How to Prepare For (And Survive) Nuclear War

How to Prepare For (And Survive) Nuclear War

It’s technically possible, but it won’t be easy

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“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” — JRR Tolkein

A few years ago, while making a documentary on human trafficking, my wife and I visited Switzerland.

When we arrived at our host’s house, the first thing he did was take us down into the basement to show us his nuclear bunker.

It was fantastic.

Concrete walls… several weeks of food… a nice little library of books… a totally sealable door. It even had a well in the concrete floor so they wouldn’t run out of freshwater.

I slept very well that night.

I later learned that those forward-thinking Swiss have 360,000 communal shelters — enough nuclear shelters for their entire population. (The actual coverage is 114% of the population, and the biggest can hold 20,000 people.)

As Vladimir Putin continues his slow grind into Ukraine and threatens nuclear annihilation on his growing list of enemies, let’s take a few moments to review what all it will take for humanity to survive a global nuclear war.

The first thing to understand

Not all nuclear events are the same.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki aren’t like Chernobyl.

While Chernobyl is still so radioactive that it has a 1,040-mile exclusion zone, Nagasaki is safe and healthy, with a thriving population of over 429,000. Hiroshima, meanwhile, is about to hit 1.2 million.

Here’s Nagasaki today:

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Beautiful, right?

Nuclear bombs are horrible and they kill a huge amount of people, but unbelievably, they are survivable.

76% of Hiroshima’s buildings were destroyed, but 60% of the people in Hiroshima survived, as did nearly 70% of people in Nagasaki.

I don’t know if this comforts you or not, but there’s a strong chance you will actually survive a nuclear attack on your city if you’re outside the epicenter.

For example, the closest known survivor of the Hiroshima bomb was Eizō Nomura, who was in the basement of a reinforced concrete building just 560 feet from the hypocenter.

Nearly 200 unlucky (or extremely lucky) people survived both atomic bombs.

As of 31 March 2021, 127,755 hibakusha (Japanese nuke survivors) are still alive.

Global thermonuclear war

If Vladimir Putin nukes a major city (likely Berlin to start), the absolute best-case scenario would be for the rest of the world to turn the other cheek, take the loss, go into mourning, and not retaliate. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” But non-retaliation is not America’s way, and ‘Murica would rather take the whole world to hell than forgive a heinous enemy and find another path to peace.

So what’s the worst-case scenario?

Well, there are currently <15,000 nukes in this idiotic Boomer-run world. Most of them are controlled by the US and Russia, and that’s where most of the nuclear drops will take place. Still, if the average nuke has a 3-mile blast radius (28.27 square miles), that’s “only” ~424,000 square miles. In other words, if every single nuke on earth was dropped, it means just 0.017205867% of Earth’s habitable land would be inside a guaranteed-kill blast radius.

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And remember, half of these nukes will never be fired because most of America’s and Russia’s nukes are just pointed at each other’s nukes. If, after a war of nuke-cancellation, we’re actually talking about ~7,500 nukes, and the majority of those rain down on America and Russia, there’s a chance that Africa, South America, and Oceania will be relatively blast-free.

Granted, all of planet Earth will be in the disastrous fallout zone, but this is technically survivable.

To be sure, if you’re within a 3-mile radius of the epicenter of a nuke drop, you’re just plain dead. But then you have nothing to worry about. You’ve been instantly and painlessly vaporized into atomic dust by heat hotter than the sun. Lucky you.

But for the majority of people outside of any number of nuke epicenters, there are things we can do to seriously increase our chances of survival.

Let’s dig in.

1. Heed the warning immediately

At 8:07 AM on the morning of Saturday, January 13, 2018, Hawaiians received the following alert across all television, radio, and cell phones:

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Many Hawaiians panicked, scrambled for shelter and safety.

Others went to the beach to get a better view.

The false alarm was an accident.

But if it hadn’t have been, those beachgoers would have been Hawaiian barbecue.

Russia’s 527 ICBMs will take less than 20 minutes to reach the mainland USA, so if you’re lucky you’ll have ~15 minutes to beat a hasty retreat. Your goal at this point is to get away from the 3-5 mile blast epicenter. Get in a car and head in the opposite direction of the presumed target epicenter as quickly as possible. If you’re twenty miles away when the bomb drops, you have a significantly higher chance of surviving this war.

But if the bomb just hits and it’s a total surprise (because it was in a truck or cargo ship), and you’re just outside the guaranteed-death epicenter, the good news is that the shockwave will probably kill you. Either that, or you’ll have 2nd and 3rd-degree burns, but you won’t feel them because it happened so fast your pain nerves were destroyed before they could even notify your brain.

If you’re still alive, this is where you should duck and cover. Your goal now is to protect yourself from falling building debris caused by the blast and shockwave.

Do not look at the light flash — this can cause permanent blindness.

Oh, and keep your mouth open so your eardrums don’t burst.

2. Wait for your vision to come back.

If you’re within 3 miles and were looking in the direction of the blast, your eyes will be seared blind in <0.5 seconds, but for everyone else in a fifty-mile radius, vision should come back within 1–15 minutes.

3. Get off the street

There will be thousands of blind drivers smashing into you and everything around you.

Once all the cars have crashed, don’t forget to look up — planes and satellites will be falling from the sky thanks to the electromagnetic force of the blast.

4. Use the rule of thumb

Okay, the mushroom cloud is rising.

Your goal now is to avoid nuclear fallout, the sand-sized particles to which radiation binds. It’s what will be raining down from the skies for weeks to come.

It’s time for the rule of thumb: If the cloud is bigger than your thumb, you’re in the radiation zone and have 10–15 minutes to find shelter before fallout lands. Get underground, or above the ninth floor.

Depending on which way the wind is moving and how fast, you might be able to get in a car and drive upwind/crosswind and away from the fallout zone. If you get extremely lucky, you can outrun it to safety a few hours away.

5. Cover your mouth

Mask up with an N-95, rag, towel, or whatever you can find.

If you start getting nauseous, vomit blood, and have diarrhea within 24–48 hours, it’s because you have a mild dose of radiation and it’s damaging your intestines. You will likely survive.

If you get the above symptoms within 12–24 hours, plus fever and hair loss, you’ve had a medium dose of radiation.

If you’re already puking your guts out within an hour, and also have dizziness, disorientation, and low blood pressure, you may have serious radiation poisoning and there is a 50% chance you will die in agony in the next 1–30 days. Do with this information what you will.

6. Get behind lead, concrete, stone, or soil.

Wooden houses are just tinderboxes that will probably burn you alive when fires inevitably spread.

Cars are just microwaves.

You need to get inside something made of lead, concrete, stone, or soil.

Get to the middle of the building, to put as much space between you and radiation as possible.

Ideally, get to the middle of a fort made of furniture/books/bookshelves/mattresses/blankets in the middle of a basement in the middle of a very large concrete building.

You need as much material between you and these killer particles as possible.

Here’s what you need to reduce radiation penetration by 50%:

Iron and steel 0.7 feet

Concrete 2.2 feet

Brick 2.0 feet

Soil 3.3 feet

Ice 6.6 feet

Wood 8.8 feet

Snow 20.3 feet

Remember, the goal is to avoid radioactive fallout.

Fallout emits 50% of its energy in the first hour, and 80% in the first day, so staying inside is the #1 thing you can do to protect yourself on Day One.

If you can’t get inside a building for whatever reason (IE you’re in a forest or every building has been destroyed within a 10-minute sprint) start digging.

Find a ditch, rock outcropping, trench, or hillside if possible. Dig fast. You have ten minutes until the radioactive fallout lands. Get inside the hole and continue to dig. All you’re trying to do is minimize your radiation exposure. Try to get at least three feet of dirt on top of you. Do not leave this shelter for at least 48 hours.

7. Get naked

It’s time to decontaminate.

Once you’re safely inside, take your clothes off — if the blast hasn’t already burned them straight off your body.

Because your clothes and shoes likely have been contaminated by fallout, put everything in a sealed plastic bag and move it as far away as possible.

If you’re in a hole in the ground, remove your outer layers and bury them under a foot of dirt as far away from you as possible.

8. Shower

Use tons of soap. Really get clean. Blow your nose, scrub out your ears.

Use shampoo, but do not use conditioner, because it can bind radiation to your hair.

Once dry, cover your beta burns with vaseline and gauze.

9. Seal everything

Duct tape all your windows shut.

Nail or staple carpets, towels, or blankets over doors and windows.

Seal bathroom vents and furnace ducts.

You need to stop airflows in, as they’ll be carrying radiation particles.

Keep your face covered as a last resort.

10. Start drinking

Now is a good time to get slightly drunk. There are stories about Russian scientists getting loaded on vodka and dashing from Chernobyl, but you’re better off with red wine, as the resveratrol may help protect against cell damage.

Also: Take one potassium iodide tablet every 24 hours. NOT iodine.

Potassium iodide will fill up your thyroid glands with salts so that they can’t absorb any radiation.

11. Stay put

Stay indoors for at least 72 hours. Let that nuclear material rain back down to earth and expend its energy. If you can stay indoors for the next two weeks or longer, definitely do so. Let the radioactive material decay.

If you are in a dirt hole, you can venture out for water or better shelter after 48 hours, so long as you cover yourself (not with your contaminated clothes.) Stay outside for no longer than 30 minutes.

If you’re indoors, you will need:

  • 1 gallon of water per person per day. Do not drink any groundwater (pond/river/lake/roof runoff/etc) for the first 72 hours. Fast-flowing spring-fed rivers are okay after that, but ideally, you want a deep-water source to decrease your chances of contamination.
  • Clothing and footwear to replace what you’ve had to ditch.
  • Potassium iodide. 1 tablet per person per day, 90+ day supply.
  • 1500+ calories per person per day. Fresh food will be radioactive, and high salt foods (dairy, processed meats, etc) will absorb higher levels of radioactivity. Canned soups, canned veggies, and canned fruits are best.
  • Battery-powered or ideally hand-crank radio. (All electronic devices within several hundred miles will have their electronic circuits blown out, and entire state grids will need replacing.)
  • Whistle to signal others and call for help.
  • First aid kit and medical instruction manual. You may have to amputate radiation-poisoned limbs in order to save lives, so be sure to have some alcohol, major painkillers, or ideally sedatives on hand.
  • All regular medications required by your inhabitants.
  • Flashlight.
  • If you’re a real keener, add gas masks, a Geiger counter, and a radiation detector.

Keep listening to the radio. You may receive word of safer shelters, uncontaminated water and food supplies, or an update on radiation levels.

If you have to sum all of this advice up in six words, just remember:

Run in.

Stay in.

Tune in.

A month passes.

Congratulations! You’ve survived a nuclear war.

You should be really, truly, seriously proud of yourself. WWIII has cost over 7 billion lives with nothing to show for it, but you’re one of the “lucky” few to make it through.

Now you have the unenviable jobs of surviving nuclear winter, drought, famine, and Mad Max levels of predatory human behavior.

At this point, you’ll want to head for somewhere rural, ideally somewhere underground like an abandoned coal mine, so you can re-start life as a literal caveman or cavewoman. Don’t forget to take face masks — all that nuclear-melted plastic and metal is now in the atmosphere, slowly raining down carcinogens and chemicals on planet Earth. (Plus, every forest on earth is still burning to a cinder.)

From a radiation perspective, you’re far better off venturing out at night. Be sure to only hunter-gather things that live underground (IE rabbits and root vegetables.) Wear gloves to dispose of skin, and leave a meat buffer on the bones because bones absorb ~90% of the radiation. If possible, stick to indoor canned food for as long as possible.

Don’t forget to take warm clothes — the sun will be blotted out for weeks if not months, seeing the temperatures plummet by 30 degrees Fahrenheit, kicking off an Ice Age.

Eventually, black snow will fall, blanketing the earth in poison. It will take a few years or decades before the skies fully clear again, and many decades before the radiation declines to outdoor-livable levels.

But within a few centuries, humanity should be able to bounce back if we’ve figured out how to grow food underground.

Give it a few millennia and the earth will fully stabilize under new norms, with or without us.

Unbelievably, most of our plastic items will still be intact.

In conclusion

Clearly, the best thing the average person can do to prepare for nuclear war is to move to the countryside—to a house with a deep-water well and a well-stocked fallout shelter that’s at least several hundred miles upwind from the nearest major city or military target—and actively wage peace with our words, actions, votes, investments, and spending power so that earth slowly but surely weans itself off dictators, despots, and nuclear devices.

(Either that or move to Switzerland ASAP.)

The major likelihood is that Vladimir Putin isn’t suicidal and won’t start a nuclear war — and we can keep it that way by always making sure he never feels cornered.

But either way, I believe the human race can and will survive and even thrive after a global nuclear war, and that those who remain will be a far more enlightened group than our current crop.

But in the meantime, friends: Be anxious about nothing.

Who, by worrying, can add a single second to their life?

Instead: Pray for shalom, prepare for fallout, and promote peace by lovingly serving each other.

The reality is that we’re all eventually going to die.

Let’s make sure we actually live first.


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