The thought of a nuclear bomb going off in your own country may seem like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie or sci-fi novel. But as you’re probably well aware, there are a few countries creating and testing nuclear weapons and tension is steadily rising. When it comes to nuclear wars, one thing everyone needs to realize is that nuclear bombs do not discriminate. Regardless of political leanings, religious beliefs or disregard for either, it’s simply important to know what to do if a nuclear bomb did go off in your city. Although the hope is that no one ever has to use this information.
How Does a Nuclear Bomb Work?
Nuclear bombs are a form of weapon of mass destruction. At the center of a nuclear bomb, you will find the forces that hold an atom’s nucleus together. To create an explosion, scientists can use the energy released from the nucleus’ positive and negative charges in two ways:
Splitting the nucleus of an atom, which is nuclear fission
Merging atoms together, which is nuclear fusion (and how the sun produces energy)
There are also two ways that a nuclear bomb can be detonated:
Airburst detonations which are released approximately five-hundred feet above ground to attack targets like cities and airbases
Ground burst detonations which are released at or just above the intended target and allow for maximum damage
What’s the Impact and What Does It Look Like?
Answering this entirely depends on how the nuclear bomb was detonated and how big it was. But according to Dr. Ira Helfand, within a thousandth of a second of the detonation of the bomb in the video below, a bright white fireball would form. This fireball would reach out two miles in every direction and temperatures would rise to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit. The blast would vaporize buildings, people, and all of nature.
If you were as far as four miles from the blast in any direction, there would be winds up to 600 miles per hour and blast pressures approximately 25 pounds per square-inch. Now, if you were as far as six miles from the blast in any direction the heat would melt the sheet metal frame of your car. At 10 miles, winds would reach levels up to 200 miles per hour that could level steel and concrete buildings. Sixteen miles away, anything flammable would burst into flames. That’s not even including the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who would be dead or severely injured.
This is what you would see if you were at a far enough distance. However, scientists caution not to look at it directly if you’re within 50 miles of the blast, as it could cause flash blindness.
What to Do & Where to Go If a Nuclear Bomb Detonates
As soon as you realize what’s happening – bright flash, intense heat, potential burns, strong winds, mushroom cloud – the first thing you should do is seek shelter to avoid nuclear fallout, the residual radioactive material that falls out of the sky after a nuclear explosion. According to researcher Michael Dillon from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, you should try hiding within the most dense building material possible.
In Dillon’s report in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences, he specifically suggests a brick or concrete structures with no windows, an underground cellar, or (sub-)basement. For anyone with access to a bomb shelter, even better, but few people have that privilege. If you are able to find yourself in any of the shelters above, in comparison to being stuck outside, you’ll only be exposed to about 1/200 of the fallout radiation.
This image courtesy of FEMA actually indicates which structures can give you the most protection:
Other Tips for Survival During and After a Nuclear Blast
If possible, of course:
Stay away from doors and windows
Dispose of your radioactive clothes and shower or wipe yourself down with a wet cloth
If you’re able to use shampoo or soap, just don’t scrub or scratch your skin
Blow your nose and wipe your eyelids, eyelashes, and ears of potentially leftover fallout material
Only drink bottled water and eat sealed food
Wait and listen (on a radio) for how to get help and screened for contamination