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Survival / August 28, 2017

How to survive a nuclear blast

Written by: Brad Shannon

For a few decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, most of us basically never thought about getting blown up by a nuclear warhead. But times have changed—recent events have many of us thinking we may need to start worrying and fear The Bomb.

So I called up Dr. Robert Brownlee, a nuclear testing pioneer who is one of the few men still alive to have witnessed a nuclear explosion. He didn’t ease my nerves entirely (survival of a nuke attack is still largely a matter of luck), but he did give me a few handy pointers. It was better than “Duck and Cover,” at least.


1. Understand the threat

Nukes come in all shapes and sizes; how much trouble you find yourself in will depend a great deal on the shape and size used in the attack you hope to survive.

Most often, we worry about nuclear or thermonuclear weapons. These weapons get their energy from fusion (or, in the case of thermonuclear weapons, a combination of fusion and fission), and produce a visible fireball. These bombs will vaporize anything within a certain radius of the blast—depending on the strength of the weapon, that radius could be anywhere from three miles to more than 15.

So-called Neutron Bombs were designed to counter the threat of a Soviet Russian tank invasion of Europe. They use a relatively small thermonuclear explosion to generate radiation that penetrates armor and kills tank crews while leaving infrastructure relatively intact. Likewise, “dirty bombs” use a relatively small amount of conventional explosive to disperse radiation across a wide area.

Other types and variations may or may not exist in various arsenals around the globe, but these are the most common. The tips in this article largely apply to nuclear and thermonuclear explosions, but everything you read about radiation can be applied in any nuclear scenario.

Dr. Robert R. Brownlee supervised nuclear weapons testing at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Castle Bravo blast in Bikini Atoll, 1954.

2. Hide (for two weeks)

If a nuclear weapon detonates in your city, you’ll need some good old fashioned luck to survive.

For one thing, you’ll pretty much have to be outside the immediate vicinity of the blast (that’s where everything is vaporized, remember). Your odds of survival will improve with distance from the blast and with levels of protection.

But even those obvious factors don’t predict everything. Brownlee notes that there is a wide variation in how well individuals tolerate radiation exposure.“Some can take a bigger dose and show fewer effects,” he said. “No two people are wired the same.”

Your odds will improve dramatically if you can find some kind of fallout shelter to hide in. It doesn’t have to be a high-tech bunker; any protected space with walls and a roof will absorb radiation. For the best results, take shelter in a basement or behind heavy materials like concrete, brick, earth, or even books.

Fallout loses intensity relatively quickly, and poses the greatest threat in the first two weeks (though people closer to the blast may have to wait months). Keep two weeks’ supplies in your basement, and you’ll have significantly boosted your chances of survival.


3. Don’t look

Nuclear explosions are horrible, destructive events. But they look really cool.

Though Brownlee and his colleagues at the Los Alamos nuclear tests sites were carefully trained on how to best protect themselves, he says the awesome sight of the explosion led many to make mistakes.

“Language fails,” he said. “It’s easy to become dazzled.” But that gawking will leave you exposed to deadly shock-waves and radiation

The initial explosion is bright—so bright that not even solar eclipse glasses will shield your eyes. “The initial explosion is thousands of times hotter than the sun,” said Brownlee, “and millions of times brighter. We wore glasses that cut the light by a million times. Your eyelids aren’t enough protection. You might cover your eyes with your arm.”

Cover you eyes even if facing away from the explosion just the reflection of a nuclear blast is powerful enough to blind.

Fallout shelters don't have to be sealed bunkers. Basements, sturdy concrete walls, and even bookshelves can provide protection from radiation. Photo by takomabibelot.

Nuclear test spectators, like these men viewing a detonation in Nevada, wore protective glasses that cut light far more even than welding masks.

4. Expect waves

The harmful effects of a nuclear blast come on in distinct waves.

Within the first fraction of an instant, the initial explosion will vaporize nearby matter and give off waves of radiation that can be immediately deadly or lead to health problems with time.

Two sonic shockwaves will follow, first through the ground and then through the air. Because these move at the speed of sound, they can take seconds or even minutes to reach you.

“The ground does the right thing,” says Brownlee. “It tries to move away. It can knock you to your knees, and when you jump up and look in awe, the sound comes with enough intensity that it can rupture you lungs.”

Observers at Los Alamos were taught to exhale before the shockwaves reached them, leaving their lungs empty. Novices who gasped or held their breath often suffered internal damage.

If the explosion occurs over or under water (off the coast of Guam, for instance), a tsunami will form  “A surface depression, a big bowl, forms on detonation, then the water pushed away rushes back in to fill it. A large jet or column of water forms at the center, and can be thousands of feet tall. Then that falls, and generates a huge wave in all directions.”

Finally, fallout and additional radiation comes. The distribution of fallout depends on weather patterns, but its generally the heaviest downwind of the explosion. This radiation can cause harm for weeks or even months.

Explosions on or under water, like the infamous Baker test in the Bikini Atoll, often produce a sizable tsunami

5. Treat the air like poison

After an attack, go inside as soon as possible and stay there. If you can’t get to any shelter, lie flat and cover your head.

If you’ve been exposed to the blast, get clean as soon as possible. Don’t rub or scratch your skin. Gently blow your nose and wipe your eyelids and ears with a clean, damp cloth. Remove your clothing and seal it in a bag or container far from your person—the other layer may have 90% radioactive material.

Shower with soap and water, but avoid using hair conditioner; it can bind radioactive material to your hair. If you don’t have a shower, wipe exposed skin with a disposable wipe or a clean, damp, cloth. Dispose of that wipe or cloth in some way that keeps it away from your person (it will be radioactive).

Don’t leave your shelter, even if conditions look safe. Stay put as long as you can and await evacuation instructions.

For more on Dr. Robert Brownlee, visit

Do you have questions or comments about this feature? Email them to us at [email protected]

about the author

Brad Shannon

Brad Shannon is a cyclist, runner, triathlete; soccer coach, player and referee; gear / gadget lover; and storyteller. He’s a fan of dogs and the weather and craft beer scene in northern Colorado. His current favorite item is his 3D-printed Inconel bottle opener.

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