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How to Survive a Nuclear War

Content Warning: This newsletter will speak in frank terms about the possibility of a nuclear war. This is a very taxing subject and if you are concerned that engaging with this material will harm your mental health, please do not read further.

Since the war in Ukraine has pushed the rest of the world closer to proverbial midnight than we've been since the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's never been a more appropriate time to discuss a subject I really thought I'd never have to bother with, and never wanted to. The reason I've been loathe to discuss how to survive a nuclear weapon detonation, EMP, a dirty bomb, etc., is that it is, for one, a prepper cliché. Half of your conception of what a prepper was when you first started reading this likely came from an episode of Doomsday Preppers where the guy swore up and down the world was going to end because an EMP was going to stop us all from microwaving our supper. But once you get started on this road, talking about this sort of thing, you eventually wind up at the end: nuclear war.

Any rational survivalist–that is, anyone who really understands this subject and isn't out to sell you buckets of all manner of things–is going to tell you that all-out nuclear war is not a threat you survive. There is no trinket, no gadget, no bag, no bunker, nothing, that is going to carry you over to a place wherein you can begin again. Because there is no beginning again on an irradiated planet. There is no gardening through nuclear winter. Jeff Bezos is probably going to survive, but even he wouldn't be happy about it. Because there would be nothing left.

The Nature of a Nuclear End

First, let's admit that all-out nuclear warfare is not likely. The use of even one nuclear weapon is a terrifying possibility, and the precedent being (re-)broken bodes very poorly for the world, but a single nuclear detonation is not likely to be an apocalyptic event. However, a The Road-scale war would be so massive that the motivation for it is nonsensical. We're not going to discuss that particularly bleak apocalypse.

Now, there are competing schools on whether or not "just" 100 nukes would tip off a nuclear winter, but while that may be unlikely, 100 nukes already means that an era of unprecedented suffering has been ushered into being. Russia and the United States have far and away the largest nuclear arsenals on the planet–more than enough to destroy the world. An actual, open nuclear conflict between these two powers, in which they intended to destroy population centers and other strategic targets, would kill millions immediately and doom millions more to death by radiation, starvation and illness. This amount of warfare alone would probably not doom the entire planet, though. Despite the massive death toll, an engagement of this sort could possibly be limited to a dozen or so bombs on either side, which is almost certainly short of what it would take to ruin the world.

Having said that, this is still a ruined world. Millions dead is still millions dead, and this would be a world without an American government (aka paradise but radioactive). Federal infrastructure would be gone, and the world economy would suffer tremendously. America feeds an enormous amount of people around the world–Russia is no slouch on that front, either–and without those exports, hunger would spike dramatically. Those of us left alive and not immediately in the smoldering ruins would be hard pressed to scrape together the resources to survive. Provided you are not downwind of the fallout–in which case your life expectancy has just been shortened by 20 or so years, give or take–you must now navigate a world reeling from the most significant upheaval in recorded history. This is not a nice world, or an easy one. And remember, this isn't the apocalyptic one.

The other scenario is nuclear winter; a war in which enough nukes have detonated that a significant portion of the planet has literally caught fire, and between those flames and the bombs themselves we enter a period of manmade ice, in which the sun's rays are blocked by smoke and most plants die off. Beyond that, we have significantly increased the amount of radiation released given the number of bombs necessary to create a nuclear winter. This isn't quite The Road, but maybe its little brother.

Duck and Cover and Cross Your Fingers

We'll begin by assuming your city is under attack. If you're close to the epicenter of the blast, congrats! You probably died quickly. If you're far enough away, however, you might have a chance. These early tips carry no matter whether we get an early warning, or your warning is a bright flash of light and your hair catching fire.

Your first order of business is getting inside, getting low, and staying behind as much concrete as possible. A regular house is not ideal, but far better than nothing. If you are unable to shelter in a basement, but your shelter has multiple floors, try to get up off the ground but remain at least two floors below the top floor. The goal here is to keep distance between yourself and fallout. Fallout is any and all dust and debris created in the aftermath of the explosion which has collected radioactive material, and it will behave like dust, settling out of the air gradually. It will settle to the ground, or on the tops of buildings, so these are areas to avoid initially.

If you were outside after detonation, you have around fifteen minutes before the fallout reaches the surface. Get inside, and if you suspect exposure, remove your clothing, and rinse yourself off. Avoid wipes: don't rub your eyes, nose, or mouth, don't use hand sanitizer–you're trying to gently rinse away particles, not grind anything into your skin. Use a wet cloth or bath wipe very gently, if that's all you've got.

If you or a loved one was injured in the blast while you attempt to get inside, cover the wounds and continue fleeing if you are able. If you're not, attempt further treatment until you're able to move. Do not attempt to rescue everyone you see; you have 15 minutes before your exposure to radiation might turn you into an extra from Chernobyl, and that is a worse way to go than virtually anything else.

Stay inside for 24 hours. Wear a mask if you are around people you don't know, or people who may have been exposed to fallout, and keep distant from them. Keep everyone and everything inside, pets included. Avoid outer walls and windows. This initial period of waiting is crucial to your long-term survival–water and food are not important. Spend the 24 hours fortifying your shelter with books, wood, boxes, etc., putting as much material between you and the outside world as possible. Seal up doorways and windows with tape to prevent contaminated airflow. If you're at home, and by some miracle you have power, turn off your HVAC unit (you're not going to have power).

After 24 hours, the ambient fallout will have diminished. This does not mean you should go outside and kick through the dust, but if you absolutely must leave shelter–in order to seek medical care, for example–you can. Ideally, your shelter is your home, or a designated shelter, and you have food, water, and a working emergency radio or other devices. If you are advised to evacuate by authorities, you probably should. If you are not, you still may want to, depending on your situation. Because the hard part is still to come.

*A silly footnote: Yes, iodine pills will help you in this situation. They are already very scarce. If you have them or can get some, it's not a bad thing. Take them as soon as possible after the blast. These pills will essentially fill your body's tank, preventing it from absorbing radioactive iodine, which is the most likely immediate radioactive product of a nuclear blast.

Long-Term Survival

If you are able to shelter in place, do so for as long as possible. The longer you stay indoors, the weaker the fallout becomes, and the safer you will be when you do exit. After three days, most of the radioactivity of the fallout will have diminished, but longer is better. After the potency of the fallout is gone, it's time to start that mutual aid game. Your first instinct may be one of fear, not unlike the beginning of the pandemic, but reach out to people–not only to help them, but to receive help. It's hard to say whether a scenario like this means there will be any kind of official infrastructure left to help you or not, so you'll need to be able to rely on your friends and neighbors. You're going to need help because if you're in a strike zone, you're probably in a city. If you're in a city, it's going to be an absolute nightmare leaving. And you're going to want to leave.

Everything that we talk about here, all the ways in which we overcome collapse, depend first and foremost on trusting what's coming out of the earth. You can't after a nuclear attack. The greens and tomatoes growing in your garden are irradiated, and could continue to be for several years. Your municipal water supply, beyond contamination from fallout, is probably full of sewage, debris, and refuse–if it comes out of the pipes at all (it won't). So when I say mutual aid, I mean you're checking on your neighbors, finding a working chainsaw, a working car, and piling in to get out. Figure out what the prevailing winds have been and go another way–making sure that you don't drive into another path of fallout dispersion or into another devastated city.

Find friends, family, an old farmer named Hershel, whoever. Band together. You're probably not going to be in a complete vacuum of power, but things will be chaotic, and hard. The other long-standing truth of this newsletter, besides depending on the earth, is that we have to trust in each other if we want to make it. That's one thing that doesn't change. We'll need each other more than ever before.