7 Tips for Surviving a Nuclear Attack

Ways you can survive a nuclear attack.

With mounting tensions with countries around the world and all of the world’s leaders developing what appears to be itchy trigger fingers, it seems like it’ll only be a matter of time before one of them fires off a nuclear warhead. For students of history (or just those who were somewhat awake during 4th grade Social Studies), images of the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki come racing back to memory.

But it wasn’t that long ago when the world was at the brink of nuclear war. The Cold War between Russia and the United States reached a boiling point with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. Millions of schoolchildren learned how to duck under their desks and use them as cover against the destructive, world-annihilating force of a thermonuclear bomb, but alas, the world was able to avoid destruction once again.

We may not be so lucky next time, and while we marvel at all the doomsday preppers who are able to spend millions of dollars on super-sized bunkers that have unlimited supplies of food and satellite television, there are a few steps that everyone can take, no matter who you are, to prepare yourself and your family for a nuclear missile strike.

The Two Types of Nuclear Bombs: Fission vs. Fusion

There are two types of nuclear bombs that you need to be aware of. Fission bombs and Fusion bombs. Both are devastating but there area  few differences.

  • Fission Bomb: The fission bomb is a type of nuclear device that splits the atoms and relies on the daughter atoms to create a highly-charged chain reaction. This was the type of bomb used in Japan at the end of World War II and proved effective in annihilating an entire city in seconds.
  • Fusion Bomb: The second is called the fusion bomb, which fuses heat deuterium and tritium together and releases an incredible amount of energy, hundreds of times more powerful than a fission bomb.

A fission bomb is most likely to be used by terrorists smuggling a dirty bomb stateside, while the fusion bomb is more likely to be launched from a developed, first-world country. You should be concerned about the first, but downright paranoid about the second.

The 1946 nuclear test known as Operation Crossroads.
A fission type nuclear bomb test during Operation Crossroads by the U.S. Government in 1946. Modern day nuclear weapons are hundreds of times more powerful.

1. Have a Designated Fallout Room or Fallout Shelter

An emergency fallout shelter can be anything you want it to be. Radiation from a nuclear attack penetrates all but the most dense materials. This is why that heavy piece of lead is always used at your dentist’s office to guard your family jewels from any extra radiation their x-ray machine emits. So the rule is, the more dense material you can get between yourself and the outside world during the nuclear attack, the better.

Do you have extra dirt or bricks laying around? Great! Get some empty sand bags to fill with the dirt, and stack up the bricks and sandbags in your basement on all sides of you with some wood supports and you’ll have a great makeshift fallout room. Remember, get as much dense material between you and the outside world as possible.

Of course and underground fallout shelter with 10 feet of earth between you and the outside is ideal, but most people don’t have the means for this. So if this isn’t an option for you, find a room near the center of your house to use as your “fallout room” in case of a nuclear incident. Even better would be a cellar or basement that is below the grade of the earth around it. The layers of dirt (in the case of a cellar) or even just the other rooms of the house that are filled with belongings between you and the outside, will help to drastically reduce radiation exposure.

2. Be Prepared Ahead of Time with the Basics

This may sound like a simple cliche ripped off of the Boy Scouts, but there’s a reason that “be prepared” stands as the motto of their institution: it works. In the event of a nuclear holocaust, you’ll have virtually zero time to build a shelter, stock it with enough food, and then bring all your family into it. Nukes fly fast, come with very little warning, and hit hard, destroying everything in their wake. Your only chance is, literally, being prepared before there’s even a warning in the first place.

What you’ll need:

  • Emergency food supply
  • Emergency water supply
  • Basic medical supplies

What this means for you is securing enough non-perishable emergency food and medical supplies so that you can hold up inside for however long you need. Even if the blast doesn’t annihilate your house, the radioactive fallout will still be present in the air long enough to forbid you from going outside for at least a couple days (longer if you’re closer to the blast site).

Some of the basic necessities that you can stock up on are water, rice, pasta, powdered milk, honey, sugar and dried fruits and vegetables. Don’t forget to store water too: the average human needs about a gallon a day, so make sure you have enough stocked away for however many people you’re planning on housing.

Radiation detectors and other related supplies.
A vendor’s display selling radiation detectors, dosimeters, potassium iodide pills, and other supplies for handling nuclear fallout.

3. Have a Way to Communicate and Get Updates

Assuming that the nuke will be aimed squarely at a major metropolitan area (looking at you New York City and Los Angeles), the main communication hubs for major news networks like NBC, CNN, and Fox News will most likely be out of commission… permanently.

What you’ll need:

  • Short wave radios for you and nearby friends/family
  • Solar or hand crank radio
  • Solar or hand crank power charger

That being said, most of the smaller, regional networks should still be operational, so if you have a set of rabbit ear antennae you can hold on to just in case, that just may come in handy. Especially if you end up facing a Red Dawn type of scenario after the initial nuclear blast.

But you’ll also need a way to communicate with other people, instead of just hearing from the news networks. Invest in a couple of portable AM/FM radios and high powered radio transmitters, as well as a satellite phone. Make sure you either find some that are solar-powered or hand-cranked, or you have a charger that is. If the electrical grid goes down, which it most likely will due to the EMP blast from the nuke, your standard charger will most likely be useless.

4. Plan Multiple Evacuation Routes

In case you can’t shelter in place and have to leave in a hurry, plan multiple evacuation routes, especially if you live near a major metropolitan area. In the case of a threatened nuclear war, major cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. are likely targets due to their strategic value to terrorists; in the case of all-out nuclear war, every major city that poses any kind of value to the homeland is up for grabs.

What you’ll need:

  • A paper map with multiple escape routes highlighted
  • A car with plenty of gas

So if you live in one of these major cities, you need to have an evacuation plan and a location to go to just in case. The last thing you want to be stuck in is a twenty-mile traffic jam on major highways of people that waited until the last minute to evacuate. Also, don’t expect to be able to swing by the local gas station on the way out of town. They will likely either be completely overrun with people or out of service entirely. Have emergency gas on hand at home.

Know where you’re going and find every different route to get there that you can. Have these routes highlighted on a paper map (yeah, I know you probably haven’t seen one of those in a long time) and stash that map away in your car.

A backyard fallout shelter.
Fallout shelters are typically underground and constructed with concrete or brick. This is because layers of earth and rock is an effective way to absorb nuclear radiation, keeping those on the inside safe.

5. Once the Nuke Hits, Find Your Shelter and Take Your Nuke Pills

You have zero time… ZERO. In the event of a nuclear strike, you do not have time to fiddle fart around and say goodbye to your friends; besides, they’re most likely dust vapor by this point anyway. As soon as you hear about an incoming strike, head to your bunker (or house or basement), lock the door, and don’t let anyone in that you are absolutely certain will not cause damage to your shelter.

What you’ll need:

  • Your shelter all stocked and ready to go
  • Potassium iodide tablets

Once settled in your shelter, if you think you may have come in contact with any nuclear fallout, change your clothes and bathe yourself. Even fine particles of radioactive dust left on the skin can severely burn you. Also, be sure to take some potassium iodide tablets which will help to protect your thyroid gland from absorbing any radioactive iodine.

The thyroid gland is the most sensitive part of the body when it comes to radioactive iodine exposure, so have these tablets on hand to protect you and your family.

Not only do you need to be concerned about the blast itself, but you also should be aware that radiation can stay on the surface for months or even years at a time. The radiation from the secondary fallout is the most likely cause of death for millions, instead of the blast.

Although it is not recommended, if you absolutely must venture into the open, make sure you wear some sort of protection and minimize your time outdoors as much as possible.

If a radiation suit is not something you had stashed away for something like this, you can use any coverall type hazardous materials suit for a lower level of protection. While a radiation suit is best because it will protect you from gamma rays, a standard hazardous material suit will still help protect you from alpha and beta rays which do their damage by contacting the skin or being inhaled.

You should also wear an NBC rated face mask filtration system to filter the air your breathe to ensure you aren’t inhaling radioactive particles.

Areas near Chernobyl are still mostly abandoned thanks to radiation contamination.
The once bustling city of Pripyat, Ukraine once had a population of almost 50,000 residents and an impressive infrastructure. It was turned into a ghost town almost overnight on April 26, 1986 by the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Most of this area is still a ghost town today.

6. Remember to Over-Protect Yourself

You can’t exercise too much caution when it comes to surviving a nuclear bomb detonation near you and avoiding fallout. Having a few extra items to help you go that extra mile in protecting yourself and your family can make all the difference.

What you’ll need:

  • Extra clothes
  • Protection equipment
  • Radiation detector (geiger counter) and dosimeters

Even if you have built your fallout shelter completely up to the most unrealistic standards that human beings can possibly accomplish, it may not be a bad idea to pile up as much brick, debris and stone as you can against the walls once the nuke hits. The idea is to create layers between you and the radiation so as to protect yourself against even the faintest drop of fallout. Some extra last minute layers can make a difference.

This applies to your clothing as well. Wear multiple layers of shirts, hoodies, pants, and gloves, and seal your face mask with enough tape that it creates a nice seal. After you’re done wearing one round of clothes, decontaminate them by washing them thoroughly and stowing them away in a sealed compartment. Radiation poisoning can seep through clothes and attach themselves to the skin, so eliminate the saturation by cleaning them regularly.

Basic protection equipment such as a NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) rated gas mask, chemical contamination suit, gloves, and similar equipment may also help you to stay free from contamination.

Radiation detectors can help you get an idea of how much radiation you are being exposed to at any given time which might be very helpful for you to determine when you can leave your fallout shelter. A dosimeter can help by recording how much total radiation you are exposed to over time so you know your exposure levels. Remember, you can’t taste or smell radiation so it doesn’t hurt to have a detector on hand. Modern day versions are relatively inexpensive and highly accurate.

7. Under-Eat Your Rations

Truthfully, you don’t know how long you’ll ultimately be in your shelter. Although a few weeks would be standard for a nuclear blast, it could be months, especially if the bomb detonated closer to your position. For that reason, stretch your rations as much as possible by consuming food and water as little as possible for you to keep your health up.

If you have to venture out onto the surface in search of food, stay away from all sources of open water; chances are, radiation fallout has poisoned that area and you could do massive harm by drinking it. Animal meat is usually ok, but don’t eat meat that’s close to the bone, as that is where the radiation tends to group together. Plants are normally ok, but your best bet is to eat the undergrowth of the plants that are found in the ground such as potatoes or carrots.


Though a nuclear blast is not the most likely outcome for any civilization – since the outcome is total human desolation – it still remains a viable possibility in these modern times. Once you’ve survived the initial blast, be prepared for follow-up detonations as well. Keep your shelter viable, ration your food, and try to wait it out. Stay tuned to your trusty radio for updates from authorities in regards to how long to shelter in place.

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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