With Iran and North Korea both working night and day to make nuclear weapons this might be a good time to talk about what it would take to actually survive the explosion of an Atomic Bomb.  Not that we face the imminent threat of one being launched at us here in the U.S., but what if you had traveled to Israel on vacation when Iran decided they were ready to wipe the place off the map as they have promised to do? While the last nuclear attack happened 76 years ago over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the possibility of it is still not zero. We are not trying to instill fear or unnecessary panic here, but as Howard Ruff reminded us, “It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”

Is it possible at all to survive a nuclear attack?

Taking into account the testimony of Akiko Takakura, who survived the US atomic bombing, it is more than possible. That day, she was in the Bank of Hiroshima doing her usual morning routine, just 300 meters away from the epicenter.


“Thirsty woman catching black rain in her mouth” de Akiko Takakura. ©Thejk1994 via Wikimedia Commons

How to survive a nuclear blast?

Before we get there, let’s quickly dissect the six stages of the blast to understand the reasons behind the steps below better. You have to survive more than one thing when it comes to a nuclear weapon detonating in your area.

  1. Flash of light
  2. Wave of heat
  3. The radiation
  4. A fireball
  5. Blast of air
  6. Radioactive fallout

You might think it’s quite a lot and could probably give you ample time to protect yourself. Nope. All of these happen very quickly, usually within a few minutes or even seconds depending on how far away you are.  The gap between detection and the drop is pretty short, too. A ballistic missile, for instance, has 25 minutes between detection and impact; a hypersonic one has six.

According to Brooke Buddemeier, a Certified Health Physicist in the Global Security directorate of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, “Having a plan and knowing what to do can really help alleviate a lot of anxiety.”

So you have to deal with three main things.  An intense pressure wave from the explosion, accompanied by air so hot it combusts spontaneously and radiation.

The three things that reduce radiation exposure are distance, time and shielding. It will be impossible to eliminate any radiation getting to you, but you using Distance, Time and Shielding, you can reduce its effects to as low as possible given the circumstances.

Here’s what you should do:

Seek Shelter

The best place to hide is in a building. The worst would be in a car. Buddemeier said that going into the interior middle or basement of a well-built building would prevent injuries from flying debris from the blast and would also prevent you from being burned. It’s also important not to look at the blast, as it will cause temporary blindness. You don’t want to be in a car because it doesn’t provide any protection, plus the glasses would shatter and will injure you. Being inside will shield you from the initial blast, most of the heat and fire, and a significant amount of the initial radiation as well.

Stay Inside

So the flash of light is gone. It might be tempting to take a peek outside and see what’s happening. Don’t. Take a five-megaton warhead, for example. Its blast could reach around 15 miles, and the heat it produces is powerful enough to cause third-degree burns. If the building you’re in didn’t catch fire or start to cave in due to the blast of air, it’s better to stay inside. Remember that the concrete is absorbing the radiation that comes after, which, as you should, can damage your DNA and cause cancer, aplastic anemia cardiovascular diseases, chromosomal damage, and a host of other things.  


Hiroshima after the bomb. ©Maarten Heerlien from Voorschoten, The Netherlands via Wikimedia Commons

What if the building was falling apart?

You had no choice but to get out of the building where you sought shelter. Cover yourself as much as you can, including your face. You might need to improvise with your shirt or whatever is available. Try to find another shelter to avoid the radioactive fallout, or the radioactive particles consist of debris, fission products, and dust. Its “shower” could take up to 15 minutes and can inflict significant damages to the body.  The most intense radiation will dissipate in a few hours so try to remain in inside a building, near the middle, or as deep in a basement as you can get. The longer you are outside and exposed to the most intense radiation the more likely you are to die from it. So while the impulse may be to run like Hell as far from the explosion as you can but doing so could very well expose you to more radiation than if you had stayed put. Time of exposure matters, remember?

Take a Shower

Once you’re rescued and in a safe area, take off all your clothes, place them in a plastic bag, and remove them from your house/shelter. Take a shower and thoroughly wash your whole body with shampoo and soap, including your eyebrows and eyelashes. Flush your eyes, too, and blow your nose to remove the fallout that you inhaled. Getting the radioactive particles off your body is removes you from close contact with radioactivity penetrating your skin, muscles, and bones. The radiation emitting from a given source is governed by the Inverse Square Law. Every time you double the distance from a source of radiation you reduce your exposure to one-quarter of the does at zero distance. So, a one-hundred Roentgen dose at one foot of distance is reduced to twenty-five Roentgens at two feet, and at four feet is reduced to one quarter again.  If you have shielding between you and the radiation source, the radiation is reduced even more. Distance matters, remember?

A Weirdly Glowing Silver Lining

While it is hard to imagine any good news about being caught in a nuclear explosion there may be some.  Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima are habitable today, Eighty percent of the residual radiation from the initial blasts had dissipated within forty-eight hours. Long term studies were done on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and they found that a barely survivable whole-body dose of radiation only increases your risk of solid cancer by a factor of five over someone not exposed at all. That isn’t great news, but it also isn’t an automatic death sentence either.