What you should actually do in a nuclear attack (and why most people get it wrong)

Rob Waugh
An image of a recent launch by North Korea.

On January 13, residents in Hawaii saw a terrifying message on their TVs and mobile phones saying, ‘BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII.


The message caused widespread panic, and also highlighted the fact that many of us, both in America and in Britain, have no idea what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.


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Nuclear war expert Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness said this week, ‘With some very simple public messaging, we could save hundreds of thousands of lives in a nuclear detonation.

Here’s what experts say you should do in the hours and days after a nuclear attack.

Get inside a building immediately, and don’t leave

This week, the Centers for Disease Control said, ‘Most people don’t realize that sheltering in place for at least 24 hours is crucial to saving lives and reducing exposure to radiation.’

Dr. Robert Levin, a Ventura County public health officer who led a nuclear preparedness exercise says it’s all about staying indoors.

In fact, you should get inside, and as far away from roofs, windows and outside walls as possible, Levin says.

He told USA Today, ‘Get inside. Stay inside. Stay tuned. It would save hundreds of thousands of lives. Locate yourself as far away from the roof and the walls as possible.’

People should avoid the temptation to rescue children from school, Levin says – they’ll be safer where they are.

Don’t look towards the bomb

Looking directly at a nuclear blast can burn your eyes so badly you go blind, according to the 2010 American document ‘Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation’.

The document advises, ‘Direct observation of the highly intense flash of light from a nuclear detonation can also cause macular-retinal burns.

‘Burns of the macula will result in permanent scarring with resultant loss in visual acuity, or blindness.’

Don’t try and ‘outrun’ the fallout

Many of us imagine we might jump into our cars and escape somewhere safe – but that’s actually about the worst thing you could do.

Brooke Buddemeier, a radiation expert at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory says that fallout dust travels at hundreds of miles per hour, high in the atmosphere.

So the idea you could ‘outrun’ the deadly radioactive dust is false, he warns.

Speaking to Science Alert he says, ‘”There was actually a lot of folks who had this notion – and it may be a Hollywood notion – of ‘Oh, jump in the car and try to skedaddle out of town if you see a mushroom cloud.”

Buddemeier says that fallout is often carried by high-altitude winds going at 100 miles per hour – and not going in the same direction as winds on the ground.

Buddemeier says, ‘So your ability to know where the fallout’s gonna go, and outrun it, are… Well, it’s very unlikely. What we’re talking about are things like salt- or sand-size particles. It’s the penetrating gamma radiation coming off of those particles that’s the hazard.

‘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 some place.’

Stay in your ‘fallout room’ until the radiation dies down

The British government’s Protect and Survive videos – broadcast in the early Eighties, suggests that families should hide in a ‘fallout’ room with no windows, with water supplies.

The video says, ‘If attack is imminent, take cover at once, send your small children to the fall-out room. Then turn off the gas and electricity at the mains. Shut windows, and draw curtains. Then go to your fall-out room and stay there.’

After a nuclear blast, radioactive fallout dust will fall from the sky – so being outdoors could be lethal.

Protect and Survive advises staying indoors for as long as possible – as the radioactive poison will peak within two days.

The video says, ‘After two days the danger from fallout will get less, but don’t take any risks. The longer you stay in your fall-out shelter, the better it will be for you.’

When you venture out, pack a ‘Go Bag’

Brooke Buddemeier, a radiation expert at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory says that preparation can save lives.

Buddemeier says the most important thing is a radio, ideally one with a hand crank to power it up and a USB port to power other devices.

Radios are important to receive emergency broadcasts, and may be more reliable than phones in the wake of the attack.

Buddemeier also advises packing water – one gallon per person per day, to drink and to wash off radioactive fallout dust.

The last two things are breakfast bars – and any medicines you might need (although Buddemeier says you should only spend two minutes packing, then high-tail it to a fall-out shelter.)