Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
There was a time when many people constructed bomb shelters in their backyards. It was the 50’s and 60’s during the height of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Over time, the threat seemed to fade as disarmament agreements were signed and the Soviet Union collapsed. But slowly and consistently, more and more countries not only possess but are developing nuclear bomb capabilities.
In some ways, it seems more like saber-rattling than a genuine threat. But all it takes is a mistake or an act of madness by a despotic dictator to make the threats a reality. In this article, we’ll cover the various factors surrounding a nuclear disaster and identify the steps you must take to prepare for and survive a nuclear war.
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Step 1: Recognize How Close We Have Come
Anyone who insists a nuclear threat will never happen should be aware of the many occasions when it almost did. All were nuclear events, and some instances involved the loss of a thermonuclear device. When this happens, the code word is: “Broken Arrow.”
The Goldsboro North Carolina Broken Arrow – 1961
In 1961, a B-52 bomber broke up over Goldsboro, North Carolina and crashed on a farm. The crash caused two hydrogen bombs to fall on the area. Fortunately, they did not detonate. One of the bombs was recovered intact. The other bomb was only partially recovered. Its nuclear core is still buried under 200 feet of dirt and mud.
After a military study, the bomb with its parachute hung up in a tree advanced through 6 of the 7 steps to detonation. Only one trigger stopped the detonation and that trigger was set to ARM. According to Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense at the time, “Only by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross – a nuclear explosion was averted.” The fallout would have been devastating to the East coast.
According to the Pentagon, more than three-dozen accidents in which bombers either crashed or caught fire on the runway resulted in nuclear contamination from a damaged, destroyed, or lost bomb.
The Soviet B59 Submarine Incident – 1962
On October 27, 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, an American destroyer dropped depth charges on a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine near the American blockade of Cuba. The depth charges were not armed but meant as a shot across the bow.
The Russian sub’s commander was convinced they were armed and ordered an attack with a nuclear-tipped torpedo. All three of the senior officers had to agree to the launch. One refused: Vasili Arkhipov, the second in command. World War III was avoided thanks to one Soviet submariner. The story was not revealed until 2002.
The NORAD Computer Glitch – 1979
On November 9, 1979, NORAD received an urgent alert that the Soviet Union had launched a barrage of missiles at North America. The U.S. scrambled 10 interceptor fighters, ordered the Presidents “Doomsday Plane” to takeoff, and prepared for a retaliatory counterattack.
Fortunately, it was soon discovered that a junior technician had accidentally run a training program that simulated a nuclear attack on the United States by the Soviet Union. The counterattack was called off, but three more false alarms plagued NORAD in 1980.
The Abel-Archer Incident – 1983
In November of 1983, NATO engaged in a war game exercise simulating an attack on the Soviet Union. The Abel-Archer exercise was unprecedented in its scope. 19,000 U.S. troops were airlifted to Europe, U.S. alert status was changed to DEFCON 1, and certain commands were relocated to alternate locations. All the steps the Soviet Union estimated would occur prior to the onset of a nuclear attack.
The Soviets had been informed of the exercise, but the suspicion was that the war game was a cover for an actual attack. As a result, the Soviets went to high alert, prepared jets for takeoff, and remained ready for a counterstrike. It wasn’t until the exercise ended that the situation was defused. World War III was avoided. Yet again.
Who knows how many events are still classified and unreported? The simple fact is that the threat is real.
According to the book, Nuclear War Survival Skills, nuclear war is survivable. This book was put together by Cresson H. Kearny of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is considered by many to be the best and last word on how to survive a nuclear blast.
Step 3: Respect the Impact of the Detonation
- Based on your location
- Based on the size of the warhead
- Based on the extent of the conflict
The point is simple. The farther you are from ground zero, the better your chances of survival. Here is a map of the U.S. with estimated high-risk targets for a nuclear detonation in a time of war.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are minuscule compared to the size and destructive power of a hydrogen bomb. The largest hydrogen bomb was tested by Russia in 1961. It was 50 megatons.
The Extent of the Risk
1. Dirty Bombs
Dirty bombs are the most chilling terrorist threat. They are not atomic bombs. They’re conventional explosives designed to spread radioactive material over a wide area.
2. Strategic Nuclear Detonation
The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a strategic military decision. It ended World War II, but put the atomic bomb in the wartime strategic arsenal.
3. Limited Nuclear War
Limited may seem to be an understatement, but it’s limited in the sense that it is intended to only directly affect two warring parties or countries. The effects on the people living in those countries would be catastrophic, and neighboring countries would feel the effects of fallout drifting on the wind.
4. Global Thermonuclear War
This is the head-shaker and falls in the category of a potentially apocalyptic event. It is survivable depending on location, but the bigger question is long-term survivability given the state of the world and civilization after the events.
Step 4: Plan for The Five Stages of a Nuclear Detonation
The destructive force of a nuclear detonation goes well beyond the blast of the explosion. When a conventional bomb explodes, what’s done is done for the most part. When a nuclear bomb explodes, the devastation comes in waves and the effects spread and linger.
The flash from a nuclear detonation is the first stage and travels at the speed of light. Anyone exposed to the flash will suffer second or third-degree burns. Anyone looking at the flash could be permanently blinded.
The flash is so intense that even everyday objects in Hiroshima left permanent shadows on walls.
2. EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse)
An electromagnetic pulse also travels at the speed of light. It destroys electronics unless they are shielded in a specific way (Faraday cage). This includes all electronics whether operational, idle, unused, or powered off. Electronics with circuit boards are the most vulnerable. Computers fall into that category.
The result could be total grid failure and failure of all electronic communication across a wide area. To make matters worse, an EMP can stretch for hundreds and hundreds of miles, well beyond the blast zone.
Improvised Faraday Cage: Line a large, metal garbage can with sheets of cardboard. Put electronics in the can and cover with the lid.
3. Radioactive burst
It’s not just about the fallout. An atomic explosion sends out a burst of radioactivity that destroys cells, organs, and typically leads to cancer even in small doses due to its effects on DNA.
4. Shock Wave
Any bomb delivers a shock wave. The shock wave from a nuclear detonation is exponentially greater.
The effected distance is less than the first three stages, but exposed people and structures up to 5 miles away will suffer from total destruction to severe damage following a 5-megaton blast.
The most insidious stage of a nuclear detonation. It’s caused by radioactive, particulate matter thrust high into the atmosphere usually caused by a ground burst and carried by prevailing westerly winds spreading radioactivity far beyond the blast zone. It will cause radiation burns and damage to both cells and DNA.
And it’s not just about the fallout from a nuclear explosion. We’ve done it to ourselves from Chernobyl to Fukushima to Atomic testing in the southwestern U.S. — radioactivity has been a regular companion.
Step 5: Preparing for Nuclear War
Most people will face two options. People who have prepared for the long-term will not only have the knowledge but the tools and equipment to avoid the 5 stages of a nuclear detonation. All of the steps to prepare fully are covered in the Nuclear War Survival Skills book including various ways to build a bomb shelter.
It’s likely that the majority of people will be scrambling to make decisions in the short-term. The good news is that shelter can be found even if it’s as simple as a basement. The bad news is that you may find fundamental needs unmet as a result of the aftermath.
Step 6: Assess the Situation
A nuclear bomb delivered by a missile will leave only minutes to act before the detonation. If an alert is broadcast by the emergency broadcast system (EBS) on TV, radio, or the Internet, you need to act fast and think fast. Here are steps to consider — quickly.
1. Assess the Level of the Attack
Has a terrorist attack left one city radioactive as a result of a dirty bomb?
It’s possible this is an isolated incident. Or not. It’s easy to assume the worst, but widespread panic often is the primary threat to a population. Stop and think about your level of risk based on the information you have.
2. Assess Your Location
Primary danger zones are typically defined by the size of the population; the proximity of a military base or missile site, and major industrial centers. Attacks on these areas will inflict the most damage.
3. Assess the Need to Evacuate
Evacuation studies of areas hit by natural disasters have shown that any evacuation recommended or mandated by federal or local authorities create the greatest problems related to traffic jams and general panic.
Self-determined evacuations present less of a problem because the volume of people attempting to evacuate is less. Evaluate your proximity to a possible target and if you think your location is high-risk, evacuate before any announcement. If you are not in a high-risk zone, you’re better off staying home.
Step 7. Find Shelter
You don’t need a doomsday bunker in the back yard to survive a nuclear attack, but it helps. If you are like most people, you don’t have one but there’s a good chance you have a basement.
A basement can protect you from all 5 stages of a nuclear detonation. The foundation walls are usually concrete at least 8 inches thick. Surrounding the foundation is dirt, clay, and rock. The combined mass of those materials offers very effective protection from the nuclear flash, EMP (to some degree), radioactive wave, blast, and with proper precautions, fallout.
People living in a city can take shelter in an underground parking garage, municipal shelters, or other locations with high mass from concrete construction.
Municipal shelters are marked with a symbol and the words “Fallout Shelter” but you don’t see them so much anymore.
Step 8: Consider Equipment You Must Have
- An AM/FM radio that can be recharged with both solar cells and a hand-cranked generator built-in. Emergency information through CONELRAD can provide updates on fallout and local status.
- A basic Geiger Counter to measure radiation. It doesn’t have to be industrial strength. There are economical models that measure radiation accurately. Identifies fallout threat in your immediate area. There is also an App for the iPhone that will turn your phone into a Geiger counter.
- Personal Dosimeter Meter (Measures individual’s total exposure to radioactivity. One for each member in your group)
- An expedition level water filter with both activated charcoal and ceramic filters. It will not filter radioactivity from fallout but will purify raw, freshwater sources.
- 5-Gallon water storage containers.
- Rechargeable lighting equipment either solar rechargeable or hand-cranked.
- Portable toilet.
- Communication such as hand-held CB radios or walkie-talkies. Cell phones probably won’t be operational due to EMP. Traditional hardline phones and computer access on hardline possible assuming phone and computer have been protected from EMP and computer has a hardline phone-jack.
A Note on the Internet
The Internet could still be operational. It was invented by the RAND Corporation at the request of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The request from DARPA was for a communication platform that would survive total thermonuclear war.
RAND determined that the spider web of phone lines crisscrossing the United States could use “packet-switching” to direct and redirect a message to carefully located servers around the country to complete the communication. Controversy still surrounds the story and many have claimed to invent it.
Step 9: Assemble Supplies You Must Have
- Potassium iodide solution (Protects the pituitary gland from radiation.)
- First aid kit including burn kit supplies
- Activated charcoal tablets (For radiation sickness. OTC available at pharmacies.)
- Toilet paper
- Enough stored water for 14 days totaling 28 gallons per person.
- Enough stored food for 14 days totaling 2,500 calories a day per person.
- Sleeping supplies (pillows, blankets, sleeping bag, etc.)
- Extra clothing
- Prescription medications
- Duct tape for sealing doors and windows from fallout dust
Both the equipment you need and supplies will vary depending on your situation. Here again, refer to the Nuclear War Survival Skills book for all of the possibilities. Other books to have on hand include Where There Is No Doctor, the U.S. Army First-Aid Manual, and Red Dog Nuclear Survival by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Step 10: What To Do When It’s Over
General estimates indicate that people should remain in their shelters for at least 14 days if fallout is in the area. Your radio or your Geiger counter can help you make this determination. The standard recommendation is that you only go outside when absolutely necessary and try to limit your time outside. That all depends on the extent of the event.
Life will go on. It really depends on the quality of that life and your willingness to live with it.
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