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I grew up in a time when the risk of thermonuclear war was very real. Every day was overshadowed by the possibility that Washington and Moscow would push the button, creating the ultimate TEOTWAWKI event. We didn’t think about it all the time, but I can still remember participating in nuclear raid drills (much like fire drills) when I was in elementary school. My start as a survivalist was developing my bug out plan as a teenager, should the world ever blow up in a nuclear war.
Yet in all of that, we were no closer to thermonuclear war than we are today. Back then, our government operated under the strategic theory of MAD (mutually assured destruction), which basically said, “If you kill our people, we’ll kill yours.” While a rather crazy means of preventing mutual destruction, MAD worked. Nobody wanted to push the button and see what would happen.
Yet the situation is considerably different today. First, both we and Russia have fewer nukes and fewer ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles). As of this writing, there are about 400 ICBMs in both the US and Russia’s inventories. With each of those capable of carrying multiple warheads, that’s still a lot of destruction; but the world itself might still survive.
The second difference is that we are currently faced with a bad actor who has declared his willingness to use his nuclear arsenal to achieve his wartime goals. Vladimir Putin has made several references, both openly and by innuendo, as to his willingness to use nukes to destroy anyone who gets in his way. As of right now, Russia’s nuclear forces are at an increased alert level, although not at their highest possible level, with a finger poised over the button.
The question the whole world wants to know… is whether Putin is going to push that button. It could just be brinksmanship; but even that can get out of hand when the other guy doesn’t fold.
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For the last several years, we in the survival community have focused on the idea that nuclear war would take the form of a HEMP (high-altitude electromagnetic pulse); but Putin has made no reference to that in the various things he has said. Rather, his statements are being interpreted as meaning a more direct nuclear attack. How big such an attack would be is something we just don’t know.
It seems that Putin’s threats have been more against the European nations than the United States. With only England and France being nuclear powers, there is a chance that Putin could take the chance and attack some other NATO country with a “limited” nuclear attack, thinking he could get away with it.
The onus would then be on the rest of NATO, including the United States, to decide whether to expand the nuclear war or let him get away with it. There’s no right answer to that one, and I’m glad I won’t be the one having to make that decision.
Should that nuclear war expand, you can be sure that we will be attacked. We are a full member of NATO and the biggest threat to Russia. All that President Biden may able to do is order a retaliation attack, as he probably won’t be able to stop his counterpart in the Kremlin.
It’s a pretty safe bet that something like 80 to 90 percent of Russia’s nukes have US mailing addresses on them; most likely aimed at Washington DC, other major government installations, military bases, and our largest cities. To counter that, we have very limited missile defensive capability, most of which is located in Europe. In other words, there is very little likelihood that we could do much to stop a full-blown nuclear attack from Russia.
Could We Survive the Blast?
Regardless of whether we could survive nuclear war as a nation, what comes first is surviving it on an individual basis. That depends more on location than anything else. Nuclear warheads aren’t magical devices that can blanket the country. They’re powerful, but even that power has limits. The closer you are to ground zero, the lower your chance of survival.
There are many maps and simulations for nuclear warfare online. Using one of them, I looked at what a W-87 nuclear bomb, with a yield of 300 kt yield would do to Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city. Houston is a good city for this sort of theoretical exercise due to the layout of the city, which is roughly circular.
If the bomb exploded downtown:
- The fireball would encompass 0.73 mi2, anyone inside this zone would be vaporized instantaneously
- The deadly radiation zone would cover 5.56 mi2, people inside this zone would absorb enough radiation to kill them within hours or days, if they managed to survive the shock wave
- The shock wave would cover 11.39 mi2, flattening most buildings
- And the heat wave would cover 48.54 mi2 the least damage that one could receive in this zone is severe third-degree burns; wood, clothing, paper and plastic would catch fire.
Total fatalities from this explosion would kill roughly 150,000 people and leave an equal number with serious injuries. But here’s the shocking part… these effects wouldn’t cross the 610 beltway. While there would be plenty of people injured and plenty of damage outside the beltway, the majority of the effects would be limited to what is considered the inner part of the city.
One of the biggest questions in determining how bad the destruction from nuclear war would be depends on how many nukes Russia would send our way. The assumption has always been that they would send as many as possible, in the belief that they wouldn’t get a second chance. With that possibility, we could count on all our major cities being gutted; but not everyone would die.
Our country’s biggest populations are in southern California, the Northeast, along the Eastern Seaboard, and the Gulf Coast. Those areas would suffer the worst attacks. In contrast, states like Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho would only receive a few nukes. Large amounts of the country would be untouched by the initial attack, even while the major population centers would be devastated, with a potential 75 million Americans dead.
There is little any of us can do to survive the initial attack, except to move away from any potential targets. But that’s impossible for most people to do. We live in those cities because that’s where the jobs are, and we need those jobs in order to survive. Before any of us could think of moving, we’d need to figure out some way of making a living out in the country. Other than that, the only real protection in the city would be to go underground and build a bunker.
Can We Survive Fallout?
The second risk wave from any nuclear attack is that of fallout. When a nuclear bomb explodes, the shock wave pushes air out from the epicenter as wind moving at about 784 MPH. That creates a low-pressure area, causing the air to return to that area at about the same speed. When it does, it pushes the smoke up, creating the characteristic mushroom cloud associated with a nuclear explosion.
That cloud is filled with dust and other particles, to which radioactive fragments of the bomb are attached. Those eventually fall back to the earth in a slow process that can take up to five weeks. This falling dust is what is known as “fallout” and can cause radiation sickness and other damage to the human body. While the actual fallout stops within three to five weeks, the radiation on the ground can last for years, causing ongoing health risks.
There are several parts to surviving fallout. To start with, one needs a shelter in which to hide, which would block out the radiation. The best such shelters are built in people’s basements or underground in their backyards. But it is also possible to build a fallout shelter above ground, if it is impossible to build underground. Preparations should be made to stay in that shelter for at least a month.
The second consideration is the use of potassium iodide. This does not protect from all possible types of fallout, but it can protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine. Potassium iodine shouldn’t be taken indiscriminately, but only when so advised by the government. The equipment necessary to check for this particular risk is very expensive and not available on the open market.
Theoretically, the government will be checking and clearing areas from fallout; but should nuclear war actually occur, I doubt the government would have enough teams to clear areas. We will either need to be able to clear the area around our home ourselves, finding any radioactive fallout in the area, wait for the government, or take a chance on going outside and returning to whatever normalcy of life we can, taking the risk that we would be bombarded by radiation.
This makes it clear that we would need to be able to check for radiation with either a Geiger counter or radiation dosimeter. The dosimeter will tell you how much radiation you are absorbing, while the Geiger counter will help locate the source of that radiation.
Being able to find places where fallout has landed will allow us to scoop up the material (like a shovelful of dirt with one or two radioactive specs in it) and move it to a safe zone away from our homes and the homes of others. While that would be risky to do, it wouldn’t be as risky as living with it.
What About Long Term Survival?
An all-out nuclear war and the loss of both population and infrastructure would be disastrous in many ways. Chances are high that the cities and states which were hit by nukes would lose much of their government. While smaller towns would survive, cities like Houston and Chicago would find their city center gutted, leaving the people of those cities without anyone to pull them together. A general collapse of society would likely occur, with the associated breakdown of law and order.
This will affect every part of the country in one way or other. Even rural communities will be affected by the loss of infrastructure and government, along with massive disruptions to the supply chain. Locally made products might still be available for a time; but it will become harder and harder to buy even the most basic of products.
Worse than that is what is known as “nuclear winter.” With so much dust and debris picked up by the hundreds of explosions and carried into the upper atmosphere, much of the sunlight we depend on for farming and heat would be blocked. We’d end up with a winter that could last for several years. Farmers would have trouble growing crops, as most plants need abundant sunlight to thrive.
The year 1816 is known as “the year without a summer.” The previous year Mount Tambora erupted, casting tons of ash into the upper atmosphere, much like a nuclear explosion would. That year was an agricultural disaster, with farms producing much less than normal. Food shortages were everywhere.
Nuclear war, on the scale that we are capable of having now, would be much worse. Not only would there be much more dust cast into the upper atmosphere; but because there would be so much of it, it would take longer to come down. We could very easily see several years of famine. People who survived the nuclear war would be faced with the risk of dying of starvation.
As preppers, many of us are accustomed to the idea that we would grow our own food to survive a long-term scenario. We would still need to do that, but we would probably need to plant four times as much, just to get what we would need. With smaller yields from our gardens, we would have to put much more effort into getting the most we could. It would be possible to grow enough; but only if we planted enough to make up for the lower yields we would receive from our crops.
Any return to normal would be a slow process. While I’m sure our politicians would be quick to try and reconstitute some sort of government, it is questionable how effective that government would be. It isn’t just the politicians who make the government run, but the millions of government workers, at every level. There are provisions for trying to get the president, his cabinet, and congress out of Washington in the event of a nuclear war, but there aren’t for the workers filling all those federal buildings.
Yes, things would return to some semblance of stability; but it would take several years, perhaps decades. A massive national effort would have to be put into rebuilding America, while our military stood guard, protecting our borders. How well we would recover would depend a lot on how well people worked together to make that happen.
Considering how fractured our society is today, I don’t actually have a lot of hope in our effort to pull together, even to rebuild after a nuclear war; maybe on a local level, but not beyond that.
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