Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Vladmir Putin has been threatening nuclear war ever since his invasion of Ukraine. That’s been his big stick to keep the other nations from helping out the smaller nation and so far, it has been effective.
While Russia has a much larger inventory of “tactical” nuclear weapons than we do, meaning that they could theoretically use them on the battlefield, rather than attacking cities, the only response to a nuke is a nuke, so things could accelerate rapidly into full-blown nuclear war. In other words, we’re right back in the Cold War once again.
One of the principles of the Cold War was “MAD,” which stands for “mutually assured destruction.” In other words, nobody wanted to start a nuclear war, because there were enough nuclear-tipped missiles to ensure that both sides would be destroyed by it.
With the reduction of nuclear weapons and the much lower number of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) available to both sides, current Russian military philosophy is that a nuclear war is actually “winnable.” The deterrent of MAD no longer exists.
There are many people who have called Putin a madman for starting the war and threatening the rest of the world. There’s just to see if he really is that much of a madman or not. But if not, don’t worry, there are plenty of other madmen in the world, some of whom have access to nuclear weapons as well, like Iran, North Korea and China.
All war is gruesome; but nuclear war takes that to a new level entirely. Perhaps that’s good, as a deterrent to normal people. Even so, it probably won’t work as a deterrent to some of the crazier rulers in the world. The day is likely to come when one of them decides to let the missiles fly or the bombs drop.
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Nuclear war kills by two basic means: the nuclear explosion itself and fallout. Of the two, it is the nuclear explosion which receives all the press, but in a real nuclear war, more people will die from the fallout, than the explosion.
Surprisingly, as powerful as these weapons are, they only directly kill people within a few miles of ground zero and that happens so quickly, that unless one is in a good shelter before it happens, there’s little that can be done to increase the chances of survival.
But that big mushroom cloud is another thing altogether. It is formed by the implosion that comes in the wake of the bomb’s blast. All the wind that blew away from ground zero returns, picking up dust and dirt along the way. Radioactive material attaches to that and is sucked up into the mushroom cloud. That eventually falls to the earth, downwind of the explosion, as radioactive fallout.
There have never been many shelters designed and built to survive a nuclear explosion and pretty much all of those belong to the government.
However, there was a time, during the Cold War, where many locations throughout the nation were designated as fallout shelters; places for people to take shelter, while waiting the two to four weeks until authorities announce that it is safe to exit.
Those old fallout shelters were usually in the basements of buildings. Stocks of water, food and other CD (civil defense) supplies were stocked there, ensuring that the people who took shelter from fallout would be able to survive. Today, few people know where those shelters were anymore and whatever supplies were stored there have been pilfered or have gone bad.
How Much Risk do You Face?
Before seeking out a shelter, the question you have to ask yourself is just how much risk you face, should we end up in a nuclear war. There are a couple of different parts to consider here, including whether you are in the blast zone of the bomb or the fallout zone. Fortunately for us, there are a number of maps online which can provide some aid to our understanding this.
The most common type of map found is one that shows which areas of the country are likely to be hit in the event of nuclear war. A map that has been circulating since 2015 and was supposedly created by FEMA, provides the best information for this.
I was unable to find it on the FEMA website, but it can be located here. So, the first thing to do is see where you are on the map and whether you are living near any known targets.
Another very useful online tool is a map-based simulator, which shows the radiation radius, blast radius, and thermal radiation radius of a blast, for any size nuclear bomb. You can use presets that are built into the app or put in your own data, to see just how much potential damage you would be exposed to, depending on where you live. This tool, called “Nukemap” can be found here.
Those two maps deal with the nuclear blast itself and the damage that can be caused by it. But what about the fallout? Fallout happens downwind of the blast. So, you need to know the prevailing wind to determine where the fallout from the nuclear strike will occur. A fairly good map of this is available from Hayclon Maps here.
What to Use for a Shelter Today
If you don’t have a fallout shelter handy, you’ll have to improvise. That may not be as bad as it sounds, as most of the fallout shelters during the Cold War were improvised as well. All the government did was take places which already existed and which could serve as effective fallout shelters, designate them as such and stock them with emergency supplies.
The types of places the government selected would work just a well today, as they did during the Cold War. Those are: basements, underground subways, tunnels, and underground parking garages. The big problem with any of these today, is that they aren’t stocked with supplies, like they once were.
So, you’ll need to bring your own supplies with you, including plenty of water. Even then, you may have trouble keeping your supplies, as there will be many people in those places who are unprepared and have no compulsion against taking what you have.
In comparison to that, you’d be better off in your home’s basement, assuming your home has one. The roof of the home will keep fallout from landing directly on you and your distance from that roof will cause the radiation to dissipate in a way that you should not be exposed to a dangerous amount of it.
According to officials, 80% of the fallout should fall from the sky in the first 24 hours, reducing the risk for anyone who comes out. However, for the best protection, the old standby was to stay in the fallout shelter for 14-days, or until the all clear is given by government officials.
In either case, I would highly recommend having a Geiger counter and a cumulative radiation exposure meter, so that you will know how safe it is, right there at your home.
Build Your Own Fallout Shelter
While a basement can work as a fallout shelter, some things should probably be done to that basement, in order to make it a more effective one. How much you do, depends largely on how far you are from the expected epicenter of any nuclear blast.
Earth, dirt, is an effective shield against radiation and of course, the further you are from the blast, the more the radiation will dissipate, lowering that risk. If you are far enough away from the epicenter that you aren’t destroyed by the heat and blast waves, one meter of dirt should be enough to protect you from the radiation.
This means making your fallout shelter on the side of your basement that is closest to the expected explosion, so that it can protect you from the explosion’s radiation as well. Since most nuclear bombs are fused for airburst, you need to be on that side of the basement, so that you don’t have the problem of the radiation angling down in a way that allows it to go over the wall and reach you. It won’t really matter for the fallout itself.
The next question to consider is whether you are close enough to the expected blast that your home might be damaged or destroyed by the blast or heat wave.
That’s where the Nukemap tool mentioned above will help you. If you are that close or even marginally that close, you may want to reinforce the floor above (which is also the ceiling to the basement) so that it will remain intact, if the home is destroyed. You’ll need that to act as your roof, keeping the fallout dust from falling on you.
The first thing to do, to reinforce that floor, is to ensure that the floor joists are attached to the header joists will metal brackets, not just nails. Then ensure that the header joists are attached to the cement that makes up the basement walls.
Finally, cover the bottom side of the floor joists with a layer of plywood (not just drywall). Attach the plywood with screws for security, as the weight of the plywood call pull nails loose. You may also want to add some walls, sectioning off a part of the basement to be your shelter. Again, if you do that, use plywood, not drywall to cover the walls.
Considering that you’ll likely have to stay in that shelter for two weeks, you’ll want some sort of bathroom. If the plumbing in your home doesn’t allow for a bathroom in the basement, make a cubicle in the opposite corner of the basement, in which you can install a chemical toilet or bucket toilet to use while you are in the shelter.
Your shelter will need to be stocked with everything your family needs, to last for a couple of weeks, including enough water so that you don’t need to harvest any. Water from rainwater capture will probably not be safe to drink, as it will wash fallout out of the sky as it comes down.
As preppers, you will already have food and water in your stockpile; you may as well store that stockpile, or at least part of it, in this shelter.
What if You Don’t Have a Basement?
Things get a bit more challenging in homes where there is no basement. In that case, you’re pretty much forced to build an underground bunker. Don’t build it from a shipping container though, as the roof of the container isn’t strong enough to support the meter of dirt overburden.
The only part of the shipping container that is strong is the ends, not the roof. People have had the roofs collapse, when trying to use them to build bunkers.
The least expensive way of building an underground bunker is with cinder block, on a cement slab floor. The roof can then be made by pouring another slab. This sort of construction is actually rather common in Mexico, although it is built above ground and not below ground.
The floor and walls are fairly easy; but don’t forget to put crushed rock or gravel below the floor, for drainage. Ideally, there should be sump, complete with pump, to pump out any water that accumulates below the floor. You might also want to put in some plumbing, before pouring the floor.
Making the cement roof is the challenging part. Start by putting in a corrugated metal roof. This won’t be the actual roof, but will serve to keep the wet concrete from dripping through.
Support this corrugated metal roof with lots of 2”x 4”s (used ones work just fine) to support the weight of the wet concrete. Add the necessary rebar to give the roof strength and pour a 4” thick slab. Once it cures, the 2”x 4”s can be removed, although the corrugated metal is permanent.
With the basic box structure done, you can provide yourself with a stair or ladder access, then push the dirt back over the bunker, burying it. Finish the inside, as you desire, providing living, sleeping and storage spaces. Don’t forget a bathroom, complete with a water tank.