Nuclear weapons and the nightmarish devastation they can unleash upon an unsuspecting populace are high up on the list of doomsday events for many preppers, and with good reason.
The incredible blast, incinerating heat and intense light generated by any nuclear weapon will wreak havoc for miles around the epicenter. But it is the radiation produced by nuclear weapon that rightly scares some people the most.
Radiation is very difficult to stop, and it is even harder to treat the injuries that it inflicts. A nuclear weapon generates radiation directly in the form of rays, and also as a secondary hazard in the form of fallout.
Fallout is an insidious and persistent hazard that can render whole swaths of land completely uninhabitable for years after a nuclear detonation and can contaminate anything it touches or comes to rest on with deadly amounts of silent, invisible radiation.
Preparing to survive the detonation of a nuclear weapon involves more than just hardening your home and your senses against one really gargantuan blast. You might survive the blast of a nuclear weapon only to fall prey to radiation because you failed to prepare or shelter properly.
In this article we will teach you what you need to know in order to reduce radiation exposure during the instance of a nuclear blast and in the aftermath.
Table of Contents
Types of Nuclear Attack
When considering how to confront and deal with a threat posed by ionizing radiation it is helpful to know what the sources of radiation are. For our purposes a brief overview of both nuclear warhead and dirty bomb detonations will be helpful.
The iconic and rightly infamous source of radiation that most people imagine when considering the topic is the detonation of a nuclear warhead.
No matter if it is a fission or fusion bomb and no matter if it is a comparatively small tactical device or a gargantuan strategic nuke the difference in effect is only one of scale.
Nuclear warheads produce destruction via several mechanisms, predominantly the shockwave and fireball created by the blast as well as widespread thermal damage from the intense flash.
More germane to our topic is the propagation of ionizing radiation and attendant fallout, the latter being matter that has been radiated by the aforementioned ionizing radiation and made radioactive itself. This debris settles back to the earth in the aftermath of a blast as fine dust or snowflake like particles.
It is fallout that is so difficult to deal with in the aftermath of a nuclear warhead detonation, and part of what makes survival, rescue and clean up efforts so agonizingly difficult and dangerous.
Fallout is typically lifted high into the atmosphere after a nuclear blast, and can travel a considerable distance before settling slowly back to Earth.
It will be tracked around by anything that touches or disturbs it, clinging to vehicles, equipment, skin, hair and clothing, further irradiating everything near it. It is particularly dangerous if it is ingested through food or water consumption or inhaled into the lungs.
A dirty bomb is not a genuine nuclear warhead because it does not produce the titanic and properly apocalyptic blast or flash effects typical of those weapons. It also does not produce ionizing radiation in the same way, though radioactive material is a hazard and the chief feature of such weapons.
A dirty bomb is simply a conventional explosive that is designed to scatter already-radioactive material across a wide area, often in a location that will expose as many people as possible to the dangerous stuff.
The initial blast itself might be minimally or highly destructive but people who plant such devices usually do so with the notion that the presence of radioactive material will create long-lasting casualties and sow a considerable amount of terror and confusion.
The detonation of such a bomb near a major water supply, food source or highly populated area might still produce many casualties, but it is nowhere near the destructive event that a nuclear warhead is.
Even so, you will have to take steps to protect yourself from what limited fallout is produced by such a device in the same way that you would from a genuine nuclear detonation.
Understanding Radiation Threat
The principal tenet of prepping is to know what you are up against, and concerning radiation generated by a nuclear weapon it can be challenging to understand the invisible, silent and extremely deadly threat at hand.
This section will give you a general understanding so that you might better understand the mechanisms at work when a nuclear weapon touches off. Only then can you properly prepare to reduce exposure.
Consider nuclear warhead detonations our primary concern, since it is they that create so many radiation hazards and are already nightmarishly prolific. From these bombs we will be dealing with multiple types of dangerous and even deadly radiation.
These various types of radiation behave and interact with other matter in different ways and are capable of harming or killing you over longer or shorter periods of time.
The four types of dangerous radiation are alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays and neutrons.
Alpha particles are primarily dangerous if they enter your body directly. This typically occurs as a result of ingesting food, water or medicine that has been contaminated with the particles or by breathing in dust or other debris that is likewise contaminated.
Beta particles are directly capable of piercing your skin, muscle and other tissues and directly harming organic molecules including your DNA. This is the type of radiation that is most likely to cause DNA damage, reproductive problems and cancer farther down the road.
Gamma rays are intense, extremely energetic, and long range, traveling virtually instantaneously from the source, in our case detonation. Gamma rays penetrate organic matter very deeply causing substantial cellular damage.
Gamma rays have long been a source of “handwavium” in science fiction comic books and movies for justifying paranormal capabilities or mutations, but in real life they are not something that gives you superpowers… Unless you call “dying terribly” a superpower.
Neutron radiation is particularly dangerous because it causes any other matter that it interacts with to become radioactive itself, and is principally the factor that creates the dangerous and insidious nuclear fallout.
The fine debris created by nuclear detonation that is bombarded with neutron radiation will eventually settle back to earth as a blanket of radioactive dust.
So this all sounds pretty terrible and we want to do our best to avoid exposure to any and all forms of radiation resulting from a nuclear weapon, at all costs. But what happens if we should get exposed to it?
Bad things– The harm you experience when exposed to radiation is dependent upon the dose.
Low doses will make you sick, cause minor injuries to skin and tissues closer to the surface or just leave you with a roulette wheel of possible bad outcomes concerning your health later in life.
Sustained exposure to mild radiation over a long period of time or shorter exposure to intense radiation will cause acute radiation sickness, terribly debilitating injuries, tissue and organ death, loss of senses and faculties and eventually death. This can all take effect in hours to days depending on the dose.
No matter the level of the exposure, stereotypical symptoms and effects from radiation include genetic damage, reproductive defects, thyroid malfunction, endocrine system problems, and worse.
Reducing Radiation Exposure
There are two major delivery mechanisms of the radiation threat created by a nuclear weapon. The first is at the instant of detonation which generates various forms of direct radiation (including the ever-deadly gamma rays) which will travel out from the epicenter until they are impeded by significantly dense materials or just run out of steam.
The second and much more pervasive threat is that posed by fallout, which will require you to shelter appropriately, and follow specialized procedures if you want to avoid exposure and harm.
All you can hope to do is “dodge” direct radiation, but you can avoid or mitigate fallout. We will break down your preparations, response and follow-on procedures below.
Direct radiation generated by the blast is predominantly a line-of-sight threat assuming you have any significant amount of material between you and ground zero.
Unfortunately, modern nuclear missiles are designed to detonate a certain height over the ground in what is called an airburst, a choice that drastically increases the destructive effects of the blast at ground level, and also provides a higher “origin” for radiation, reducing the blocking effects of cover.
For instance, if the warhead detonates and there is nothing between you and the epicenter it is highly likely that you’ll receive a dangerously high dose of hard radiation instantaneously, well before the shockwave even reaches you. Of course, you won’t have to worry about the radiation when the shock wave reaches you…
But let us say in the same scenario that the bomb detonates on the far side of a mountain range and you are on the opposite side at sea level. You can rely on the mountains blocking the radioactive rays of that are being emitted.
This is hardly a universal statement, but you generally won’t have to worry about direct radiation if you are far enough away from the bomb or well sheltered enough to survive the blast and thermal effects. It is helpful to generally combine concerns about direct radiation with surviving the detonation of the bomb itself.
The general rule for considering proper shelter from a nuclear blast and its attendant direct radiation is to get inside the largest, heaviest, best constructed building you can find. Underground is even better, and if the building has a basement or sub-basements those are even better still.
Generally speaking, buildings constructed of masonry, like concrete or brick, or heavy metal components like multiple layers of steel are better than ones constructed of wood or thin sheet metals.
Great expanses of soil and rock are also good for blocking radiation. Generally, you’ll need about a foot of solid steel or three feet of solid concrete to block intense amounts of direct radiation.
Also, a quick tip: when you are sheltering in place awaiting the blast you should make it a point to get away from all windows, assuming your shelter location has any, and never, ever look for the cloud or the flash! The flash can blind you or severely burn you all by itself. Believe me when I tell you that you’ll know when the nuke goes off.
Assuming you survive the flash and blast front, you should be more or less safe from whatever direct radiation was emitted. Then you will have a short period of time to get to a better shelter or improve the one you have prior to the arrival of the deadly nuclear fallout.
Dealing with Fallout
You aren’t out of the woods just because you survived the initial detonation of a nuclear warhead. The fallout will prove to be nearly as dangerous (though not as quickly), and will be an invasive and insidious threat for a long time after the blast.
Fallout will be so widespread and so pervasive that you must take pains now in order to prepare yourself for that fateful day if you want to stand any chance of minimizing exposure in a meaningful way.
This is one of those survival tasks you cannot get wrong, since allowing contamination to subsist on or near you, or on vital supplies and equipment will invisibly and gently dose you with harmful or lethal amounts of radiation.
There was a lot to cover on this topic, and so we have further broken down your preparations and procedures for countering fallout into several phases:
But before we get to that, there are a few homework items you should take care of now in order to be better prepared for dealing with the deadly consequences of fallout later.
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- It is imperative that you locate suitable fallout shelters in and around your home, workplace, and greater community ahead of time so that you do not waste precious minutes wondering where you should shelter in a live event.
- An ideal fallout shelter is a heavily constructed building per the above recommendations, and also one that is easily sealed shut against outside air contamination.
- Livability and supplies are important considerations: You will have to shelter in place for a minimum of several days, and potentially as long as several weeks to remain safe from deadly fallout.
- Most cities will have presided and designated fallout shelters as either modern installations or leftover relics from the Cold War. These shelters may very well be viable but they might also be hot spots for other survivors and refugees, complicating your own survival efforts and increasing the chances of the space being contaminated with fallout by late arrivals. Consider this carefully before choosing to shelter in one.
- You should invest in potassium iodide tablets for your survival bags or dedicated nuclear threat survival kit. These pills will help protect your thyroid and your skin from absorbing deadly radiation, and can give you an edge in any sort of nuclear survival scenario.
With that out of the way let’s move on to pre-arrival fallout procedures.
It has happened: a nuclear warhead has detonated nearby or relatively so. You have survived the blast and the terrible flash that accompany such an event but now it is time to get moving because you will only have anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour before the deadly fallout starts drifting back to earth.
Prevailing winds and other weather conditions naturally play a part in this as does the size of the device that spawned it but you will not be able to count on having more time.
Depending on your circumstances, where you live and where you are heading to seek shelter you might be able to reach the shelter prior to the arrival of the fallout or you might be overtaken by the initial arrival. You may even have to move through fallout that is already on the surface.
Whatever the case move as quickly as you can in order to secure your shelter. If you haven’t counted any fallout or suspected fallout you must take the following steps in order to decontaminate yourself prior to moving into the shelter properly. If you track fallout inside with you your shelter will no longer afford you protection.
If you have been contaminated by fallout or suspect you have do the following:
- Strip off all clothing and remove all gear that has been exposed to fallout. Do not bring these items into your shelter until they can be properly decontaminated. This might prove impossible under the circumstances and the affected gear should be considered lost.
- Take a shower using soap or shampoo in order to remove as much contaminated dust and debris as possible. The objective is to rinse off the radioactive particulate to halt absorption of radiation and prevent tracking it into your shelter with you.
- Lacking a reliable or substantial source of water baby wipes, wet wipes or a wet sponge and washcloth can be used instead.
- Do not use conditioner or lotions as these will bind radioactive dust to your body and hair resulting in you continuing to absorb radiation.
- Decontaminate Quickly. Accomplish this decontamination procedure as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible using whatever means are necessary. All members of your family or group should be practiced in this procedure in order to not waste time.
Understand if you move through an area that is already experiencing the arrival of heavy amounts of fallout even momentary exposure could have lethal consequences.
Once you are safely inside your shelter it is time to immediately take steps to further harden it against the intrusion of the dangerous fallout. All steps must be taken, no matter how small, to seal the interior of your shelter against the intrusion of outside air which can carry fallout.
Also, remember to retreat away from exterior walls, thin roofs and so on that radiation will be able to easily penetrate. Remember that you only have to be near enough to the source of radiation to be dosed by it.
Once you are inside complete the following steps as rapidly as possible:
- Seal all gaps and cracks. Using any materials available set about sealing all cracks, crevices, windowsills, door jambs and other places where air can move into your shelter.
- Duct tape and heavy plastic sheeting works well for this purpose but lacking that you can use rolled up cloths or towels stuffed into spaces in order to halt air flow.
- Close all chimney flues and dampers tightly.
- Shut down manually all air handling equipment even if the power is already out. An unexpected reactivation could flush your interior space with fallout.
- Be thorough. There is no preemptive measure too marginal or too small when trying to stop the ingress of fallout.
With this completed it is time to settle in and wait. You might be in for a long wait. The fallout begins to degrade immediately as soon as it is created but it will persist for some time after the detonation, and is dangerous until it decays into a low-energy state.
Even though the fallout is rapidly losing strength over the following days it could still be extremely “hot” even 72 hours post-blast. You might be forced to settle in for a weight of two weeks or longer while waiting for rescue or before attempting self rescue.
Do the following in the aftermath:
- Tune in by whatever means you have available to emergency broadcasts. The blast from a nuclear warhead is likely to inflict terrible damage to all existing infrastructure and the EMP generated will probably knock out anything that survives the blast but you must try. Try your TV, cell phones, email and emergency radio which is likely to be most probable after such an event.
- Source supplies cautiously. Since you are settling in for a long wait food and water supplies are going to be required as with any other survival situation. It is imperative that you do not take any chances with items that could have been contaminated by the fallout. It is not enough to clean the exterior packaging of such items as the radiation emitted by the fallout can in turn make the contents of any container or package radioactive itself. Even if you scrupulously clean the outside of a bottle of water or a can of tuna you might still be ingesting radioactive comestibles, poisoning you.
- Assemble a go-bag. Obtaining a highly portable survival kit or go-bag is an essential as it might be the only reliable, safe source of food, water and medical supplies in the aftermath of such an event.
Dealing with a threat of a nuclear weapon is one of the most terrifying, sobering and flat out difficult things any prepper could expect to face. Aside from the titanic explosive power of the warhead, an invisible and equally lethal mechanism in the form of radiation, both direct and fallout, will be present.
Most people are extremely ill equipped for dealing with this particular and specialized threat, but with the right knowledge, proper procedure and purpose made equipment it is possible to reduce or even entirely mitigate the threat posed by radiation.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.