphere.
Radioactive material from the bomb (little of which is actually lost in the explosion) becomes attached to that dust and is also carried up into the upper atmosphere, where it eventually falls back to earth.
Nuclear fallout can ultimately kill more people than the explosion of the warhead. Winds can blow that cloud of dust far downrange, where it can cover a much larger area.
As this dust is difficult to detect and most people don’t have the capability to detect radiation, it becomes the silent killer, giving people radiation sickness over the next month to six weeks.
Surviving the Nuclear Explosion
To a large part, the number one defense against any nuclear explosion is distance.
The farther one is from ground zero, the less of a chance of being directly affected by any part of the explosion.
Of course, fallout can reach us anywhere, as the wind can carry that dust for hundreds of miles.
Before anything, take a good look at a nuclear targeting map.
This will show those places in the country which are considered to be targets for nuclear attack.
Those targets fall into just a few categories:
- Government installations that provide command and control
- Military bases and installations, including our missile fields
- Nuclear power plants (as an effort to blow up the plants, multiplying the effect of the warhead)
- Major population centers
If you don’t live within 11 km of one of these targets, you’re likely to be at least somewhat safe from the direct effects of a nuclear explosion.
To be sure, I’d double that and say 22 km. If I lived within that distance, I’d be looking for how to protect myself and my family.
So how do we do that?
The first option is to move farther away from any potential target. That fits in with most of our survival strategy anyway, so don’t dismiss that option out of hand.
If you have the ability to move even a short distance out of town, it can make a big difference in your potential for survival.
I live in a small town, 34 miles from the nearest city. That’s far enough to protect us, but still close enough that my wife drives to work in the city every day.
As an alternative to that, consider the possibility of whether or not you can get out of town quickly, in the event of a nuclear attack.
Keeping in mind that you’ll have 30 minutes or less, is there someplace you could get to, which would put you far enough away to be out of the blast zone, keeping in mind that lots of other people will probably be trying to do the same thing?
Where to Hide
Since it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get out of town fast enough to avoid the nuclear explosion, your time will probably be better spent getting to a place of safety to ride out the nuclear attack and the fallout period to follow.
So just what are these locations?
To start with, the best possible place to go is an actual bunker or bomb shelter. Being below ground will protect you from the wind and heat, as well as doing a good job of blocking radiation.
If the shelter is properly stocked to hold out for weeks, it could keep your family safe through the fallout period as well.
During the Cold War, many people built bomb shelters under their homes or in their backyards. These were made of concrete, making them much more solid than most of the bunkers that preppers build.
Other than that, they were very similar, stocked to allow a family to survive a nuclear war.
If a bomb shelter isn’t available, the next best thing is to get underground someplace. If your home has a basement, it will offer that possibility. The home above you might be blown away; but you’ll still be protected.
It’s actually fairly easy to build a bunker in the basement, constructing it out of solid cement blocks in a corner on the side closest to a potential nuclear explosion. The hard part is making the concrete roof.
To do that, you’d need to make a temporary support out of corrugated steel roofing or plywood, supported by 2”x 4”s. Be sure to put in sufficient rebar or remesh, then pour the concrete. The 2”x 4”s and plywood can be removed after the concrete sets.
Either way, stock your basement with everything your family will need to stay safe for six weeks or more. Add a chemical toilet, so that you don’t have to go outside.
Make sure you have materials on hand to make a ceiling over your heads, if the existing structure blows away.
While not as good as getting underground, any building made of precast concrete or concrete block will probably provide good protection if you are outside the immediate blast zone.
These buildings are made of materials that will withstand strong winds and the materials also withstand heat well.
The only problem might be if the building has windows in it, especially if they are facing the direction of the blast.
In a pinch, if the bomb is going off and you don’ have anyplace to go, drop to the ground behind anything solid that will give you protection from the blast.
By something solid, I mean something like a concrete retaining wall; don’t count on wood buildings or cars. It has to be strong enough to withstand the blast and heat, providing you with shelter from the direction of the blast.
Obviously, anything that would be ignited by the heat or blown down by the wind won’t work.
If you take shelter from the blast in such a place, you will need to move once it is over and find something that can be used as fallout shelter.
Fallout will begin immediately, so you will need to move quickly to get to safety. Even so, if you don’t have food and water, you’ll probably need to take time to get them, exposing yourself for that time.
What Else Do You Need to do to Survive?
If you survive the explosion, then the biggest danger you’re going to face is the radiation. That’s what a fallout shelter is there to protect you from.
But there’s a good chance that you might get some fallout on your clothing before you get into the shelter, if you don’t manage to get into the shelter before the blast goes off.
To mitigate that risk, remove your clothing and bathe, washing your hair. Then put on clean clothing, setting your potentially contaminated clothing outside your shelter.
If you can, buy a radiation dosimeter and/or Geiger counter to have on-hand for any nuclear emergency.
These two tools, which can sometimes be found in one combined instrument, will tell you how much radiation there is in the area, help pinpoint that radiation, and give you an idea of how much radiation you have absorbed over time.
About 500 rem of radiation will kill most people.
Keeping clean is an important part of avoiding radiation sickness; but so is regular monitoring of how much radiation you are being exposed to. Fallout is usually in the form of dust, so it is possible that it could blow into your shelter.
The ability to monitor how much radiation you are receiving, as well as to locate the source of that radiation is essential to your survival.
Since the fallout is in the form of dust, avoid scratching your skin as much as possible. Scratching opens the pores of the skin, offering an entryway to radioactive dust. While the risk is low, it still exists.
It is necessary to stay in the fallout shelter until competent authority says that it is safe to come out. They will base that on having cleared the area and determined that the radiation levels are low enough to be survivable.
But will those teams be available after a nuclear attack? That’s something we don’t know and why it is important to have a Geiger counter in your shelter.
Finally, make sure that you have potassium iodide on hand. This should only be taken when directed by your local health department.
Its purpose is to prevent radiation sickness by blocking the iodine receptors in the thyroid gland. That way, radioactive iodine can’t take up residence in your body, poisoning you.
The problem is, it really isn’t healthy to take potassium iodide if you don’t need it. The equipment for determining whether it is necessary is very expensive and is not available openly for purchase by private individuals. So we have to trust the government on this one.
Should the order to take potassium iodide go out, only take one dose. One dose is sufficient for 24 hours and the risk should pass by then. If it doesn’t then the health department will give notice that a second dose is needed. Taking extra doesn’t help.
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