How To Survive A Nuclear Attack, According To Science


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Don't look at the light! matrioshka/Shutterstock

Nuclear weapons stories are incredibly popular right about now, and you don’t get any points for guessing why.

It’s safe to say that if one nuke is dropped on your city, or even if every single nuke in the world goes off at the same time, then there’s a very small chance that you’ll survive. It’s not impossible, however, so we thought we’d let you know what to do in the event of a thermonuclear blast in order to maximize your chance of living.


First, a brief reminder of what a nuclear blast consists of. Let’s once again go with the B83, one of the most powerful weapons in America’s nuclear arsenal. It’s equivalent to 79 Hiroshima “Little Boy” atomic bombs’ worth of energy – 5 quadrillion joules of energy. All that energy’s got to go somewhere, and it’ll unfortunately be heading in your general direction almost regardless of where you are standing or cowering.

Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that it detonates at the surface (an air blast has slightly different characteristics, including a stronger shock wave and a larger thermal radiation coverage). The nuclear fission reaction will spiral out of control and you’ll get a near-immediate fireball – one that uses 50 percent of the detonation’s energy – that will be 83.3 million degrees Celsius (150 million degrees Fahrenheit) at its core. Get caught in this, and you'll sublimate straight from a solid to a gas.

Accompanying thermal radiation – another 35 percent of the total energy – will spread out over an area of 420 square kilometers (162 square miles) at the very least, according to NukeMap, and give everyone third-degree burns.

Your nerve endings will be vaporized, but not before a huge pressure wave will rocket outwards, compress, and crush your internal organs, and flatten any building within a 17-square-kilometer (6.5-square-mile) area.


You’ll also get pretty heavily irradiated, of course. Without wind, an area of just under 21 square kilometers (8 square miles) will see up to 90 percent of the population in it die from radiation sickness.

A test at Camp Desert Rock in Nevada, US Army

So what the hell can you do to survive all this? Well, first thing’s first: be prepared. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, you need to organize your nearest and dearest. Inform them all of the evacuation routes and pick several spots on the outskirts of the city where you can all meet up afterward.

Build up your disaster supply cache too – plenty of bottled water, plenty of thermal blankets, canned food, a radio, and medical supplies, particularly if anyone has a long-term medical condition. If you are lucky enough to have a reinforced cellar or basement, make sure it’s easy to access at all times and is fully stocked.

Yes, we know – this sounds a lot like the conspiracy crackpots who think the world is about to end soon. But, just in case Trump’s ego gets the best of him, this is what you’ll need to do.


Now, that’s the before – what about during the fireworks themselves?

Whatever happens, do not be in the fireball blast radius, because anything in this region, both above and below ground, will be wiped out, like disinfectant killing off tabletop bacteria. A bunker will not save your skin, quite literally.

You need to be several kilometers away from the epicenter, at least. Avoid key landmarks, and if you're in a city that's a key target, we'd advise getting out as quickly as possible.

Now, assuming you’re far away enough, you’ll see a bright light when the nuke explodes. It seems obvious, but don’t look at the light – you’ll go blind, as it’ll be like staring into a man-made Sun that’s a lot closer than the real one. Remember, cool guys/girls, walk away from explosions, not stare at them.


If you’re near a window or in a tall building, get to the core of it and as far down into it as possible. You will have just a few seconds before the pressure wave hits, and ideally, you’ll be far enough out that the structure you’re in won’t be flattened. Don’t stand near any windows, as these will explode inwards and send shards of glass into your face at supersonic speeds.

Put your hands over your ears too. If the pressure wave is powerful enough, it’ll cause your eardrums to burst otherwise.

The shockwave can easily kill you if you're close enough. US Army

If the building remains upright, you need to stay in the center of it for several hours, perhaps even the entire day. That way, the ionizing radiation, and the subsequent cloud of radioactive fallout won’t be able to reach you through so many layers of concrete or brick.

If you’re downwind of the blast, you may be in trouble. Breathe in enough of those irradiated soot particles and you’ll get radiation sickness. The best thing you can do is find somewhere that’s poorly ventilated and put a cloth over your mouth and nose whenever you can. This is particularly tricky to avoid, though, so fingers crossed the wind blows another direction.


Mathematical models have suggested that if you’re far away enough and you’re in a flimsy house or building, it’s best to run to higher quality shelter – so long as you do so in no more than 30 minutes, or the radioactive fallout will get you.

We know what you’re thinking – dive into the fridge, right? Unfortunately, Indiana Jones’ method may not be the best idea. Although it will reduce your radiation intake somewhat, if you’re already that close to the blast, the heat will melt the metal of the fridge, which will fuse with your skin. The pressure wave will also send you flying and the impact will be so severe that you’ll be crushed.

The radiation of the blast will be extremely high, but levels drop off fairly rapidly a few hours post-explosion. The outside world will still be incredibly dangerous though, so you’ll need to get a move on when the all-clear is given. If there is no all-clear or rescue, then wait at least 12 hours before you make a move.

If possible, take off your outer clothing layers, like a coat or jumper – doing so can remove up to 90 percent of the radioactive material on you and may make the difference between life and death. Leave the clothes behind, or dump them in a metal container to stop the radiation escaping.


As soon as you’re at a safe enough distance away, shower yourself to scrub off the remaining radiation. Blow your nose and wipe your face clean with a wet cloth.

First comes the fire, then the pressure wave. US Army/MrNightSky via YouTube

If you’re outside when the blast happens, hit the ground, cover your head, and dive into or behind anything metallic that could shield you from the radiation. After the noise settles down, do everything you can to get out the way of the radioactive fallout.

If you’ve made it through all this, then well done! You’ve survived. Now you just have to make it through the post-apocalyptic landscape, fending off raiders and trying to rebuild society. Good luck, wastelander.


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