If a nuclear bomb is dropped on your city, here’s what you should (and shouldn’t) do to increase your chance of staying alive
As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, concerns about nuclear safety have returned vividly to the fore.
President Vladimir Putin has hinted that he could deploy nuclear weapons in dire circumstances and the US has also alluded that an attack would not go unmatched.
Experts tend to agree that a nuclear attack is not impossible but remains unlikely. There would be enormous downsides for Russia.
Since their invention, nuclear weapons have only been used twice in war, both times by the US. Since then, such a move is widely considered a red line that world leaders would not dare cross as it might trigger cataclysmic and civilization-ending escalation.
Still, with nine countries sharing about 12,700 nuclear warheads, the risk of nuclear war is always present.
Nuclear weapons are the deadliest weapons ever invented and have gotten a lot stronger since they were used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
In the unlikely event of a nuclear impact, those closest to the bomb face near-certain death. For those further away, there are simple tips and tricks to increase the chance of survival.
Here are 13 do’s and don’ts in case of a nuclear attack.
A warning: If the nuke hits close by, there is nothing you can do.It’s important not to minimize the risk: in the event that a nuclear bomb were to hit the US, people close enough to the impact would likely die, regardless of how they prepared. The bomb would set off a flash of light, a giant orange fireball, and building-toppling shockwaves. The initial impact would likely instantly kill tens of thousands if the device were to hit a highly built-up area. Anyone up to a few miles away would suffer third-degree burns. People up to 53 miles away could experience temporary blindness. Fires would tear through the wreckage. Emergency services would struggle to support survivors in the immediate vicinity of the blast. People would be exposed to radioactive fallout. In the long term, if enough of the world’s stock of nuclear weapons were deployed, it would trigger a nuclear winter that would likely lead to global famine. Nothing can prepare a population for that. Still, in the minutes to hours after an impact, there are behaviors you can learn to increase your chance of surviving a nuclear strike which is far enough away.
DO: Drop to the ground with your face down and your hands tucked under your body.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends this position because it will keep your hands, arms, and face away from any flying debris or sweltering heat that could burn your skin. Once the shockwaves have subsided, you can get up and look for shelter.
DON’T: Stare directly at the blast.
Depending on how close you are to a nuclear explosion, it might be impossible to avoid the initial burst of light, which can blind you for about 15 seconds to a minute. But for those farther away, it’s best to avert and cover your eyes, according to the CDC.
A 1-megaton bomb (that’s about 80 times larger than the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan) could temporarily blind people up to 13 miles away on a clear day, and up to 53 miles away on a clear night.
DO: Cover your face with a towel or piece of clothing.
If you have a scarf or handkerchief nearby at the time of a nuclear explosion, it’s wise to cover your nose and mouth. Even before fallout reaches the ground, an explosion stirs up other debris that might be dangerous to breathe in.
DON’T: Seek shelter in your car.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises people not to take shelter in their vehicles. Glass windows and metal frames make them too flimsy to protect you from nuclear fallout. Driving away is also futile, since it’s tough to anticipate where radiation will travel.
The one exception to this rule is ducking inside your car in an underground parking garage, which could provide an added layer of protection.
DO: Find a brick or concrete building, such as a school or office.
FEMA identifies brick or concrete buildings as the safest forms of shelter after a nuclear attack. Ideally, the best shelter would have few to no windows and a basement for camping out.
Schools or offices usually meet these criteria. Mobile homes, however, are considered too fragile.
Watch: Inside the US military’s $223 million ‘doomsday plane,’ capable of surviving a nuclear blast
If there aren’t any sturdy buildings within 15 minutes of where you’re standing, it’s better to find any form of shelter than stay outside. If you discover that there’s a safer building close by, wait at least an hour before attempting to move. By that time, the potential for radiation exposure would likely have decreased by around 55%.
DON’T: Stand near windows once you’re indoors.
If you take cover in a tall building, choose a central location and steer clear of the top and bottom floors.
If your structure has windows, FEMA advises standing far away from them, in the center of a room. That’s because shockwaves can shatter windows up to 10 miles away from an explosion, resulting in dangerous flying glass.
DO: Shut off heaters and air conditioners.
Heating or air-conditioning units pull in air from the outside, so they could further spread contaminated particles.
DO: Take a shower as soon as possible.
People who were outside during an explosion should shower as soon as possible, making sure the water is warm and soap is applied gently. Scrubbing too hard could break your skin, which acts as a natural protective barrier.
You should also cover any cuts or abrasions while you’re rinsing off. For those without access to a shower, FEMA recommends using a sink or faucet. The next-best option is to clean your body with a wipe or wet cloth. Blowing your nose and wiping your ears and eyelids is also important, since debris could get stuck in these orifices.
DON’T: Use conditioner after you shampoo.
Rinsing your hair with shampoo is critical after being exposed to radiation, but conditioner is a major no-no, according to the CDC.
That’s because conditioners carry compounds called cationic surfactants, which bind to radioactive particles and can trap them in your hair. They’d essentially act like glue between your hair and radioactive material.
As a general rule, it’s best to only use products on your body that are designed to get rinsed off in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. Items like body lotion and face cream should wait until a second or third wish.
DO: Seal away contaminated clothes.
Because outer layers of clothing would likely be contaminated by fallout, the CDC recommends sealing them in a plastic bag that’s out of the reach of children and pets. You should also seal off any tissues or cloths used to wipe your body or face.
DON’T: Search for your family members right away.
The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends staying indoors for at least 24 hours in the event of a nuclear explosion. After 48 hours, the exposure rate from a 10-kiloton explosion (the type that might damage but not destroy a city) goes down to just 1%.
“While sheltering is a priority for protecting public health, it goes against natural instincts,” a collection of government agencies wrote in a 2010 report. “After a nuclear detonation, people will need to understand why they and their families are safest staying sheltered.”
DON’T: Eat unpackaged food or food that was left outside.
Following any kind of nuclear explosion, the CDC says it’s all right to consume food from sealed containers such packages, bottles, or cans. You can also eat things from your pantry or refrigerator, as long as you wipe off food containers, cookware, counters, and utensils.
But anything that was left uncovered, especially if it was outdoors — such as fruits or veggies from a garden — would be unsafe to eat.
DO: Listen to the radio for instructions.
Nuclear explosions produce a powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP), an invisible burst of energy that can destroy power, phone, and internet lines. A nuclear EMP could also disrupt radio waves, but that’s less likely, since radios have a simpler circuitry.
So in the wake of an explosion, emergency-response officials will likely broadcast safety instructions over the radio. Unless these officials tell you it’s safe to go outside, it’s best to stay put until the risk of contamination has gone down.
This story, which was originally published in September 2019, has since been updated to reflect new developments. Aria Bendix contributed to an earlier version of the story.