Can you survive a nuclear detonation? Physicist says it's entirely possible

Can you survive a nuclear detonation? Physicist says it's entirely possible

Nuclear bombs are extremely deadly weapons, but their worst effects are confined to a limited zone. Physicist Buddemeier says one must avoid radioactive fallout that arrives minutes later by staying indoors, ideally below ground in a basement.

The federal government is consistently working with the state and city governments to devise a fool proof plan on how to deal with a nuclear detonation scenario brought on by a terrorist attack.

Brooke Buddemeier, a health physicist and expert on radiation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told Business Insider, "National Planning Scenario No 1 is a 10-kiloton nuclear detonation in a modern US city. A 10-kiloton nuclear detonation is equivalent to 5,000 Oklahoma City bombings. Though we call it 'low yield,' it's a pretty darn big explosion." 

He also said that the plausibility of an attack of this nature is "one of these things that changes with time."

Having said that, it does not seem too far-fetched a scenario with the huge increase in kiloton-class weapons stockpiling and manufacture of fissile nuclear material. 

The aftermath of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, by the Americans at the end of World War II. The occupants of the burned-out bus were all killed. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Imagine your worst nightmare, if a nuclear detonation takes place in your neighborhood and you've extraordinarily escaped the bright flash, the crushing blast wave which follows it and the final incendiary fireball, there's one thing you could do to increase your chances of survival and prevent contamination.

"Shelter, shelter, shelter," he said. "The same place you would go to protect yourself from a tornado is a great place to go."

A dreaded aftereffect of a nuclear detonation is radioactive fallout, in which a complex mixture of radio-isotopes are formed due to splitting of atoms.

Blast Radius Infographic (Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Buddemeier says that many of these radioisotopes decay rapidly and emit gamma radiation. Exposure to gamma radiation beyond a certain threshold can irreversibly damage the body's cells and its recuperating mechanisms. This condition is called acute radiation sickness.

"It also affects the immune system and your ability to fight infections," he said.

Only a thick lining of lead (or other dense materials) extending to many feet in width can possibly restrict the gamma radiation of the fallout from reaching the other side.

"The fireball from a 10-kiloton explosion is so hot, it actually shoots up into the atmosphere at over 100 miles per hour," Buddemeier said. "These fission products mix in with the dirt and debris that's drawn up into the atmosphere from the fireball. ...What we're talking about is 8,000 tons of dirt and debris being drawn up into this cloud."

The radioactive fallout can soar more than five miles into the atmosphere. The heavier fission products rain back down at that instant but the lighter particles tend to spread over distant regions and can affect living organisms drastically.

"Close into the [blast] site, they may be a bit larger than golf-ball-size, but really what we're talking about are things like salt- or sand-size particles," Buddemeier said, adding that fallout doesn't resemble snow or dust like in the science fiction movies. "It's the penetrating gamma radiation coming off of those particles that's the hazard." 

Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Disaster Fallout Map (Source: Facebook)

Contrary to popular belief, your car is the worst place to take shelter, for a number of reasons as noted by Buddemeier.

Firstly, "your ability to know where the fallout's gonna go, and outrun it, are — well, it's very unlikely," he said, because it would be carried by high-altitude winds "often booking along at 100 miles per hour."

Secondly, the streets would be full of unpredictable drivers due to the penetrating flash blinding them and debris from the fallout. He said that some vehicles might not even work due to an electromagnetic pulse or EMP released from the epicenter.

But most importantly, you shouldn't "assume that the glass and metal of a vehicle can protect you" from fallout, Buddemeier says. "Modern vehicles are made of glass and very light metals, and they offer almost no protection. You're just going to sit on a road someplace" and be exposed.

Buddemeier says that a much better shelter would be within a quick walk or run of wherever you may be and "the timing is important" to escape the effects of the radiation.

A weathered metal sign for a fallout shelter bolted to a New York City apartment building. (Source: Dave Mosher)

It seems that your best shot at surviving the nuclear detonation would be to immediately get into a "robust structure" which has thick walls and stay there. The physicist is goes by the mantra "go in, stay in, tune in."

"Get inside ... and get to the center of that building," he said. "If you happen to have access to belowground areas, getting below ground is great."

The best shelters from radioactive contamination include large buildings such as schools and corporate officers which are made of bricks and concrete and have very few windows or other inlets. One must thoroughly avoid taking shelter in buildings or houses made of wood, plaster or light materials as they will not help at all.

The protection factor that various buildings, and locations within them, offer from the radioactive fallout of a nuclear blast. The higher the number, the greater the protection. (Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Buddemeier said that soil is one of the best shields against gamma radiation, and so taking refuge in a home with a half basement is better than hiding at a building with no basement at all.

Once you've found your safe spot, you must wait and "stay in 12 to 24 hours," Buddemeier says.

Waiting inside for a longer period is essential as the levels of gamma and other radiations drop exponentially after detonation, as hot radioisotopes decay into stable atoms. Once the environment is stabilized, the dangerous fallout zone shrinks rapidly.  

The dangerous fallout zone (dark purple) shrinks quickly, while the much less dangerous hot zone (faint purple) grows for about 24 hours before shrinking back. (Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Michael Dillon, who is a colleague of Buddemeier at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, adds that it might be a good idea to move to a solid shelter or basement if you were earlier able to find only a weaker one, but one must also note that the next destination is to be less than 5 minutes away. Also, if you're critically close to the epicenter or the blast site, you should stay put wherever you are. 

Finally, you can "tune in."

Buddemeier continued, "Try to use whatever communication tools you have," saying that a hand-cranked radio is a very good investment to keep around as during a dystopian scenario such as this, emergency providers would be broadcasting safety and rescue instructions, such as tracking the fallout cloud and identifying safe corridors for escape.

Although the power of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse is unfathomable and could damage most electronic devices, "there is a good chance that there will be plenty of functioning radios even within a few miles of the event" that could provide "information on the safest strategy to keep you and your family safe," Buddemeier said.

Buddemeier said that a hand-cranked radio is a very good device to keep around. (Getty Images)

Buddemeier prays that no one should face such a dire situation, but if one could find heavy shelters or a basement, the contamination from radiation could be minimized.

"We may not be able to do much about the blast casualties, because where you were is where you were, and you can't really change that. But fallout casualties are entirely preventable," he said. "In a large city ... knowing what to do after an event like this can literally save hundreds of thousands of people from radiation illness or fatalities."

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