Did you know that if you are outside the immediate blast zone, you can survive a nuclear bomb explosion? In this article we take a look at how to survive a nuclear bomb exploding at ground level.
Nuclear bomb attacks are unlikely, but still they are a very real possibility. Russian President Putin recently threatened nuclear war if Ukraine is allowed to join NATO. North Korea regularly threatens with development of nuclear weapons. Iran has broken the terms of a deal limiting the size of its nuclear material stockpiles. The US formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force treaty in 2019. There is also a small but significant threat of terrorist organisations obtaining materials needed to assemble a nuclear bomb.
Is It Possible To Survive A Nuclear Bomb?
Nuclear bombs cause destruction and death in more ways than one. Survival in the immediate blast zone is unlikely unless you are in an extremely substantial shelter.
Outside the blast zone, the destruction caused by the explosion itself decreases, but the danger from nuclear fallout increases. Nuclear fallout is very dangerous, but it is easy to protect yourself from it. If you know how to protect yourself from the fallout, you can survive a nuclear bomb.
What Will Happen When A Nuclear Bomb Explodes?
A nuclear explosion on the ground causes six events. These are a blinding flash of light, a wave of burning heat, a wave of nuclear radiation, a fireball, a blast of fast-moving air, and radioactive fallout.
The flash of light, wave of heat and wave of nuclear radiation happen almost instantaneously. The fireball and blast of fast moving air follow quickly. Finally the radioactive fallout will arrive several minutes after the explosion. Fallout can continue for a very long period of time.
Initial Effects Of A Nuclear Bomb
Most destruction caused by a nuclear bomb is due to the blast of fast moving air and wave of heat. These travel outwards from the explosion, causing most damage close to the explosion. However, the danger to people from a nuclear bomb explosion is not only from the air blast and heat wave. The wave of nuclear radiation and the radioactive fallout may not cause much destruction but are very dangerous to us.
The blast of air and wave of heat cause very severe damage close to where the nuclear bomb exploded. The severity reduces as the distance from the nuclear bomb explosion increases. The intensity of the wave of radiation also decreases as distance from the nuclear bomb explosion increases. Radioactive fallout, however, can travel long distances and can be dangerous for a very long time.
Nuclear Bomb Damage Zones
The damage caused by a nuclear bomb explosion is classified in to three zones: severe, moderate and light damage zones. The diagram below shows the approximate damage zones for a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb explosion at ground level.
The nukemap website allows you to overlay the effects of various sizes of nuclear bob explosion on a map. You can select the location and the size of the bomb. The map will show you where the likely damage zones will fall based on your selections.
Severe Damage Zone
The severe damage zone is the closest area to the nuclear bomb explosion. It extends up to approximately half a mile from the centre of the explosion for a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb. Most buildings within the severe damage zone will be reduced to rubble. People in this zone will be exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Survival within the severe damage zone is unlikely unless well protected in a very substantial or underground structure.
Intermediate Damage Zone
The intermediate damage zone of a nuclear bomb explosion is a ring outside the severe damage zone. This extends for around another half mile in every direction outside the severe damage zone. This zone is subject to very large amounts of thermal damage caused by the wave of heat from the nuclear bomb explosion. The air blast effects are reduced from the severe damage zone, but still significant. Radiation exposure in this zone will still be at very high levels. Survival is more likely if protected within a substantial and ideally below ground structure.
Light Damage Zone
Outside the intermediate damage zone, the light damage zone can extend for several miles. This zone will still see destruction and damage, but less than in the intermediate damage zone. Survival of the nuclear bomb explosion in this zone is likely for people inside structures and protected from fallout.
In addition to the destruction and radiation exposure, the nuclear bomb explosion will also generate radioactive fallout. Radioactive fallout is material that is thrown in to the air by the nuclear bomb explosion. It includes particles from the remnants of the bomb itself and irradiated soil particles thrown up by the explosion. For those outside the blast zone of the nuclear bomb, fallout is the most dangerous effect.
The radioactive fallout travels with the wind. It will not fall to earth in a symmetrical pattern around the site of the nuclear bomb explosion. The fallout zone will extend for hundreds of miles downwind of the nuclear bomb explosion. Some of the radioactive fallout will travel very high in to the atmosphere. This means that the area affected may be spread very widely. It could also travel in different directions if the air moves in different directions high in the atmosphere compared to at surface level.
The radioactive fallout will begin to fall to the ground several minutes after the nuclear bomb explosion. It will fall to the ground for weeks, however the most dangerous period is 72 hours following the explosion. Radioactive fallout is extremely dangerous, causing lethal doses of radiation even many days after the nuclear bomb explosion.
Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP)
The wave of radiation emitted by a nuclear bomb explosion can also trigger an EMP. This is a burst of electro-magnetic energy which can disrupt or even destroy electrical equipment. A nuclear bomb explosion at ground level may trigger a localised EMP. The power grid might be knocked out. It is likely that electrical equipment exposed to the EMP will not work, including phones and cars.
If a nuclear bomb is triggered to explode high in the atmosphere, the explosion itself would cause no damage. The EMP, however, would be huge, possibly affecting whole continents. It is possible that a nuclear attack could be in this form, to cause maximum disruption without deaths. Take a look at our grid down article to see how this could affect you.
How To Survive A Nuclear Bomb Explosion
Surviving a nuclear bomb isn’t just about surviving the initial explosion, it’s just as important to protect yourself from the fallout.
If an explosion happens (nuclear or not), you should immediately drop to the ground. Keep your face down and your hands and arms tucked under your body. This keeps your face, hands and arms away from flying debris and the heat during the explosion’s shockwaves.
Do not look at the nuclear blast. The light from the blast can cause temporary blindness even for people who are miles away.
Cover your face with a mask, towel, handkerchief or clothing. It may be several minutes before the fallout arrives, but the shockwaves from the explosion can kick dust and debris into the air. Covering your face will help you to avoid breathing this in.
The most important thing anyone can do to survive the fallout from a nuclear bomb is find a good place to shelter. Even if you are many miles away from the nuclear bomb explosion, the radioactive fallout can still reach you.
If there is a warning before the nuclear bomb, you have a little time to find a place to shelter. Even with no warning, if you are outside the immediate blast zone of the nuclear bomb you can still survive. Find shelter as quickly as possible to be protected from the lethal effects of the radioactive fallout.
Where Is The Best Place To Shelter From Nuclear Radiation?
Dense material such as concrete provides the best protection from the effects of the radiation. The safest place to shelter is below ground, in the basement of a large building. If you can find an office building or apartment complex that has a basement and several above ground floors, the basement will be well protected. The earth around the basement and the building with several (probably concrete) floors above will stop most of the radiation reaching the basement.
If there is no basement, the next best option for shelter is the centre of a large building with several floors. This could be, for example, an office building with several storeys, or an apartment building. Shelter on a middle floor, at the centre of the building. If possible stay in a room with no windows and as far away as you can from external walls.
If there are no large buildings nearby, stay in a house. It won’t offer as much protection as a larger building, but far more than being outdoors.
What To Do At The Shelter
If you arrive at your shelter after the nuclear explosion, you may already have been exposed to the nuclear fallout. Remove your clothes and accessories before entering the shelter. They may be contaminated with fallout, and you want to avoid any contamination entering the shelter. If possible, shower immediately to wash any fallout particles from your skin and hair. Do not use conditioner on your hair as it can trap radioactive fallout particles. If you can’t shower, rinse your skin and hair with water from a tap or bottle. If that is not possible, wipe your skin and hair with wet wipes. Blow your nose and wipe your ears and eyelids as radioactive fallout particles can get trapped here.
Turn off heaters, air conditioners or ventilation that moves air around the building or takes in air from outside. You don’t want any radioactive fallout particles coming in to your shelter.
The radioactive fallout is at its most dangerous during the 72 hours after the nuclear bomb explosion. Stay sheltered for at least 72 hours, preferably longer. Do not go out looking for other people during this time, as you will expose yourself to radiation from the fallout
Can I Escape By Car?
If you have prior warning of a nuclear explosion, you may have time to leave the area by car. However, you should only consider this if you know you have plenty of time to drive to a safe place to shelter before the nuclear explosion. Bear in mind that many people will be trying to do the same thing, so the roads could be blocked.
A car provides no protection from the radiation at all. You will receive a lethal dose of radiation from fallout if you are in a car when it arrives. You do not want to be stuck in your car away from shelter when the nuclear bomb explodes. The EMP effect of the nuclear bomb might also disable the car.
The only way to survive a nuclear bomb is to get to a shelter as soon as possible. Do not plan to use a shelter that you have to travel to by car in case your car isn’t working. Instead, find suitable places to shelter near where you live and work.
Prepping For A Nuclear Bomb
As with all disaster scenarios, prepping for a nuclear bomb should start with a plan.
Find Places To Shelter
Identify locations nearby where you would shelter if a nuclear bomb explodes. These should be places that are suitable for sheltering from a nuclear bomb. Identify large concrete or brick buildings that have several floors. Ideally you want to find one with a basement. If not, it should have rooms on the middle floors away from windows and external walls.
If there are no suitable large buildings where you live, even a house provides better protection than nothing. Brick and concrete buildings provide significantly more protection than those made of lighter material such as wood. Large windows reduce the amount of protection, so select a room with as small an amount of glass as possible.
Your nuclear fallout shelters should be locations that you can get to very quickly. They should be no more than a couple of minutes walk (or a very short run!) from home, work or other places you spend time. Make sure you know the routes to the buildings. Practice the routes with your bug out bag so you know you can get to your shelter quickly.
Prepare Your Bug Out Bag
You will need to remain in the shelter for at least 72 hours after the nuclear bomb explosion. Fallout is extremely dangerous for at least the first 72 hours. You need to be able to survive for 72 hours with only the supplies you can take with you.
A good bug out bag should include enough to be able to survive for 72 hours, apart from clean water. Most bug out bags rely on water purification methods rather than carrying large amounts of water. When sheltering after a nuclear explosion you may not have access to a water source. You should, however, only be travelling a very short distance to the best nearby shelter. Carrying clean water is less of a problem than if you had to travel further. Keep large bottles of water with your bug out bag so that you can grab and go to your shelter.
This post was originally published on 2 May 2021, and was updated on 10 February 2022.