Don't Look at the Light: A Guide to Surviving a Nuke

Since the numpties in Washington seem hell-bent on goading the Russian Federation into a full-scale thermonuclear war, I thought I'd dig into my counterintelligence/strategic defense background to give you some information regarding what to do if (and quite possibly when) the bombs go off. Each side of the conflict will have just one shot. A war involving nuclear weapons will last minutes—not days.

While I worked in the intelligence community, one area I excelled at was catastrophic wargaming scenarios. The idea is to develop an attack plan so that another analyst can devise a counterattack or a mitigation strategy. In an effort to give you the best chance at surviving an attack, I'm going to detail what I believe to be the most likely scenario.

To anyone stupid enough to think otherwise, this is a hypothetical situation—any suggestion that I'm being serious in discussing an attack plan is idiotic. Additionally, everything I'm about to discuss is available through open sources with unaffiliated links attached, and nothing is classified.

In this example, Russia takes a pre-emptive strike against the United States. The first action in the event is the explosion of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). An EMP, which is similar to a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun, would be detonated in the upper atmosphere above the east coast of the U.S. If executed correctly, the EMP would fry anything electrical within its view. Cars on the highway would shut off and roll to a stop, cellphones would turn off, and even a digital watch would cease operating. Generators, solar panels, wind turbines, and the like would prove useless.

This part of the attack has multiple avenues to inflict maximum pain. Not only would this knock out communications for everyone, including the military, but anyone needing electricity to live (i.e., someone on life support, oxygen, et cetera) would die. Planes would fall out of the sky, and the east coast would find itself thrust into the Middle Ages. Anyone surviving the impending nuclear missiles would still need to deal with this new reality once the fallout clears. If you'd like to read my thought experiment on the topic of EMPs, check out my article One Second After, based on the book of the same title by William R. Forstchen.

Within minutes (but not too much longer), rockets will fill the sky. Supposing the U.S. has some warning of the EMP rocket before its detonation, they would likely release their nuclear arsenal with predetermined destinations. They’d try to get word to their subterranean assets to fire at will to create as much damage as possible. Both sides in the conflict would have to shoot the entirety of their arsenal for fear of losing that capability through enemy destruction.

If you are in or near a city or a military installation, you stand little chance of surviving the initial nuclear explosions. If the worst should happen, I expect all primary targets to be hit simultaneously. By primary targets, I'm referring to military bases, known atomic sites, significant centers of industry and culture, and government institutions.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m presuming the warheads will be approximately 300 kilotons like the W-87 the U.S. has in its arsenal. If a bomb of this magnitude is set off as an air burst (detonate a specific elevation above the ground instead of on impact) in the center of Washington D.C., the initial death toll would be in the mid-300,000 range, with half a million more injured. I used a great simulation from for this exercise, and the corresponding images below show a simulated depiction of detonations in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Moscow, Russia.

Washington, D.C.

New York, City

Moscow, Russia


The first consequence to consider is radiation. Within milliseconds of the detonation, radiation will be emitted as gamma rays and neutrons. This radiation affects the body at the cellular level. Too much at one time leads to acute radiation poisoning. Anyone within a 1/4 square mile that somehow survives the blast (maybe if they are in a fortified building or a deep underground shelter) could have radiation poisoning, likely leading to an excruciating death within hours to days. Some symptoms of radiation poisoning include loss of appetite, fatigue, fever, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, skin lesions, diarrhea, and possibly even seizures and coma.


Within .43 square miles of the detonation, the fireball (a fission bomb is 10,000 times hotter than the sun) would vaporize everyone within its perimeter. Unfortunately, this isn’t avoidable. If it’s any consolation, this happens within the first millionth of a second after detonation, so if you’re in the vicinity, you wouldn’t even have the time to comprehend what’s happening. It’s a small mercy.


As the fireball expands, it pushes the air around it at incredible speeds creating a shockwave. The point where the ambient air pressure suddenly jumps is called the shock front. This force of pressure is an invisible wall that will cause an incredible amount of destruction. The shockwave will level most buildings within 26 square miles of the explosion. The further the distance from ground zero, the less damage from the shock front. Accompanying the shockwave is hurricane-force winds which pose some of the most significant risks for people. While human bodies can withstand a rapid pressure increase and high winds, anyone within the radius could be injured by collapsing buildings and wind-blown debris.


As discussed above with the fireball, an incredible amount of heat is produced during the detonation. Therefore, anything and anyone within 62 square miles could spontaneously combust. Clothing, paper, trees, wood materials, and plastic would catch fire. Humans and animals in this radius would receive third-degree burns, which could prove fatal. Even some outside the radius could have severe first or second-degree burns.


The initial surface explosion will send irradiated material, called fallout, into the atmosphere in a mushroom cloud. If you're close enough to the detonation, the sandlike particles can start falling within 15 minutes, so you need to get inside. Depending on the wind strength and direction, this material can be spread incredibly far from the site of detonation—with radioactive particles sometimes raining down hundreds of miles away. This fallout can stay in the environment for decades. Fallout affects humans mainly through food and water ingestion. Consuming animals, plants, or water contaminated with radiation will have long-lasting adverse health effects and should be avoided.

If you are a safe enough distance away from the blast but are still concerned with the fallout (which you should be), there are some steps you can take to limit your exposure.

  • Potassium iodide: In nuclear events, radioiodine is released, which concentrates in the thyroid gland. This increases the risk of thyroid cancer, among other ailments. Adults 18 and older should take 130mg of potassium iodide daily. Children 150lbs and above can take the adult dosage. Children 3-18 and anyone under 150lbs should take half (65mg) daily. Babies from 1 month to 3 years can take a quarter of that (32.5mg). From birth to one month can take (16.25mg). This is not medical advice, but I plan to continue taking these pills for at least a week.

  • Reusable Respirator with 2097 filters: A respirator is not foolproof, but it’s much better than nothing at filtering out nanoparticles in the air. The mask that I have is $18 on Amazon. The filters last 40 hours if you’re wearing them full-time. It’s best to wear one while you’re outside for at least 24 hours to a couple of days after a detonation. If you have the funds and means to buy a better quality mask, then please do.

  • Coveralls: If you do have to leave your house for any reason, it's best if you spend as little time as possible and cover up as much as you can. Wearing a Tyvek suit over your clothing would help to keep radioactive material off your skin. Use soap and water on the entire suit before taking it off, and leave it outside your residence.

  • Don't look at the light: If you are outside the blast zone but still within eyesight—don't look at the light. You could be blinded even up to 50 miles from the detonation site. Instead, lay down on the ground to shield yourself from any possible debris, but keep your mouth open to avoid having your eardrums burst from the sudden change of pressure.

  • Take a shower: If you were outside during the blast and survived, you must shower as soon as possible to get any particles off your skin. Ensure the water is hot, and don't rub your skin too hard. Breaking the skin could lead to increased exposure. In addition, make sure to blow your nose, rinse your eyes, and clean your ears. Don't use any skin lotions, creams, or moisturizers because these products have ingredients that bind to radioactive material.

  • Get a Geiger counter: Knowing the amount of radiation in the air will help you to reduce your exposure. Geiger counters are easy to operate, and one can be purchased for a relatively low $80 from Amazon.

As you can imagine, this is not an exhaustive list, but it's a start. There's no telling what may ensue after a nuclear explosion, so it's best to be as prepared as possible. I always recommend having at least three months of food and antibiotics on hand. Of course, if the world is falling to pieces, your best defense is to stay in your home.

These next few months could prove to be unpredictable and anxiety-inducing, so you also need to take care of your mental health. I've written many articles on mental health and emotional intelligence with a particular emphasis on a collapsing society. The stronger you build your emotional intelligence—the better chance you have at getting out of this situation alive.

In the end, your survival odds depend first on your proximity to the blast and second on your understanding of what to do next. I pray to God none of these events come true, but I hope you take some reassurance in knowing some steps to give yourself a fighting chance. May the odds be ever in your favor.