New Study Tells Us Where To Hide When The Nukes Are Coming

Geopolitics is a funny thing. Decades can go by with little concern, only for old grudges to suddenly boil to the surface and get the sabers a-rattlin’. When those sabers happen to be nuclear weapons, it can be enough to have you mulling the value of a bomb shelter in your own backyard.

Yes, every time the world takes a turn for the worse, we start contemplating what we’d do in the event of a nuclear attack. It’s already common knowledge that stout reinforced concrete buildings offer more protection than other flimsier structures. However, a new study has used computer modelling to highlight the best places to hide within such a building to maximise your chances of survival.

Pick Up The Red Telephone

The first problem in trying to shelter from a nuclear attack is that doing so requires some forward warning. If you’re very well-positioned in life, you might be a senior member of the government who is giving the order for a nuclear attack. If so, you’ll naturally expect return fire from the other people you’ve so cruelly condemned to a fiery death, and can advise those closest to you that they should flee. You might even get several hours to act if this is the case. Alternatively, you might be an early warning system operator who detects missiles on the way with half an hour’s warning. Beyond that, you might get a warning a few minutes out from broadcast TV or your phone, as happened in Hawaii a few years back. At the absolute worst case, you might see a bright flash out of a window and realise it’s time to Duck and Cover.

The paper used a simple building layout to test the way a nuclear blast wave effects airflow within a typical sturdy structure. Credit: Nuclear explosion impact on humans indoors, research paper

No matter the preparations you make, it’s largely impossible to survive a direct nuclear strike. However, if you’re several kilometers away from the blast, or very lucky with the way you’re masked by structures or terrain, you might have a fair chance of living to see another day. If you’re lucky enough to get to a tough building, ideally made of reinforced concrete, you’ve got a shot at surviving the initial blast. Once you’re inside, you’ll want to pick a safe spot to bunker down, with a new study published in Physics of Fluids investigating the best spots to shelter.

For those in the area surrounding a nuclear explosion, the most immediate risk to life and limb comes from the high-pressure blast wave. This pressure wave can readily destroy weak structures, shatter windows, and send shrapnel flying in all directions. In fact, the original Duck and Cover campaign was intended to help people survive this blast wave, by instructing them to get low where they wouldn’t be hit by flying glass. The new study, though, gives us more granular information on how to survive a blast. The study involved modelling the effect a blast wave would have on a stout reinforced-concrete structure that would be expected to survive a nuclear blast at some distance away. It determined that a nuclear blast wave was so strong as to potentially generate incredibly high airspeeds within a structure that could themselves be harmful to people inside. For example, a blast wave travelling through a window could reflect off walls and even travel around corners, and create incredibly high airspeeds in narrow corridors and other spaces. Airspeeds can reach over 180 m/s, particularly in corridors where pressure effects come into play. These high airspeeds could carry objects and debris, and even lift people off the ground, throwing them around and causing serious injuries in the process.

As the blast wave enters the building, it creates incredibly high-speed airflow within the rooms and corridors inside. This can easily pick up people, slamming them into walls, or hurl dangerous debris around a room. Credit: Nuclear explosion impact on humans indoors, research paper

The study’s modelling suggested that when inside a sturdy building, standing in front of windows, doors, and in corridors was the most dangerous. These areas faced the highest airspeeds, presenting the most likelihood of injury. In contrast, taking up a position in the corners of a wall facing the blast could be significantly safer. These positions would be shielded from the worst of the debris flying in through windows, and face lower peak airflows. Of course, it’s important to pick the right wall that’s nearest the blast. Otherwise, you risk standing openly in front of a different window and catching the full force of the blast directly.

Other areas out of the path of destruction, such as rooms without windows, could also prove safe if they’re not subject to a sudden rise in pressure from the blast wave. Underground rooms like basements can also be attractive, but can pose risks of their own. Falling debris or a collapsing upper story can block a trapdoor, making later escape difficult.

Of course, surviving the blast isn’t the be all and end all of getting through your local nuclear apocalypse. This article should just help you survive the first thirty seconds or so. Beyond that, you’ll need to minimise your exposure to ionizing radiation, and secure access to safe sources of food and water. Those topics are beyond the scope of this piece, but are something we may dive into deeper in future. In reality though, when it comes to nuclear war, the truth is as obvious now as it was in 1983: The only winning move is not to play.

Featured and thumbnail images of Test House #1 from the Annie bomb tests, US Dept. of Energy.

70 thoughts on “New Study Tells Us Where To Hide When The Nukes Are Coming

  1. If a nuke strike is imminent, I’d drive to the nearest “point of interest”, for me maybe Ramstein Airbase, and wait for the impact.

    I won’t wait for a post apocalyptic world to kill me…

      1. In a similar vein, and (to me) far scarier than “The Day After”: “Special Bulletin”

        Domestic terrorists construct a nuke, threaten Charleston SC with it. It was scary because it was done with videotape and so looked like a real news bulletin.

        It was especially scary for me because the TV in the house I was renting was faulty; the picture would slowly shrink over about 15-20 minutes. Had to turn it off during commercials to let it “regenerate”. So I didn’t see commercials, just the movie. I did not get to sleep that night until…the next night…

    1. Why? If things are too bad you can always off yourself later.
      Besides the bolt from the blue end of the world is not how a nuclear war would play out.
      Unless you already live at Ramstein there will not be enough warning to head there anyway. The flight time for an IRBM or air launched ballistic missile will be about 5 minutes so their will probably no warning.
      The way any nuclear exchange would start is someone would use a nuke to “make a point” a warning shot.
      For example Russia deciding to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. The next move would probably be NATO going on high alert and possibly the US taking out the Baltic fleet with conventional weapons.
      If they keep going then Russia will try to take out a US Carrier with a nuke. If they do the US will start taking out Russia’s subs and so on and so on.
      But at some point someone will decide that this is just nuts and pull back. What is the point of burning down the world? It will not benefit them so they will really not want to go that far. With any luck before it starts someone in the chain of command will decide now is the time for an enlightened change of leadership.
      So while I would not really worry about a fall out shelter in my backyard or be ready to bug out to the woods with a shotgun and canned goods. I also wouldn’t decide on how it will work out until it did.
      But yes it would be an escalation not and not an end of the world movie.

      1. We hope that cooler heads will prevail, but there are some countries that seem to be scraping the sludge at the bottom of the barrel.

        I had heard that one of Nixon’s #2s had to get forceful in stopping a drunk Nixon from nuking Vietnam one night. I think there was two or three Russians who decided not to follow procedures and launch some rockets. I think the prevailing thought was that it didn’t make sense that the US was attacking.

        My theory, the next global war will be a US civil war. I suspect that there are bases that lean one way or another, and there could be an exchange between them. They may also press the host country to choose a side. It could get very sticky.

        I was always baffled at how “normal” people could be swayed so hard that the Holocaust could happen. That changed in 2015.

        Hopefully I’ll have enough time to get some olive oil and a beach towel so I can work on my tan.

      2. I’d like to mostly agree except some finer points (good and bad)
        Most countries have a published nuclear doctrine. Only the US\Russia matter though. Maybe one day China as well.

        Russian doctrine, unchanged for decades stats they will not fire first and set out the conditions of use. The sabre ratting in the past year was because attacks were getting close the conditions.
        US doctrine does NOT rule out first strike, and the US does have a strategy that if they strike overwhelmingly, first, they can ‘win’ at MAD.

        Excellent round up is here:

        The Good news is that nuclear winter was almost completely overblown, as was the effect of radiation. Yes, radiation is VERY concerning if you are immediately down wind from the blast, however the isotopes released in an airburst produce very little radiation compared to ground burst. Importantly the particulate matter ‘scooped up’ by an airburst is massively reduced. Critically however the effect of burning and smoke was originally using Dresden to calculate the quantity of release while failing to calculate that modern cities are not made of creosote soaked timber but rather lots of concrete, bricks, etc. Lastly, the PRIMARY targets for nuclear strikes are against military targets. Silos out in the country and military bases. They don’t burn much.

        The bad news is the complete lack of MAD means that the ramifications of nuclear war are ‘not so horrific’ and hence ‘not an outcome of last resort’. Nuclear war will actually kill very little humans as we’re massively spread out. Isotopes half-life themselves out of dangerous ranges very quickly and almost all bombs fall on unpopulated areas. Maybe national capitals will get hit. I expect that MAD would result in only a few% of the world population perishing from blasts and radiation. So, the reticence to launch won’t be as strong as we think. The southern hemisphere will be almost nuke free, and radiation would take a month to arrive (based on data from fukashima) In that time all the danger has dissipated.

        The worse news will be that globalisation tied all our boats together. Global trade would halt. Economies crash. Things will break and not get fixed AND half the world population would starve, to death. How many countries are completely food and sufficiently fuel independent for farming and its distribution? Australia is, US, maybe Russia and a few others out of hundreds of nations. How many nations are entirely dependent on foreign fertilizer is another simple factor.

        I’m mostly afraid that the US will strike first.

    2. I lived at Ramstein from July 1969 to July 1973. It was a major target for the USSR as stated in the 1965 Warsaw Pact War Plan in a Wilson Centre translation. Years ago Ramstein hosted several F-4 fighter squadrons and was a distribution centre for ‘special weapons’ and HQ 4th Allied Tactical Air Force. It is not an existential military threat to the Russian Federation today but is highly symbolic. Andrews AFB, Offutt AFB and Minot AFB are all far more significant today.

  2. “The paper used a simple building layout to test the way a nuclear blast wave effects airflow within a typical sturdy structure.” Well, actually the EFFECTS (consequences) of the blast AFFECT (produce a change in) the airflow…

  3. I wonder if an inground swimming pool in a garden is a good shelter. No debris can fall from a ceilling and the body is under ground level. I still have a concern regarding a potential ground shockwave transmited by the water.

    1. The ideal location for detonation is far far above ground level, for maximum devastation. So the outcome I guess, depends on where your pool is in relation.

      If the explosion is within visible range, that it can be seen from the pool, water will protect you very little from the intense X-ray blast (your body is mostly water and medical hard X-rays pass right through that with relative ease). Of course if the detonation was far enough away then being in a hole in the ground would mean that the X-rays would be strongly attenuated by travelling through all the soil before reaching your body.

      But on the flip side of that water, or anything with a high hydrogen content (e.g. plastic), would be fantastic at slowing down and absorbing neutrons. And any neutrons absorbed by the water should mean fewer absorbed by your body, unless it slows down all neutrons passing through by enough to amplify the absorption cross section by your body. That could be interesting.

      But then comes the next stage all that low half-life extremely radioactive fallout falling for the sky, most of which will have decayed to survivable levels after 30 days. The swimming pool would provide no protection from that at all. And if you survived the initial blast, that is the killing blow. About 30 days of super intensely bright radiation from all the short lived man made radioactive isotopes.

      1. Personally, depending on proximity and prevailing wind, provided with a little warning time, I think I’d be taking tools and supplies and going to a local cave system, making my way as deep as possible.

      2. I have a ham radio buddy who is paid to think about these things. How high should it detonate and what kind of structures would survive. Probably has one of those circular slide rule calculators for blast effects. He’s a nice guy, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I was doing his job.

    2. I think being underwater is a good option. Shock waves in air have very poor coupling to water. I’m not sure about a pool, but being underwater in a large body might be the best. Also, the deeper one is, the lesser the danger from an over-pressure. If coupling was perfect, a deadly over-pressure at the surface will be 1/2 the effect at 30 feet depth (1 atmosphere) and 1/3 at 60 feet, etc. The very poor coupling should make it much better.

      Jacques Cousteau did experiments in the 1950’s with how close a diver could be to an explosion. He used dynamite I think and IIRC they found they could be stupidly close.

  4. We live about 30 Km’s from Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, USA. As Marvin (first poster) says – given advanced warning I’d just walk outside to enjoy the show before the blast waves hit.

    Local hospital and one firestation have mountain ridges between here and Cheyenne Mountain – but we all know….

  5. The pressure simulations are pretty cool. It’s a scale-up simulation of the myth busters bit “leave your windows open in a hurricane”.

    This proxy war in Ukraine isn’t getting nuclear-hot any time soon though. Russian threats are full of hot air. I’m more concerned with idiots at home reacting to the disinfo

      1. Nuclear weapons require expensive maintenance to replace special isotopes (Tritium – boost gas and Lithium-6 Deuturide – fission fuel) required in the Teller-Ulam design. I’m hoping that Putin’s Russian cronies didn’t miss the chance to pilfer the funds allocated to that project.

    1. Do you have something against rural folk? Or people living in neutral countries?

      The most important consideration in surviving a nuclear war is avoiding being in the wrong place (major cities or near key military facilities in nuclear combatants) at the wrong time.

      1. The churn will make the tribes get smaller.

        Outsiders won’t be well off once the food runs short.

        I’m planning on keeping the poisons down in my diet by only eating vegans. Avoid the top of the food chain.

  6. Too bad we don’t have Star Trek level force fields…. Anyway, the best way to survive a Nuclear Holocaust is not to have one at all. I know that sounds naive but you would think that we could have gotten our act together by now. The only reason to use nuclear weapons is to kill a lot of innocent people. That’s all that will even happen if you use them. Yeah you could use against a military base but they are usually near large towns or cities full of non combatants. Also, the fallout will kill for many years to come.

    1. This – and the stated intention to burn up the ISS in Earth’s atmosphere (rather than park it at a Lagrange Point, or on the Moon) seriously dampen hope for the future of humanity…

  7. Years back I talked to a Hiroshima bomb survivor who survived in exactly the way described in the article, just by pure luck.

    She was sleeping on the floor (on a futon) directly under the window facing the blast so all the glass and debris flew over the top of her and she was somewhat protected on the leeward side of the wall.

    She went on to say that even though she absolutely hates nuclear technology as she doesn’t believe humanity is mature enough to handle it, that the bomb going off, as terrible as it was, was almost a relief to many as it signalled a definite end to the war.
    The Japanese populace at the time had basically no say in what the ruling class did, and were suffering greatly due to the effects of the war and some members wanted to fight right to the literal collapse of Japan, for the ‘honor and glory’, up to an attempted assassinaton attempt on the emperor to prevent the signing of the surrender documents.

    You know, the usual story throughout history of the old and powerful sending the young and impressionable to die to advance their own selfish interests………..

      1. Japan has had an unassembled nuke for _decades_.

        It’s just local Japanese politics keeping it unassembled. That and the Chinese moderating their behavior a tiny little bit.

        I guess they’re not quite as good at keeping an open secret as the Israelis.

    1. A lot of young and powerful do exactly the same, that younger means innocence is a very naive POV and only means people have forgotten what highschool is like.

      Don’t idealize people based on age, enough young brokers and politicians have been absolutely ruthless. What matters are rights, not who they are taken away from, this it how outsiders are created and shunned, in the name of the “good”.

  8. Best bets. Manholes and sewers. My plan was to lay under my car if in traffic. But honestly ditches and culverts. Use mud or poop to absorb some radiation. Sunscreen I’m not sure. Iodine is important. Clean water in jugs. A nice hunting rifle. Hand tools. Vodka. And remember you can always survive first and suicide second if the misery is too high. But rum and vodka are important…drunk people survive car crashes and cliff falls on a higher percentage so drink up and survive the boom.

    1. Radioactive isotopes of iodine aren’t really part of the fallout spectrum from nuclear weapons, so overloading your thyroid is more likely to cause you illness than protect you. It might help a little bit for dirty bombs, depending on how they are constructed. I went down the rabbit hole for iodine and radiation, didn’t have to go far to discover it’s a dead end and isn’t going to help in case of nuclear events.

  9. Y’all need to look at all the published data from the nevada test range first. Yup the sites a bit radioactive still but people did work there afterwards. There’s pictures, too. Therefore if it passed the Redd Fox test of survival, you stand a good chance

  10. Invest in a basement, dug 25-50ft underground, with multiple exits, reinforced with concrete and metal, should be okay, ideally also a way to purify air, water, and food stocks, have a stock of oxygen and atleast solar panels may become more…. Efficient

    1. Buying an old underground missile base will have its share of setbacks when one attempts to remove the leaded paints, asbestos, polybiphenolchlorides (PCBs), water incursion, and mold.

  11. What we learned for 9/11 is that obviously just one city being destroyed would cause the entire US society to implode in on itself, and as an after-effect the rest of the western world too I imagine.

    1. Do you remember the first foreigner to mouth off after 9/11?

      Saddam Hussein.

      I think you’re wrong about who would catch the whupping.
      It would be a good time for the French to hold their tongues. That’s true of all times, so not far out on a limb there.

      1. WTF have you got against the French? NATO member with independent nuclear strike force. If Trump had refused to defend NATO against Putin a few warheads exploding in space above the US might have prompted honoring Article V. The next SLBMs would have been fired for effect.

  12. @HaHa
    I’m still not seeing any signs of the US recovering from the after effects of 9/11 so far.
    Also.. you are talking total crap about Hussein, but I guess you need to excuse the lies and massacres for obvious reasons; so I understand I guess.

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