The Nuclear Disaster Survival Guide: How to Prepare for a Nuclear Emergency

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Preparing for a nuclear disaster has always been low on my to-do list. Even the thought of purchasing gas masks felt overboard and “doomsday prepper” to me.

I mean, really, what are the odds of a nuclear disaster happening?

Well, the odds of nuclear disasters are low but have risen in recent years. Putin’s war in Ukraine has reshuffled the geopolitical stage overnight. Global checks and balances are not as straightforward as they were a year ago. Access to materials for making a “dirty bomb” increase as global alliances shift and break down.

In fact, nuclear detonation is the first scenario in the National Planning Scenarios document developed by the United States Department of Homeland Security in 2006 and one of a disaster professional’s nightmare scenarios.

So, yes, the odds are low, but they have ticked up recently, as has my interest. So let’s talk about how to be better prepared for the different forms a nuclear emergency might take.

image: discarded gas masks from nuclear disaster

What do we mean when we say ‘nuclear disaster?’

“Nuclear disaster” can refer to nuclear war, nuclear terrorism, nuclear power plant explosion, or a leak from a nuclear facility, as in the case of Chernobyl (Ukraine) or Fukushima (Japan). Some of you are wondering about how power outages affect nuclear power plants. Read more about Whether a Long-Term Blackout Would Mean Nuclear Meltdown.

Why bother preparing for a nuclear disaster? Won’t we all die anyway?

Surprisingly, the answer is no, not necessarily. In any nuclear disaster, it’s primarily about your location and how fast you react. This is where good planning can save your life.

What happens when a nuclear bomb explodes?

Should the worst happen, there will be a blinding flash, a blast wave, a mushroom cloud will form overhead, and the fallout from the mushroom cloud will rain down. The device’s EMP (electromagnetic pulse) will simultaneously take out the surrounding electrical grid and electronics.

A Blinding Flash

There will be a bright flash that will cause temporary blindness for a minute or so. This is your signal to immediately get to the safest place possible for the oncoming blast wave. Think “duck and cover.”

Blast Wave

A blast wave will quickly radiate out from the explosion with such force that it will knock over buildings and destroy everything in the immediate blast zone. The size of the blast zone depends on the size of the bomb or explosion.

A one-megaton nuclear bomb has a blast zone of 3.7 miles, while a ten-megaton bomb would cause lethal burns to anyone within a 20-mile radius. Therefore, if you are in the blast zone of a nuclear bomb, your chances of survival are slim. However, if you are fortunate enough to be outside the blast zone and act quickly, your chances of survival go up drastically.

Nuclear Fallout

The signature mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion carries particles high into the atmosphere and then drops them back to earth as sand-sized radioactive “fallout.” Depending on the size of the blast, you will have anywhere from 15-30 minutes to get to the safest place possible. A concrete basement or inner room is best. 

Watch if the mushroom cloud begins drifting in a particular location to know if you should seek immediate shelter from the radiation. Then, if the prevailing winds carry it away, you can move on to other survival measures.

Ideally, you will be close enough to a preplanned shelter with supplies. Barring that, grabbing both your regular and nuclear Go Bags and getting to the best protection available will significantly increase your odds of survival. Remember that you may need to stay in the shelter for up to 30 days.

Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)

As if all that isn’t enough, a nuclear explosion will also cause an EMP to take out the electrical grid and electronics up to an unknown radius. It is unclear how far-reaching an EMP would be, but it would likely extend farther out than the blast zone or the fallout. Learn how to protect some crucial gear from the effects of an EMP ahead of time.

Will I have any warning?

You may or may not have any warning before a nuclear explosion. If the source is a domestically planted nuclear device or an accident at a nuclear facility, you will typically not have any advance warning. On the other hand, if it is a missile attack, you will hopefully have some notice through an emergency broadcast or social media. (Think Hawaiian Missile Scare of 2018.)

How can I survive a nuclear disaster?

1. Have a Plan In Place

Obviously, no one can predict where they might be during a catastrophic event, nor can we live in constant fear. However, knowing some safe places in the areas you usually frequent–especially in and around your home–can help you act faster if you see the blinding flash. Time is of the essence and having a plan dispels the need to think and allows you to act quickly in a crisis.

2. Have a Nuclear Disaster Go Bag Ready

This is in addition to your regular “Go” or “Bug Out Bag.” A Nuclear Go Bag contains only items necessary for a nuclear emergency. Plan for every member of your family.

  • A Radiation Detector or Geiger Counter You’ll want one of these to assess the safety of going back outside. Shop around for one of these, as they can be expensive. There are small cards that are relatively inexpensive, but they expire after two years. Also, ensure it is a durable unit that can measure nuclear radiation.
  • A Gas Mask A full-face gas mask will be priceless both in the early stages of getting to safety and deciding when to return. For additional protection, pair it with a special gas mask filter.
  • Potassium Iodide (KI) Tablets Iodine tablets prevent your thyroid from absorbing some kinds of nuclear radiation. They are really important for young people but have almost no benefit for older folks (55+). They should be taken before exposure if possible and as soon as possible otherwise. This fact sheet covers proper dosages and the use of KI tablets.
  • Coveralls or a Rain Suit will keep the fallout from touching your skin. You’ll need to leave it outside your shelter once you get to safety.
  • Plastic Sheeting You’ll need plastic in conjunction with duct tape to seal off any doors or windows in your shelter to keep out the fallout.
  • Duct Tape
  • Wipes or a Wash Cloth and Water Use these to wipe off radiation particles from fallout once you get to a shelter. Showering is preferred, but wipes or a washcloth with water will help.
  • N95 Masks Regular surgical masks that we used during covid-19 are inadequate for these purposes.
  • Nuclear War Survival Skills manual
  • Hand Crank Emergency Radio A radio is invaluable for emergency broadcasts if you are in a shelter. It may tell you the extent of the disaster and whether it is safe to come out.

3. Get Somewhere Safe

You will be limited by time during a nuclear disaster so get to the safest place you can go. Ideally, that would be in the basement or inner room of a concrete or brick house with supplies already. Instead, the best options are a shelter without windows, or that has the most materials or earth between you and the blast and fallout. Even a concrete parking garage provides a good deal of protection.

4. Stay There Until Radiation Drops to Safe Levels

Radiation levels will drop astonishingly fast after a nuclear explosion. How quickly depends on the size of the event and where you were in relation to it. This is where a radiation detector or Geiger counter will be invaluable. Radiation levels will drop by half after the first 24 hours and then again in the next 24 hours. It depends on your distance from the epicenter or if prevailing winds carried the fallout away from you. If you were in an area with significant exposure, your stay might extend well beyond that. Possibly up to 30 days.

Equipping a “nuclear safe room” with survival basics will go a very long way in helping you and your loved ones stay healthy and sane. A supply of water, a water purifier, shelf-stable food, sanitation supplies, an indoor toilet, and forms of entertainment — cover these basics as you equip your nuclear safe room.


Do not assume you won’t survive a nuclear disaster.

Nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl or Fukushima were limited to relatively small geographic areas. Similarly, the scope of a nuclear bomb will depend on the size of the bomb, the surrounding geography, and prevailing weather patterns. Whether you are in the mountains or the plains will strongly impact the area of damage. Having a plan and Go Bags at the ready will radically increase your odds of surviving a nuclear disaster.

What do you keep in your nuclear go bag?

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