The Nuclear Holocaust: How To Survive One Second After

When it comes to a social collapse based on a nuclear crisis, mushroom clouds created during a ground based incident may well come to mind.

Even though most people think they know what an exploding nuclear device may look like, there are actually many sources of based nuclear contamination. Each source of nuclear material will cause different visual, auditory, and other effects.

Therefore, when it comes to preparing for a nuclear incident, you must be aware of where the radiation will come from as well as how to deal with it as safely as possible.

 The Air Based Nuclear Incident

Oddly enough, even with a full scale hostile detonation of a nuclear device, you may first need to recognize that an incident has occurred.

Consider a situation where a 1 kiloton bomb exploded in the air 30 or 40 miles away. Chances are, you would not even hear the blast let alone see the cloud rising up. Unfortunately, streams of radiation will already be headed your way. Even though they may not deliver lethal doses of radiation, you may still suffer from burns and mild to moderate radiation sickness if you are outdoors.

Since an air based explosion may well trigger an EMP, your first indicator may be that your car or cell phone stops working. If you are indoors, do not go outside to see if you will get a better reception.

Instead, ask others if their cell phones are working. If everyone seems to have lost service, stay indoors and head for the basements and lower levels as quickly as possible.

Without communications and information about where the blast has occurred, you could be running deeper into the radiation belt. You are better served by putting as much concrete and dirt between you and the fallout as you can. Needless to say, if you are in a vehicle, get into a building and to the lower levels as quickly as you can.

Once you reach a suitable shelter, follow the usual routine of squatting facing a wall with your forehead resting on knees and arms shielding the back of your neck. If you have Potassium Iodide and other cellular shields on hand, be sure to take those.

An air based nuclear incident will spread contaminated material further, and since air tends to be much lighter than dirt and ground based debris, it may also take longer for it to finish falling to the ground.

In small scale, relatively localized scenario, it is likely that you can get medical attention and reasonable care without fear of larger plans and complex scenarios. You may also be given information about where you can pick up Potassium Iodide tablets and other cellular shields.

With regard to air based nuclear explosions, your first few days will primarily be concerned with coping with radiation sickness, finding food, finding water, and washing as much radioactive material from your body as you can.

You will more than likely find it harder than usual to travel because cars will literally be stopped in the streets. If you have to leave a city, try to do so using underground subway, storm water, and old tunnel systems.

Try to avoid going above ground as much as possible. Even though heavy rains will come down as a result of a nuclear explosion, tunnels and similar systems may still protect you from some of the radiation. Just make sure that rainwater and sewage are not actively being shifted into the system or you will wind up with all kinds of nuclear debris in the same tunnels that you are in.

It is also important to realize that tunnel systems and subways may be shut off by government agencies that want to prevent nuclear waste from getting into underground chambers. Whether they know of your presence or not, you may simply become collateral damage because they feel the “big picture” they have been trained to uphold is more important.

And if you are planning to leave an area, be prepared to travel 5 – 6 times the distance that you would travel to get out of the radiation bands created by water and ground based nuclear incidences.

The Nuclear Detonation on the Ground

Over the years, prevailing views on what to do during an attack have changed. In particular, older advice revolved around staying in place and trying to get as far below ground as possible. Today, most experts say that you have approximately 1/2 hour after a blast to reach a place of safety. Instead of staying in place, you should use that time to get as far away from ground zero as possible. This makes sense if you are in a mid to outer area of the incident site.

Depending on how fast you travel, it may be possible to get into a less dangerous band, or away from the problem altogether. Once you reach the 20 – 25 minute post incident mark, you will need to take cover and then stay in that location for at least 24 hours, after that time the worst of the radiation will be dispersed. You may want to stay an additional 2 – 3 days depending on supplies and the durability of your shelter.

When you cannot get to a shelter, any standing object will have to do. Make sure that your shield is between you and the explosion point being affected by the nuclear blast so that it will absorb as much radiation as possible. If you think about how shadows work, then you can readily understand why your position in relation to the blast is so important.

Never look at the flash from a nuclear explosion as it can cause blindness in less than a second. Individuals living in cities or areas with larger populations can also try taking refuge in subways, sewer systems, and any other areas where there is plenty of concrete, brick, or dirt to absorb the radiation.

Once you reach the shelter, squat down on the floor as far away as possible from windows, doors, and beams. Sit so that you are facing a main wall and put your head on your knees. Use your hands and arms to shield your neck. Look downward as much as possible. If you look upward, your eyes may be blinded by the flash from any detonation that happens to occur.

Unfortunately, there are many situations where you may be stuck outside and have no shield or building to hide in. The best thing you can do is get as close to the ground as you can. If the ground is soft, then dig with rocks or your hands to get as far into the ground as possible. While you are working, do not look at the incident site.

During the first few hours, you are very likely to experience heavy winds and thermal blasts. The thermal blasts can set just about anything on fire as they pass.

Keep non-flammable, white or silver heat shields on hand. Put those on to try and keep as much heat as possible away from your body. As you work, also be aware that objects from miles away can easily strike you. Should concrete or something else suitable land nearby, do not take shelter behind it unless you know that it is not contaminated by radioactive debris.

If you receive warning of a pending nuclear blast, and you are indoors, you will need to get underground or into a basement as quickly as possible. Brick and cement structures will absorb the most radiation, so they are likely to offer the best shelter. Just remember to put as many walls or as much dirt as possible between you and the explosion point.

Always aim to be as close to the ground or below it as possible. Needless to say, if you are building a homestead, you can always insulate walls with dirt and lead, or just build your home as far underground as possible.

No matter whether you are indoors or out, it is very important to limit the amount of dust that gets into your nose, mouth, and on your skin. While a dust mask will be of immense benefit, even a handkerchief over your nose and mouth is better than nothing.

You should also cover up your skin as much as possible using white or the lightest colors possible. Remember that black and dark colors will absorb radiation. This, in turn, can easily lead to burns on parts of your body where the darker colors were covering.

You should also carry Potassium Iodide, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E tablets with you at all times. Take them as directed on the bottle as soon as you learn of a nuclear blast in your area. This medication will protect your thyroid from uptaking nuclear materials.

Typically, the thyroid is the first organ that determines how sick you will get from the radiation. One small pill can truly make the difference between serious radiation sickness and death even if your exposure levels are in the upper ranges.

You can obtain free Potassium Iodide tablets and instructions for taking them if you live near a nuclear power plant. Representatives in charge of readiness for nuclear emergencies in these areas may also have the tablets available for free. While these tablets may not be recommended for “prophylactic” or daily use, having them with you at all times is extremely important.

Just make sure that you follow dosing instructions because taking too much Potassium Iodide can poison the thyroid. Use iodized table salt or Himalayan Salt before nuclear blasts to ensure you are getting enough iodine in your diet. It should be noted that Vitamin C and Vitamin E can also shield other cells from some radiation damage.

Typically, radiation sickness will start within the first few hours after exposure to nuclear radiation. If you are not dealing with a detonation or large scale crisis scenario, it is very important to get medical attention as quickly as possible.

When it comes to a larger scale nuclear crisis, you will need to take a shower as soon as possible after the blast. Use soap that does not contain conditioners or oils that prevent dust and radioactive debris from being washed away. If you have scissors it may be of some use to cut your hair.

Shaving after a shower can also help get rid of some debris. Just take extra care to avoid razor burn as you don’t want to embed more radioactive material into your skin. Follow up with another shower using plenty of soap and water. If you have plenty of water pressure and water, then go ahead and shave while you are washing.

Do not put old clothes back on. Try to get rid of them so that you do not have radioactive materials in your living space. This includes getting rid of shoes, jewelry, weapons, and anything else that you were wearing during the incident. Once you are ready to leave the shelter, it will be time to think about long term survival. You may need to get medical attention or find your way out of the area.

It is fair to say that anyone growing up during the Cold War era is very aware of nuclear power, nuclear war, and all the chaos that it can bring. Regardless of your age, knowing how to survive both hostile and non-hostile releases of nuclear material are extremely important.

Never overlook the hazards associated with nuclear medicine, nuclear power plants or other industries just because they don’t make huge mushroom clouds or kill in a matter of moments. In fact, the slow, hidden damage and death from these sources may be far worse and far more troublesome than a nuclear war.

As you learn more about the daily hazards of exposure to land based nuclear radiation, you may well conclude that you need to be as prepared for these issues as you would be for a full blown war situation.

The Nuclear Incident on Water

If you happen to be swimming, in a boat, or otherwise in the water during a nuclear event, your first task will be to head for land. Depending on your distance from the explosion, you may only have a few minutes to half an hour to reach land and find suitable shelter.

During your escape from the explosion site, try to put anchors made of lead or brick between your body and the explosion. If possible, squat down and cover yourself with plastic or anything else that will keep water from seeping through your garments and onto your skin. The plastic should also be thick enough to prevent as much water vapor as possible from seeping in.

You should also have a mask on hand that will allow you to breathe without absorbing steam or water vapor into your lungs. While these aides will not stop radiation from passing through your body, it will limit the ability of radioactive debris from binding to your skin. This, in turn, will make it easier to wash the debris away later on.

As with land based explosions, you should always have Potassium Iodide tablets on hand. Take one as soon as you know an explosion or other event has occurred. If you are in marine or brackish waters, this precaution is even more important because these bodies of water may have higher levels of iodine in them.

As radiation moves out from the initial incident area, it will contaminate iodine present in the water. This iodine, in turn, can be quickly absorbed by the thyroid. Since the half-life of most iodine isotopes is under 10 days, you may need to take the potassium iodide tablets for a few weeks if you are exposed to a water based nuclear incident.

This may be distinctly different from land and air based explosions where the nuclear material may not produce as much iodine, or lower amounts are available to contaminate.

It should be noted that Potassium Iodide is not recommended for prophylactic treatment unless you are directed to do so during a nuclear power plant leak or there is other creditable reason to believe that some type of nuclear strike is going to occur in a matter of minutes or hours.

If you want to protect your thyroid from radioactive iodine before an event, simply make sure that you are getting enough iodine in your diet. Even though most people consume large amounts of table salt, there is also a high tendency towards deficiencies in the diet.

During a nuclear explosion or active leak scenario, radiation in the form of heat and light will be absorbed more readily by dark or black colors than white and light colors. Therefore, it is very important to keep white tarp, or even white bed sheets on hand to cover yourself with. If land is involved in the blast, this one minor thing may save you from more serious burns.

Once you reach land and a safe location, it is very important to shower. Make sure that you use soap and shampoo that do not contain skin conditioners, softening oils, or hair conditioners. All of these chemicals will only make it harder to wash radioactive materials away from your body.

You should also dispose of all contaminated clothing and jewelry. While this may be difficult, remember that even a single spec of dust can be radioactive for thousands of years and wreak mayhem during that time.

Nuclear War, First Responders Will Have To Wait For The Deadly Fallout To Decay Before They Enter A Hot Zone So The More You Prepare, The Better Your Odds Of Surviving A Nuclear Crisis

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No one wants to think about a nuclear crisis – and hopefully it will never happen – but we all must accept the fact nuclear tensions are rising globally with North Korea (and others are seeking nukes) so we should prepare ourselves and our loved ones in the event the unthinkable strikes our soil.

For decades, movies and some in the media have portrayed a nuclear attack as a “doomsday” event implying most people would be killed on impact … and survivors would want to die once they come out of their shelters.

In reality, unless you are actually at ground zero or within a several mile radius of the blast zone (depending on the size of the nuke, of course), there is a very high probability you’ll survive as long as you…

  • limit your exposure to radiation and fallout,
  • take shelter with proper shielding, and
  • wait for the most dangerous radioactive materials to decay.

In other words, you CAN survive a nuke attack … but you MUST make an effort to learn what to do! By learning about potential threats, we are all better prepared to know how to react if something happens.

Please realize this is being written with small nuke devices in mind (like a 1-kiloton to 1-megaton device). A larger device, ICBM or a nuclear war would cause more wide-spread damage but some of this data could still be helpful. These are some very basic tips on sheltering for any type of nuclear (or radiological) incident.

What happens when a nuke explodes?

A nuclear blast produces a blinding light, intense heat (called thermal radiation), initial nuclear radiation, 2 explosive shock waves (blasts), mass fires, and radioactive fallout (residual nuclear radiation).

The below graphic shows the destruction of a test home by an atomic blast on March 17, 1953 at the Nevada Proving Ground. The structure was located 3,500 feet from ground zero, and the time from the first to last picture was 2.3 seconds.  It shows the force of the blast wave then the radiating energy set it on fire.

Also, if a nuke is launched over our continent and explodes miles above the earth, it could create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). An EMP is a split-second silent energy burst (like a stroke of lightning) that can fry electronics connected to wires or antennas like cell phones, cars, computers, TVs, etc. Unless electronics are grounded or hardened, an area or nation could experience anything from minor interference to crippled power, transportation, banking and communications systems.

An EMP from a high-altitude nuke (where a nation or group succeeds in detonating a nuclear device carried miles into the atmosphere) could affect electronics within 1,000 miles or more as shown below. (Evidence suggests some countries and groups are working on enhanced and non-nuclear EMP weapons or e-bombs.)

high altitude emp or electromagnetic pulse threat

What is the most dangerous part of a nuclear attack?

Both the initial nuclear radiation and residual nuclear radiation (also called radioactive fallout) are extremely dangerous.

Initial nuclear radiation is penetrating invisible rays that can be lethal in high levels.

Radioactive fallout (residual nuclear radiation) is created when the fireball vaporizes everything inside it (including dirt and water). Vaporized materials mix with radioactive materials in the updraft of air forming a mushroom cloud.

Fallout can be carried by winds for hundreds of miles and begin falling to the ground within minutes of the blast or take hours, days, weeks or even months to fall. The heaviest fallout would hit ground zero and areas downwind of that, and 80% of fallout would occur within 24 hours. Most fallout looks like grey sand or gritty ash and the radiation given off cannotbe seen, smelled, tasted or felt which is why it is so dangerous. But as the materials decay or spread out radiation levels will drop.

More about radiation

Types of radiation – Nuclear radiation has 3 main types of radiation…

  • alpha – can be shielded by a sheet of paper or by human skin. If alpha particles are inhaled, ingested, or enter body through a cut, they can cause damage to tissues and cells.
  • beta – can be stopped by skin or a thicker shield (like wood). Beta particles can cause serious damage to internal organs if ingested or inhaled, and could cause eye damage or possible skin burns.
  • gamma – most dangerous since gamma rays can penetrate the entire body and cause cell damage throughout your organs, blood and bones. Since radiation does not stimulate nerve cells you may not feel anything while your body absorbs it. Exposure to high levels of gamma rays can lead to radiation sickness or death, which is why it is critical to seek shelter from fallout in a facility with thick shielding!

Radiation detection devices – You cannot see, smell, taste or feel radiation, but special instruments can detect even the smallest levels of radiation. Since it may take days or weeks before First Responders could get to you, consider having these devices handy during a crisis or attack since they could save your life.

Measuring radiation – Radiation was measured in units called roentgens (pronounced “rent-gens” and abbreviated as “R”) … or “rads” or “rem”. An EPA document called “Planning Guidance for Response to A Nuclear Detonation 2nd Edition June 2010” explains … 1 R (exposure in air) ≅ 1 rad (absorbed dose) ≅ 1 rem (whole-body dose). Although many measuring devices and older documentation use R and rem, officials and the media now use sievert (Sv) which is the System International or SI unit of measurement of radiation. The formula to convert sieverts to rems is quite simple … 1 Sv = 100 R (rem).

How many rads are bad? – High doses of radiation in a short span of time can cause radiation sickness or even death, but if that high dose is spread out over a long period of time, it’s not as bad.

According to FEMA, an adult could tolerate and recover from an exposure to 150R (1.5 Sv) over a week or 300R (3 Sv) over a 4-month period. But 300R (3 Sv) over a week could cause sickness or possibly death. Exposure to 30R (0.3 Sv) to 70R (0.7 Sv) over a week may cause minor sickness, but a full recovery would be expected. But radioactive fallout decays rapidly so staying in a shelter with proper shielding is critical!

The “seven-ten” rule – For every sevenfold increase in time after the initial blast, there is a tenfold decrease in the radiation rate. For example, a 500 rad level can drop to 50R in just 7 hours and down to 5R after 2 days (49 hours). In other words, if you have shelter with good shielding and stay put for even just 7 hours … you’ve really increased your chances of survival. Your detection devices, emergency radio or cell phone [if the last 2 are working, that is] can assist you in knowing when it’s safe to come out.

So how do I protect myself and my family?

Basic shelter requirements – Whether you build a shelter in advance or throw together an expedient last-minute shelter during a crisis, the area should protect you from radiation and support you for at least 2 weeks. Some basic requirements for a fallout shelter include …

  • shielding
  • ventilation
  • water and food
  • sanitation and first aid products
  • radiation monitoring devices, KI (potassium iodide), radio, weapons, tools, etc

Reduce exposure – Protect yourself from radioactive fallout with …

  • distance – the more distance between you and fallout particles, the better
  • shielding – heavy, dense materials (like thick walls, earth, concrete, bricks, water and books) between you and fallout is best. Stay indoors or below ground. (Taking shelter in a basement or a facility below ground reduces exposure by 90%. Less than 4 inches of soil or earth can reduce the penetration of dangerous gamma rays by half.)
  • time – most fallout loses its strength quickly. The more time that passes after the attack, the lower the danger.

Indoor shelter locations – If you don’t have a fallout shelter, these options could provide protection from dangerous radiation by using proper shielding materials.

  • basement – find the corner that is most below ground level (the further underground the better)
  • 1-story home / condo / apartment – if no underground facility, find a spot in center of home away from windows
  • trailer home – find sturdier shelter if possible (like a basement or brick or concrete building)
  • multi-story building or high-rise – go to center of the middle section of building (above 9th floor if possible). Note: if rooftop of a building next to you is on that same floor, move one floor up or down since radioactive fallout would accumulate on rooftops. Avoid first floor (if possible) since fallout will pile up on ground outside.

Shielding materials – All fallout shelters must provide good protection from radioactive particles. FEMA suggests having a minimum of several inches of concrete or 1 to 2 feet of earth as shielding around your shelter, if possible, and the more the better. Per FEMA, the following shows examples of shielding materials that equal the protection of 4 inches (10 cm) of concrete …

  • 5 – 6 inches (12 – 15 cm) of bricks
  • 6 inches (15 cm) of sand or gravel
  • 7 inches (18 cm) of earth
  • 8 inches (20 cm) of hollow concrete block
  • 10 inches (25 cm) of water
  • 14 inches (35 cm) of books or magazines
  • 18 inches (46 cm) of wood

Make an expedient shelter – Some very basic ways to build an expedient last-minute shelter in your home, apartment or workplace to help protect you from dangerous radiation include…

  • Set up a large, sturdy workbench or table in location you’ve chosen. If no table, make one by putting doors on top of boxes, appliances or furniture.
  • Put as much shielding (e.g. furniture, file cabinets, appliances, boxes or pillowcases filled with dirt or sand, boxes of food, water or books, concrete blocks, bricks, etc.) all around sides and on top of table, but don’t put too much weight on tabletop or it could collapse. Add reinforcing supports, if needed.
  • Leave a crawl space so everyone can get inside and block opening with shielding materials.
  • Leave 2 small air spaces for ventilation (about 4-6″ each) – one low at one end and one high at other end. (This allows for better airflow since warm air rises.)
  • Have water, radiation detection devices, KI, battery operated radio, food and sanitation supplies in case you have to shelter in place for days or weeks.

build an expedient shelter for protection from radioactive fallout

In summary, those within the blast zone of Ground Zero (depending on the size of the nuke) won’t make it .. BUT .. if you are a few miles outside the zone your chances of surviving it are high but you MUST have detection devices to monitor levels of radiation and a plan to stay sheltered for at least 48 hours or up to a few weeks. First Responders will have to wait for the deadly fallout to decay before they enter a hot zone so the more you prepare, the better your odds of surviving a terrorist nuke.

 

 

 

 

A Different Scenario – A Nuclear Power Plan: Defending Against Radiation and Fallout From a Nuclear Nightmare

One of the classic doomsday scenarios, often inappropriately given way more prominence than it deserves, is some type of nuclear event that results in a massive release of radiation.

Let’s understand the nature of radiation and fallout risks – from that understanding can follow a better appreciation of what one needs to protect against and how to do so.  The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are importantly different.

What is Radiation

The term ‘radiation’ covers a lot of different things.  Light is a form of radiation.  So are radio waves.  But for our purposes, radiation can be split into two types.  The first type is relatively safe, and is termed ‘non-ionizing’ radiation, and this includes radio and light waves, plus heat, sound, and various other things.  Non-ionizing radiation is a type of radiation that isn’t thought to make changes to the atomic structure of things it comes into contact with, but it may cause other sorts of changes or side-effects (as you’ll know any time you stick something in a microwave oven, which uses non-ionizing radiation to cook the food you placed in it), so it is not necessarily completely safe.

Our discussion in this article however is about ionizing radiation.  This is radiation that can change the make up of the individual atoms in things it comes into contact with.  That is almost always a bad thing, and in particular, it can break up DNA in living tissues, which can lead to the formation of cancers.

There are five major and relevant types of ionizing radiation, termed alpha, beta, gamma, neutron and X-ray.  Cosmic rays (primarily protons) are also ionizing, but they are a constant thing that does not change with a nuclear explosion, and so we can ignore them for this article’s purposes.

Let’s consider the main properties of these five types of radiation (and for the nuclear physicists reading, yes, we have simplified things somewhat, but hopefully have not compromised the overall accuracy of the article).

Alpha radiation

Alpha particles are the same as Helium-4 nuclei.  They comprise two protons and two neutrons.  They travel at about 5% of the speed of light (ie at a speed of about 10,000 miles in a second) but they are very short range – they typically only travel a couple of inches in air, and can be stopped by a single sheet of paper.

Because of their short-range and low penetration, alpha particles are not much of a problem.

Beta radiation

Beta particles are typically electrons (if you wanted to be fastidious you could say there may be some anti-matter positrons briefly present too, but let’s not dwell on that).  They are typically very fast-moving, and can travel greater distances than alpha particles, and will penetrate further as well (which is sort of implied by their greater range, of course).  They will be blocked by about 1/10th of an inch of aluminum or other metal, or by an inch or more of plastic.

Gamma radiation

Gamma rays are ‘highly energetic photons’.  In case that doesn’t explain much to you, they are fast-moving things (they travel at almost the speed of light) with no mass and no electric charge.  This makes them hard to block, and they can penetrate a considerable distance through most materials.  As a simplification, the more mass of material between you and the gamma rays, the better the material will act to attenuate (ie reduce) the amount of gamma radiation passing through it.

Gamma rays have an effective danger range of only a few miles, by which stage so few will remain as to no longer be harmful.  Depending on the magnitude of the original explosion and the amount of gamma rays released, this danger range is anywhere from under one mile to perhaps three miles.

Neutron radiation

Neutron radiation is – as its name implies – a stream of the sub-atomic particles we call neutrons.  It is also fast-moving, at a similar speed to that of alpha particles.

This type of radiation is nasty.  When a neutron hits an atom, it can change the atom into a different substance, and it can change a stable substance into an unstable (and therefore radioactive) substance.  Neutron radiation of a given level is generally said to be ten times more damaging than gamma or beta radiation.  Oh – and did we mention that they also penetrate very well, requiring a substantial thickness of material to block them.

Water and concrete are good blocking materials.

Neutron radiation has slightly less range than gamma radiation.

X-rays

X-rays are similar to gamma rays and are sometimes released as secondary radiation as part of a radiation event, but are not a primary product released by radioactive material, and so can be ignored for the purpose of this article.

The Shared and Relevant Characteristics of Radiation

The previous section looked at five different types of ionizing radiation, all of which is harmful to living creatures.  They share a couple of important properties – they are all very fast-moving (even the slowest moves at a rate of about 10,000 miles per second) and they are all very small – some are so small as to have no mass or size at all (yes, we know that doesn’t sound sensible, but it is what it is).

They also have moderately short ranges – generally less than 5 miles, and sometimes less than 5 inches.

A nuclear explosion will almost instantly release lots of radiation, and in only a second or so, not only will this radiation have been released, but it will have also traveled as far as it is going to go.  In other words, if you see a nuclear explosion, by the time your eyes have blinked from the bright flash, you’ve already received all the radiation you’re going to get from the immediate explosion itself.

Depending on where you are, that is either a good thing or a bad thing.

What is Fallout

So, what is fallout?  Fallout is all the ‘stuff’ that was in and around the bomb.  Some of this was radioactive to start with – by which we mean, it was emitting ionizing radiation.  Some of the rest of it has become radioactive, as a result of neutron radiation changing the properties of the elements and making them into new radioactive elements.  To be pedantic, you could term this ‘radioactive fallout’ but it seems to often be referred to merely as ‘fallout’, even though not all fallout is necessarily radioactive (but, to a greater or lesser extent, most of it is).

In the case of a bomb that is exploded in the air, most of this fallout material is simply the remains of the bomb itself.  But if a bomb is exploded close to, on, or in the ground, then the neutrons from the initial explosion will react with the soil and any other materials close at hand (buildings, cars, people, whatever) and will make some of that material radioactive, and the force of the explosion will blow all this material up into the air as well, massively increasing the amount of radioactive stuff up in the air.

So far so good.  Now for the ‘fall’ part of the word fallout.  All that stuff in the air is going to gradually settle back down to earth.  An air explosion will typically blow its remaining ‘stuff’ way up into the upper atmosphere, and it will spread perhaps all around the world and gradually settle, more or less evenly, over a huge portion of the earth’s surface.  This is actually a good thing – there is unlikely to be any massive concentration of radioactive fallout in any one place as a result.

But the ground and near ground bursts are very different.  Some of the material will be hurled up into the upper atmosphere, and will slowly fall down over the weeks and months that follow, all around the world, the same as air burst type fallout.  But some of it will only go up a relatively small distance and will fall back to earth more quickly (usually within 24 hours), and more intensely.  Depending on things like wind and rain, this material is likely to come back down to earth in the area downwind of the explosion, and perhaps spread out over 50 – 300 miles.

A ground burst not only creates a massively greater amount of radioactive fallout, but it deposits it more quickly and in a more concentrated pattern.  This is all bad.

Fallout particles range in size from less than 0.1 microns in diameter up to many microns in diameter.  They are dangerous because wherever they land, they are emitting whatever type of radiation it is they will emit.  They can potentially be breathed in to your lungs, and – for example – if you then have an alpha radiation emitter in your lungs, it doesn’t matter that the alpha particles only travel an inch or two and are stopped even by a sheet of paper, because wherever it is they stop, and whatever damage they then do, it will be inside you and to part of you.

Not only can you breathe fallout particles in, you can ingest them from the water you drink, and the food you eat.  Plus, the vegetables and animals you in turn eat or take milk from are doing the same things, and so your food may not only have surface contamination, but may have internal contamination too.  You can reasonably wash fallout off the outside of some food, but you can’t get rid of it once it has become a part of the thing, itself.

How Long is Fallout Dangerous For?

There’s no exact answer to this, any more than there’s an answer to the question ‘How high is up?’.  The danger life of fallout depends on several things – the level of radiation being emitted, and the half-life of the radioactive materials in the fallout.  Fall-out has a veritable soup of different radioactive substances in it, all with different properties.

The ‘half-life’ of something is the time it takes to reduce in activity by 50%.  Half-lives can range in duration from the tiniest fraction of a second at one extreme, to thousands of years at the other extreme.

To give an example of how half-lives work, let’s say there is a product with a 10 day half-life.  If it is emitting 1024 units of radiation a second at the start of the measuring period, then in 10 days it will be emitting half that rate, 512 units/second.  Now for the trick.  In another ten days time, it doesn’t use up the other half, and drop to zero.  Instead, it uses up half of what remains, so it loses half of the 512 units, and at the end of the 20 days, it will be emitting 256 units of radiation/second.

In another 10 days (30 days total), it will be down to 128 units of activity per second.  At the 40 day point it is down to 64 units, at 50 days it is 32 units, and at 60 days – two months – it is now down to 16 units.

So the rate of reduction of radioactivity slows down.  The first 10 days saw a drop from 1024 units of radiation a second down to 512 units/second.  But the ten days from 60 days to 70 days sees a reduction from 16 down to 8 units – not really much of a change at all.  Furthermore, it sort of never ever gets all the way to zero.  When it is down to 1 unit, the next half-life period takes it to 0.5 units, then to 0.25, and so on down and down but never quite reaching zero.

If the acceptable level of radiation is, say, 10 units/second, then at the 70 day point, when it is down to 8 units a second, it has become relatively ‘safe’, and at the 80 day point and only 4 units a second, it is even safer still, and at 100 days (1 unit/second) you sort of forget about it entirely.

The good news is that many of the most radioactive substances have relatively short half-lives – their half-lives are short because they are so radioactive.  So while you read about radioactive contaminated materials with half-lives of thousands of years, it is usually the case that these very long-lived substances only emit low levels of radiation.

Defending Against Radiation and Fallout From a Nuclear Explosion

Your best defense against the initial release of radiation is to choose your location carefully, so you’re not within range of any likely targets.  If you’re a ‘glass half full’ kinda guy, the ‘good news’ is that if you are within range of the initial radiation release from a nuclear explosion, that is probably the least of your worries.  You’ll probably be toasted to death from the heat, or crushed by the blast, long before the radiation kills you.

The bigger risk is the fallout from the blast.  Again, you should choose your location as wisely as you can.  As long as you can keep at least 20 miles from all air-burst targets, you’re probably going to be okay from air burst effects.  Unfortunately, the ground bursts are much more troublesome, because who is to really know which direction for sure will be downwind on the day?  You don’t want to be within several hundred miles of targets that are likely to receive ground bursts.

What types of targets will qualify for ground bursts?  Only specialized targets, because for general effect and damage, air bursts are much more effective.  But things like missile silos will definitely get ground bursts, and depending on their nature, other ‘hardened targets’ may also get ground bursts.

There’s another factor at play, too.  Fratricide and general errors, failures and mistake.  Not all missiles that are sent in our direction are guaranteed to explode exactly on their designated targets, and at the heights programmed into their warheads.  Some may explode high, others low, and some might go way off target.  Not only are ICBMs a little-tested technology, but routes over the North Pole are difficult to navigate, and with the very high re-entry speeds, even  a slight second of delay can mean a missile is way off course or too high or too low.  Add to that possible distortions caused by anti-missile events, and also what is termed ‘fratricide’ – the result of one missile’s detonation impacting on other missiles close to it, and a high intensity exchange of warheads could well end up with explosions going off hundreds of miles from where they were planned.

So the further away you are from anywhere that might receive any type of attack, the better you’ll be.

Now, for the fallout protection.  If you end up getting a bucket load of high intensity fall-out dumped on you, and survive the initial experience, then you’re just plain completely out of luck for the next some decades, possibly even hundreds of years.  Your only strategy will be to shelter until the fallout has all settled, and then to evacuate to a safer area, probably tens or even hundreds of miles away.

If you however get only a mild level of fallout, you’d be well advised to stay inside and to filter your air supply until the fall-out has done its thing and settled.

Your initial forays outside (ie to sample the area for radioactivity levels) should involve you wearing protective clothing (ideally exposing no skin at all), a breathing mask and goggles, and a decontamination process outside your dwelling prior to re-entering it, so you don’t bring in any radioactive material upon your return.

Opinions differ as to how long to expect radiation levels in fallout to subside – perhaps because different types of nuclear weapons, and different scenarios for their use, result in different mixes of radioactive materials, with different levels of radiation being emitted and different half-lives..  It seems that using three to five weeks as a prudent period to allow for levels to appreciably drop might be appropriate, and so you should factor the ability to survive, entirely inside, for at least twice that period of time, so as to be reasonably well prepared for such situations.

You should also be measuring radioactivity levels yourself, and keeping a record of them so you can try to see what the trend lines suggest (although this is difficult because there are a mix of different materials with differing half-lives, so there is no simple curve that you can plot and extrapolate).

Note also that radiation will probably not be evenly distributed everywhere on your property.  You’ll want to survey the property, and to map out ‘hot spots’ and safe zones, and to then keep away from the hot spots (and/or take steps to mitigate the dangers they pose) while concentrating your ongoing activities in the safer areas.

Beyond that point, practical considerations also intrude.  If it is winter, and there’s no need to be outside, then of course you can play it safer and stay inside more.  But if it is summer and there is work to be done outside, you need to decide what to do, and maybe rotate outside assignments between different people in your community, spreading the exposure more widely.

A Different Scenario – A Nuclear Power Plant Problem

The good thing about a bomb is that it does its work all in a fraction of a second, and after that fraction of a second, it is done and finished.  Sure, you might have to live with the consequences for a long time, but at least the initial event that created the problem has ceased.

But a nuclear power plant problem can be an ongoing issue, that releases nuclear material not just for a split second, but for hours or even days or weeks.  You may have ongoing releases of new material for an extended time.

Perhaps the best (worst?) example of such a scenario occurred in Japan in March 2011 at the Fukushima Daichii power plant in Japan.  An earthquake caused the working reactors at the multi-reactor site to shut down, and emergency diesel power generators started up to keep the cooling pumps circulating water through the power plant cores.  The subsequent tsunami flooded the generator rooms, causing the generators to fail, and without power, the cooling pumps stopped, allowing temperatures in the reactor cores to go dangerously high, with three reactors melting down.

The problems started on 11 March, and significant releases of nuclear materials continued for two weeks or longer (depending on where you draw the line on ‘significant’ releases), and material was still being released a month after the event started.  Here’s a great timeline.

It is probable that less radioactive material, in total, was released at Fukishima than at Chernobyl, but it occurred more recently, over a longer time line, and in full real-time view of the world’s news programs, making it a higher-profile event.

Furthermore, the Chernobyl disaster was relatively short-lived (pretty much all over and done with in less than a day), and we in the west only got wind of it (almost literally so) some time after the problem had been controlled, so there was less opportunity for angst and anguish.

There are a lot of variables at play with a nuclear power plant release of radioactive material.  It could involve any or all types of radiation, and it might be released into the upper atmosphere or instead have a short ride up and a fast ride down again, pooling in concentrated area.  Have a look at this map of contamination levels that were still in place in 1996, ten years after the event, to get a visual feeling for how strange the pattern of radiation concentration can be.

Try and locate up wind of nuclear power plants, and the further away you can be from them, the less risk you’ll run (although note the distribution pattern from Chernobyl where there was a relatively safe zone in the middle distance, with more dangerous areas both closer to the power plant, as you’d expect, but also further away, too).