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.
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.
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.