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Worst Case Scenario: What to do in the Event of a Nuclear Attack

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We prefer to imagine that the worst-case scenario will never take place, but the hard truth is that you’re much more likely to survive a catastrophe unscathed if you take the time and effort necessary in advance to prepare for the unthinkable. Provided you do not find yourself a victim of the initial blast a nuclear attack is survivable; your best chance of living to tell about it comes from educating and preparing yourself.

How to React

There are two primary scenarios that will determine your reaction to a nuclear explosion event. In the first scenario, you are near enough to see the blast yourself but not so near that you are instantly injured or killed. Most likely America’s first nuclear attack will come in the form of a “dirty bomb”, a 1 to 10 kiloton nuclear device likely detonated by terrorists. In that case, you won’t have any warning about an impending explosion. If you are close enough to ground zero and survive the explosion, your warning will be obvious. If you are near the explosion:

  • Do not look at the flash or fireball – it can blind you.
  • Take cover behind any structure that might offer protection.
  • Lie flat on the ground and cover your head. If the explosion is some distance away, it could take 30 seconds or more for the blast wave to hit.
  • Take shelter as soon as you can, even if you are many miles from ground zero where the attack occurred – radioactive fallout can be carried by the winds for hundreds of miles.

The second possible scenario would place you far enough from ground zero that you don’t immediately know that the blast has taken place. In this case you are likely to find out about it (either via an advance warning of an impending missile attack, or as a fallout warning once an attack has already happened) through conventional news outlets: the internet, television, or the radio.

  • Take cover as best you can, below ground if possible. The key is to put as much distance and material between yourself and the fallout as possible. An underground area such as a basement offers more protection than the first floor of a building. A floor near the middle of a high-rise may be better, however, if it is not adjacent to any surface on which radioactive particles could accumulate. The heavier and denser the materials – thick walls, concrete, bricks, earth – between you and the fallout particles, the better.
  • Listen for further official information and follow instructions.

Length of Stay

Decay rates of radioactive fallout are the same for any size nuclear device. However, the amount of fallout will vary based on the size of the device and its proximity to the ground. Therefore, it might be necessary for those in the areas with highest radiation levels to shelter for up to a month. Make sure that your shelter has a functioning radio with batteries so that you can keep abreast of the most current information. The heaviest fallout would be limited to the area at or downwind from the explosion, and 80 percent of the fallout would occur during the first 24 hours. People in most of the areas that would be affected could be allowed to come out of shelter within a few days and, if necessary, evacuate to unaffected areas. Keep listening to the radio and television for news about what to do, where to go, and places to avoid. Stay away from damaged areas. Stay away from areas marked “radiation hazard” or “HAZMAT.” Remember that radiation cannot be seen, smelled, or otherwise detected by human senses.

The threefold rule for determining the survivability of a nuclear attack is Distance, Shielding, and Time. Your underground shelter will, ideally, shield you with at least 36 inches of earth. Fallout radiation loses its intensity fairly rapidly. In time, you will be able to leave the shelter. Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks, by which time it has declined to about 1 percent of its initial radiation level. Plan to stock your shelter with a minimum of 2 weeks’ worth of supplies for this possibility.

Remember that any protection, however temporary, is better than none at all, and the more shielding, distance, and time you can take advantage of, the better.