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What Would Surviving a Nuclear Explosion Be Like?

Nuclear war has been in the news lately but we naturally try to avoid thinking about its effects

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to renewed concerns about the use of nuclear weapons. We hear a variety of responses ranging from “real but not immediate danger” through “a wake-up call for the world.” Here’s what would happen if a nuclear weapon was detonated in an average American community:

Pete and Judy Bradley are relaxing on a Sunday afternoon following a Thanksgiving weekend with family members. Highways and airports are filled with travelers on their way home.

While the Bradleys are looking at the digital photos they took during the holiday, their darkened living room is suddenly, brilliantly illuminated by a blinding flash of light. The photo of their granddaughter displayed on their computer screen disappears.

Group of soldiers or spies in dark room with large monitors and advanced satellite communication technology launching a missle. Includes flashing yellow light.

The Bradleys have just survived the first phase of a nuclear explosion over the center of their city. Pete’s military experience instantly kicks in. He knows what is about to happen.

The Bradley’s house has a basement, a rarity in Texas. Pete immediately grabs Judy’s hand, and they run to the basement stairs. He picks up the kitchen flashlight on the way. Before they reach the basement floor, the stairs shake. It sounds like a freight train is rushing over their house.

After a few minutes of silence, Pete climbs the stairs again and finds the basement door obstructed by boards, insulation, ceiling panels and wires. After carefully pushing his way through the debris, he gets a view of the remains of his beautiful home laid flat by the burst wave from a nuclear explosion.

Venturing outside, he sees that the entire neighborhood has been blown apart. Cars are strewn about, some upside down. All of the trees have been blown down and flames are still consuming the remains of two houses. Several of Pete’s neighbors are lying on the ground, struck by debris from the blast wave. They are among the 114,000 people that he will later learn were killed by the bomb.

Across the debris-covered street, Pete notices someone moving. Fred Johnson, a neighbor, crawls across his debris-covered lawn and collapses face down, severely burned.

Several miles behind Fred’s wrecked house, Pete can see a giant column of smoke and debris rising into the sky. He thanks God that he and Judy were three miles from the bomb’s explosion in the sky over the downtown core. Wherever its 4,000-foot wide fireball touched the ground, most anything within that area would have been vaporized.

Pete tries to call his son at the airport but his cell phone is dead. He realizes it was probably damaged by the bomb’s electromagnetic pulse. He also knows that most downtown police and fire department buildings and vehicles have probably been destroyed.

Suddenly, Pete hears sobbing. He turns and sees Sally, the 8-year-old girl who lived in the flattened house next door. Her left arm and leg have blood-lined cuts. Her face is burned.

Pete lifts Sally over the boards and broken glass around the basement stairs and asks Judy to help her down the stairs. He doesn’t know for sure yet if the bomb exploded in the air or on the ground. If it was a ground burst, highly radioactive soil and debris will soon begin falling from the bomb’s mushroom cloud.

He reaches for a large plywood sheet beside the basement door, then stands on the stairs and pulls it over the top steps, to block possible radioactive fallout.

Only eleven minutes have elapsed since the bomb exploded. Pete and Judy quickly check the status of the emergency supplies they have long stored in their basement: two unopened packs with 24 bottles of water each, two-5-gallon water jugs, a bag of pinto beans, a bag of rice, and some canned goods. There is a battery-powered radio, several spare batteries, and a first aid kit to treat Sally’s injuries. They also have some camping gear and a portable toilet. They and Sally should be able to survive for a week.

Some reflections: While the Bradleys made basic preparations for a tornado or a nuclear attack, their city and most of their neighbors did not. Their city would have been much better prepared had the attack occurred in the 1960s. Back then the federal government created bomb shelters across the country and packed them with survival rations and first aid supplies. The population was encouraged to stockpile supplies and even build fallout shelters.

Advance planning sharply declined once the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine became widely accepted. It supposedly guaranteed that there would never be a nuclear war because neither side could win. But MAD did not cover an accidental nuclear missile launch or a crazed tyrant with his finger on the nuclear button…

This article only hints at the fate of tens or even hundreds of millions of people in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. While surviving a nuclear attack might seem impossible, a key lesson from Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that many people will in fact survive. Recent threats by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking Russians should be a wakeup call for making basic preparations.

You can see the estimated damage and deaths that an aerial or ground nuclear blast would cause at your own location or city at NUKEMAP. Just select the target, enter your choices, and click the red “DETONATE” button.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides tips for surviving a nuclear attack at Nuclear Explosion | Ready.gov. The Red Cross provides survival information as well.

Many other resources are available online. For example, pediatrician Irwin Redlener, notes that a terrorist nuke would probably be detonated at ground level, which means a substantial volume of highly radioactive debris would fall out of the mushroom cloud. In a TED talk, he provides important tips for avoiding this highly dangerous fallout.

In view of both terrorist and Russian threats about nuclear weapons, it’s wise to make basic preparations. Should the unthinkable happen, advance preparation will be far more important than car, property, and life insurance.

You may also wish to read these articles on the unthinkable (and yet they happen) by Forrest Mims:
What would a real-world nuclear attack be like? We know some of what it would be like from the records and reconstruction of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. Many nations how have nuclear arsenals that could inflict much greater damage if they were employed during as conflict, perhaps by accident.


Putin vs. Ukraine: New weapons target your electronics, not you.Forrest Mims: Putin’s recent warning about “consequences that you have never experienced” could refer to EMPs that target the computer-based systems that keep us all alive today. Few cities are prepared for electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that can knock out the grid, clean water, food, sewage, and emergency systems, leaving most folk helpless.

Forrest M. Mims

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Forrest M. Mims III is an instrument designer, science writer and independent science consultant. He has made regular observations of the ozone layer, solar ultraviolet radiation, photosynthetic radiation, column water vapor and aerosol optical thickness since 1989 at his Geronimo Creek Observatory in Texas. He cofounded MITS Inc., the company that introduced the first personal computer, and Science Probe magazine, which he edited.

What Would Surviving a Nuclear Explosion Be Like?