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

If you are close to a target, your first indication of a nuclear detonation may be its characteristic bright flash. The first effects you might have to deal with before radioactive fallout arrives, depending on your proximity, are blast and thermal energy. Promptly employing the “duck and cover” strategy will protect you from flying debris injuries and minimize thermal burns. Those very close to the blast will experience brief tornado strength winds, and should quickly dive behind any solid object or into any available depression or culvert. Even if you’re out in the open, lying flat on the ground can reduce your chance of being hit by shrapnel or becoming airborne shrapnel by eight times. A very large, 500-kiloton blast two and a half miles away will arrive about eight seconds after the detonation flash with a very strong, three-second wind blast. That delay is much greater farther away, and it provides plenty of time to “duck and cover” if you’re trained and alert. Once you do that, stay down for up to two minutes. Most people won’t be near a ground zero, and will—like the vast majority of people—only need to deal with the fallout later.

Waiting for the Fallout

When fallout is anticipated but hasn’t yet arrived, anyone who isn’t already sheltered should begin wearing an N95 dust protector filter mask and a plastic hooded rain poncho (both of those items are available at most hardware or home supply stores). Everyone should also begin taking potassium iodide (KI) or potassium iodate (KIO3) tablets for thyroid protection against cancer-causing radioactive iodine, which is a major product of nuclear weapons explosions.

The farther you are downwind, as all the 200 or so radioactive isotopes released become ever more dissipated over distance, radioactive iodine becomes the greater relative threat because it re-concentrates itself in the tiny thyroid gland where other isotopes disperse more evenly in one’s body with comparatively less harmful effects. If no KI or KIO3 tablets are available, you can apply an iodine solution such as tincture of iodine or Betadine topically (on the skin) for a similar protective effect. (Warning: Iodine solutions are never to be ingested or swallowed.)

Apply the following amounts of a 2 percent tincture of iodine by painting the solution on the abdomen or forearm each day, for a maximum of ten days, ideally beginning at least two hours before initial exposure.

Adults 19 and older8 ml*
Children 3 to 18 years (and under 150 pounds)4 ml
Children under 3 and older than 4 weeks2 ml
Newborns up to 4 weeks old1 ml

*If you don’t have a medicine dropper graduated in milliliters, it will help you to know that one measuring teaspoon is about 5 ml. Also, if your iodine is stronger than 2 percent, reduce the dosage accordingly.

Absorption through the skin is not as reliable a dosing method as using the tablets, but research shows that it is still very effective for most people. Do not use if allergic to iodine. If at all possible, ask your doctor now if there is any reason anyone in your household should not use KI tablets, KIO3 tablets, or iodine solution on their skin in a future nuclear emergency, just to be sure.

Sealing the House

When you know that the time to take protective action is approaching, turn off all the utilities coming into the house and make sure windows, doors, vents, and any other openings are sealed up and locked down. Also, place near your shelter additional tools, crow bars, and car jacks for use later to dig out, if required. Keep fire extinguishers handy. And have on hand a collection of building supplies, tools, plastic sheeting, and staple guns for covering any holes caused by damage. Your basement should already be well sealed against fallout, but you will need to use duct tape to seal around the last door you use to enter the shelter, especially if it’s a door that leads directly outside.


Don’t risk fire, burns, and asphyxiation by trying to cook anything in the cramped shelter space. Stock your shelter with a can opener, canned goods, and other non-perishable foods that are ready to eat. Leave additional food and water right outside the entrance so you can pull those in quickly as needed when it’s safe to do so.


A couple of small LED flashlights or LED headlamps will help stretch the life of the batteries in your flashlights. Avoid using candles if at all possible.


Pack in a small, thin mattress, sleeping bags, cushions, blankets, and pillows.

Passing the Time

Bring in some books for yourself and books, puzzles, and games for the children.


To create a makeshift restroom, if you don’t have a portable toilet, improvise a toilet by mounting a seat (purchased or borrowed from one of your house bathrooms) on a five-gallon bucket lined with garbage bag liners of the appropriate size. Position it near the wall with the outgoing upper air vent, and hang a sheet or blanket around the facility to provide privacy. Stock the “restroom” with toilet paper and pre-moistened cloths.

For disposal, keep a full-size, bag-lined garbage can with a tight-fitting lid very close to the shelter entrance for depositing used (tightly sealed) liners when it is safe to do so quickly.


What to do about your pets? That is a tough call. Letting dogs or cats run free is not a humane option because of the possibility that they will have to endure a miserable death from radiation exposure outside and/or because they will put others at risk, especially if they become diseased or join one of the inevitable packs of other abandoned pets. Caring for them within the shelter, then, is ideal—if it’s truly realistic and doesn’t drain your limited resources. Putting pets down might eventually become a painful but necessary reality if the disruption of services and food supplies is long-term and you haven’t secured sufficient food for them.


Boiling or bleach water treatments will be used for cleaning your stored water later for drinking. (This is for killing bacteria, not for radiation contamination, which is never a concern for any stored and covered water containers or even sealed food.) Tap water recently put into clean containers before the crisis won’t likely need to be purified before using. To purify questionable water, bring it to a rolling boil and keep it boiling for at least ten minutes. If you don’t have the fuel to boil the water, kill the bacteria by mixing in ten drops of good quality household bleach (at least 5.25 percent pure, such as Clorox) per gallon. Then let the water sit for at least a half-hour. But be sure the bleach you use has no additives such as soap or fragrance. You can get rid of the flat taste the water takes on after boiling or some of the chlorine taste caused by the bleach by pouring the water from one container to another several times.

Additional Information

There’s much more that you can learn to help you better understand what you are up against and what you can do to help your family survive a disaster such as this. The basic strategy for securing the safety of your family during a nuclear emergency is simple: Maximize your distance from the fallout radiation source, minimize your time exposed to fallout radiation, and utilize the most effective available shielding for your designated shelter space. When time allows, and if the Internet is still up and running following the nuclear event, you or someone in your family should do further research and acquire more detailed information.

The Difference between Alpha, Beta and Gamma Radiation

Everything in nature would prefer to be in a relaxed or stable state. Unstable atoms undergo nuclear processes that cause them to become more stable. One such process involves emitting excess energy from the nucleus. This process is called radioactivity or radioactive decay. The terms “radiation” and “radioactivity” are often confused. The proper relationship between the terms is that “radioactive atoms emit radiation.”

There are three main types of nuclear radiation emitted from radioactive atoms and included in all fallout:

Alpha: These are actual particles that are electrically charged and are commonly referred to as alpha particles. Alpha particles are the least penetrating of the three primary forms of radiation, since they cannot travel more than 4-7 inches in air, and a single sheet of paper or the outermost layer of dead skin that covers the body will stop them. However, if alpha particle-emitting radioactive material is inhaled or ingested, the alpha particles can be a very damaging source of radiation with their short range being concentrated internally in a very localized area.

Beta: These are also actual particles that are electrically charged and are commonly referred to as beta particles. Beta particles travel faster and penetrate deeper than alpha particles. They can travel from a few millimeters to about 10 yards in open air, depending on the particular isotope. They can also penetrate several millimeters through tissue. Beta particle radiation is generally a slight external exposure hazard, although prolonged exposure to large amounts can cause skin burns, and it is also a major hazard when interacting with the lens of the eye. However, like alpha particles, the greatest threat occurs when beta particle-emitting radioactive material is inhaled or ingested, because it can also cause grave internal damage.

Gamma: Gamma rays are similar to x-rays; they are a form of electromagnetic radiation. Gamma rays are the most hazardous type of external radiation, because they can travel up to a mile in open air and penetrate all types of materials. Since gamma rays penetrate more deeply through the body than alpha or beta particles, all tissues and organs can be damaged by sources from outside of the body. Only sufficiently dense shielding and/or distance from gamma ray-emitting radioactive material can provide protection.

The bottom line: All three of the primary types of radiation can be a hazard if emitted from radioactive fallout that has been inhaled or ingested. Protected food and water, and even a simple inexpensive dust protector face mask, can go a long way toward blocking this route of entry. However, for the penetrating gamma rays, it is essential to be able to identify the best protected shielding and distance options available.



Measuring Radiation

Since nuclear radiation affects people, we must be able to measure its presence. We also need to relate the amount of radiation received by the body to its physiological effects. Two terms used to relate the amount of radiation received by the body are exposure and dose.

When you are exposed to radiation, your body absorbs a dose of radiation.

As in most measurement quantities, certain units are used to properly express the measurement. For radiation measurements they are:

Roentgen: The roentgen measures the energy produced by gamma radiation in a cubic centimeter of air. It is usually abbreviated with the capital letter “R.” A milliroentgen, or “mR,” is equal to one one-thousandth of a roentgen. An exposure of 50 roentgens would be written “50 R.”

Rad (Radiation Absorbed Dose): Rad recognizes that different materials that receive the same exposure may not absorb the same amount of energy. A rad measures the amount of radiation energy transferred to some mass of material, typically humans. One roentgen of gamma radiation exposure results in about one rad of absorbed dose.

Rem (Roentgen Equivalent Man): Rem is a unit that relates the dose of any radiation to the biological effect of that dose. To relate the absorbed dose of specific types of radiation to their biological effect, a “quality factor” must be multiplied by the dose in rad, which then shows the dose in rems. For gamma rays and beta particles, 1 rad of exposure results in 1 rem of dose.

Other measurement terms: Standard International (SI) units that may be used in place of the rem and the rad are the sievert (Sv) and the gray (Gy).

These units are related as follows:

1Sv = 100 rem

1Gy = 100 rad

Two other terms that refer to the rate of radioactive decay of a radioactive material are curie (Ci) and becquerel (Bq).

Fortunately, cutting through the above confusion, for purposes of practical radiation protection in humans, most experts (including those at the FEMA Emergency Management Institute) agree that roentgen, rad and rem can all be considered equivalent for radiation emergencies. The exposure rates and doses you’ll usually see will be expressed simply in terms of roentgen (R) or milliroentgen (mR). Remember, too, that a milliroentgen, or “mR,” is equal to one one-thousandth of a roentgen “R.”

When Radiation Exposure Becomes Dangerous

Several government publications outline the levels of radiation and their effects on a person’s health. Here’s a look at the expected health effects for an adult assuming the cumulative total radiation exposure (all received within a week’s time). Note that for children, the effects can be expected at half these dose levels.

The response to radiation varies widely, and the longer the time frame over which a specific dose is accumulated, the better your body can respond to and recover from the radiation damage. In other words, a normally fatal (to 50 percent of a group exposed to it) cumulative dose of 530 R, if received all within a week, would create few noticeable ill health effects at all if it was received but spread out over a year’s time at the rate of about 10 R per week.

Think of the difference in acquiring a suntan gradually over a year at a rate of about a half-hour per day compared to packing that year’s worth of sun exposure (182 hours) into one non-stop week, night and day. The health effect difference is obviously very dramatic when the body is overwhelmed and does not have time to keep up with repairs.

Nuclear Blast Distance Effects

Remember, promptly removing yourself from the radiation source would have you no longer absorbing and adding to that cumulative dose. And, that can make all the difference between absorbing a dangerous radiation dose or getting only a tiny fraction you might not even be able to later notice.

The Bottom Line

The above guide was written assuming it would not be read by the majority of its intended audience until a nuclear crisis is already fully upon us—when time and resources will be extremely limited. If you are fortunate enough to have read this well before a nuclear threat occurs or appears imminent, there’s a great deal more you can learn and should do beyond the scope of this guide.

Surviving the initial threats of a nuclear event and radioactive fallout is relatively easy with the proper knowledge and even modest preparations, as detailed above. The ongoing bigger challenge will be the one brought on by extensive and long-lasting disruption of services after you survive the nuclear event and emerge safely once the fallout radiation threat has diminished. You may go many months with little or no new food supplies arriving, disruption of water, sewer, gas, electric, and telephone services, little or no gasoline, and severely limited medical services, banking services, law enforcement activity, and fire protection.

With more time to research, make plans, and order supplies, families are well served to acquire more in-depth training, reference books, long-term food and water supplies, fuel, medical equipment, personal security, communication equipment, radiation monitoring instruments, and tools. Many informative web sites and suppliers make available all of the above, including ready-to-eat meals, dehydrated and freeze-dried foods, as well as buckets of beans, rice, and grains. They also offer solar cookers, water purifiers, water barrels, compost toilets, comprehensive medical kits and manuals, shortwave and local two-way radios, alternative energy systems, long-term packaged seeds, gardening tools, and canning equipment.

Starting Small

If all of this preparation seems daunting, here’s one strategy to makes it a little less overwhelming: Think in twos. First, acquire all the supplies your family would need to survive for two weeks if totally cut off from stores, utility services and municipal services. It might help to consider all you would need during an extended camping trip in any season. Then, once you’ve accomplished that, expand your preparations to meet the goal of surviving at home for two months with no utilities or services.

After that, continue adding provisions for even more months, with the eventual goal of gathering enough supplies so that your family can survive under these distressed conditions for as much as a year. A year might seem terribly long, but you’ll no doubt discover that in any disruptive event, numerous friends, neighbors, and relatives will be in need—and you will want to help them if you can. Of course, ideally, they should also be preparing their own families for survival during a nuclear disaster, so sharing this information with them might help get them started. Also, for your own family’s security, you will want to try to surround yourself with like-minded people who are also doing the right things to prepare so they will become helpful allies instead of draining your limited resources. (They could possibly even become a threat if severely unprepared and difficult circumstances were to drag on and became ever more desperate.)

It Won’t Go to Waste!

If you’re trying to convince yourself or a spouse to make the investment in supplies, keep in mind this fact: Many of the supplies save money because buying in bulk is less expensive than buying smaller quantities. Further, if nothing bad ever happens, you can eventually eat or use most of the supplies. They will also be useful in many disasters besides nuclear events. For example:

Job loss—Having two to four months of food at home would certainly relieve much of the stress of losing your job and being without an income while looking for another.

Pandemic—We could someday see a pandemic unleashed that would require families to self-quarantine themselves at home for many weeks to avoid catching the disease. Having these supplies and having made these preparations would make that difficult time go much more smoothly.

Natural disaster, economic dislocation, civil disruption—You could ride out any number, or cascading combination, of these events in much better shape if you are sufficiently prepared.

Being prepared and stocking up makes sense on numerous levels, especially during this age when costs for essentials such as food, fuel, and ammunition will surely continue to increase.

How People Act in Times of Trouble

When tough times come, you’ll likely discover that people today, overall, are not as resilient as they were in times past. For many of us, our grandparents’ generation included a higher percentage of self-reliant, rural folks who “made do” on less, and who grew and raised their own food and livestock. Today, more people are far removed from the land and the routine of being responsible for supplying their own food; many even have a government-dependent entitlement mentality. The morality that both sustained and restrained previous generations during tough times is not as widely evident in this present population. As a result, more people will more quickly succumb to rationalizing theft, robbery, looting, and rioting when they fear hunger and deprivation. Crime is already a problem today—even with nobody being hungry, and even with law enforcement in place. Crime, then, could explode when hunger and disruptions escalate and law enforcement deteriorates concurrently. It is therefore prudent for anyone making serious preparations to also include plans for maintaining their own security if law enforcement is either unavailable or cannot keep pace with the demands of a greatly increasing crime wave. If you do not own or use guns, I would strongly urge you to reevaluate your personal security. If you find it lacking, acquire some guns and ammunition immediately, and get some safety and practical tactical training in their use. Ask a clerk at your gun store to point you to local resources for that kind of training.

For those who already have weapons, be sure they are effective models and calibers for self-defense, and that you have stocked plenty of ammunition and high-capacity magazines if needed. Weapons and ammo will quickly disappear—or it will become prohibitively expensive or restricted once the essential need is more widely recognized.

Financial Concerns

Once you are well on your way to acquiring your family’s preparation tools, equipment, and supplies, consider gathering extra items to help others and to use as future barter goods. You might be able to trade extra garden seeds, batteries, antibiotics, water filters, and ammo for other needed products or services. Some people are even converting a small percentage of their traditional paper investments into some gold and/or silver coins for trading purposes, as well as for prudent wealth diversification. Having wealth in forms other than solely paper dollars, plastic credit cards, or a 401(k) account might make the critical difference in one day being able to get your gravely ill child to the front of a mile-long line to see the only overworked doctor or dentist in town. It’ll sure beat waving around a copy of your last monthly investment or banking statement then.

A Final Word

To better avoid unhealthy and overwhelming angst trying to prepare for all future dislocations and disruptions, keep in mind, too, that each step is like acquiring medical insurance. We all hope and pray we won’t need that insurance, but if we ever do, our families won’t find us lacking in stepping up to our fundamental responsibility of providing for their safety and welfare.

Once you’ve started making these preparations, strive to stay balanced. Thank God that you have begun, and begin to relax within your new alert status. You’ll now be able to more fully enjoy life with your family confidently knowing you’re better able to handle just about any event that might occur in this quickly changing world.

UP NEXT: Pandemics and Emerging Diseases

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