What to Do Before, During, and After a Nuclear Attack

Steps to Take Before During and After a Nuclear Attack

We have all heard the horror stories about nuclear bombs, and some of us have even enjoyed popular survival movies based on the premise, but it still can seem like a distant concept, and the probability of occurrence seems minimal. However, with recent political developments abroad, the threat can turn very real overnight, and the time for preparedness is now – before an incident happens. As such, here are some very straightforward ways for you and your family to deal with a nuclear attack:

Steps to Take Before, During and After a Nuclear Attack

Before During After
1. Educate Yourself and your Family 1. Pay Attention to All Warnings 1. Decontaminate Immediately
2. Prepare an Emergency Kit 2. Actively Seek Shelter 2. Stayed Tuned In
3. Designate Your Own Fallout Room or Bunker 3. Take Emergency Measures if Caught Outside
4. Create a Family Emergency Plan 4. Avoid the Incoming Radiation Fallout
5. Locate Your Local Fallout Shelter 5. Do Not Underestimate Radiation

This is a summary of steps to take in regards to a nuclear detonation. Read below for further information on each step.

Before an Attack Occurs

1. Educate Yourself and your Family

The first thing that your family should do before a nuclear attack occurs is educate yourselves. Learn how real the threat may be at any given time by staying informed by reputable news sources. Also, the federal website Ready.gov, offers advice and suggestions on nuclear preparedness, and has proven to be a treasure trove of useful information for many American families.

You can also visit your local emergency response authorities to ask for literature regarding how you should respond to such a disaster. There may even be public forums discussing such threats that you are more than welcome to attend. These meetings feature local leaders of whom you may ask questions.

Another route to consider is volunteering your time with local emergency response teams to learn more about disaster preparedness, which will provide you with peace of mind in the event of an attack. You will know what to expect, and you will be less likely to panic in case the unthinkable should occur.

Potential nuclear strike targets as designated by FEMA.
In 1990, FEMA released the locations of the most likely military targets in the U.S. for Soviet nuclear ICBM’s along with the resulting levels of radioactive fallout. It’s fair to assume that these same areas are still likely targets today by nuclear nations hostile to the U.S.

2. Prepare an Emergency Kit

You should have an emergency kit ready and available at any place where you are likely to spend up to twenty-four hours. This means that you should have one in your home, your place of work, and any other place that you frequent. You should even place a portable kit inside your car that you can use if you are told to evacuate. It is also best to have a separate kit prepared for each member of your family, in case you are separated during the blast. This means all family members should have one, including children and the elderly.

The items that should be included are not nuclear attack specific, but rather just common sense supplies that everyone should have on hand in the event of any emergency. So, what should you place in your kits? Here is an example:

  • Three days worth of bottled water (one gallon per person per day).
  • Assorted drink mix flavorings
  • Bleach to purify water
  • Three days of ready-to-eat foods (such as granola/energy/protein bars, pop-tarts, cheese, and raisins)
  • Peanut butter
  • Boxes of dried milk
  • Bags of beans, rice, oats, flour, honey, and sugar
  • Spices
  • Kitchen matches or lighters
  • Canned goods (such as pasta, meats, stews, soups, chili, fruit, vegetables, and tuna)
  • Manual can opener
  • First aid kit (with iodine solution, bandages, alcohol wipes, hydrogen peroxide, painkillers, and disinfectant ointments)
  • Essential medications and multi-vitamins
  • Flashlights (LED is best) and portable radios (manual or battery-operated)
  • Extra batteries
  • Sandwich bags filled with copies of important documents and cash in small denominations
  • Personal hygiene items (such as soap, shampoo, toilet paper, and feminine napkins)
  • Heavy gloves and sturdy shoes
  • Warm clothing, including a hat and a plastic, hooded rain poncho
  • Local maps
  • Spare eye glasses or hearing aids
  • Utility knife
  • Duct tape
  • Blankets or sleeping bags
  • Spare keys to your house and vehicles.
  • Plastic bags for waste and sanitation
  • Diapers, if necessary
  • Baby wipes (for personal hygiene use instead of wasting water)
  • Dust masks
  • Water filters
  • Whistle
  • Cellphone with a charger and extra batteries

3. Designate Your Own Fallout Room or Bunker

You can easily prepare a bunker inside your home if you have a basement or an inside room without any outside-facing walls. An ideal bunker should already be stocked with extra food, water, clothing, and other essential supplies.

Remember, vehicles, mobile homes, and other outdoor areas will not function as an emergency bunker, since they will not provide sufficient shelter from the blast or the radiation fallout. If you do not have a basement or an interior room, seek out local multi-story buildings in advance so you have a place to run in the event of the unthinkable.

4. Create a Family Emergency Plan

It may be entirely possible that your family is separated at the moment disaster strikes. That is why it is crucial to have a well strategized plan in place so you will know how to contact one another, and how you will reunite if you are indeed apart at such an inopportune time.

You should also plan out what everyone is expected to do if such an event occurs. Planning ahead will ensure calm in the moments where it is most needed. This plan should touch on where you will seek shelter, details of your evacuation routes, and how you plan to receive updates and warnings. For extra safety, you should write down the details of any specialized care required by a child, an elderly parent, or a pet, including dietary needs.

5. Locate Your Local Fallout Shelter

A fallout shelter is a protected building in your community with a roof and walls thick enough to absorb radiation. These buildings have been designated by your local government and are often local and state-owned structures, such as schools. Local officials should have a comprehensive list of such shelters, and you should make it a point to identify a few by each place in which you spend a fair amount of time, such as your job, home, and school. A good time to check them out is during your daily commute.

If you cannot find any information with regard to fallout shelters, look for buildings in the area where you could run in the event of a nuclear disaster. The best candidates are high-rise buildings that contain windowless central areas or large basements.

Hydrogen bomb testing by the U.S. government on March 1, 1954.
The U.S. government tested a hydrogen bomb using solid thermonuclear fuel in 1954. It was dubbed the “Castle Bravo” test. The result was the largest ever American detonation of a nuclear device.

During a Nuclear Attack

1. Pay Attention to All Warnings

You should always pay close attention to any official news or warnings provided over the radio, television, or via the internet. You should also heed any additional instructions that emergency response personnel have provided. This means that you should stay put, if asked to, or evacuate, if that is what they are recommending.

If you are supposed to stay put, you should quickly take cover, preferably underground, and await further instructions. If you need to evacuate, make sure you listen carefully to receive information about shelters, routes, and what you should and should not do. Remember, if you have been evacuated, do not return to your previous location until local officials deem it to be safe.

2. Actively Seek Shelter

You will need to take cover behind anything in your line of sight that may be able to offer you protection. Once you are in place, remain where you are, since a blast can take up to thirty seconds to hit.

While a basement or multi-story building is always best, you will only have minutes to run, and any building close by will shield you from outside radioactive materials, especially if it is made from concrete or brick. Once inside, stay away from windows, outer walls, and the roof. The goal is to place as much concrete, brick, and soil between you and the radiation as possible. It is pertinent that you remain where you are unless you are told otherwise by authorities. Remember, this can take up to twenty-four hours.

3. Take Emergency Measures if Caught Outside

If you are caught up in a nuclear blast, sometimes, the best protection you can muster, depending on how close you are to Ground Zero, is the traditional Cold War “duck and cover” move. While this may not seem to do much, it is the most effective response for protecting yourself from flying debris that may cause traumatic head injuries. Lying face down can also protect any exposed skin from burns caused by the intense heat.

Also, if you are that close to the blast, it is seriously advised that you do not look directly into the flash or at the fireball. Doing this has been known to cause temporary blindness. So, if you are driving, stop your vehicle and snugly duck down inside of it.

4. Avoid the Incoming Radiation Fallout

You will have ten minutes to get yourself to the closest shelter available once the shockwave passes, because shortly after, the fallout will arrive. When this occurs, you will be dealing with the highest levels of radiation, however these levels will indefinitely decrease over time.

You should note that the decay rates of all nuclear devices are the same, regardless of the device’s size, whereas the fallout amount will vary based on how large a given device is and its proximity to the ground. This means if you are especially close to Ground Zero, you could be stuck within your shelter for up to a month.

However, you should seek shelter regardless of your distance because nuclear fallout can be carried by the wind for many hundreds of miles, though the most severe threat would be to those located downwind of the explosion. Keep in mind, however, that eighty percent of fallout occurs within the first twenty four hours after the blast.

5. Do Not Underestimate Radiation

For the most part, those that had sought shelter in affected areas would be released after a couple of days, and more than likely would be transported to a safer area. When this happens, it is important that you and your family respect the radiation and the damage it can cause. Stay away from areas marked as “HAZMAT” or as a “radiation hazard.” It is crucial that you acknowledge that radiation cannot be detected by human senses, such as sight, taste, or smell. This means that you will have to depend on signage to maintain your own safety.

Emergency personnel performing decontamination.
Decontamination immediately after potential exposure to nuclear fallout is key to survival.

After the Attack is Over

1. Decontaminate Immediately

If you were outside when the attack occurred, it is pertinent that you get as clean as you can, as soon as possible. You must do everything you can to remove radioactive material from your body in order to avoid contamination.

  • Remove all of your clothing. By simply removing your outer layer of clothing, you have already removed up to ninety percent of the contaminants. If it is possible, place these items of clothing in a plastic garbage bag and seal it tightly with a twist tie. Keep this bag as far from other people and pets as reasonably possible once you seek shelter.
  • Take a shower. Use lots of soap and water to remove the radioactive fallout from your skin. Be careful not to scratch or break the skin, as radiation will enter the bloodstream. You should also use the same soap and water to wash your hair rather than shampoo and conditioner. Conditioner can actually bind the radioactive particles to your hair, defeating the purpose of your shower, and many shampoos actually contain conditioner, rendering them useless. If a shower is not readily available, a wet cloth or baby wipe will work in a pinch to cleanse any hair or skin that was exposed to fallout.

2. Stayed Tuned In

Even after a nuclear detonation, a battery or crank-powered radio will function without error. Conversely, television, the internet, cell phones, and text messaging services are more likely to be interrupted or unavailable for quite a while.

This means that you will have to listen to your radio carefully and without a break in order to receive timely information regarding where you can go and when you can leave. This is especially important if you are injured or ill, since you will need to take note of the location of local medical services once it is safe to leave your shelter.


Even a small nuclear explosion can occur with little to no warning, and you will only have seconds to minutes to make the right decisions in order to save your life and the lives of those closest to you. That is why reviewing the pointers listed above is a critical action that all families should take. So, review this article with your loved ones today.


How to Prepare for a Nuclear Attack.” December 14, 2017. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 28, 2018.

Preparing for War: How to Prepare for World War 3…” April 23, 2018. The Sun. Retrieved April 28, 2018.

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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