Nuclear War Survival — How To Survive a Nuclear War
See also: Preparing for an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse), What To Do About the Upcoming Economic Crash, Why the Global Economy is About to Crash, Books About Survival in the Future Hard Times, Arithmetic, Population and Energy (Video).
This page describes some of the things you can do to survive a nuclear war, or other attack by nuclear weapons (such as from a terrorist organisation or rogue state).
"In fact, I would submit that the threat of attack is higher today than during the Cold War with the prospect of Soviet atomic attack. A Family Emergency Action Plan will do more to save lives than almost any activity carried out by the government." - Captain Dick Couch, retired U.S. Navy SEAL and CIA case officer.
NOTE: 3 February 2019. I'll try to go over this nuclear war survival page this week and update a few of the details, e.g. that the Doomsday Clock is now 2 minutes to midnight, etc. Note also that everything that currently says "UPDATED" or "NEW" etc. relates to the last time I did a lot of work on this page which was about two years ago. I'll fix these up soon also, most likely in the next week or two.
What's On This Page
How Likely is Nuclear War? UPDATED
Nuclear Bomb Explosion Simulator
Australia's Nuclear Targets
Nuclear War Strategy
The Basics of Nuclear War Survival (including the One-Paragraph Solution) HOT
You (Probably) Don't Know the Power of the Spade
Measuring Levels of Nuclear Radiation
Key Things to Know
Steps to Take to Prepare for Nuclear War HOT
How Close Can You Get to a Nuclear Bomb and Live?
Recommended Viewing (Free and Non-free)
IMPORTANT: Please read the legal section and disclaimer before
attempting any of the skills or practices shown in this website.
- Nuclear war is much more survivable than you probably realise.
- Nuclear war is much more likely than you probably realise.
- Nuclear war can escalate much faster than you probably realise.
- As of 2015 there are around 4000 active (as in ready to be used) nuclear weapons in the world. There have already been about 2000 nuclear detonations on the planet, all but two of them being nuclear bomb tests. Around 3/4 of these tests, and all of the recent ones, have been underground. About 500 of the 2000 nuclear bomb tests have been atmospheric (i.e. not underground).
- There are three ways to "deliver" nuclear weapons to a target: Using a bomber (aeroplane) or a missile launched from either land (an ICBM) or from a submarine (an SLBM).
- An Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) or Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) can travel up to 1/3 of the way around the world, reaching an altitude of 1200 kilometres, at speeds of about 4-8 kilometers per second. It takes about 30 minutes for a missile launched in Russia or the USA to reach a target in the other country.
- To use simple language, an ICBM (or SLBM) is basically a "space rocket". Their speed, height, and range is limited mainly by the fact that going much higher or faster would put them into orbit like a satellite. Many of the same models of ICBM rockets used for nuclear bombs were also used as part of the space program. In 1957 the rocket that launched Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite, was a modified ICBM. In at least one case the same type of rocket used for nuclear weapons deployment was used to put human astronauts into orbit. Much of the space program and "space race" of the cold war years was just an after-effect of the race for nuclear (and therefore world) supremacy. It was also a way to engage public interest and make the development of ICBM rockets appear to be a peaceful science-based initiative, rather than a military one.
- The phrase "nuclear submarine" refers to a submarine that's powered by its own built-in nuclear reactor. This means they never need to refuel. They can also use the electricity made by the reactor to convert seawater into oxygen, and into fresh water, etc, so that they only reason they ever need to surface is for food for the crew. I read that they usually carry about three months of food though presumably this could be increased if necessary. They can be built to carry nuclear missiles and launch them while underwater. These are called Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). See here, here and here (on Wikipedia) for more.
- Assuming you aren't "too close" (this gives a rough idea of how close is too close) to the actual explosion(s), the main danger from nuclear bombs is fallout.
- The level of nuclear radiation from bomb fallout decays much faster than what most people think.
- Nuclear fallout comes from nuclear bomb explosions, and is completely different to nuclear waste from power plants and pollution from accidents such as Fukushima (which has a much slower rate of decay, i.e. it is dangerous for much longer).
- To survive high levels of nuclear fallout you will need some sort of physical protection, such as a fallout shelter.
- Fallout shelters do not have to be elaborate bunkers made from concrete nor cost many thousands of dollars for construction. They can be quite simple and (depending somewhat on your location) can be made within a few days or less using techniques available to millions of people (such as digging with a shovel).
- The key element of a fallout shelter is mass of material surrounding you on all sides (including above). Ideally you want the equivalent of 2-3 feet of earth, or anything that weighs as much as that.
- Typical times you will need to stay inside a shelter are something in the range of two weeks (and usually it will be possible to go outside for very short periods during this time).
- You can build your own device to measure the level of radiation from nuclear fallout using simple everyday items. This device is known as the Kearny Fallout Meter (KFM) and I will give much more info on this in the future — but a search on the internet will provide plenty of information on these. A radiation monitor such as the KFM will let you know when it is safe to leave your shelter. There are also commercially made devices (which you can search for on the internet and read about).
- The "Duck and Cover" videos from the cold war days, which are sometimes regarded as laughably inadequate, are actually a really good idea.
- Note that even if you live far away from any heat, blast, and fallout danger; in a nuclear war EMP can destroy electronics 2000 kilometres away from a detonation. See here for how to protect against EMP.
- A nuclear war will obviously cause massive disruption to the modern economy and our way of life, but this is guaranteed to happen anyway, sooner or later, irrespective of whether there is a nuclear war. This web page focuses on the problems specific to nuclear war.
How Likely Is Nuclear War?
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the end of the Cold War, the threat of global nuclear war greatly diminished. After that, a lot of people stopped talking about nuclear war as a serious threat. The hype in the media about nuclear war that was characteristic of the Cold War period stopped.
UPDATED: The original version of this page from only two or three years ago said:
Now, over 20 years later, the threat has increased to levels similar to (or worse than) the Cold War days, yet few people realise this. Still, little is said in the media. This has been changing slightly in the last few years, with more news stories mentioning nuclear war — however I think it's fair to say that many people would be surprised by the picture below:
Official "Doomsday Clock", lower down means higher risk (Source: Wikipedia)
Official Doomsday Clock Website
However as of mid-2017, nuclear war has returned to the news again and to people's awareness.
On the 26th of January 2017, the Doomsday Clock was moved from three to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Their official statement can be read here.
Obviously the recent nuclear bomb and missile tests by North Korea increase the complexity and danger of the situation.
This is also interesting (Russians performing huge drills to train for nuclear war, while the West slept on).
North Korea, and EMP NEW
This is a subjective comment but probably the greatest weakness of the USA and the West as a whole, in military terms, is having near-utter confidence in our military superiority and infallibility. Generally anything that suggests the West may not be totally overwhelmingly superior is labelled as "alarmist" and basically ignored.
Recently I was reading a web page with people debating which American city would get fireballed if North Korea was to launch a nuclear attack. However, with the small number of weapons Kim Jong Un has at his disposal (perhaps just a handful), his main attack would almost certainly be an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack. He has pretty much said that himself. The reason for this is that an EMP weapon could cover much or possibly even all of the United States, or Europe, with just one bomb. A handful of bombs would be enough to cover the entire USA and Europe. And with enough spare coverage that even if a bomb or two failed to launch or to reach its target or explode, his military objective would still be virtually guaranteed. Read more here about EMP and what you can do to prepare for it.
Preparing early (like starting right now, if you haven't already) is a really good idea — since if a nuclear-capable state were to launch an attack on us, the time between first warning and the end of civilisation as we know it would be about 30 minutes or less. This is true of either an EMP or a more traditional type of attack. However with EMP attacks the number of individual nuclear weapons required by the enemy is a lot less. The good thing about being in Australia is that an enemy with only a very small number of weapons attacking the West as a whole may not send any to Australia. If Europe and the U.S. were to fall to an EMP attack (or other nuclear attack), and Australia did not get hit, it would take much longer than 30 minutes for our own society to collapse.
I'll try to do a whole web page on this, but for now here's a few quick thoughts on what would happen in Australia if the U.S. and/or Europe were taken out by an EMP or other nuclear attack, but Australia was not hit: One of the first effects would be massive disruption of the internet. For example, survival.org.au is hosted in the USA. Google and most other popular sites also, though some parts of some of them are probably locally hosted and may still work for a while. Wall street and much of the global banking system would instantly cease to exist. In response to this it would be almost certain that Australian banks would rapidly go into lockdown mode, with accounts and withdrawals suspended (at the least), including EFT withdrawals. The first reaction of the public would probably be panic buying, with masses of people driving to supermarkets, petrol stations, hardware stores, etc. The exact situation would depend a lot on if any eCommerce still worked, but in any case stores would most likely be depleted in hours, or a few days at most.
However dark as this sounds, it would be a hugely better position than the countries actually hit by an EMP, as they would instantly lose their electricity supply, water supply, and all telecommunications systems (apart from EMP-hardened military systems or amateur radio equipment). Their sewage systems would cease to be pumped out and sewer pipes would start to fill up. It's quite likely that most of their methods of transport (e.g. most cars) would instantly stop working. Since an attack would probably be timed to occur during regular business hours (to cause maximum disruption to the public), people would be stranded at work. Or in elevators, etc. Our cars would still work as long as there was petrol or diesel to fill them.
In the long term, perhaps the most significant chain of events (other than just the collapse itself) would be the reaction of other global powers (e.g. Russia, China, and our overcrowded northern neighbours) to the power vacuum left by the fall of the West.
The excellent (fictional) novels One Second After and Going Home are based on an EMP event and its effects. Both of these are the first book of a series with a continuing storyline.
Of course there are also pages on the internet trying to debunk the idea that EMP can cause that much damage. One I found recently says, in massive bold highlighted font, that the idea that North Korea could kill 90% of Americans originated in a science fiction novel. The article was specifically referring to the book One Second After. This is completely ridiculous as the claim (that North Korea could kill 90% of Americans) was made by James Woolsey and Peter Vincent Pry. Woolsey is an ex-Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and has a long history of concern for the threat of EMP. Pry is also ex-CIA and is chief of staff of the U.S. Congressional EMP Commission. Historically, the general theme of the mass media towards this type of concern for the public is to label it as "opinion" and "alarmist". You can read Dr. Pry's latest comments (11 September 2017) on this issue here.
Global Stockpiles of Nuclear Weapons
Although the chance of nuclear war is now high again, the overall amount of damage that would be done by a global nuclear war is much less than it was historically, due to the smaller number of nuclear weapons that are now operational. This means that a nuclear war is more survivable than it would have been during the cold war. The graph below shows this for the USA and Russia. Other countries contribute only a very minor addition to this total.
There are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world now than during the cold war. (Source: Wikipedia)
Nuclear Bomb Explosion Simulator
The nuclear bomb simulator shows three main dangers from a nuclear war — fire, blast, and fallout — as the three tabs across the top of the map. Try it out by typing the name of your closest large town or military base. Note that the "Fallout" button works on a random wind direction, and clicking on it repeatedly will give different fallout maps based on a different direction of wind.
NEW: The 3 September 2017 test by North Korea has been added to the simulator's weapon list.
The main purpose of the simulator is to show that the greatest danger from nuclear attack is found close to where any bombs are detonated. It loads with a randomly selected Australian location. The simulator was developed by Carlos Labs and modified for this web page by survival.org.au. I haven't checked the distance calculations in detail, though they seem to be realistic. The fallout would eventually spread over a much greater area in real life than shown on the map, and would depend on whether it was an air burst or ground burst detonation. The fallout map in this simulator is for a ground burst, and shows the possible dispersion of radioactive isotopes after six hours of the explosion, assuming a constant gentle breeze.
For bomb size comparison, note that most modern weapons are around the 100-1000 kiloton size. That is for each warhead: many modern missiles carry several individual warheads which can be spread within an approximately few hundred kilometre range of each other, which is known as a MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle).
The first entry named "Feb 2013 7kt" refers to the approximately 7 kiloton size of the 2013 North Korean nuclear test. The Hiroshima bomb, code named Little Boy, was about 15 kt (kilotons, i.e. thousands of tons of TNT equivalent) in size. The Nagasaki bomb, code named Fat Man, was approximately 21 kt.
The U.S. weapons now fall principally within the 100 kt to 375 kt range, the average being approximately 250 kt. And the majority of Russian weapons are 550 kt; the average size is roughly 400 kt. A megaton (Mt) is 1000 kt or 1,000,000 tonnes of TNT equivalent.
Ivy Mike was the first thermonuclear (a.k.a. hydrogen) bomb test. The Tsar Bomba was the largest nuclear explosion ever, in Siberia, 1961.
Nuclear Darkness explosion simulator.
Australia's Nuclear Targets
It's open to a lot of debate exactly what parts of Australia would be subject to nuclear attack. This article suggests that in the cold war, only the joint US-Australian military bases were nuclear targets. This more comprehensive page on Aussurvivalist.com lists what they consider to be Australia's top nuclear targets, though it may be slightly out of date as Nurrungar (at Woomera) is listed, which as far as I am aware is no longer operational.
The most likely targets, which (in my opinion and that of many others I've read) would certainly be targeted in a nuclear war, are the joint US-Australian military bases. The main two of these are Pine Gap and the Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt at North West Cape. The other two that I've added to the simulation above are the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station located at Kojarena, 30 km (19 mi) east of Geraldton, Western Australia, and the HMAS Stirling Naval Base, Garden Island, near Perth, Western Australia which is apparently in planning for increased US nuclear use.
Other than that, as far as I can tell, the extent of plans for use of nuclear weapons against Australian cities and/or bases is anyone's guess. Consider that there are thousands of nuclear warheads in existence. And that much of the strategy of nuclear war involves using a great many of these at once. This is because as soon as a nuclear war begins, the most obvious targets are any nuclear-capable military bases. Therefore any ground or air-based nuclear weapons must be used almost immediately since if not used, they will be almost immediately destroyed by the enemy. So in a nuclear war it is likely that all, or almost all the actively deployed warheads will be fired at once. If they are going to use that many warheads all at once, and you consider how much geographic area is destroyed by each warhead, what are the chances that "they" (whoever they are) will send a few our way? Very hard to predict, but, I think, greater than zero.
Nuclear War Strategy
Traditionally there are three different types of nuclear strategy: first strike, launch on warning and post-attack retaliation. First strike is what it sounds like. Post-attack retaliation is too.
Launch On Warning
Launch on warning is also what it sounds like, except that many people don't realise that it only takes 30 minutes, or less, or less for nuclear missiles to travel to their targets, even at distances up to 1/3 of the way around the world (such as from Russia to the USA). Since the damage nuclear warheads create is obviously very extreme, there is a strong chance that unfired nuclear weapons will be destroyed on the ground by an enemy strike. Although attempts are made to harden nuclear missile sites against nuclear attack, the extent to which this is actually possible seems quite limited as far as I can tell (see below). Launch on warning seems to still be a strong component of nuclear strategy, perhaps the major one. Which would suggest that nuclear missiles and other components of the military needed to launch missiles are not regarded as being safe from nuclear attack.
Basically the launch on warning strategy goes like this: Incoming nuclear missiles are detected by either satellites and/or radar early warning systems. It takes about 30 minutes for nuclear missiles to reach their target in the other country. It is assumed that some of these incoming missiles will target the unfired missiles in the country being attacked. Because these missiles may not survive the attack, and therefore become useless, there is no other reasonable option but to launch them at the enemy before the enemy missiles arrive. Because the enemy missiles will arrive in less than 30 minutes after they are detected, there is less than 30 minutes in which to make the decision to launch these missiles, go through all the necessary protocols for pre-launch, and launch them.
IMPORTANT: This is the reason why a nuclear war can escalate extremely fast.
The strategy of launch on warning requires several things to exist — and these things do appear to exist: One is the ability to detect incoming missiles. Another is the knowledge of the locations of enemy's missile silos (which are not secret at all, you can look them up on the internet, e.g. here, here, and here). Another is the expectation that some or all of the unlaunched missiles and/or the silos can be damaged by a nuclear strike. Another is the ability to launch missiles within a very short amount of notice (under 30 minutes total time from detection of enemy missiles to firing of one's own missiles). Early ICBMs used liquid fuel which took over 30 minutes to fill up before the missiles could be launched. Newer technology, such as the US Minuteman missiles use a solid fuel which means the missiles can be permanently fueled and ready to launch within a few minutes notice (hence the name of "Minuteman").
According to the New York Times (2015), "the launch-on-warning doctrine still rules in both Russia and the United States". According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (2015), China is "concerned about losing their nuclear capabilities to a destructive first strike. To address this, the Chinese army plans to implement some version of hair-trigger alert, enabling the rapid launch of nuclear weapons if an incoming attack is confirmed."
Fred Kaplan in 1982 said that "80 percent of these new [hardened to withstand 5000 psi of blast pressure] MX [missile] silos could still be destroyed if the Soviets fired two warheads at each that landed an average of 520 feet from the target", and also that "No one really knows how to build a silo that resists 5000 psi. The Pentagon's reason for picking that number is that U.S. intelligence estimates claim that the Soviets have 5000-psi silos, and if they have been able to do it, so should we. According to knowledgeable sources, however, those intelligence estimates make guesses over a vast range about possible Soviet silo hardness, the low end of which is considerably below 5000 psi." He also said that existing US silos were hardened to 2000 psi.
In B-1B Bomber and Options for Enhancements (1988, pages 54-55), Jeffrey A. Merkley says that an air launched cruise missile (ALCM) "Would have about a 99 percent probability of destroying a target hardened to withstand a pressure of 500 pounds per square inch (psi), which is representative of medium-hard facilities such as munitions bunkers, leadership bunkers, and older Soviet ICBM silos. It would have about an 87 percent probability of destroying a target hardened to withstand a pressure of 5,000 psi, which is representative of very hard facilities such as newer Soviet ICBM silos and command centers buried deep underground". He then goes on to say that "Nevertheless, and perhaps most important, neither penetrating bombers nor standoff bombers equipped with cruise missiles may be the best weapons for attacking hardened targets such as silo-based ICBMs and command centres that might be used to coordinate a Soviet attack on the United States. If the goal is to prevent such an attack, accurate ballistic missiles like the MX ICBM and the forthcoming Trident II SLBM, which can reach the target in 15 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 14 hours required by a bomber, may be preferable".
In 2016 (on page 100 of the book Nuclear Proliferation and Terrorism in the Post-9/11 World), David Hafemeister says that US silos are hardened to about 2000 psi, while the Soviets built some silos to take larger overpressures. Then later down the page, he says "As US accuracy increased, the Soviets moved their ICBMs from launch pads to silos with 300 psi hardness, then to silos with 2000 psi hardness and finally to some silos with a hardness of 5000 psi. During this period US accuracy improved from 1300m in 1962 to 300m in 1970 to 90m in 1986. It is generally accepted that accuracy won the race against hardness."
In other words, missiles in silos in the ground can still most likely be destroyed by attacking them with nuclear missiles. Which is the key motivation for the strategy of launch on warning. Clearly, long airport runways, as required to launch heavy bomber aircraft, are large and above-ground, and can (and will) easily be destroyed in a first-strike large-scale nuclear attack.
Launch on warning is one of the main components of the idea that no-one can win a nuclear war, which is often called "mutual assured destruction" (MAD). If a side is contemplating launching a first-strike nuclear attack, knowing that the other side is basically required to launch on warning is a deterrent to them attacking in the first place.
Launch on warning is also responsible for the danger of accidental nuclear war. This has already nearly happened, and possibly happened more times which have not been declassified and released to the public. One potential cause of accidental nuclear war is computer crime (hacking) due to the high degree of computerisation in modern weapon systems.
There are three types of "delivery" systems of nuclear weapons, which the USA calls its nuclear triad. These are land based missiles, submarine based missiles, and bombers (aeroplanes). Unlike missiles, bombers can be shot down in flight assuming they are detected. Trying to shoot down a nuclear missile travelling at 4-8 kilometres per second with another missile launched many kilometres (or hundreds of kilometeres) away would be a lot like trying to defend against a gun attack by using your own gun to shoot your attackers bullet out of the air.
The doctrine of launch on warning is made somewhat (i.e. slightly) less necessary by the existence of submarine launched ballistic (nuclear) missiles (a.k.a. SLBMs). These can be hidden underwater in secret locations, which cannot be targeted, and therefore allow for a second strike. Without SLBMs, launch on warning is pretty much imperative, since the only other option would be to not launch immediately and concede total defeat as the nuclear retaliation capability of the defending side is destroyed by the enemy's first strike. The vulnerable part of a submarine fleet is the network of radio stations needed to communicate with the submarines while they are underwater, as these are large and easy for the enemy (or anyone) to locate by satellite imaging. This critical vulnerability means that in a nuclear war, the communication systems would be destroyed very early on, and the submarines would be operating from standing orders that were previously given to them for use in this scenario. It also means that the launch on warning strategy still applies overall, even with the ability of the subs themselves to remain undetected and not be destroyed in a large-scale first-strike nuclear attack.
Most people are more or less aware of the massive destructive capability of nuclear weapons — but the speed in which a nuclear war can escalate is less well understood by the majority of people. It is not only the massive destructive power but this speed of escalation that makes nuclear war unique in world history.
IMPORTANT: This speed also means that for preppers and other concerned people, it's necessary to prepare for nuclear war in peacetime and not be expecting a long timeframe for the buildup of conflict like that which occurs in conventional wars. There may only be 30 minutes or less notice.
The Basics of Nuclear War Survival
Nuclear war is one of those topics that can completely freak people out — often to the point of thinking "why even bother?". So the first thing to know about nuclear war is actually good news: Nuclear war is much, much more survivable than what most people believe.
I'll repeat this point since it goes so strongly against what is often presented in the media and in popular culture, and it's an important starting point:
IMPORTANT: Nuclear war is much, much more survivable than what most people believe.
Apart from the statement above, there are several other specific positive and hopeful facts about nuclear war survival that will surprise most people. This web page is still a work in progress, and there are already four of these facts mentioned further down the page (with more to come as the page gets added to). See if you can find them all.
NEW: The One-Paragraph Solution
This page is quite long, and getting longer all the time. So I've added a very quick summary of basic advice. This is an idealised summary, and you may be able to break some of these "rules" and still survive.
Realise that surviving nuclear war is possible. Be in the Southern Hemisphere. Be at least 50-100+ kilometres, ideally a few hundred or more kilometres, from where any nuclear warheads are detonated. Don't look at the fireball/flash, even from far away. Be able to survive without needing anything from the modern economy or "the grid". EMP-protect anything electronic you want to still work afterwards. Have some (EMP-protected) radiation monitoring equipment, and either a pre-made shelter or the knowledge to construct an expedient shelter if required. That's pretty much it.
Note also that if you're far enough away from any nuclear detonations (and ideally in the Southern Hemisphere), you may not need a shelter or radiation monitoring equipment at all. If you're too close to a nuclear explosion, there will be a wave of extreme heat followed by a shock (blast) wave, and other advice such as "duck and cover" will be required. And obviously if you're very much too close, it won't matter what you do.
I'll update this summary and page sometime (hopefully soon) to consider the risks from medium-term-decay-rate components of nuclear fallout, such as Strontium-90, and how to minimise them. For now, consider that 500 atmospheric nuclear detonations have already occurred, and we are nowhere remotely close to all dropping dead from fallout constituents with half-lives of a few decades.
What are the Dangers of Nuclear War?
The four main dangers of nuclear war (in order of time from when the bomb explodes, and also in order of geographical distance from "ground zero") are fire, blast, fallout, and nuclear winter. Another danger is EMP, or Electromagnetic Pulse, which is harmless to life forms but could potentially destroy almost all modern electronic devices within a certain distance of the nuclear explosion(s).
The effects of the first three of these dangers — fire, blast, and nuclear fallout — are very well known and understood, largely thanks to all those nuclear bomb tests they did in the cold war. The fourth danger, nuclear winter, is much less well understood. This is an area I will add more about later — but for now it's probably safe to say that very little definite predictions can be made — other than to say there will probably be some long-tem global cooling effect, which might range anywhere from the trivial to the severe.
The danger that will affect the most people, and is the most preventable, is nuclear fallout. Because of this, I will focus on it first (and then add more info about the other dangers later on...)
What is Nuclear Fallout?
Nuclear fallout is dust and dirt (of varying sizes) that's been thrown up into the air by the force (blast) of a nuclear explosion, and has become radioactive because of the nuclear reactions inside the explosion. "Radioactive" means that it is giving off radiation (a much better explanation will come on this page in the future, here is a one-sentence one.) Many tons of earth are thrown up high into the air, and they fall back down to the ground at varying speeds (which depend on their size/weight and the wind conditions).
The amount of fallout depends a lot on how the nuclear bomb is exploded. If the bomb is an "air burst" there will be only minimal fallout, while a "ground burst" explosion (meaning the explosion happens on the ground) will create a lot of fallout. The fallout particles from a ground burst consist of the dust as described above. The fallout from an air burst consists of very small particles, those that are already up there in the air, which have then been made radioactive due to the nuclear explosion. These very light particles will stay high up in the air a long time, and only gradually come down to earth over a huge area (perhaps much of the planet). By this time their radioactivity has greatly diminished (see graph below). This, and the dilution from being spread over a vast area means that the danger from fallout from an air burst is drastically less than that from a ground burst explosion.
A general rule with radioactive substances (like fallout) is that the "hotter" the material is (meaning the faster it's emitting radiation), the quicker it takes for the level of radiation to decay (that is, to reduce towards safe levels). The word "hot" is used in this sense to mean how radioactive something is, which is nothing to do with its actual temperature in the usual sense of the word. Fresh nuclear fallout particles are extremely hot, which means they are extremely dangerous when first created, but they decay quite rapidly. This decay is shown in the graph below.
The actual chemical makeup of fallout is quite complex, as there are several radioactive isotopes involved, and each of these decays (i.e. changes into another element as it emits radiation) into several different isotopes, so it can get quite complicated in terms of chemistry. In fact fallout from nuclear fission in a bomb contains a very complex mixture of over 300 different isotopes of 36 different elements. If you're interested in this see here on Wikipedia for more info. About 60 grams of fission products are produced for each kiloton of fission energy yield, or 60 kilograms per metagon. This fission energy yield is all of the yield of a purely fission bomb (an "atom bomb" or "A-bomb), and only part of the yield of a thermonuclear bomb (a hydrogen bomb or H-bomb). Meaning that the more powerful bombs will give less fission products (which make up nearly all of the fallout) overall. [Reference: Effects of Nuclear Weapons paragraph 9.12-9.15]
An isotope is an atom of a particular atomic mass (i.e. weight). For example there are three naturally occurring isotopes of Hydrogen, H-1, H-2, and H-3. Uranium has the isotopes U-235 and U-238, and others less well known. The numbers refer to how heavy each atom of it is compared to one ordinary hydrogen (H-1) atom. They also equal the total number of protons plus neutrons in the atom's nucleus. Chemistry and electronics are concerned with interactions between the electrons in atoms. Here we are discussing nuclear explosions and nuclear radiation, which comes from the nucleus of atoms. Each type of isotope has it's own unique and distinctive type of nucleus.
Note also that the different isotopes in nuclear fallout all have different decay rates. The ones which are the most radioactive (or "hot") decay the fastest, so they are initially the most dangerous, but they decay to a less (or not) dangerous state relatively fast.
Nuclear Fallout from Slowly Decaying Isotopes
Isotopes with really slow decay rates (e.g. those which you sometimes hear about with half lives of billions of years) are decaying so slowly that only a low rate of radiation is given off from them. The half-life is how long it takes for half of the original substance (isotope) to change into a different substance (isotope) as it emits radiation. If it takes a very long time to decay, that means it's decaying very slowly. Because radiation is emitted as a part of radioactive decay, that also means that it's emitting radiation very slowly (compared to faster decaying isotopes).
These slowly-decaying radioactive isotopes are not that much of a worry at the small amounts present in nuclear weapons. Nuclear power reactors may be another story as the total amount of nuclear waste that's already been generated in nuclear power reactors adds up to about 80,000 tonnes. Which is something like 1000 times more than the fissile material in all the world's 4000 active nuclear warheads combined. (Though its composition and distribution are also very different.)
Using a high estimate (see the next section below) of 5000 megatons for the total world's active nuclear arsenal, an estimate of half of that yield being from fission (as opposed to fusion which makes no fallout) and 60 kilograms of fission products per megaton of fission yield (from above), gives a total of 150 tonnes of fission products in total from an all-out nuclear war. 150 tonnes is a lot different to 80,000 tonnes. (Though its composition and distribution are also very different.)
Nuclear Fallout from Medium-Term Decay Rate Isotopes
Some isotopes with medium-term decay rates can become dangerous after a while as they can accumulate in food, such as Strontium-90 with a half life of 29 years. These are not radioactive enough to kill people quickly, but some of them can accumulate in living tissues (Strontium-90 can replace calcium and accumulate in bones, causing cancer).
There have been claims that this will result in the death of everything on Earth, however there have already been about 500 above ground nuclear bombs detonated, and we are nowhere near killing everything on the planet just from this effect alone. Here you can see real photographs of American cities with nuclear bombs (from tests) exploding on the horizon. According to Wikipedia, the peak of worldwide nuclear radiation from above ground testing was 0.15 millisieverts per year (this is similar to 0.015 R per year, referring to the units used further down on this page). That was in 1963, and it made up 7% of the average background level of radiation from all sources. Since above ground testing was banned in 1963, this has decayed to 0.005 millisieverts per year, which is about 0.0005 R per year. For comparison, the natural background dose (which is around us all the time, and has been more or less since the Earth was formed) is about 2 millisieverts (or 0.02 R) per year.
Based on this is seems extremely unlikely that detonating even 8 times as many nuclear bombs as have already been exploded above ground (approximately the entire world's total deployed nuclear weapons) would permanently destroy everything on the planet from fallout.
Other reports of more localised effects of fallout (such as from nuclear testing) are not as optimistic, although even these are affecting only parts of the world, not the whole world. For example, a study showed that children born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1963 had levels of strontium-90 in their deciduous teeth that was 50 times higher than that found in children born in 1950, before the advent of large-scale atomic testing [source link]. Commentators on the study said that the fallout was likely to cause increased cases of diseases in those who absorb strontium-90 into their bones. This is of course very bad, but not nearly equivalent to destroying all of life on Earth.
According to this page (and the previously mentioned one which use the same source), strontium-90 is probably the most dangerous component of nuclear fallout. This page claims that probably the most serious threat is cesium-137, a gamma emitter with a half-life of 30 years (similar to strontium-90 which is 28 years). The same page does a more sophisticated version of the calculation I made above on the ratio of effects of fallout from a full scale nuclear war compared to the existing nuclear test data, and predicts an additional "about 1/2 percent to 15 percent of the estimated peacetime cancer death rate in developed countries". Which again is very bad, but not the end of life on the planet. And the estimate they used of 10,000 megatons of bombs seems quite high given there are only 4000 active nuclear warheads, nearly all of which are much less than a megaton — and seems more related to the 1980s when there were tens of thousands of nuclear warheads (before arms reductions treaties greatly reduced the numbers).
In the estimates in the above paragraph, I get the feeling they're talking about danger to large areas or to the world as a whole. This is supported by a quote from the book Effects of Nuclear Weapons, which says on paragraph 9.43, "At one time it was suggested that the explosion of a sufficiently large number of nuclear weapons might result in such an extensive distribution of the plutonium as to represent a worldwide hazard. It is now realised that the fission products — the radioisotope strontium-90 in particular — are a more serious hazard than plutonium is likely to be."
As of 1993, worldwide, 520 atmospheric nuclear explosions (including 8 underwater) have been conducted with a total yield of 545 megaton (Mt): 217 Mt from fission and 328 Mt from fusion, while the estimated number of underground nuclear tests conducted in the period from 1957 to 1992 is 1,352 explosions with a total yield of 90 Mt.
I had a quick look for a good estimate of how many megatons are in the world's current actively deployed nuclear arsenal, but didn't find a good answer. This page says 5000 megatons, but I think this is referring to inactive and active nuclear weapons combined. Since that same page says there are 1800 nuclear weapons on high alert. Each weapon is on average much less than a megaton. The total for the USA in 2012 could be calculated from this table, which shows the numbers of all of the different types of nuclear devices in the US nuclear arsenal. Each type of device can be looked up on the internet, e.g. here, to see its yield in megatons. For example there are currently 100 active and 520 inactive B83 bombs, each with 1.2 megatons, which is (I think) the largest current US nuclear device. There are 752 active W76 warheads which are 100 kilotons (0.1 megatons) each. These W76 warheads are the most numerous in the current US arsenal, and are mostly (or entirely) carried by Trident Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM).
Even a total yield of 5000 megatons is only nine times the total of 545 megatons that we've already detonated in the atmosphere. This again suggests very strongly that an all-out nuclear war would not mean anything remotely like the end of all life on Earth.
Note also that most of the yield of most modern bombs (i.e. hydgrogen bombs a.k.a. thermonuclear bombs) comes from fusion, not fission. It is fission products which make up nuclear fallout. The ratio of fission to fusion yield given in the quote above for the total of world atmospheric testing is probably approximately similar to the overall ratio of fission to fusion yield in a nuclear war. Which means it's realistic to compare the overall yields for past tests and current stockpiles and get a rough idea of how much more fallout would be released in a nuclear war than in the total of previous atmospheric tests.
From the estimates above, it seems realistic to estimate that detonating all the current actively deployed nuclear weapons would result in about 10 times, or less, than the amount of fallout that has already been released in atmospheric nuclear tests.
Perhaps the main factor not considered here is the height of detonation above ground. If the explosion happens higher up, there is less fallout. Assuming that the range of heights covered in nuclear tests is simliar to that which would be used in an actual war (which seems like a reasonable assumption although may not be correct), these estimates are still fully valild.
I'll look into this further but it seems logical that in more localised areas the much shorter lived decay products (like a few hours or days) will be by far the most damaging to life, since the rate of radiation released by them greatly exceeds that of the mid or long-term fission products.
Nuclear Fallout from Short-Lived Isotopes
This graph is for fallout overall, i.e. the combined effect from all the different isotopes which make up nuclear fallout. However in the initial stages the overall amount of radiation is dominated by the short-lived isotopes, since these are the ones which both emit radiation the fastest, and decay (into something else) the fastest.
Most people viewing this graph for the first time will probably be quite surprised as to how quickly the levels of radiation decay.
Decay of the radiation from nuclear fallout (Source: Nuclear War Survival Skills)
Notice that the horizontal scale on this graph is in hours after the explosion. As you can see, even after 14 hours, the danger level has dropped dramatically to only 1/20th of the level one hour after the explosion. By 48 hours (two days) the radiation level has reduced to 1/100th what it was at one hour after the explosion.
The vertical scale of the graph above is the dosage rate (i.e. the level of radiation) measured in röentgens per hour (R/hr). The "röentgen" is a unit of radiation dose and is pronounced "RENT-gehn" (or sometimes "RONT-gehn") with the accent on the first syllable "rent", pronounced like the rent you might pay to a landlord, and the second syllable (that could be written as "gehn" or "gen", with the "g" as in "gun" and the "en" as in "pen". The röentgen is a unit of accumulated radiation dose, so röentgens per hour correspond to the dose rate. A radiation dose of around 100-200 röentgens is likely to cause recoverable radiation sickness, and a few hundred röentgens or more is likely to cause death. As the accumulated dose climbs into the 500-1000 range and above, death becomes certain.
Since the scale of the above graph is in röentgens per hour, you can figure out approximately how long it would take to accumulate an incapacitating or fatal dose at different times after the explosion. Even the "low" dose of 10 R/hr at the far right of the graph (after 48 hours) is still quite dangerous. At a steady dose of 10 röentgens per hour, in 48 hours (two days) you would accumulate 480 röentgens — which could easily be a fatal dose. And much more than that (say double) would certainly be fatal. At the levels of fallout shown in the graph, it would take about two weeks (approximately) before the radiation has reduced to a safe enough level to be out of a shelter permanently. Though after two days, at 10 R/hr you could go outside for short periods (even for a couple of hours) if needed to perform essential tasks (such as getting water or whatever) without too much worry, since 1-2 hours outside would mean 10-20 R of exposure, which is not going to kill you. In areas of really heavy fallout you may need to be in your shelter longer than that, and in many areas (probably most areas not too close to ground zero or directly downwind) it would be less than two weeks. If you live far enough away (perhaps a few hundred kilometres, perhaps less, depending on wind direction etc.) from any ground burst nuclear detonations you are unlikely to need a shelter at all. Although this may be different (i.e. you may still need a shelter) if a really large number of warheads, like hundreds or thousands, are detonated — such as may happen in the northern hemisphere — even if you are a long way away. A device that can monitor the levels of radiation is the only way to really know when it is safe or when you need to be in a shelter.
Consider also that the time scale on the graph is measured in hours after the explosion itself. So unless you are very close to ground zero, the fallout will have already decayed during the time it takes to get to your location. (e.g. in the time from 1 to 2 hours after the explosion the fallout rate has halved). This and other factors (such as wind) mean that the actual levels of radiation from nuclear fallout may be less than shown in the graph.
Note that there is much less transfer of air (due to wind currents) between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres than there is from east-west or west-east within each hemisphere. Nearly all the warheads in a nuclear war would be detonated in the Northern Hemisphere. This means that in the Southern Hemisphere, we are much safer from nuclear fallout that spreads over a really large area as would occur in a global nuclear war. There is a region of very limited wind near the equator, called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), and known by sailors as the doldrums. It's possible for boats to get trapped in this zone for days or weeks. The region was extremely dangerous in the days when wind-powered sailing boats were the only means of international transport, and there was no radio equipment to signal distress, or motor-powered rescue vehicles. In terms of nuclear war survival, however, the zone is a blessing for the Southern Hemisphere — as it means nuclear fallout from the North will take much longer to get down here. According to the ABC, "There is some exchange between the two [hemispheres], but the process takes a year or two, versus about a week for air to circulate within a hemisphere." When you consider how the radioactivity of fallout decays over time, this is a massive advantage for those who live in the South.
(This section is fairly technical and isn't really needed for nuclear war survival, except for perhaps the one sentence in bold, three paragraphs below, which says that for nuclear fallout, the three "R" units basically all the same thing.)
There is an almost ridiculous seeming variety of different units used to quantify levels and doses of radiation; such as röentgens, rems, rads, curies, becquerels, grays and sieverts. This can get pretty confusing so, for those interested in the numbers, I'll try to simplify it.
Most of the Cold War vintage literature uses the röentgen as the main unit of radiation dose. By "dose" I mean a total amount of radiation that's accumulated over a period of time, as opposed to a rate or strength of radiation level. Because most of the Western-world information on nuclear weapons was released during that time period, I've got used to using the röentgen. Röentgen is sometimes spelt without the first "e", i.e. röntgen.
Conveniently, the other two units which begin with the letter "r" are all basically equal to each other in terms of dose absorbed by people or animals. The unit rem is the "röentgen equivalent in man" and for "men", or even women, it works out pretty much equal to a röentgen. The rad is also basically the same for this subject. So, without getting too technical, when you see the letter "R" you can think of any one of these units — röentgens, rems, or rads — which for our purposes are all close enough in value to mean the same thing. The abbreviation R is officially meant to stand for röentgens, but is often used to mean rems, and perhaps rads also. One roentgen will deposit about 0.96 rem (so pretty close to 1 rem) in soft biological tissue. Where the radiation is dominated by gamma or x rays applied uniformly to the whole body, (which is the case for nuclear fallout), 1 rad of absorbed dose gives 1 rem of effective dose.
The different units were created because radiation can be counted in different ways. It can be counted as the amount of energy (e.g. in joules) absorbed, or by the effects on living tissue, or by the degree that air is ionised (electrified) by the radiation, or the rate that individual atoms emit particles of radiation. The röentgen is based on how much air is ionised, which was the easiest to measure in the old days of nuclear physics (from about the 1930s). The rem is based on how much effect there is on tissue. The rad (short for "radiation absorbed dose") is based on joules of energy absorbed per kilogram of matter. A sievert is 100 rems and a gray (symbol Gy) is 100 rads. The other units are the the curie and becquerel which are based on how many actual nuclear decays there are per second — since nuclear radiation occurs when the nucleus of an atom changes itself spontaneously (i.e. "decays") into either another type of element or a lower energy state, and gives off some other high-energy particles and/or electromagnetic radiation when it changes. The exact conversions between all these units will depend on what atoms are decaying (i.e. are radioactive), what type of radiation, and what type of material is absorbing the radiation. Here on Wikipedia is some more information on all the different units used for radiation.
What You Need to Do About Nuclear Fallout
If you consider that a dose of any more than say 100 röentgens is going to be a problem (and ideally you want a lot less than that), you can see on the graph that in the initial stages of high fallout, shortly after a nuclear explosion, there is going to be a problem. In order to survive high levels (or even moderate levels) of nuclear fallout, you will require some sort of protection — such as a fallout shelter.
The second nuclear war survival fact that may surprise most people is that these shelters do not have to be elaborate underground fortresses. Basic home made shelters that can be made in a few days (or even several hours if sufficiently prepared) can provide adequate shielding from nuclear fallout. These are commonly known as "expedient" shelters, with the word expedient meaning "quick and easy". Of course an elaborate professionally constructed underground bunker is going to be much more comfortable. But if you don't have one of those available, there are alternatives which are much easier to construct.
The key to understanding fallout (other than learning about the decay rates) is that the fallout itself is not highly poisonous in the usual sense (its mostly just ordinary dirt although this does not mean you would want to eat it), but each grain of dirt is emitting deadly gamma rays which have massive penetrating power, and travel in straight lines right through most objects and out the other side. It's these gamma rays that are the main danger from fallout. I'll expand on this much more soon but basically you need 2-3 feet of earth (or anything weighing about the same as that) to block the majority of the gamma rays emitted by nuclear fallout. There are also alpha and beta particles but these are much less of a concern in the short term (meaning days, weeks, and months) than the gamma rays. Over many years the accumulated dose from intermediate-length-decay isotopes like strontium-90, which beta-decays, can become a problem.
Gamma rays have a lot of penetrating power, it takes 9 centimetres of packed earth (or anything weighing the same as that) to halve their intensity. Every 9cm of earth between you and whatever is emitting the gamma rays (e.g. the fallout dust that's covering much of the land outside your shelter) will halve the intensity. So with 18cm of earth you have 1/4 the intensity, 27cm will allow 1/8 of the radiation through, and so on. If you don't know your 9 times table you can think of it as 10cm if you like since its close enough. 90cm is 9 x 10, so 90cm of packed earth is 10 halving thicknesses. So the amount of radiation that you would get is reduced to 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x1/2 of what it would be outside. Which can also be written as as (1/2)^10, or 1/(2^10), in math speak you would say that as "one half to the power of ten", or "one over two to the power of ten". 2^10 is 1024, so that equals 1/1024, or about 1000th of the gamma radiation will penetrate 90cm of earth. This is the type of thickness you want ideally in a fallout shelter in areas of really high fallout. Though any protection at all will be an improvement on no protection. And many areas will not have enough fallout to need that much shelter (or even no shelter if you're far enough away from any nuclear bomb detonations, depending on wind and other conditions).
Food and Water
From "Nuclear War Survival Skills": If the fallout particles do not become mixed with the parts of food that are eaten, no harm is done. Food and water in dust-tight containers are not contaminated by fallout radiation. Peeling fruits and vegetables removes essentially all fallout, as does removing the uppermost several inches of stored grain onto which fallout particles have fallen. Water from many sources — such as deep wells and covered reservoirs, tanks, and containers — would not be contaminated. Even water containing dissolved radioactive elements and compounds can be made safe for drinking by simply filtering it through earth, as described later in [the] book.
Other things to avoid are eating meat from diseased animals, or eating organ meat from animals which have themselves eaten large amounts of fallout.
So now we are up to fact number three of our optimistic and not well known nuclear war survival facts: Contamination of food from nuclear fallout is not as much of a concern as it may seem.
The Long Term Effects of Exposure to Nuclear Fallout
The fourth surprising fact about nuclear war is that the long-term effects of exposure to nuclear fallout are much less than what you probably think. I'll add more to this later..... But studies done from real-world situations (e.g. Hiroshima) have shown that only a very small fraction of people exposed to nuclear bomb radiation (even at close to fatal levels) have suffered from serious long-term or delayed effects.
I'll expand on this section soon.
To improve your chances of surviving a nuclear attack, your primary need would be an adequate shelter equipped for many days of occupancy. A shelter that affords good protection against fallout radiation and weather would be adequate in more than 95% of the area of the United States. However, even in almost all areas not endangered by blast and fire during a massive nuclear attack, the fallout protection provided by most existing buildings would not be adequate if the winds blew from the wrong direction during the time of fallout deposition.
To remain in or near cities or other probable target areas, one would need better
protection against blast, fire, and fallout than is provided by most shelters in
buildings. Blast tests have proved that the earth-covered expedient fallout shelters
described in this book can survive blast effects severe enough to demolish most
homes. This chapter is concerned primarily with expedient shelters that give excellent
protection against fallout radiation. These earth-covered fallout shelters could be
built in 48 hours or less by tens of millions of Americans following field-tested,
from Nuclear War Survival Skills, chapter 5 "Shelter, The Greatest Need"
The book Nuclear War Survival Skills focuses mostly on shelters made from earth. Most of these are dug (partly or completely) into the ground, though there are some above-ground methods of shelter construction shown also. These earth-made shelters are only useful if you live somewhere with enough soil deep enough to dig down into, or at least have enough soil to cover a shelter with. In other places with extremely shallow soil, or no soil (such as a block of flats in the middle of a city that it's too late to escape from in your particular situation), other methods are used. One big advantage of the earth-dug shelters from Nuclear War Survival Skills is that they are also quite resistant to blast damage (from the pressure wave), much more so than the average modern house or flat. However if you are far enough away from the bomb detonation, blast will not be nearly as much of an issue as fallout.
The general principle of sheltering from fallout is the same everywhere. That is, to provide a large amount of mass between you and the outside where fallout dust has accumulated. By mass, I mean any material at all, the thicker and heavier the better. About 10 centimetres of earth will block out half of the deadly gamma rays which are the main danger from nuclear fallout. Every additional 10cm of earth will again halve the danger, so that 20cm is 1/4 the exposure, 30cm is 1/8th, 40cm is 1/16th, 50cm is 1/32, and so on. One metre would be 1/1024 the exposure which would be safe in even the most extreme levels of fallout close to a massive nuclear detonation.
Remember that the whole point of a fallout shelter is to be surrounded by as much mass as possible, between you and the outside where the fallout dust has landed. This means that many already-existing underground structures would make excellent fallout shelters. Examples (depending on their individual features) would be caves, tunnels, basements, underground car parks, storm drains (that aren't likely to be flash-flooded), etc.
Indoor Fallout Shelters
Here are some pictures of a couple of fallout shelters that can be built quickly inside a normal modern house or flat. Taken from the Protect and Survive video series.
Use any containers you have and anything that's heavy to put in them: Sand, dirt, books, water (if you have containers), etc.
Doors can be unscrewed and leaned against a wall. Here a strip of wood is nailed to the floor to stop the doors slipping, but you could use other means if you didn't have a hammer or nails.
This would be a wall with as much mass as possible on the other side, or at least an interior wall. The main principle is to make the gamma rays travel through as much mass as possible before they can get to you. The gamma rays travel almost completely in straight lines.
Pile up anything and everything heavy that you have over the doors. They have been tied together with rope to hold everything together.
In this next picture an entrance has been made and more stuff piled up above it. Ideally your entrance should be constructed so that there is a bend in the passage leading into your shelter, so that there is no straight line of sight from outside the shelter to the inside. This is because the gamma rays travel in straight lines and don't go around corners.
Here is an alternative type of indoor shelter that can be constructed quickly in the case of an escalating crisis. The more material you pile on top and around the sides, the better — as long as the table (or other support) inside is strong enough to hold the weight.
Outdoor Fallout Shelters
Here is an example of an outdoor "expedient" fallout shelter. Expedient means it can be made quickly, i.e. with speed. It's one of the types described in Nuclear War Survival Skills. The person in the foreground is Cresson Kearny. They are using doors from a house as the supporting material, though other materials could also be used. These types of shelters are quite good at resisting blast, much better than an ordinary house. They are meant to be able to be constructed by an ordinary family within about 1-2 day's worth of time. These shelters have a protection factor of something like 200, which means that inside the shelter you will get 200 times less radiation than outside. That is quite a high protection factor and possibly a lot more than you would need in many places. The images are taken from the video "Expedient Shelters" which is part of the Civil Defense 8-DVD Set. Also available here.
Earth is piled around the shelter on all sides.
Continuing with piling on the earth. The inside (floor) is also being dug out. If this was impossible at your location, you would need to either make the walls higher (with more piled up earth around the shelter), or put up with a much smaller space. Remember the first day after fallout arrives is by far the most dangerous, and in many places just a day or two in the shelter would be enough to save your life and the lives of your family.
Doors (or anything else you have) are layed on top of the shelter. Then more earth is piled on top, the more earth (or anything heavy), the more protection from radiation.
The view from inside the shelter so far. When I was a child I used to make "cubby houses" a lot like this, though with less digging, and it was fun. By using similar metaphors, children can be spared some of the stress of an impending nuclear situation.
Cover the whole thing in plastic, or anything you have, that can protect from rain. If you don't have anything, this step is more for rain protection than fallout/radiation protection. Though it may possible for heavy rain to wash some fallout dust into the shelter, which would lessen the protection of the shelter, most water seepage would be filtered through a lot of earth and would be clean from radiation.
In heavy fallout areas you would need to be in the shelter for a while, perhaps up to two weeks (or even longer if there were multiple nuclear bombs detonated over a period of time). Though when fallout is less intense, going outside for short periods (such as to bucket out any water that's entered) is fine.
The entrance to the shelter. In the video he is talking about piling up more material above and on the sides of the entrance.
In the background on the left you can see another type of shelter, that can be constructed very quickly. It's a trench dug into the ground, with a car driven over the top, and lots of earth shovelled around the outsides of the car, and inside the car.
Inside the shelter, where there is about 200 times less nuclear radiation than outside.
You Don't Know the Power of the Spade HOT
If the idea of this much digging seems extremely difficult, which it will for many modern people, here's an inspirational quote about what can be done with just a small spade 50 centimetres long including the blade and handle. So a full size spade with a long handle could be seen as a luxury item, relatively speaking.
Every infantryman in the Soviet Army carries with him a small spade. When he is given the order to halt he immediately lies flat and starts to dig a hole in the ground beside him. In three minutes he will have dug a little trench 15 centimetres deep, in which he can lie stretched out flat, so that bullets can whistle harmlessly over his head. The earth he has dug out forms a breastwork in front and at the side to act as an additional cover. If a tank drives over such a trench the soldier has a 50% chance that it will do him no harm. At any moment the soldier may be ordered to advance again and, shouting at the top of his voice, will rush ahead. If he is not ordered to advance, he digs in deeper and deeper. At first his trench can be used for firing in the lying position. Later it becomes a trench from which to fire in the kneeling position, and later still, when it is 110 centimetres deep, it can be used for firing in the standing position. The earth that has been dug out protects the soldier from bullets and fragments. He makes an embrasure in this breastwork into which he positions the barrel of his gun. In the absence of any further commands he continues to work on his trench. He camouflages it. He starts to dig a trench to connect with his comrades to the left of him. He always digs from right to left, and in a few hours the unit has a trench linking all the riflemen's trenches together. The unit's trenches are linked with the trenches of other units. Dug-outs are built and communication trenches are added at the rear. The trenches are made deeper, covered over, camouflaged and reinforced. Then, suddenly, the order to advance comes again. The soldier emerges, shouting and swearing as loudly as he can.
The infantryman uses the same spade for digging graves for his fallen comrades. If he doesn't have an axe to hand he uses the spade to chop his bread when it is frozen hard as granite. He uses it as a paddle as he floats across wide rivers on a telegraph pole under enemy fire. And when he gets the order to halt, he again builds his impregnable fortress around himself. He knows how to dig the earth efficiently. He builds his fortress exactly as it should be. The spade is not just an instrument for digging: it can also be used for measuring. It is 50 centimetres long. Two spade lengths are a metre. The blade is 15 centimetres wide and 18 centimetres long. With these measurements in mind the soldier can measure anything he wishes.
The infantry spade does not have a folding handle, and this is a very important feature. It has to be a single monolithic object. All three of its edges are as sharp as a knife. It is painted with a green matt paint so as not to reflect the strong sunlight.
The spade is not only a tool and a measure. It is also a guarantee of the steadfastness of the infantry in the most difficult situations. If the infantry have a few hours to dig themselves in, it could take years to get them out of their holes and trenches, whatever modern weapons are used against them.
The spetsnaz soldier loves his spade. He has more faith in its reliability and accuracy than he has in his Kalashnikov automatic. An interesting psychological detail has been observed in the kind of hand-to-hand confrontations which are the stock in trade of spetsnaz. If a soldier fires at an enemy armed with an automatic, the enemy also shoots at him. But if he doesn't fire at the enemy but throws a spade at him instead, the enemy simply drops his gun and jumps to one side.
This is a book about people who throw spades and about soldiers who work with spades more surely and more accurately than they do with spoons at a table. They do, of course, have other weapons besides their spades.
Spetsnaz: The Inside Story of the Soviet Special Forces, by Viktor Suvorov, page 1, Chapter 1: Spades and Men.
Measuring Levels of Nuclear Radiation
There is no way to detect nuclear radiation with just your five senses, even at fatally high levels of radiation. This leaves two ways you can be informed about any levels of radiation that may be present. Either measure it using a specialised measuring device, or obtain information from someone else with access to measuring equipment (such as by listening to the radio). If you can measure it yourself you'll be able to get much more localised information, about the levels of radiation right where you are.
There are many different gadgets that can be used for measuring radiation, if you look around the internet it can be a bit confusing. There are survey meters vs. dosimeters; high range vs. low range devices; and devices to measure alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation.
Survey Meters vs. Dosimeters: This is like the speedometer in your car vs the odometer (the counter that says how far you have travelled). The survey meter is like a speedometer, in that it measures the rate, or level, of radiation. The dosimeter is like an odometer, it measures the total amount of radiation that has been absorbed over a period of time.
High Range vs. Low Range: This just refers to the levels of radiation that the equipment is meant to measure. Typical peacetime levels are much lower than wartime post-bomb levels, so much so that a lot of the usual devices for measuring radiation in peacetime will not be able to read high enough for wartime use. This includes most (perhaps all) of the true "Geiger counters" with an actual Geiger-Muller tube as the part inside the meter that does the actual measuring. The high range survey meters are sometimes called "Geiger counters" but they aren't really Geiger counters as such, because they use a different method (an ionization chamber) of detecting the radiation. (More details here for the technically interested readers.) The main thing you need to know is that for high levels of radiation (such as for fallout after a nuclear bomb) you need a meter that's capable of measuring high enough. A lot of the high range meters (especially the old CD V ones - see below) will only measure high levels of radiation. A true Geiger counter is sensitive enough to measure the normal very low-level natural background radiation that is present all the time (think of seeing movies where the counters is going click, click, click).
Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Detectors: This isn't that much of a problem for nuclear fallout, since almost all of the danger from radioactive fallout comes in the form of gamma rays, and (as far as I know) any of the meters can detect gamma rays. Gamma rays have the most penetrating power, it takes 9 centimetres of packed earth (or anything weighing the same as that) to halve their intensity. Every 9cm of earth will halve the intensity, so with 18cm of earth you have 1/4 the intensity, 27cm will allow 1/8 of the radiation through, and so on. Some of the detectors can also detect alpha and beta particles but you can forget about this when beginning to learn about fallout. Alpha particles are so weak (in terms of penetrative power) that a sheet of paper will block them. Even a few centimeters of air will block them. They are only dangerous if you eat something that's emitting them (such as fallout dust). Beta particles may travel metres in air and several millimetres into the human body. Most beta particles may be stopped by a small thickness of a light material such as aluminium or plastic. Beta particles can give you "beta burns" to exposed skin, but this is much less of a worry than the deadly gamma rays.
CD V Radiation Detectors
The picture below shows some radiation detectors, the CD V-715 high range survey meter at the back, the CD V-700 low range survey meter / Geiger counter at the middle right, with the CD V-705 powered speaker attached to it, the CD V-750 dosimeter charger in the middle. The lunchbox at the front left contains some dosimeter pens (CD V-138, CD V-730, and CD V-742) and the original headphones that plug into the CD V-700 Geiger counter. The orange plate was made pre-WWII and its glaze contains uranium oxide, meaning that it's radioactive. People used to eat from these and according to Wikipedia "the red glaze emitted far less radiation than some other consumer products". The plate is used as a radiation source for testing the low range detectors.
The most popular types of detectors in terms of numbers made are the "CD V" series of equipment. There are survey meters and dosimeters. The most popular survey meters are the low range CD V-700 (which is an actual Geiger counter) and the CD V-715, which is a high range survey meter designed for wartime use (not an actual Geiger counter though they are often called that). If you do a Google image search for Geiger counter you can see that these are quite popular. According to the Civil Defence Museum, 567,457 of the CD V-715 units were made. There is also the CD V-717 which is the same as the CD V-715 but has the extra feature of a removable baseplate which contains the detector, attached to a 25-foot long cord. This allows you to place the detector outside your shelter and view the scale safely from inside. For post-bomb use in medium or high fallout areas, the high range meters (e.g. CD V-715 or 717) are what you want. You can tell if the meter is high or low range easily by looking. The low range CD V-700 has a round chrome (silver coloured) handle, which contains the Geiger-Muller tube. The G-M tube can be removed if you want to point it right up next to a radioactive source. You can also see the grey cord that connects the G-M tube to the unit wrapped around the handle. The high range meters (such as the CD V-715) have a yellow painted handle and no cord.
There are also dosimeters, which look like (usually yellow) pens, complete with pocket clips to go in your pocket, just like a pen. The dosimeters need to be charged with a charger such as the CD V-750 dosimeter charger. You can see more about these here including information about the different types of dosimeter pens and how many they made (literally a few million).
The CD V series of equipment was made in the cold war, so most of it is quite old now. The meters can be bought cheaply online however the accuracy of the meters may not be known. The survey meters need to be calibrated every several years (that is, have their accuracy tested and, if necessary, adjusted internally). With high range meters (such as the CD V-715), you need a really strong radioactive source to calibrate them, much stronger than ordinary people are legally allowed to own (or would want to own since they would be deadly if you were exposed to them). Uncalibrated CD V-715 meters are going on eBay for around the $30-50 range currently. You can also buy fully calibrated and checked ones, for a lot more (around $300). Occasionally meters come up for sale that have been calibrated semi-recently, say from 5-10 years ago, and these sometimes go quite cheap ($40-100). Consider that most of these meters were made in the early 1960's, which is over 50 years ago. A meter that was known to work accurately 5-10 years ago is going to be much more likely to still work and be accurate than a "never opened - still in the box" meter that was known to work 50+ years ago and has never been looked at since. There is also at least one service where you can send in your meter for them to calibrate. They also sell some gear, but most of it only to the USA, though they have links on their site for resellers, some of which ship to Australia (and internationally). Plus a lot of other information about nuclear war survival. See ki4u.com for more.
The dosimeter "pens" age with time and start to fail. The main problem is that they start to "leak" out the charge, which means that the scale climbs up as if they were detecting radiation, but even when there is no radiation. I bought 20 of these quite cheap (I think they were $3 each), and it looks like about 1/3 to 1/2 of them will be usable. I'll put up some results of testing of them soon..... You can buy brand new ones for $150 each, which is a lot more than $3 each. The dosimeter chargers don't really age or go out of calibration, they will work or not (and most of them probably still work). They have a torch-style light bulb which can burn out, and there is even a spare bulb contained inside the case.
All of the abovementioned devices run on D-cell batteries.
There are modern digital devices that can measure a large range of radiation (both high and low levels), however these are expensive, around $1000 and up.
Build Your Own Radiation Detector From Simple Household Items
Finally — believe it or not — there's actually a radioactivity meter that you can build yourself from simple household items. This is called the Kearny Fallout Meter, or KFM. The construction is meant to be of the difficulty level that a junior high school age child could build one. There are some kits available or you can make up everything yourself. Detailed instructions can be found in the book Nuclear War Survival Skills (see below on this page), or look online. There are a few YouTube videos about these.
There are three huge advantages of the KFM over any of the electronic products (like those mentioned above): One is that no power (e.g. batteries) are required. Two is that they never need to be recalibrated. Three is they are 100% EMP-proof (more on this later). Though there is a need to keep the internals of the meter dry, since moisture will affect the accuracy of the reading, and usually some type of drying agent (such as silica gel) is used for this. The CD V meters above are sealed with rubber gaskets to keep them dry inside (apparently they will float on water, though if the rubber gasket is 50 years old they might leak). The main disadvantages of the KFM are that they are somewhat more cumbersome to operate — it's not as simple as turning on a switch and reading a meter dial — and, apparently, they look so primitive and low-tech that people underestimate how useful they really are.
I've bought one of the KFM kits from BA Products, who ship to Australia quite cheap (like $10). I'll take some photos as I assemble it and write it up on the website (when I get time)....
Key Things to Know
COMING SOON: More info to be added later on...
How to Prepare for Nuclear War
These are some steps to take to prepare for nuclear war. This list will be improved a lot over time.... The first step is very easy, and I highly recommend that you do this right now.
Almost everything that applies to preparing for an ordinary economic collapse also applies to nuclear war. In fact, one of the benefits of preparing for nuclear war is that after you spend some time on it, it makes the idea of an "ordinary" economic collapse seem like much less of an issue.
Steps to Take
- Download the free PDF book "Nuclear War Survival Skills" (from either of the two links below) to your computer (or phone or iPad or whatever device you are using), so you have your own electronic copy. (It's free from copyright so there is no cost).
- Make a few copies of it so that you are likely to have one available in a worsening crisis situation.
- Nuclear War Survival Skills (PDF, the pages match the printed book)
- Nuclear War Survival Skills (PDF, OCR version with computer font)
- Print out a few parts of Nuclear War Survival Skills so that you have a hard copy. I would recommend Chapter 1 and Chapter 16 (Minimum Pre-Crisis Preparations) as a minimum. Chapter 16 is only two pages long. In a nuclear war it is highly likely that most or all electronic devices will no longer work so having a hard (paper) copy is essential. Chapter 3 (Warnings and how to respond) and Chapter 5 (Shelters). A copy of one or more of the appendices on how to build specific types of expedient shelters would also be very good. If where you live doesn't have deep soil or dirt that you could dig a shelter down into, but does have some dirt available (e.g. a great many Australian suburban backyards), Appendices A.4 to A.6 are the ones you want.
- Buy one or more printed copies of Nuclear War Survival Skills. There are a few different versions available (with the same text and photos, but printed by different companies with different fonts, page sizes, layouts, etc) so you may wish to buy a few copies.
This book is so good and IMHO will save so many lives that — if you are religious, I would rate it as the no.2 book that you should own after the Holy book (e.g. the Bible) of your religion — and if you are not (and never going to be) religious this is the first and most important book that everyone should have access to.
- Become familiar with the basic information on the effects and lifetime of nuclear fallout, and how to avoid radiation sickness from fallout. This is discussed previously on this web page.
- If you live in or near the middle of a city, or near a major military base (especially if it is in any way connected with nuclear weapons), seriously consider moving somewhere else before the crash happens. This is a very good idea anyway, irrespective of whether or not there is going to be a nuclear war.
Equipment to Gather
The most important items to have available are (much more info coming soon)......
For starters, something to measure radiation levels (see above).
Note that if you are far away from any detonations, you may not have any fallout in your area and therefore have no need for a shelter. You are still highly likely to experience EMP which will destroy most electronics. Therefore items for EMP shielding are still important. See below.
Gas/dust masks, e.g. N95 particulate respirator masks. Or bandannas. Or at a pinch you could tie shirts etc around your face, covering your nose and mouth.
Sand bags are good to have. You buy them empty and then fill them up with sand, or dirt from the garden, or anything you have. You can stack them up to make walls and then put something on top for a roof, and have a quick shelter. (The roof has to be thick and heavy, remember every 10 centimetres of packed earth approximately halves the intensity of gamma rays).
Shelter ventilation pump, probably a home made one (which does not use power). More on this in the future. You can see these in the videos here.
All the other things you would need for a collapse of society, irrespective of nuclear war.
List of items from Nuclear War Survival Skills.
Another good web page on nuclear war survival.
Some old-fashioned bulb-type non-LED torches are good to have on hand, since LED torches are sensitive to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and (unless kept in a faraday cage) will probably be destroyed by EMP from a nuclear war. Old fashioned bulb-type torches (and batteries) are EMP-proof.
Also a means of protecting electrical devices from electromagnetic pulse (EMP). I'll write a lot more on this later also, but basically a metal box that's joined on all sides or any box (cardboard, wood, etc.) completely covered in metal, e.g. aluminium foil, so that there is continuous electrical contact all the way around the box, on all sides, including the lid. Place EMP-sensitive electronic devices inside, such as radios, LED torches, and any computer or mobile phone gear that you want to rely on still working after a nuclear attack. The EMP pulses are short lived so once they stop, you can take the gear out of the EMP-proof box and use it (unless there are more nuclear detonations still to come).
You can also use a microwave oven, unplug it from the wall and it's probably the quickest and easiest to use in an emergency if you don't have anything else prepared. Although these may not be as good as some other more solid types of shielding. Forget the microwave oven. This is an interesting example of how difficult it is to know the correct answers to many of the questions about something like nuclear radiation, about which, almost the only sources of information are third-party ones like the internet, books, scientific literature, etc. There are so many web pages and even books advising the use of microwave ovens as EMP shields, that originally I went with this idea for a while myself, while wondering how it would actually be possible to work given there is no electrical contact all the way around the join between the door and the body/box of the oven. After further research and consideration the jury says that a microwave oven is NOT a good EMP shield. There are videos (on YouTube etc.) of people putting mobile phones in microwaves, with the door closed, and the phone does not work (i.e. the oven is blocking the electromagnetic radiation a.k.a. phone reception). There are other videos which disagree with this. This is what I now understand to be the definitive answer: Microwave ovens work by emitting microwave radiation, which is what cooks your food. The radiation is of a particular frequency. Most (perhaps all) of them are 2450 MHz. There is a gap in the metal shielding between the oven door and oven body (both of which are made from shielding material themselves, but do not connect to each other electrically all the way around when the door is closed). The size and other aspects of the gap are precisely engineered so that a "resonance" happens at the frequency of the microwaves in the oven. Which means that the oven overall, with the door closed, is a good shield at that particular frequency (i.e. 2450 MHz). And possibly a few other individual frequencies which the gap also resonantes with (like perhaps exactly half that, or double that, etc.). It is NOT a broad-spectrum shield as would be required for EMP protection. Some mobile phone and wi-fi systems operate on a 2400 MHz band (which is close enough to 2450 MHz that a microwave oven would block it), and some operate on other bands. Possibly some of these other bands are also blocked (partially or almost fully) as explained a few sentences before (like, maybe, from having half the frequency, etc.). While other bands are not blocked, and generally speaking, radiation of a random frequency, and broad-spectrum radiation (like an EMP) would not be blocked. This explains the conflicting experiments where some mobile phones are blocked inside a microwave oven and others are not. It also means that a microwave is NOT a good shield against EMP.
Or an old-style all-metal garbage can with a tight fitting metal lid that makes electrical contact (i.e. not painted around where the lid touches the can). See here for more on Google. See here for new survival.org.au page on EMP.
And some potassium iodide (more info soon, this is to protect your thyroid gland, you can buy it in pill/tablet form from prepping-type sellers, or much cheaper in powder form (preferably food grade) from some chemical supply companies). One of the by-products of nuclear explosions is a radioactive form of iodine known as I-131. The thyroid gland uses a lot of iodine to make the thyroid hormones that regulate your body's metabolism. So much so that in fact the thyroid hormones are named after how many iodine atoms are in each molecule of hormone. Thyroxine is often called T4 and has four iodine atoms per molecule. Triiodothyronine (T3) has both its long and short name based on its three atoms of iodine. You can see this in the images on Wikipedia where the purple atoms in the diagrams are iodine atoms. When the body is exposed to radioactive iodine I-131, it will accumulate in the thyroid gland and can cause problems such as thyroid cancer. The solution to this problem is to take large doses of ordinary iodine in the form of potassium iodide, which saturates the body with enough iodine that no more will be absorbed (so that the radioactive iodine is not absorbed). Note that if you read the label of iodised table salt, usually it will say potassium iodide on the label, but you need much higher amounts of it than what is present in table salt. Therefore it is very highly desirable to have some potassium iodide available in the case of a nuclear attack. Note that the older you are, the less of an issue this is and the World Health Organisation does not recommend the use of potassium iodide for this use in adults over age 40 unless there is a very high amount of radiation exposure.
Many basic off-the-grid survival types of items are also necessary (such as drinking water, etc.) but this page focuses on items specifically needed in a nuclear war.
How Close Can You Get to a Nuclear Bomb and Live?
US Soldiers walking towards a nuclear mushroom cloud in Nevada, 1953. (Source: YouTube)
This video on youtube is quite interesting, and disturbing — showing US army soldiers walking towards the mushroom cloud from a freshly detonated nuclear bomb during a military test in the 1950s. You can skip to 3:00 minutes if you want to see the action immediately. Many of these soldiers would have lived to old age, based on what I read about Australian soldiers being placed close to similar nuclear tests in Australia in the book Maralinga by Frank Walker.
The book Maralinga details the history of the British nuclear tests that were performed in the Australian outback during the 1950s, and the effects that they had on people exposed to the radiation. I'll add more detail later but I was surprised at the level of exposure that people could have and still live to old age. Of course, not all of them did. There was a guy who ran right down into the crater a few hours after the nuclear explosion, I think he lived for a couple of weeks, if that. I'll have to read the book again and go over it for details... There were guys ordered to fly small aircraft right through the middle of the mushroom clouds, multiple times, to measure things (presumably including the effects on them). At least a couple of them were still alive as of 2014 when the book was written. There were many deaths as would be expected, but these are people who were right up close to the explosions, and many of them actually did survive.
Lying in the boat covered only by a tarpaulin just three kilometres from the explosion, sailor Henry Carter was terrified. Thirty years later he described what happened to the Royal Commission into the British tests: 'The signal came over the radio to prepare for countdown and a black heavy canvas tarpaulin was pulled over the boat so we were now in darkness. We all then draped jungle green towels over our heads and I pressed the palms of my hands into my eye sockets. I was dressed in shorts and a pair of shoes. At zero there was a blinding electric blue light of an intensity I had not seen before or since. I pressed my hands harder into my eyes, then I realised I could see the bones of my hands. It seemed that this light was passing through the tarpaulin and towel for about ten to twelve seconds and there seemed to be two surges and two detonations with a continued rumbling and boiling sensation. My body seemed first to be compressed, and then billowing like a balloon.'
None of this reached the public at the time. Instead they received carefully vetted propaganda...
From Maralinga by Frank Walker, page 25.
Henry Carter lived at least 30 years after witnessing the bones in his own hand. I would imagine most people today who saw what he did would expect to die pretty soon from radiation sickness, or at "least" from cancer a few years later.
Note that the bombs detonated in the Australian tests were much smaller than current warheads deployed by the world's major powers — from around 1 to 30 kilotons, compared to a hundred kilotons up to about a megaton (1000 kilotons) for a modern hydrogen bomb. (The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons for comparison). It would most probably not be possible to survive being three kilometres away from the detonation point of a larger modern weapon without a very well hardened concrete bunker.
The book Maralinga has a lot of stories like this, of actual events that happened in Australia. Which makes it highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to know more about what happens close to a nuclear detonation, and the future health effects that result. I felt less frightened about the idea of nuclear war after reading it.
Recommended Viewing (Free)
Here are some online videos that are recommended for preparing to survive nuclear war, and general nuclear war and nuclear bomb information:
Protect and Survive
Protect and Survive — Excellent. Here is a lower quality video version split into its individual episodes. Shows how to make fallout shelters inside your house out of simple home and garden items like doors, boxes/bags/suitcases, and sand/dirt/books. These videos were classified when first made, and intended only to be shown to the public in the case of impending nuclear attack.
Note that the comments at around 8 minutes into the video about no place being safer for avoiding fallout than any other are incorrect, other than perhaps over a very small geographic area. It may be true in a small country such as England where a large number of bombs are detonated over many parts of the country. However it would be absolutely untrue for a large country (such as Australia) where vast areas of the country have almost zero population (or military installations) and basically zero chance of being targeted by nuclear weapons. Generally speaking, the further you are away from where any nuclear bombs are exploded, the better. This is true of heat and blast, and in most cases it's also true of fallout. Anyone who claims that "there is no safe distance to escape fallout" is ignoring the fact that over 500 atmospheric nuclear bombs have already been exploded (in weapons tests, plus another 1400 more underground) and we are obviously not all dead from fallout. These tests were conducted a long way from population centres for the obvious reason that distance from the explosions is in fact critical in avoiding the effects of the bombs, which include fallout.
As a good example of how we currently live in what could be called the "Age of Entertainment", the most well-known part of this video is the short section beginning around 5:10. This is the original source that was sampled and used at the beginning of the song "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. "...The air attack warning sounds like. This is the sound. [Sirens begin...] When you hear the air attack warning you and your family must take cover".
Other Free Nuclear War Survival Videos
How to build a Basement Core Shelter by Cresson Kearny. Excellent.
Part 1 of how to build a Kearny Fallout Meter.
Testing the effectiveness of the Kearny Fallout Meter with a dental X-ray machine.
YouTube playlist with a lot of vintage civil defence videos.
The Shelter - A must watch for preppers and survivalists. Sorry it seems to be gone from YouTube. SEE LINK BELOW. Or if that's gone by the time you read this, try and search youtube or the web for twilight zone the shelter. This one is quite dark, but like the title says, it really is a "must watch", unfortunately. It's an episode from the 1959 TV series The Twilight Zone, which in 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked it as the third best-written TV series ever, and TV Guide ranked it as the fifth greatest show of all time.
NEW: This link for The Shelter is working in February 2019.
Ark Two #19: Expedient Shelters. It's only six minutes. Just watch it. A bit incoherent in style but several good ideas shown in a short time.
How to Survive a Nuclear Bomb, Part 3: Dealing with Radiation. Another good video about sheltering from fallout radiation.
Surviving a nuclear attack - Irwin Redlener. TED video shown on YouTube. The first part of the video concentrates on nuclear terrorist attacks, and the lack of civil defence programs. The last part of the video has some direct advice on surviving a nuclear bomb.
How to Survive a Nuclear Bomb Attack. 16 minutes. Most of the survival advice is in the second half of the video.
Scenario for inbound nuclear attack. "What would you do if you had one hour to get ready for an inbound nuclear attack on the largest city closest to you right now?" A few ideas plus an introduction to the use of the online simulator NUKEMAP.
Movies about Nuclear War (Free and Non-free)
I went over these in January 2017 to update which free online ones still work. In February 2017 I started adding links to buy the DVDs of some of the ones I can source, especially the ones that aren't on YouTube anymore.
Note that in most of these movies, what happens is based on the lives of people living relatively close to the nuclear bomb explosions. These effects would be far less severe in locations a long way away. This is a major reason to aim to not be living in such a place by the time that any nuclear bombs are exploded in wartime.
Threads, 1984. Seems to be gone from youtube unfortunately. Many people say this is the most depressing/disturbing movie ever made, so you have been warned. It also gets a lot of votes for most realistic nuclear war movie ever made. It's set in England (unlike most nuclear war movies which are American). Threads was nominated for seven British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards in 1985. It won for Best Single Drama, Best Design, Best Film Cameraman and Best Film Editor. Its other nominations were for Best Costume Design, Best Make-Up, and Best Film Sound. Watching this movie should be interpreted as motivation to be living somewhere far away from nuclear targets.
Purchase Threads DVD from Australia (Fishpond) Region 2 (UK), needs a multi-region player to watch in Australia. Or Purchase Threads from Amazon.
The Day After, 1983. If that link doesn't work anymore, try here or here. For the script click here. The thing that affected me the most in this movie was something I hadn't really thought about before, at least not to the extent that settled into me after watching this. It wasn't any of the deaths, or other losses as consequences of the bombs, most of which I had seen in other movies and was expecting. The scene that made me think the most is right as the missiles are launching, and the five army guys are standing at the entrance to their base, arguing about what they should do now. If you watch it, see if you can pick what idea is presented in that scene that I hadn't fully considered before. (It wasn't the fact that the guys had been abandoned by the higher ranking officers).
By Dawn's Early Light, 1990. Shows some of the life of the pilots flying the nuclear bombers, among other things.
Testament, 1983. (Taken off YouTube). More "gentle" than some of the other movies in this genre. Nothing much is seen of the actual nuclear explosions. The main thing to take away from this movie is that almost every death in the movie (and there are many) would have been prevented if the people in the town had been able to shelter from the nuclear fallout. Purchase Testament from Amazon
Trinity and Beyond.(Taken off YouTube). Really good documentary about nuclear tests and the development of nuclear weapons and their effects. The first nuclear bomb ever exploded was codenamed "Trinity". In some countries you may still be able to see it. Try here. Purchase Trinity and Beyond from Amazon
White Light & Black Rain - The Destruction of Hiroshima & Nagasaki (Requires login to verify you're an adult).
On The Beach (1959) Doesn't seem to be there. Here it is.
On The Beach (2000). Sorry it's gone. This one is currently working. A remake of the 1959 film.
Fail Safe (2000). It's gone too. World Nuclear Holocaust. Here's a 1964 one with altered voices which may still work. Or here.
The War Game 1965. Gone too now it seems :(
Survival Zone (1983). Also gone but this one is working currently.
Many more to be added later on....
Other Movies and Documentaries (Not Free)
On The Beach 1959 (Amazon link)
War Games 1983 Purchase from Booktopia DVD or Blu-ray.
America's Atomic Bomb Tests - The Collection 2005 (Amazon link)
Atomic Bomb Collection Complete Library (including Trinity and Beyond) 6 DVD discs 2006 (Amazon link)
The Road 2009 (Amazon link)
Tomorrow When the War Began 2010 Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)
Secrets of the Dead: World's Biggest Bomb 2011 (Amazon link)
The Man Who Saved the World 2014 (Amazon link)
Uranium: Twisting the Dragon's Tail 2015 (Amazon link) (Region 4 Booktopia link)
The Bomb 2015 (Amazon link)
Command and Control 2017 (Amazon link)
Nuclear War Survival Skills, Updated and Expanded Edition,
Cresson H. Kearny. This is the "bible" of how to survive a nuclear war. Reading just a small amount of this book will have you convinced that the possibility of surviving a nuclear war is in fact much, much greater than most people believe — provided that you follow a few simple but necessary steps. It explains the basic things you need to to do to protect yourself, especially in the critical first few days after the explosion. The techniques are meant to be used by ordinary people, with access to simple household items, not requiring huge budgets and high-tech shelters.
Nuclear War Survival Skills can be read for free online on the author's website. The online version is the 1987 edition, which is the same as the current 2001 edition except it does not have the addendum on hormesis. Hormesis is the idea that extremely low doses of radiation are not only unharmful, but stimulate the body's defence mechanisms in a way that improves their tolerance to higher doses of radiation that may follow. The addendum is only one page long but it is a good read and adds a positive tone to the end of the book.
It can be downloaded for free from survival.org.au here.
This book is so good that at the time I originally wrote this, out of 19 reviews, every single reviewer on Amazon.com has rated it 5 out of 5 stars. This is almost never seen. Since then the very few poor reviews are mainly complaining that the book is too old. Hydrogen bombs have been around since the 1950s and things have not really changed that much in terms of how to protect against fallout, blast, etc.
There's also a DVD series by Cresson Kearny, the author of this book, available from here. I have seen the DVDs and they are also extremely good, it's $149 USD for the 8-DVD set. Two or three (possibly more which I haven't found) of the clips from them are available on YouTube (see here).
Click here to purchase from Amazon Green cover version.
Below is the red cover version, recent 2016 printing.
Purchase red cover version from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase red cover version from Australia (The Nile) (free Australian shipping)
Purchase red cover version from Amazon
Below is the slightly older 2012 "Red Dog" edition which confusingly has a black cover. This version has a smaller page size and more pages than the original.
Purchase black cover version from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase black cover version from Australia (The Nile) (free Australian shipping)
Purchase black cover version from Amazon
U.S. Armed Forces Nuclear, Biological And Chemical Survival Manual: Everything You Need to Know to Protect Yourself & Your Family From the Growing Terrorist Threat, by Captain Dick Couch and Captain George Galdorisi. 242 pages. The author Captain Dick Couch is a retired Navy SEAL, combat veteran and CIA case officer. The book covers protection from nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks. The chapter on nuclear agents is only 22 pages long, plus another 19 pages of appendix about the effects of nuclear agents (like radiation sickness). The rest of the book, covering biological and chemical threats is still very good though.
There's a chapter covering a comprehensive family action plan. A quote from the retired Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, referring to the threat of nuclear weapons, says "In some wartime situations a reasonable Civil Defence program could do more to save lives than many active defence measures". The author then says "In fact, I would submit that the threat of attack is higher today than during the Cold War with the prospect of Soviet atomic attack. A Family Emergency Action Plan will do more to save lives than almost any activity carried out by the government". Which is one of the rare cases where the bold font I've used in the quote was not added by myself, but part of the original text.
From the publisher, "It contains the best practices of the United States' military, completely edited and adapted for civilian use. For example, readers will learn how to: Gain knowledge of an impending chemical attack using a simple warning system; Protect against biological threats such as anthrax with a series of inoculations; Guard against fallout from a terrorist nuke; Achieve basic protection during chemical or biological attacks with a simple mask; and Administer first aid after nuclear, chemical or biological attacks with a simple first aid kit. It's all here. This handbook is the single most effective tool for civilians to protect themselves and their loved ones against the threat looming over our homeland."
Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase from Amazon
Disaster Preparedness for EMP Attacks and Solar Storms (Expanded Edition), by Arthur T. Bradley. This book will help you to prepare for two end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (TEOTWAWKI) events: the EMP attack and the solar storm. Each threat is carefully studied with analyses of its likelihood and potential impacts on our nation’s critical infrastructures. Practical preparations are outlined, including steps to meet the fourteen basic needs in the absence of modern utilities, and the use of Faraday cages and uninterruptible power supplies to protect personal electronics. Several techniques for constructing ad-hoc Faraday cages are presented.
The shielding effectiveness of homemade Faraday cages is measured and compared, including metal garbage cans, foil-wrapped boxes, fire safes, anti-static bags, ammo cans, microwave ovens, and full-sized protective rooms. These are really good, I think just the pages of tables showing test results of different methods of EMP shielding alone is worth the price of the book.
Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase from Amazon
(The) Effects of Nuclear Weapons, edited by Samuel Glasstone. This is a very long, technical book containing an amazing amount of information, mostly derived from scientific analysis of cold war bomb tests and the Japanese bombings. It's published by the U.S. Government and is in the public domain. Very comprehensive. Although it's more about what the title says than specifically how to survive the use of nuclear weapons, it still contains a lot of very useful information for those who are interested in the details.
The third edition from 1977 is available free online here.
The recently printed (2013) amazon versions are printed from the "revised" (i.e. second) edition from 1962, not the third edition. This seemed odd to me though I read that later versions of the book are more noteworthy for what got taken out than for what, if anything, got added. Which suggests that perhaps they used the older edition because they thought it was better (since the newer one is also freely available and it seems that they could have used it if they wanted to). They are somewhat expensive considering it's public domain, but they are well bound on quality paper.
Purchase from Amazon (Hardcover)
Purchase from Amazon (Softcover)
Purchase from Amazon (Secondhand, probably cheaper)
Maralinga: The Chilling Expose of Our Secret Nuclear Shame and Betrayal of Our Troops and Country, by Frank Walker. While not a book about how to survive a nuclear war, this detailed record of the only nuclear weapons detonated on Australian mainland soil contains a great deal of useful information. Most of all, it will highlight how possible it is to be quite close to nuclear explosions and still survive. Which helps to counter the modern Western idea that everyone will suddenly drop dead the instant that nuclear weapons are detonated, and therefore there is no point in trying to do anything but lie down and wait to die. Of course not all of them did survive, but some of the things I read in this book I would not previously have thought possible to live through. I felt less frightened about nuclear war after reading it. See here earlier on this page for a better description.
Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase from The Nile (free Australian postage)
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One Second After (A John Matherson Novel), by William R. Forstchen. This is a fictional account of what may happen in a small town in the USA in the year following an EMP event. It's quite realistic in that almost everything (perhaps everything) not only could actually happen, but is one of the most likely scenarios.
Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase from Amazon
Going Home: A Novel (The Survivalist Series), by A. American. Another really good fictitional account of events following an EMP event. This is a much different focus to "Going Home", it's mostly about the journey of one man from where his car stops working to his home town.
Purchase from Australia (Booktopia)
Purchase from Amazon
S.E. International Nuclear Radiation Pen Dosimeter
This is the real deal. These are the dosimeter pens as developed in the cold war days, but brand new. Their website says "The advanced PEN direct reading dosimeters are rugged, precision instruments. They are higher quality, improved sapphire lens, and have greater reliability than other dosimeters of this type."
These are dosimeters, that is the measure the total absorbed dose of nuclear radiation, like the odometer on your car (the number under the speedo) which says how many kilometres the car has gone. As far as I know they have no electronics inside and are EMP proof. They're a completely mechanical device: a piece of metal inside, mounted on a hinge and attached mechanically to the dial needle, is given a static electrical charge with a separate charger. Once it's charged, each gamma-ray photo on radiation that hits it (remember they pass right through the cylindrical housing) removes a little of the charge. As more gamma rays pass through, the charge gradually fades away and the needle moves along the dial. Their operation is just the same as the Kearny Fallout Meter (KFM) which you can build youself. Of course the pen-style ones are professionally made and much more accurate, reliable, and durable than the KFM. If you want to build a KFM the instructions are in the freely downloadable book Nuclear War Survival Skills.
As far as I know they have no electronics inside and are EMP proof. They require a charger, you need to purchase this separately. There are two types of chargers, one runs on a single D-size battery, and looks like a square metal box about 10x10x5 cm. You can use the old cold war civil defense ones or buy a new one. The old ones mostly all still work, and they don't go out of calibration since the calibration is built into the dosimeter "pen", not the charger. They are called pens because they have a similar shape to a pen, even with a pocket clip. The other type of charger looks like a small pistol, and does not require a battery, but is (I think) a bit harder to use, and usually costs a lot more to buy. Of course not needing a battery is a big advantage in a nuclear war. Though the battery type of charger does not use much power (as it only takes a few seconds to charge the dosimeter pen) and the batteries would last a long time.
You can find the chargers easily on eBay. The gun style of chargers are sold new on Amazon but they are expensive.
You can buy the original yellow versions of these pens secondhand, for e.g. on eBay. Many (like maybe half, very approximately) of the old ones are quite leaky, meaning when you zero the scale with the charger, the needle starts moving up all by itself even when there is no radiation. As far as I know these are unrepairable and are pretty much just junk. The ones that don't leak most likely still work, unless they have the other issue which sometimes develops with these, which is the needle gets sticky. It seems likely to me that if the dial needle moves up and down very smoothly when you turn the knob on the charger (the battery powered ones have a knob which moves the needle across the scale), they probably aren't that sticky. But I'm not completely sure. Buying a brand new one would ensure greater peace of mind that it actually works.
They come in a few different sensitivities, indicated by the maximum reading on the scale. The lower value ones will show movement of the dial at lower exposure rates (i.e. are more sensitive) but will need to be recharged more often. When the needle reaches the end of the scale, you must use the charger to reset it to zero again. The higher value pens are less sensitive and require charging less often. The original yellow pens were made up to a 200 R full scale deflection version, and this was the version that they made the most of. The lowest (most sensitive) of the original ones were 200 mR, which will max out the scale 1000 times faster than the largest 200 R size. The original literature described the 200 mR ones as "Low range dosimeter used for training". Meaning not in an actual nuclear war. To put that into perspective, in Australia we recieve about 200 mR (i.e. 2 mSv) of natural background radiation per year. And an X-Ray or CT scan adds another 150-2000 mR (1.5-20 mSv) more.
To get a perspective of the dose rates, acute radiation sickness begins at about 100 R of exposure. If exposed to much more than that approximate dose, you may have problems recovering. About 500-600R will kill most people and much higher than that means certain death. The more modern unit of the sievert (Sv) is bigger than the R so that 1 Sv = 100 R, so 1 R = 0.010 Sv = 10 millisievert (mSv). These are very high numbers of radiation levels like would be experienced in a region of nuclear fallout. If you look around the web at peacetime radiation meters, they often talk in microsieverts, where 1000 microsieverts (uSv) = 1 mSv. The highest recorded radiation rates during the Fukishima nuclear reactor crisis were about 40 R per hour.
You need a light source to read the pens, like the sun, or a torch or light bulb, etc. You can't read them in the dark. At a pinch you can use the battery operated chargers as a light source to read the scale, but you have to be super-careful not to press the pen very hard into the charging socket or it will reset the needle reading (and you will never know what it was).
You can read a lot more about the pens and how to use them here. These S. E. International ones are the same as the Arrowtech Inc. ones, and if you look at the close-up of the product image on Amazon you can see "ARROW-TECH" on the label.
The Amazon purchase item is for ONE pen, not three. There are three pens shown in the product image. Please ignore the one-star review from someone who was expecting to get three pens. These are quality items, as good as it gets. The eBay link includes an item called "Dosilite Pen Dosimeter Light" which is much cheaper, note that this is just the light only, not a dosimiter.
Purchase from Amazon (USA) 20R Maximum Reading
Purchase from Amazon (USA) 5R Maximum Reading
Purchase from Amazon (USA) 200mR Maximum Reading
Radiation Alarm - Free App for Android
This is a free app for android phones which uses the phone's camera to detect gamma rays. It's not a toy - it really does detect radiation (apparently). You need to cover the camera with something completely dark so that it does not detect light. I used a few layers of black electrical insulation "sparkie" tape. According to ANSTO these kinds of apps really can work accurately. The app they tested was a paid one that I haven't tried yet but this one works on the same principles. The most important questions were 1. can a phone camera detect radiation such as gamma rays), and 2. What is the response of the detector to increasing levels of radiation. According to their tests, yes radiation is detected, and the response of a phone camera was found to be linear, meaning that the measured level of radiation was proportional to the actual level as they tested with their professional scientific equipment. They tested the Apple iPhone 4S and the Samsung Galaxy S2. I would imagine most other smartphone cameras would have a similar behaviour and work with this app.
I also read somewhere a comment that the detector/sensor in phone cameras does not saturate at very high levels of radiation as much as a Gieger-Muller tube, which if true would be a great thing in terms of nuclear war radiation measurements (which are higher than Gieger-Muller tube based detectors, including nearly all modern radiation detectors, can measure).
Of course the very large disadvantage with this kind of app is that in a real nuclear war the EMP produced would destroy your mobile phone in a fraction of a second, and then it would be unable to measure radiation (or do anything at all) at the time when you would most want to measure it. The only way around this problem would be to keep your phone EMP shielded if you thought there was likely to be a nuclear attack. Another more practical solution would be to install this app on an older phone that you don't use anymore and keep that one permanently EMP shielded. Of course you'd have to ensure that the phone had power after a nuclear event, which would mean keeping a charger and portable solar panels also EMP shielded, or using some other method of charging that's both off-grid and EMP proof.
Unfortunately, after installing it on a HTC One M8 (which is from about 2014) it hasn't detected any radiation yet despite sitting on top of my radioactive source (a uranium oxide glazed plate) for a few minutes. I'll leave it on for a while and see how it goes. According to the comments on the app, several people have tested the app with radioactive sources and it did work for them. It could just be that my source isn't strong enough, though my actual Geiger counter can detect it no problem at all. Also the interface isn't the greatest. For e.g., whenever the phone is turned around and the screen changed orientation, the calibration window comes up on the app.
I couldn't find it on the Apple App Store. There are a few other radiation detection apps out there. Some of them require a small detector tube that plugs into the headphone jack. I've also tried GammaPix Lite which isn't detecting anything either. It's website claims that it should work with my model of phone. Again, it might just be that my source is too weak. GammaPix Lite has a lot more features than Radiation Alarm, but it has a license that expires in a few months, and I read something about it needing a network connection for something. Which isn't going to be much help in a nuclear war.
Download from Google Play
Preparing for an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse)
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