Surviving a nuclear attack means preparing yourself ahead of time and shielding yourself from radioactive radiation for weeks after the bombs go off – but if you’re anywhere near the actual explosions, the decisions you do in the first few seconds will determine whether anything else matters. A nuclear weapon has immense destructive strength, and is capable of killing, damaging, and destroying a large region. Unless you are within its devastating radius and you don’t know how to react, your chances of survival will drop drastically.
Like a traditional explosion, a nuke does not only produce a blast wave and can either directly cause damage or shrapnel-like projectiles. This generates a blast wave – a huge wave – but there are still other consequences to think about. The first is thermal pulse effect. It is an electromagnetic radiation surge, like gamma radiation, X-rays, UV, visible light, and infrared, all traveling at light speed.It holds an enormous amount of energy strong enough to melt steel near the explosion and literally vaporize a human body, and it can start fires even miles away and cause serious burns.
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The explosion follows speeding outward at high supersonic velocities. The blast pushes in front of a wall of high-pressure air produces powerful winds., When it begins running steam, it leaves behind it a low-pressure area, gradually the atmosphere falls to equalize the pressure, produces a second less powerful front blast going in the opposite direction.
Finally, radioactive waste is starting to fall. Fallout is debris that has been sucked up by the blast that the explosion produces. Along the way, it is pulverized into dust, sprayed with high-intensity radiation, heated to extremely high temperatures and combined with highly radioactive plasma produced from the remains of the bomb – and leaves up to 99% of the weight of the bomb. Whether the projectile is an airburst there is not going to be a huge amount of fallout, maybe as little as a minimum of a few hundred pounds. At the other side, if the warhead actually impacts, or even if the explosion hits the ground, thousands of tons of it will be there.
For weeks, debris can continue to descend, becoming gradually less radioactive as time goes on. Much of the debris is carried into the stratosphere all the way up, where winds of high altitude will carry it for thousands of miles. With all of these, it would take several hours to make it to the ground. The main concern is larger particles, and everything that hasn’t made it to the top of the mushroom cloud. Within a few minutes of the explosion, this will continue to descend.
So it’s evident that before you start thinking about living in the post-nuclear holocaust world, there are a few more immediate dangers to be tackled. It’s also clear you can’t do anything to ensure your life. If a warhead of one megaton explodes 500 yards away from you, you’re dead. In reality, before you can see the light, you will be dead: at that distance, the thermal pulse energy can make you plasma faster than a signal can get to your brain from your eyes. For any nuclear explosion, there will always be a gap beyond which survival is obviously not possible and for today’s largest bombs it may be as much as two to three miles.
On the other hand, there is a wide zone between the distance at which you will be killed by a nuclear explosion and the distance it can destroy you. For a warhead of one megaton the zone may be seven or eight miles long. When you’re in that environment, you’ll have a much better chance to survive when you know the drill for nuclear Immediate Action (IA).
A drill is the answer to an exploded nuclear bomb. You’ll know a gun has gone off because there’s going to be an incredibly bright white light pulse, lasting up to ten seconds. There’s no chance you’re going to mistake this for lighting, or a camera flash will go off, it’s going to be far too bright and robust. As soon as you see the flash immediately conduct this drill:
- Close your eyes. If you’re looking directly at a one-megaton explosion it can cause flash blindness as far away as 13 miles on a clear day, on a clear night, when your pupils are wide open to let more light in, you can be blinded up to 53 miles away. If you are looking in the direction of the blast you can be blinded instantly, but this will probably be temporary and could last anywhere from minutes to a week or two. You still need to avoid permanent damage, so shut your eyes immediately to keep out as much light as possible.
- Turn towards the flash and drop to the ground with your head towards the direction of the explosion. Anywhere between a couple of seconds and three or four minutes after the explosion, the blast wave is going to reach you. That brings two dangers. First, the air is going to be full of debris that could be moving at more than 2,000mph. A dime-size fragment of brick at that speed has the energy of a rifle bullet. Lying flat will keep you below most of the debris, because irregularities in the ground tend to catch a lot of the low-flying stuff, having the long axis of your body pointing at the explosion will minimize the area exposed to anything that is skimming the ground.
- Keeping your head towards the explosion will also protect you from the blast wave itself. Most of your weight is towards the top of your body and it’s also a more streamlined shape. As the blast wave passes over you it will tend to pin you firmly to the ground. If it catches your lighter legs first, it’s much more likely to pick you up and carry you along, and if that happens you have no real chance of survival.
- Tuck your hands under your body. It’s a natural instinct to shield your head with your hands. Don’t do it. Even a couple of seconds’ exposure to the thermal pulse can cause serious burns, at the very least you’re likely to get the equivalent of moderately bad sunburn. If you get your hands under your body as quickly as possible you’ll minimize their exposure to the pulse, and that’s important. Burns to the top of your head will be painful, but badly burned hands can be a death sentence. If you can’t carry out simple tasks because your hands are covered in third-degree burns, your survival chances drop like a stone. Having your hands under you also makes you more streamlined, and less likely to be picked up by blast.
- Keep your eyes closed. The thermal pulse is energy radiated by the incredibly hot plasma fireball created by the nuclear reactions inside the weapon. It’s the first thing to escape the explosion, traveling at the speed of light. Inside a second or two the shock front of the blast expands out past the fireball, compressing the air until it’s dense enough to block the pulse. This means the glare of the explosion will fade, enough to be noticed through closed eyelids. Don’t open your eyes! In another couple of seconds, the air density will fall and the fireball will be revealed again, this distinctive double pulse is one of the unique features of a nuclear explosion.
- Wait for the blast waves. How long it takes the blast to reach you depends how far you are from the weapon. It can be as long as two or three minutes, bust resist the temptation to look for cover before it arrives. Stay flat, head towards the explosion, and wait for it to pass over you. When it does, stay down. Even if people are screaming for help nearby, don’t move. Wait for the second blast wave, coming from the other direction. This will be weaker, so there’s no need to turn towards it, but you still don’t want to be caught moving.
- After the second blast wave, move! As soon as the inwards blast passes over you, get up. You may only have a minute or two before highly radioactive fallout starts coming down, so the priority is to get under cover. Don’t hang around to help people, find something that will keep falling particles off you. If you find something nearby, and you can quickly grab someone and carry them into it, fine – but if you stay in the open for more than a few minutes you’ll almost certainly catch a lethal dose of radiation.
- If you’re within a minute or two of home go straight there. Take off your clothes and throw them out the door, brush your hair thoroughly to remove any dust, then go into your fallout room, put on clean clothes and get into your inner refuge. Stay in the refuge for at least 48 hours, and in the fallout room for two weeks.
- If you’re further from home stay under cover for at least two hours. If you have a gas mask with you, put it on and keep it on. Without going into the open, scrounge up anything that will give you some protection. If you don’t have a mask, wrap clean cloth over your mouth and nose. Cover as much bare skin as possible. If you can find heavy boots or galoshes, put them on. Wrap any spare fabric round your feet and lower legs. Most of the radiation from fallout is alpha and beta particles, and thick cloth will block alpha radiation. That makes a big difference, it’s easier to block than beta, but if it does get though it does a lot more damage.
- Get home as soon as you can. Go directly home. If you can get your hands on a vehicle that’s still running, shut the air vents and drive. If you can’t, try to avoid stirring up dust and walk. When you get home dump your clothes, clean away any dust and get into your inner refuge.
If a weapon goes off without warning, the Immediate Action drill is what you need to do. What if there’s an air-attack warning in your town and it goes off? During the minutes prior to the blast there are a few things you can do. If you’re in a building which wasn’t prepared, get out. The explosion will destroy buildings much more than it would damage you if you’re flat on the ground, when a building collapses on them, most victims in urban areas will be wounded or killed.
There are some areas inside which is worth sheltering. Subway tunnels can protect you from weapon damage. Basements can be strong shelters if they have concrete flooring over them. There are also good small trenches, and so are the deep irrigation ditches. Anything that gets you under the ground, but it doesn’t threaten the collapse of a building on you, is good. But if you can’t find safe underground cover, get clear of everything that could be knocked down.
Run for open ground and when you are in the middle of it, as far away as possible from trees or buildings, stand and wait for the blast. If water is around get in it, and live as long as you can under the surface. When you have an obvious target near you, like an airbase or port, lie down with your head facing that way, your hands under your body with your eyes closed. If not, stand there waiting for the flash – then execute the IA drill.
The nuclear IA drill doesn’t sound like much – lie down and close your eyes? Does that really benefit you when there’s a nuke going off? Yes, it is. If you’re far enough away from the blast to escape immediate death, the IA drill will give a huge boost to your chances of survival. Remembering is easy too. Not many competences are so important and yet so plain.