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How to Prepare for Nuclear War

Avatar for Chris Thompson Chris Thompson  |  Updated: April 8, 2020
How to Prepare for Nuclear War

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Nuclear war is unlikely, but not impossible. And learning how to prepare for nuclear war can help you prepare for essentially every other long-term SHTF event. Even if you think that a nuclear war will never happen, you have to admit that a nuclear event, like a leak, is much more possible.

The Odds of Nuclear War

If you live in America, the odds of you suffering a nuclear bomb attack are almost zero. Every sane world leader understands that the United States military is capable of wiping their country off the face of the Earth. Plus, because of our widespread military presence, firing first would not disable our ability to retaliate. That being said, while nuclear war is extraordinarily unlikely, it is still possible.

Not every nuclear-capable nation is stable. North Korea is a worry. And, there’s always the possibility that a radical group steals a nuclear weapon and launches it. It’s quite doubtful any radical group could develop the technology for nuclear weapons, but there is an ample supply around the world that they could take. Or they could create a dirty bomb, which is simply a normal explosive that spreads radiation.

You also have to think about two non-USA countries conflicting with each other. India and Pakistan are both nuclear capable and have strong tension. Were they to launch nuclear attacks on one another, we could see effects here in the United States, depending on what type of weapons and how many they launched. It’s extraordinarily unlikely they would do this—but the possibility is real and many people actively prepare for nuclear war.

Yes, technically, the United States, Russia, China, and a few other nations have the firepower to create a nuclear winter. It just doesn’t make any sense to do that. And, if they did, there’s really no point in preparing for it. Instead, preparing for smaller-scale attacks that you could potentially survive makes more sense. And, depending on where you live and the details of the particular attack, you can survive nuclear war so long as you’re educated and prepared.

Surviving the Initial Blast

If you’re in the direct blast zone of a nuclear attack, you’re dead. So, let’s assume that you’re not. You’re close enough to feel the effects and far enough away that taking shelter can still save your life. What you should do depends on how much warning you have of the nuclear explosion.

nuclear blast

No Warning

If your first warning of a nuclear blast is a bright flash of light, you have to react immediately.

  • Get behind the most stable thing within jumping distance. A wall, bank, ditch, subway tunnel, etc.
  • Lay flat on the ground, cover your head and close your eyes.
  • Wait for the shockwave to pass.
  • Then head for shelter.
  • How far you are away from the center of the blast is one of the most important factors in your chances of survival if a nuclear blast occurs without warning.

Minutes of Warning

If you’re in the United States, the most likely scenario is that you’d have a few minutes of warning as our military experts see the attack coming and try to warn the populace. We have a civil defense plan and if you live near a nuclear reactor site, there are sirens and other alert systems that can be utilized.

If you happen to be nearby the place you planned to take shelter, you’re in luck. But chances are, you’ll be at work, or at a store, or walking your dog. In that case, take a minute or so to rush for the nearest cover and refer yourself to the steps above. How much time? You’ll have no way of knowing for sure. Because nuclear attacks happen so quickly it can be very hard to be as prepared for them as one would like. You probably are not going to be near your bunker or basement.

After the shockwave, you will have at least ten minutes to find a new shelter, so long as you weren’t in the blast radius, at least according to What happens is the burst of energy from the explosion pushes the radiation up. It takes at least ten minutes for it to fall back to ground level. It could take longer, depending on a few different factors.

Though there is an internet myth that you can use your thumb to measure against the mushroom cloud and therefore tell how far away it is, it is just a myth, according to Inverse. There’s no real way to know how close you are to the blast zone at the moment. So, just use your ten minutes wisely and head to shelter.

Which Shelters are Best for Nuclear Blasts?

Of course, you need to know how to evaluate a shelter. There are three things that protect you from radiation: shielding, distance and time. You can’t get too much more distance between yourself and the bomb with the kind of timeline we’re talking about. So, the best shelter is the one you can get to quickly, that offers the most shielding, and that you can stay in for the longest period of time. Beforehand, generate a list of shelters you could use nearby your home, office, any other place you spend significant time (a cottage, a neighboring town, etc.).


Many types of radiation are produced by a nuclear blast, and some are much easier to shield yourself from than others. You can shield yourself from alpha radiation with a literal piece of paper, according to Stanford. It can’t penetrate deeply into your skin even if you’re exposed to it. Beta is only slightly more of a problem, as it can be blocked by plastic, glass, or metal. The bigger dangers are gamma, x-ray and a few other types of radiation which only produced in high-energy explosions. These can penetrate deeply. The best protection is as much lead or concrete as you can surround yourself with.

Though bunkers come with significant dangers, professionally made bunkers with enough concrete can be great shields from radiation. As the fallout from nuclear blasts is generally heavy and particle-sized you can make a ventilation system that filters them out somewhat cheaply.

However, chances are you don’t have a bunker. Many buildings are already made out of concrete and can offer significant shielding. Basements, especially second or more level basements of major buildings, offer a lot of concrete protection. In apartment buildings, those apartments in the center floor and in the center of the building, are the most secure. If you live in the country, tall buildings aren’t usually an option, but concrete cellars can be very protective, depending on how thick they are.

Remember that any type of strong barrier between you and radiation is going to help a lot. Those with full basements might want to keep some items down there that would allow them to stay in their basement for a few days even.

In this article you will learn “15 Ways To Limit Radiation”.  There are some simple and inexpensive things that anyone can do to reduce exposure.

Government Blast Shelters

Many places in the United States have old bomb and fallout shelters created during the Cold War. However, few have been properly maintained, and you’d be relying on panicking government officials to let you into those shelters. Then, the chances that they would have supplies are low. You should look into the government-run shelters nearby you, but I suspect they will not be a good option if the time comes. If you’re not in the United States, its possible the shelters your country has are better stocked.

blast shelter


Radiation loses intensity over time, so eventually, you’ll be safe to leave your shelter. How long depends on how many attacks occurred, the types of nuclear weapons used and even prevailing wind. FEMA’s instructs that you should stay inside for at least 24 hours. It’s likely you’ll have to stay indoors for two weeks, at which point the radiation will be one percent as potent as it was just after the blast.

Radioactive fallout is how most people are exposed to radiation in the event of a nuclear meltdown or attack. After Chernobyl, the effort to clean up as much of the radioactive fallout as possible, required the work of hundreds of thousands of people. Depsite the massive efforts, a lot of radioactive particles remained. Massive amounts of topsoil were contaminated via radioactive fallout.

In order to stay in the shelter for two weeks, you’ll need to stock up.

What to Stockpile for Nuclear War

For the initial stay in your shelter, you’ll need at least two weeks worth of these essential supplies:

  • Water: A gallon a day per person, plus enough for pets.
  • Sanitation: A large bucket or bin (assuming your shelter has no plumbing), toilet paper, wood shavings to reduce the smell, feminine sanitation products (ask them which kind), and wet naps.
  • Food supplies: As you likely won’t have the room or air for cooking, food bar rations are a good choice. If you use canned goods instead, be sure you have can openers, utensils, and a way to wash dishes.
  • First aid: Potassium iodine pills will protect your thyroid from some radiation. Otherwise, a typical first aid kit is fine.
  • Communication: While the resulting EMP blast may disrupt electronics, you should have a hand-powered radio just in case it happens to be unaffected.
  • Lighting: Flashlights, candles, lanterns etc.
  • Entertainment: A deck of cards, books, paper, and pens, or board games will keep you from going stir crazy.
  • Tools: A simple kit for turning off your utilities may come in handy before or after the blast.
  • Other comforts: Changes of clothing, pillows and blankets, toys for children and pets, important religious items, etc.

Some preppers think you should stock a gas mask or other protective equipment in case of nuclear war. However, with a proper shelter, a gas mask and suit is of little use. Without a proper shelter, a gas mask and suit won’t protect you for very long, not least of all because you need to open them to eat and drink. At the same time there are gas masks that allow you to attach a canteen and drink through a tube or they attach to a hydration bag. The Mira line of gas masks allow for this but they are costly.

If you are just beginning your nuclear prepardeness journey, here is an article with even more tips for those just learning.

Identify Radiation Sickness

It’s important to know how to identify radiation sickness. You may be exposed to radiation during a blast, but that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll die. There are treatments for minor radiation exposure. You can predict how severe your exposure is based on how quickly you’re developing symptoms, and which symptoms you’re experiencing. It’s important to note when you developed symptoms so that health officials will be able to figure out which treatments they should give you.

  • Minor exposure: Nausea vomiting within six hours and weakness and fatigue within four weeks.
  • Moderate exposure: Nausea and vomiting within two hours, fever in three hours, diarrhea in eight hours, headache within one day. In one to four weeks of weakness, fatigue, hair loss, bloody vomit and stools, infections, low blood pressure, and more follow.
  • Severe exposure: Nausea, vomiting, and fever within an hour. Diarrhea and headache within four hours. The long-term effects will kick-in within a week and include weakness, fatigue, hair loss, bloody vomit and stools, infections, low blood pressure, and difficulty healing from wounds.
  • Very severe exposure: Counter-intuitively, the long-term symptoms from the other stages will happen immediately after extreme radiation exposure. Within ten minutes nausea and vomiting begin, then diarrhea fever and headache in one to two hours.

Radiation sickness is rare after a nuclear power plant leak. For example, no cases of radiation sickness were reported after the Fukushima leak in 2011. In the unlikely event that you do get radiation sickness from an attack or other incident don’t increase your exposure by leaving your shelter before it is safe. Do attempt to signal for help from within your shelter.

Moving to Avoid Being Near a Potential Nuclear Target

Few people make their living decisions based on their prepping. However, if you have the luxury and are worried about nuclear war, there are areas you can be relatively sure are a bad bet. Generally, you’d be safer in underpopulated areas over major cities. Washington DC and other government hubs are likely targets. So are military bases and storage facilities for nuclear weapons. Power plants and other major pieces of the grid are also potential targets. Moving into the middle of nowhere is your best bet, but just be sure that prevailing winds aren’t going to bring in the fallout from major targets.

Electromagnetic Pulse

Radiation and blast impact aren’t the only risks from a nuclear attack. If our attackers detonated a nuclear device high in the atmosphere, they could create an electromagnetic pulse that could damage the entire power grid and all of your electrical devices. You can create a Faraday cage to protect your own items from this. If you include a generator, you could have your own electricity going shortly after an attack. Learn how to make a Faraday cage here.

There are a lot of theories out there about the effects of EMP blasts on devices and machines such as cars. The truth is that we don’t know exactly what the long term effects of an EMP are.  After a nuclear attack, your laptop is going to be the least of your concerns. Many would agree that putting a ham radio in a faraday cage is a much better idea than a bunch of electronics that will not have a lot of use in a SHTF scenario.

Learning From The Past and Present

There have been some nuclear incidents that we can all learn from. Here are a few things to remember.

The possessions you take with you may be taken and destroyed at checkpoints.

Anything that happened to be in the fallout or blast area is likely radioactive. If you take a bag with you and then get help from a government agency, you may have your possessions taken and never see them again. This will depend on the severity of the incident and if possessions are known to have a high level of radiation. This happened to those that evacuated when the Fukishima disaster happened.

Understand that it is possible that you will never be able to return to your home or if you are allowed to visit, you might not be able to retrieve anything from your previous life.

It was years before anyone was allowed to go back to Fukishima and even then they were not allowed to take anything from the zone. This is despite the fact that they were told that they would be able to go home soon. This is a common trend in the event of a nuclear disaster. People are often reassured that they will be able to go back but over time, realize that it was something said to offer some temporary comfort to calm them down during the beginning of the aftermath.

Some people will refuse to believe how serious the danger really is or they will accept it and suffer the consequences.

There are still some older people living in the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. No matter how great the danger during a disaster there always seems to be some that do not want to acknowledge the severity of the event.

Consider that it took almost an entire day before some of those in charge at Chernobyl could acknowledge to themselves that the reactor had really exploded.

Plenty of people have survived nuclear incidents or exposure to radiation.

While radiation is something you want to avoid if at all possible, it is important to remember that plenty of people survive exposure. At Chernobyl it appears that the high levels of radiation that residents of Pripyat were exposed to and the extremely high levels that the Liquidators received that cleaned up some of the worst radioactive debris that the reactor spewed out, had a more intense effect on younger people. Keep in mind these people were exposed to very high levels for longer than they should have been at least in part due to the lack of honesty and the level of denial exhibited by the Soviet officials in charge.

Radiation doesn’t effect everyone exactly the same way.

Our country has a concerning amount of spent fuel rods that must be kept cool. An incident involving waste is in some ways, more likely than nuclear war.

One reason nuclear bombs are not fired is that even when countries get really mad and have a war, they know that launching nuclear warheads could mean consequences that last for thousands of years or even the end of the modern world. It is scary to consider that mankind actually has this ability.

While large cities are likely targets for a nuclear warhead, the truth is that any infrastructure that is critical or valuable could be a potential target.

Major military contractors, military bases, and more could all be potential targets for terrorism or nuclear warheads. The more important the facility the more likely.

Know where the closest reactors are.

There are over 90 nuclear reactors in operation in the United States. Not only are they potentially targets for nuclear war, they could post a significant nuclear threat to you and your family if you live close enough to get fallout in the event of a melt down.

Here is a link to a map that allows you to see the nearest reactors to you. Remember that distance is not everything. The direction of prevailing winds also matters.

Make sure your family knows the plan in case of a nuclear attack or accident.

One person in the home knowing where gear is kept and the overall plan is better than nothing but you really need to make sure that others in your family know the basics of what to do in an emergency. At the same time, even very prepared households and level headed people can be confused when something actually happens. A binder with printed instructions that is kept in an easy to get to place that everyone is aware of is helpful.

Know how to use your equipment.

Having a lot of equipment and gear can help but it is important to make sure that you actually know how to use it and show other people in your family. A lot of people buy items and never research how to use them or practice with them at all. Some things you may not be able to actually get out and use but you should at least research how to if you need to. Knowing how to use a gas mask is something that can be practiced for example. You can research how to properly use potassium iodide tablets so that you don’t take them at the wrong time. I think you get the idea now.

Final Thoughts

While a nuclear attack is unlikely, if it ever occurs it would be a long-term SHTF event. During the event and for months or years afterward, you would need all of your preps to keep yourself and your family safe. Chances are, there would be food shortages, mass panic, perhaps follow-up attacks. Because of the long-term nature of this event, and the possibility of an EMP which would take out our infrastructure, prepping for such an event is a big undertaking. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot. Do you prep for nuclear war and if so, what do you prep?

Author Bio: Ellysa Chenery can be found writing all over the web. She loves adapting traditional skills for new situations, whether in the wilderness, garden, or homestead. Her favorite smell is carrots fresh from the dirt.

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2 Responses to “How to Prepare for Nuclear War”

  1. I live in a state that has absolutely no buildings or shelters for the general public. I live about nine miles from a nuclear power plant. Is this far enough away to survive? I have been thinking of fortifying my basement with lead bricks, but am not sure what the best way to prepare just in case a nuclear war happens.

  2. As someone who job and career has been in the defense industry and has and does work at ground zero locations. I have always made it a policy to live a good distance away from my job. This is so my family at lest has a fair chance if there is a nuclear attack while I am at work. It has always been fun when there safety manager has to explains the different siren warnings. Like “nuclear attack”. The best way to survive is distance form know targets and large cities.

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