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SKYWATCH NOTE: This limited series is partly derived (by permission) from Zeitgeist 2025 and How to Overcome the Most Frightening Issues You Will Face This Century

Some people might be tempted to skip or skim over the topic of nuclear Armageddon because they assume the event will be overwhelming or not survivable. Unfortunately for their families, however, those who pass up reading this entry will miss out on essential, life-saving “good news.”

What possible “good news” could there ever be about nuclear destruction coming to America, whether via dirty bombs, terrorist nukes, or intercontinental ballistics missiles (ICBMs) from afar?

In a word, those events are all survivable for the vast majority of American families—that is, for families who know what to do beforehand and who make even modest preparations.

Tragically, though, most Americans today don’t give much credence to—much less seek out—such vital, life-saving instruction because they have been misled by our culture’s pervasive myths that say nuclear destruction isn’t survivable. In fact, most people think that if nukes go off, then everybody will die—or will wish they had. That’s why we hear such absurd comments as: “If it happens, I hope I’m at ground zero and go quickly.”

This defeatist attitude was born as the disarmament movement ridiculed any alternatives to its agenda. The sound civil defense strategies of the sixties have been derided as largely ineffective, or at worst as a cruel joke. With the supposed end of the Cold War in the eighties, most Americans neither saw a need to prepare for nuclear destruction nor believed preparing would do any good. Today, with growing prospects of nuclear terrorism, we see emerging among the public either paralyzing fear or irrational denial. People no longer can envision effective preparations for surviving a nuclear attack. In fact, the biggest surprise for most Americans, if nukes really are unleashed, will be that they are still here!

Most people will survive the initial blasts because they won’t be anywhere close to ground zero—which, of course, is the target of a missile or bomb—and that is very good news. Unfortunately, though, few people will be prepared to survive the subsequent radioactive fallout, which eventually will kill many more than the blast itself. However, there is still more good news: Well over 90 percent of the potential casualties from the fallout can be avoided if the public is trained through an aggressive national civil defense educational program. Simple measures taken by a trained public immediately after a nuclear blast can prevent agonizing injury and death from radiation.

“The National Planning Scenario No. 1,” an originally confidential internal study conducted by the Department of Homeland Security in 2004, cited the above survival odds when it examined the effects of a terrorist nuke going off in Washington, D.C. The study revealed that a ten kiloton nuke (about two-thirds the size of the Hiroshima bomb in 1945), detonated at ground level, would cause about 15,000 immediate deaths and another 15,000 casualties from the initial blast, thermal flash, and radiation release. As horrific as that sounds, the surprising revelation here is that more than 99 percent of the residents in the D.C. area will have just witnessed and survived their first nuclear explosion.

Clearly, the good news is that most people will survive the initial blast. However, the study also determined that another 250,000 people would receive lethal doses of radiation from the fallout drifting downwind toward them after the blast. These much larger casualty numbers are avoidable—and that’s more good news, but only for those who are prepared by a civil defense program teaching them what they should do before that ill wind arrives.

Another study released by the Rand Corporation in 2006 looked at a terrorist ten-kiloton nuke arriving in a cargo container and being exploded in the Port of Long Beach, California. The study estimated that more than 150,000 people would be at risk downwind from fallout—again, that number is much higher than the number of casualties from the initial blast itself. Other, more recent, studies continue to show the same much higher population percentages at risk downwind from fallout and away from the ground zero blast.

Today, without any meaningful civil defense program, millions of American families continue to be at risk and could perish needlessly because they lack essential knowledge that used to be taught at the grade school level. The public urgently needs to receive instruction again on civil defense basics, which include:

— “Duck and cover”—This tactic prevents people from running to the nearest window to see what the big flash was just in time to be shredded by the glass imploding inward from the shock wave.

—Safe evacuation—Evacuating in a course that’s perpendicular to the downwind drift of the fallout is the best way to avoid fallout contamination and injury.

—Sheltering in place—People must learn how to effectively shelter in place for a brief time if they can’t evacuate. The radioactive fallout loses 90 percent of its lethal intensity in the first seven hours and 99 percent of it in two days. The majority of those who would need to shelter from the fallout would only need to hunker down for two or three days, not for weeks on end. An effective improvised family fallout shelter can be assembled at home both cheaply and quickly with proper instruction. (More on that a bit later in the chapter.)



Unfortunately, our government today is doing little to promote nuclear preparedness and civil defense instruction among the general public. Regrettably, most of our officials, like the public, are still captive to the same illusions that training and preparation are ineffective against a nuclear threat.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff demonstrated this attitude in 2005, when he responded to the following question in USA Today:

“Q: In the last four years, the most horrific scenario—a nuclear attack—may be the least discussed. If there were to be a nuclear attack tomorrow by terrorists on an American city, how would it be handled?

“A: In the area of a nuclear bomb, it’s prevention, prevention, prevention. If a nuclear bomb goes off, you are not going to be able to protect against it. There’s no city strong enough infrastructure-wise to withstand such a hit. No matter how you approach it, there’d be a huge loss of life.”

Mr. Chertoff apparently failed to grasp that most of that “huge loss of life” can be prevented if the survivors of the blast and those downwind of the fallout know what to do beforehand. He only acknowledged that the infrastructure will be severely compromised and that responders won’t be responding. Training the public before a nuclear event occurs is clearly the only hope for those in the fallout path. Of course, the government should try to prevent nuclear attack, but Mr. Chertoff might have better responded to the above question with the answer, “preparation, preparation, preparation,” for when efforts at prevention fail.

The federal government must launch a national mass media, business-supported, school-based effort superseding our most ambitious public awareness campaigns to date, such as those addressing prevention of AIDS, drug abuse, drunk driving, and smoking as well as those advocating the use of seat belts and smoke detectors. The effort should percolate down to every level of society. Let’s be clear: We are talking about the potential to save many more lives than all those other noble efforts combined!

Instead, Homeland Security continues to focus on two missions:

—Interdiction—catching nuclear materials and terrorists before an event; and

—Continuity of Government—ensuring government operations will continue when the first mission fails.

A third mission, the most important one, has been largely ignored:

—Continuity of the Public—providing proven mass media civil defense training of the public that would make the survival difference for the vast majority of Americans affected by a nuclear event.

This deadly oversight won’t be corrected until the crippling myth of nuclear un-survivability is banished by the good news that a trained and prepared public can, and ultimately must, save themselves.

We hope and pray each major political party will try to outdo the other in proposing aggressive national civil defense educational programs. We are not asking for billions of dollars for public fallout shelters for everyone (like the shelters that already await many of our top government officials). We are just asking for a comprehensive mass media, business, and school-based re-release of the proven practical strategies of civil defense education—similar to what already has been embraced in nations such as China, Russia, Switzerland, Israel, and even Singapore.

In the meantime, though, don’t wait around for the government to instruct and prepare your family and others in your community. Start learning—today—how to establish your own family nuclear survival preparations. Begin by reading the following emergency guide, which is for families preparing for imminent terrorist or strategic nuclear attacks that are expected to cause severe destruction, widespread radioactive fallout downwind, and extensive disruptions of services.

What to Do if a Nuclear Disaster is Imminent

A Dirty Bomb Attack

(The vastly more devastating nuclear weapon blasts with fallout are discussed in the next section.) The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission defines a dirty bomb as “one type of a ‘radiological dispersal device’ (RDD) that combines a conventional explosive such as dynamite with radioactive material.”

In the event of a dirty bomb attack, expect localized and downwind contamination from the explosion and dispersed radioactive materials. If you are close enough to see or hear any local bomb blast, assume it includes radiological or chemical agents and move away from the blast area as quickly as possible. If the wind is blowing toward you from the direction of the blast, travel in a direction that is crosswise or perpendicular to the wind as you move away from the blast area. If possible, cover your face with a dust mask or cloth to avoid inhaling potentially radioactive dust.

When you reach a safe location, remove your outer clothing outside and shower as soon as possible. Refer to local news sources for additional instructions about sheltering or evacuation. The government is better prepared to direct and assist the public in a dirty bomb incident than it is to direct and assist the public during an actual nuclear weapon attack.

A Nuclear Weapon Attack

In a national crisis of imminent nuclear weapon attack, read all the way through this guide first, then take effective protective action with confidence—quickly!

  1. Make a Decision: Stay or Go?

First, you must decide whether you need to prepare where you are or try to evacuate. The nature of the threat, your prior preparations, and your confidence in your sources of information should direct your decision. (If you already know you will be preparing to stay at your own home or in the immediate local area, see No. 2.)

If you are considering evacuation, your decision requires a very high level of confidence that it is worth the risk. You do not want to get stuck between your current location and your desired destination because you will probably find it difficult to return. If you fail to reach your destination, you might be exposed without shelter in a dangerous situation with little effective law enforcement, perhaps among panicked hordes of refugees. Whatever supplies you have then might be limited to what you can carry on foot.

Evacuation might be a viable option for a limited time if:

You are in a large city or near a military target.

You have relatives or friends in the country whom you know are awaiting you.

The roads between you and those family or friends are clear.

You have the means and fuel.

Do not attempt evacuation if all of the above are not clearly known, or if the situation is deteriorating too quickly to assure the complete trip. If evacuation truly is a viable option, do not wait—go now! Do so with as many supplies (listed in No. 6) as possible. It’s better to arrive two days too early than to leave two hours too late and get snagged midway, potentially exposing your family to a worse fate than if you had stayed where you were. Because of the very real danger of being caught in a stalled evacuation stampede, almost all families are better off making the best of it wherever they currently are when events are moving too quickly.

  1. Delegate and Prioritize

Your first priorities to assure your family’s survival are food/supplies, water, and shelter. Because time is of the essence, delegate specific tasks to adult family members so they can be working on these priorities at the same time. While some family members are acquiring food and supplies, others can be constructing the shelter and collecting and arranging for water storage.

  1. Gather Food and Supplies

Because food and supplies might quickly become unavailable, immediately assign someone to go to the stores with the list provided in No. 6. Stop to withdraw cash from the bank or automated teller machine first, but try to use credit cards at the stores, if at all possible, to preserve your cash.

  1. Collect and Store Water

With one or more adults now heading to the stores for supplies, those remaining should begin collecting and storing water immediately. A lack of clean water will debilitate your family much more quickly and more severely than will a lack of food. Without water to drink, to use for continued cleanliness in food preparation, and to use for sanitary purposes in personal hygiene, debilitating sickness could rampage through your household, where you have little hope of receiving prompt medical attention. That is an avoidable disaster only if you have stored enough clean water.

So, fill every possible container with water right now. It will be very hard to have stored too much water. When the electricity/pumps stop working, or when the water pressure drops because everybody in your community is collecting water at the same time, what you have collected is all the water you might be able to get for a very long time. Empty soft drink bottles (one to three liters) are ideal for water storage; also fill up bathtubs and washing machine. (Remember, you also have water in your hot water tank.) If you have any plastic swimming pools or water beds, fill them up, too. (Water from a water bed should be used only for bathing or cleaning, not for drinking, because it might contain traces of algaecide and/or fungicides.) It’s important to fill up anything that will hold water—and do it right now.

Two of the items on your shopping list (see No. 6) are new garbage cans and liner bags, which you’ll also use for storing water. If you can’t buy new garbage cans, scrub any you already have with bleach, then put in a new liner bag and fill with water. You can even store water in liner bags inserted into sturdy boxes or dresser drawers.

When you fill garbage cans with water, give some thought to where you will do that because they won’t easily be moved once full, and many of them together could be too heavy for some upper floor locations. Ideally, water storage cans need to be very near where your shelter will be constructed; in fact, they can actually add to the structure’s shielding properties, as you’ll see below.

Don’t forget: You cannot collect and store too much water! Do not hesitate; fill up every possible container right now.

  1. Construct a Shelter

The principles of radiation protection are simple, with many options and resources families can use to prepare or improvise very effective in-home fallout shelters. But before we look at how to protect yourself against radiation, it’s important to understand the source of the danger and how it occurs. Radioactive fallout is the particulate matter (dust) produced by a nuclear explosion and carried high into the air by the mushroom cloud. It drifts on the wind, and most of it settles to earth downwind of the explosion. The heaviest, most dangerous, and most noticeable fallout first “falls out” close to ground zero, possibly arriving minutes after an explosion. The smaller, lighter dust-like particles typically arrive hours later because they drift much farther downwind, often for hundreds of miles. Whether easily visible or not, fallout accumulates and blows around everywhere, just like dust does on the ground and roofs. Wind and rain can also concentrate the fallout into localized hot spots of much more intense radiation, with no visible indication of its presence.

This radioactive fallout is dangerous because it emits penetrating radiation energy (similar to x-rays). This radiation (not the fallout dust) can go through walls, roofs, and windows. Even if you manage to keep from inhaling or ingesting the dust, keep it off your skin, hair, and clothes. Even if none gets inside your house, the radiation penetrating your home from the fallout outside is still extremely dangerous, and can injure or kill you.

Radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion, though very dangerous initially, loses its intensity quickly because it gives off so much energy. For example, fallout emitting gamma ray radiation at a rate of 500 R/hr (fatal with one hour of exposure) shortly after an explosion weakens to only one-tenth as strong seven hours later. Two days later, it’s only one-one hundredth as strong, or as deadly, as it is initially.

That is all really very good news, because it means that our families can easily survive it if we get them into a proper shelter to wait in safety as the fallout becomes less dangerous with every passing hour.

The goals of your family fallout shelter are:

Location: Maximize the distance between you and your family and the fallout outside on the ground and roof.

Protective shielding: Place sufficient mass, the heavier the better, between your family and the fallout to absorb the deadly radiation.

Livability: Make living in the shelter tolerable while the radiation subsides.

To shield your family from radiation, simply put mass—anything weighty—between them and the radiation source. Like police body armor stopping bullets, the mass stops (absorbs) the radiation. The thicker and denser (heavier) the mass, the more radiation it stops. Thus, it is more effective with every inch you add.

The Location of Your Shelter

Although you can build a fallout shelter anywhere, your best options are inside or near your home. Some other existing structures might provide significant shielding or partial shielding; you can enhance those for adequate protection. If you don’t have a basement, you can use the techniques shown below in any above-ground structure, but you’ll need to use more mass to achieve the same level of shielding. Also consider using other solid structures nearby—especially those with below-ground spaces, such as commercial buildings, schools, churches, parking garages, large and long culverts, and tunnels. Using some of these structures might require permissions and/or the acquisition of additional materials to minimize any fallout drifting or blowing into them if they have openings. Buildings with a half-dozen or more floors that did not sustain blast damage often provide good radiation protection in the center of the middle floors. This is because of both the distance and the shielding the multiple floors provide from the fallout on the ground and roof.

The bottom line: Choose a structure nearby with both the greatest mass and distance between the outside, where the fallout would settle, and the shelter occupants inside.

If you (or a nearby friend or relative) have a basement, your best option is probably to fortify and use it (unless you have ready access to a better structure nearby). For an expedient last-minute basement shelter, push a heavy table (one that you can get under) into the corner that has the highest level of soil on the outside. The ground level outside ideally needs to be higher than the top of the table shelter inside. If no heavy table is available, create one by taking internal doors off their hinges and mounting them across supports.

UP NEXT: Protective Shielding: Placing Mass between Your Family and the Radiation

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