what to do, how to prepare

US Navy nuclear test in Bikini Atoll

A US Navy nuclear test on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.FPG/Getty Images

  • In modern-day war, the fear of a nuclear bomb is real.

  • If a nuclear attack were headed toward the US, residents would have fewer than 30 minutes to prepare.

  • Actions immediately following a nuclear bomb blast amid fallout could help you survive.

As Russian forces take losses on the battlefield in Ukraine, fears are growing that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made repeated threats, could resort to nuclear force. US leadership, among others, has warned of the risk of nuclear war and pushed for de-escalation.

Putin said he would use “all available means” to defend Russian territory and that his willingness to escalate was “not a bluff.”

Even though US officials say they have no evidence that Russia is moving any nuclear assets, President Joe Biden has raised the possibility of a nightmare scenario: an all-out nuclear war.

Some expert observers see Putin’s rhetoric as an attempt to scare away Western support for Ukraine, while others take it as a significant increase in the risk of nuclear attacks. One historian called this moment more threatening than the Cuban missile crisis.


In this image made from a video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Vladimir Putin gestures as he addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, September 21, 2022.Russian Presidential Press Service/AP

A nuclear attack remains highly unlikely, but that’s not out of the question, experts say.

How much time would Americans have between a nuclear alert and strike

If your city is under attack, you’d likely receive a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) text on your cell phone stating that missiles were on the way and to seek shelter immediately.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) will also send out the same alert message as the WEA across all types of television and radio broadcasts, including satellite, cable and wireless systems. On top of that, the President may choose to send out a “Presidential Alert” to cell phones nationwide.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal is capable of striking just about anywhere on the planet. Were Russia to launch a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile at the US, residents would have roughly 30 minutes, or less, to find shelter, assuming they were immediately warned of the attack. Some weapons, such as submarine-launched missiles, could potentially have shorter delivery times.

“In theory you could park a submarine closer to North America, thereby reducing the warning and flight time,” said Brian J. Morra, a former Air Force intelligence officer, a retired senior executive in the aerospace and defense industry, and author.

If Russia launched a weapon from international waters just off the East Coast, people in cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, might have just 10 to 15 minutes to prepare.

“You wouldn’t even have time to go get your kids from school,” Irwin Redlener, a public-health expert at Columbia University who specializes in disaster preparedness, told Insider last year.

Arguably, the American public is not as prepared or educated on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack as Americans were during the Cold War, when stocked fallout shelters, nuclear drills, and air raid sirens were in place across the nation. So here’s a minute-by-minute guide to help.

What to do after a nuclear attack

The minutes to hours after a nuclear blast are a critical window. The potential for radiation exposure decreases by 55% an hour after an explosion and 80% after 24 hours, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Immediate actions during those first few hours, like covering your eyes or hunkering down in an indoor shelter, could mitigate your risk of death or serious injury. Here’s how to protect yourself in a worst-case scenario.

First 30 minutes: Avert your eyes and shield your face

A fan shields their eyes during sunset at Glastonbury Festival in the UK.

A fan shields their eyes during sunset at Glastonbury Festival in the UK.Mick Hutson/Redferns

The US doesn’t have a sufficient warning system for nuclear threats, Redlener said.

Hawaii learned this lesson in 2018, when the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sent out an erroneous push alert to people’s smartphones, warning of an inbound ballistic-missile threat.

“Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill,” the warning read. An employee at the agency had sent the alert by mistake.

phone screenshots show emergency alert warning of inbound ballistic missile then a new alert saying false alarm there is no missile threat

A combination photograph shows screenshots from a cell phone displaying an alert for a ballistic missile launch and the subsequent false alarm message in Hawaii January 13, 2018.Hugh Gentry/Reuters

“It caused chaos,” Redlener said, adding: “Some people just totally ignored it, and some people went into panic mode and were jumping down sewer drains with their children.”

Redlener said the best way to learn of an impending nuclear attack would probably be TV or radio. Those without immediate access to news reports could hear sirens, he said, but the noise might be confusing. By the time you googled the sirens or called the police department, your time would have run out, he said.

The best course of action is simply to avert your eyes. When a nuclear bomb strikes, it sets off a flash of light and a giant orange fireball. A 1-megaton bomb (about 80 times larger than the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan) could temporarily blind people up to 13 miles away on a clear day and up to 53 miles away on a clear night.

two people curled up face down in a parking structure with hands over ears

People demonstrate taking shelter with their hands covering their eyes and ears while keeping their mouth open, during a drill in Taipei, Taiwan, July 22, 2022.Ann Wang/Reuters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends dropping to the ground with your face down and your hands tucked under your body to protect from flying debris or sweltering heat that could burn your skin. If you have a scarf or handkerchief, cover your nose and mouth.

But make sure to keep your mouth open, so your eardrums don’t burst from pressure. Research also suggests that if you’re in an above-ground building, avoid narrow hallways and doorways, which can act like a wind tunnel, accelerating the detonation’s shockwaves to dangerous, bone-crushing pressures. Instead, seek shelter along walls in large, open spaces and avoid rooms with windows, if you can.

First 45 minutes: Seek shelter indoors away from windows

nuclear bunkers

People attend an excursion at the Underground Sevastopol museum at a functioning nuclear bunker in Sevastopol, Crimea, on October 16, 2018.Sergei Malgavko/TASS/Getty Images

A single nuclear weapon could result in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of immediate deaths in a major city like New York or Washington. The number of casualties depends on the size of the weapon, where it’s detonated, and how many people are upwind of the blast.

Survivors of a nuclear attack would have about 15 minutes before sandlike radioactive particles, known as nuclear fallout, reached the ground. Exposure to fallout can result in radiation poisoning, which can damage the body’s cells and prove fatal.

nuclear fallout shelter

A sign for a nuclear fallout shelter on a residential block in Brooklyn.Epics/Getty Images

People should ideally look for shelter in the opposite direction of fallen buildings.

“You’d want to go in the direction away from the wind,” Redlener said, adding: “Get as far away as you can in the next 10 to 15 minutes, and then immediately seek shelter before the radiation cloud descends.”

The best shelters are buildings like schools or offices with few to no windows and a basement for camping out. If there aren’t sturdy buildings nearby, it’s still better to be indoors than outside.

If you take cover in a multistory building, choose a central location and steer clear of the top and bottom floors. If the building has windows, stand in the center of a room. Shock waves can shatter windows up to 10 miles away from an explosion, resulting in flying glass that could injure people nearby.

First 24 hours: Rinse off in the shower and stay inside

Afghan coal miner

People who were outside during an explosion should shower as soon as possible.Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The hours after a blast are critical for reducing radiation exposure.

Doctors can often treat radiation damage with substances such as potassium iodide, though “there are certain dose levels that you can’t do anything about,” Kathryn Higley, a professor of nuclear science at Oregon State University, told Insider.

But in a disaster scenario, there may not be enough physicians or hospital beds to care for everyone.

“There are not enough empty burn beds in all of the United States to deal with even a single nuclear attack on one city in the US,” Tara Drozdenko, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, told Insider.

People who were outside during an explosion should shower as soon as possible, making sure the water is warm and the soap is applied gently. Scrubbing too hard could break your skin, which acts as a natural protective barrier. You should also cover any cuts or abrasions while rinsing off. Complete these same steps for pets, too.

Don’t use conditioner, body lotion, or face cream after exposure to a nuclear blast, since these products can bind to radioactive particles and trap them in your skin and hair.

nuclear simulation

Rescuers take care of a wounded person during a simulated exercise of a nuclear accident at the Areva nuclear plant in Beaumont-Hague, France, on December 8, 2011.Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Blow your nose and wipe your ears and eyelids, since debris could get stuck in these places. The CDC also recommends sealing the outer layers of clothing in a plastic bag, along with any tissues or cloths used to wipe your body or face.

It’s safe to consume food from sealed containers such as packages, bottles, or cans, according to the CDC. You can also eat items from your pantry or refrigerator, as long as you wipe off containers, cookware, counters and utensils. But anything left uncovered, such as fruits or vegetables from a garden, would be unsafe to eat.

Unless you’re told to go outside, it’s best to stay put until the risk of contamination has gone down. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends staying indoors for at least 24 hours after a nuclear explosion.

First 7 days: Listen to the radio or television for the next steps

Access ramp to a nuclear fallout shelter in Berlin.

Access ramp to a nuclear fallout shelter in Berlin.

If you go outside within the first week after a nuclear explosion, make sure to cover your mouth and any open wounds to help reduce your exposure to the radioactive fallout that’ll be raining from the sky.JOHN MACDOUGALL / Contributor / Getty Images

The World Health Organization recommends listening to the local radio for information and advice on next steps. Your cell phone, television, and internet probably won’t work, but battery-powered and hand-cranked radios should.

Over the radio, authorities may advise you to stay put or issue an evacuation to a safer area. This is where you’ll also likely learn about available medical aid, if you or someone with you, is sick.

If you venture outside, know that nuclear fallout will rain from the sky. Most fallout from a nuclear blast takes about a week to return to the ground.

To reduce exposure, cover your mouth and nose with a damp cloth when you go outside and make sure you don’t have any exposed open wounds. Also, avoid any food that’s directly exposed to open air like fresh produce or open water supplies.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is remain indoors for the first week while the majority of nuclear fallout settles back down to the ground.

This story, which was originally published in March 2022, has since been updated and republished amid Russia’s continued nuclear threats.

Read the original article on Business Insider


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