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Nuclear War: Hollywood vs. Reality
Examining the true dangers of nuclear war and separating myth from fact.
I would rather be writing about anything else, but Vladimir Putin has gone on the fritz, putting his nuclear forces on high alert. “We aren’t exactly sure what the order means. It’s not a classic doctrinal term, so we are reviewing it, watching and analyzing,” a “senior U.S. defense official” told the Washington Post.
Many experts have sounded the alarm, warning the world that he might just be desperate enough to do it. What if he is? We don’t want to give in to panic, but we must prepare for the real dangers. Putin is already accused of using illegal thermobaric “vacuum bombs” against Ukrainians, so who knows what he’s capable of.
Much of what we think we know about nuclear war is Hollywood legend only loosely based in reality. I won’t downplay the genuine horrors of nuclear war. Even one detonation could cause millions of deaths, horrific injuries, radiation poisoning, cancers, and a host of unforeseen third-order effects. If it ever does happen, I want to increase your odds of survival, both in the short and long term.
Some say you can’t survive a nuclear war, or wouldn’t even want to, but “curl up and die” isn’t a plan, and you may find yourself with more will to live than you imagined.
In part one, we’ll debunk some myths about nuclear war, give you an overview of how nuclear weapons work, and what you can expect if one is ever used. To prepare for a threat, you must first understand the threat, and we need to understand it without hysteria or Hollywood magic.
Part two focuses on knowing your risk factors, how you can prepare, what you must do to survive, and the gear you may want.
The sources I pull from:
How to Survive a Nuclear Bomb by Matthew Gault of Vice (It’s actually quite good.)
Nuclear Explosion, published by Ready.gov
Nuclear War Survival Skills by Cresson Kearny, a longtime researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who was trusted by some of the biggest names in the Cold War
Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation (Third Edition), a draft document by FEMA
U.S. Armed Forces Nuclear, Biological And Chemical Survival Manual, by retired Captain Dick Couch, former Navy SEAL, CIA officer, and associate professor at the United States Naval Academy
And if that’s too much, here’s a two-minute TikTok.
If you are an expert on anything nuclear and you identify any errors or flaws in this post, please contact me with a correction and I will update the post ASAP and send out a retraction to my email subscribers. We want this guide to be as accurate and complete as possible, because lives may someday be at stake. People trust our advice and their health and safety are our top priorities. We don’t proclaim expertise — we merely listen to the experts and convey what they say in a way that is understandable and hopefully interesting.
Also, a special thank you to everyone who has reviewed this post prior to publication.
These guides will be free. Please share with anyone anxious about the situation. And if you find this installment useful, please consider subscribing to Unprepared.
Separating Fact from Fiction
“Those who hold exaggerated beliefs about the dangers from nuclear weapons must first be convinced that nuclear war would not inevitably be the end of them and everything worthwhile. Only after they have begun to question the truth of these myths do they become interested, under normal peacetime conditions, in acquiring nuclear war survival skills.” — Cresson Kearny, Nuclear War Survival Skills
Forget what you know about nuclear war from movies and video games. I never want to discount the real horrors of nuclear combat, but movies like The Day After and Threads, while excellent horror movies roughly grounded in science, are ultimately fiction.
These movies weren’t just fiction, they were political propaganda, with one specific goal in mind: scaring the hell out of world leaders in an attempt to encourage nuclear disarmament. And it worked. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary:
Columbus day. In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air Nov. 20. It’s called “The Day After.” It has Lawrence Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done—all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. So far they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled & I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the “anti nukes” or not, I cant say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war. Back to W.H.
100 million Americans watched The Day After. In 1987, during negotiations over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the film was aired — in its entirety — in the USSR. Maybe ABC should replay it in both countries.
Unfortunately, these movies also spread misinformation about nuclear war, hyping up potential effects to maximize the scare factor. I’m going to highlight a particularly disturbing example from the end of the movie Threads. This (fictional) scene is disturbing, touching on sexual assault and childbirth, so if you haven’t seen the film and want details, check the footnote1 for the spoiler.
As disturbing as the end of Threads is, it’s more myth than reality. I quote the late Cresson Kearny’s book Nuclear War Survival Skills:
The authoritative study by the National Academy of Sciences, A Thirty Year Study of the Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was published in 1977. It concludes that the incidence of abnormalities is no higher among children later conceived by parents who were exposed to radiation during the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki than is the incidence of abnormalities among Japanese children born to un-exposed parents.
This is not to say that there would be no genetic damage, nor that some fetuses subjected to large radiation doses would not be damaged. But the overwhelming evidence does show that the exaggerated fears of radiation damage to future generations are not supported by scientific findings.
The present results show that there are no statistically significant increases in the frequency of chromosome abnormalities among the children of the exposed. In fact, the frequency of both sex chromosome aneuploidy and structural rearrangements was higher in the controls than in the exposed.
Japan’s population boomed after being hit by two atomic bombs, just like it did in much of the developed world.
I’m not downplaying what happened to the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. At least 105,000 were killed by the two bombs, and about 94,000 more were horribly injured or disfigured. To get a full picture of the human cost, read John Hersey’s Hiroshima. I read it years ago and it still haunts me to this day. I will not share excerpts here because I don’t want to give you nightmares.
With open eyes, let’s look at the hard facts of nuclear war.
Nuclear Weapon Basics
There are an estimated 12,700 nuclear warheads in the world, split between 12 countries. The United States and Russia control 90% of those warheads. The US has 5,428 and Russia has 5,977.
Under the New START treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation, the exact number of nuclear weapons is supposed to be public record for the purposes of verifying the required reduction of warheads. However, I would not be shocked to discover that some numbers have been fudged.
I encourage you to browse the reports linked above. There are three key terms to know:
ICBM: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. These missiles go up into the edge of space, circle the earth, and deploy their payloads over the target.
SLBM: Submarine-launched Ballistic Missile. Like an ICBM, only launched from a submarine.
MIRV: Short for Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle. Basically, a MIRV is a nuclear missile equipped with multiple warheads that can strike several targets at once. If you scan the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports, you’ll note that most of the missiles used today are MIRV capable.
Of course, these are all oversimplified explanations.
Both United States and Russian nukes are split between ICBMs, SLBMs, bombers, and other land-, air-, and sea-based deployment units.
The Power of the Bomb
A nuclear warhead’s strength is measured as “yield,” and refers to its explosive power in terms of the equivalent weight of TNT: measured in kilotons (1,000 tons) or megatons (1 million tons).
To get a sense of the range and power of modern nukes, let’s look at the SS-27, one of Russia’s newer ICBMs, which can be launched from silos or mobile launchers. It has a range of 11,000 kilometers or 6,836.54 miles—plenty enough to hit anywhere in the continental United States.
The SS-27 is “reported to typically be equipped with a 550 kt yield nuclear warhead” and can accept up to six MIRV warheads. So just the main payload is equal to 550,000 tons of dynamite.
By comparison, Fat Man, the bomb that hit Nagasaki, had an estimated yield of 20 kilotons. The largest nuke detonated in history was the Soviet Tsar Bomba in 1961, with an estimated yield of 50,000 kilotons. Thankfully, the Tsar Bomba was too big for any practical use: it weighed 27 tons and destroyed every building within a 35-mile radius.
The yield of the SS-27’s main warhead is 27.5 times that of Fat Man, but that doesn’t mean it makes a 27.5x boom. There is a somewhat simple formula for determining the magnitude of a nuclear warhead:
EMT = Y^2/3
EMT is equivalent megatons of force and Y is the estimated yield in megatons. If you’re like me and not a math whiz, the big brains at MIT have created a handy calculator.
Using that calculator, a 20 kiloton bomb like Fat Man produces a maximum fireball radius of 146.5 meters (481 feet roughly). A 550 kiloton warhead like the one on the SS-27 produces a maximum fireball radius of 551.5 meters (about 3/4 of a mile). That’s bad news (and don’t forget the MIRVs!), but it’s an explosion less than four times as large as Fat Man.
Most of what we’ve discussed here are known as “strategic nukes,” but there’s been a lot of talk about low-yield, short-range “tactical nukes.” The US had largely given them up, but Russia has not, and some experts fear they could use one in Ukraine, with yields between 10 to 50 kilotons. MIT’s calculator tells us a 50 kiloton nuke would produce a maximum fireball of 211.3 meters (roughly 693 feet).
Another key factor in estimating a nuke’s destruction is at what altitude it’s detonated: at the surface, or in the air, called an airburst. An airburst will form a white mushroom cloud due to water droplets in the air. A surface detonation will produce a dark mushroom cloud because of all the dirt and debris mixed with the cloud.
Anatomy of a Nuclear Detonation
Regardless of yield, all nuclear detonations follow the same pattern:
The Fire: 35% of the bomb’s energy produces extreme heat—as hot as the sun at 100,000,000°C. This also produces an intense flash of light that can temporarily blind you — even permanently blind you, though that’s rare. Since light travels much faster than sound, you will see this flash before any other sign of nuclear detonation. The heat can cause first-degree burns over five miles away and will ignite anything flammable, causing more problems.
The Blast: 50% of the bomb’s energy goes into the blast, which emits a shockwave that causes crushing air pressure and strong winds. An airburst will create a much larger, but somewhat weaker blast. A surface burst will create a stronger but smaller blast and a huge crater that results in more fallout.
The Radiation: When you think of nuclear weapons, you probably think of radiation, but it may be the least of your worries because if you’re close enough to get a lethal dose, the fire and the blast have probably already killed you. At detonation, the bomb releases gamma and neutron radiation close to the detonation site, but that quickly falls off with distance.
The Electromagnetic Pulse: Another effect of the bomb is an EMP, which in the simplest possible terms sends electricity through the air like a radio signal, frying any electrical device with a long wire that can serve as an antenna. Power grids may fail, your iPhone and car will probably be fine.
The Fallout: The thorniest problem for the survivors will be the nuclear fallout, which is essentially irradiated dust shot into the air by the blast. It will spread with wind currents and can come down in torrents when it rains.
The Realities of Radiation
Radiation is another aspect of nuclear warfare that is scary, but not quite as scary as the movies make you think. In fact, you’re exposed to it all the time. Did you drink any water today? You swallowed a little bit of thorium and uranium. Bananas? Radioactive. Carrots? Radioactive. Potatoes? Radioactive. Yet here we are.
The dosage makes the poison. Measuring radiation can be complicated because there are several different measurements. Common ones you see include:
Rad: A unit of absorbed radiation used in the United States.
Roentgen (R): A deprecated unit of radiation exposure you’ll see in older texts like Nuclear War Survival Skills.
Rem: Short for roentgen equivalent man. In plain English, it measures radiation dosage in terms of health effects. A rem unit is a lot of radiation, so the millirem is used for everyday things like X-rays.
Gray (Gy): The metric equivalent of a rad. The current preferred unit of measuring radiation dosage.
FEMA says for fallout exposure, rad, roentgen, and rem are roughly equivalent.
How much radiation will kill you? That’s tough to say because radiation affects everyone differently. Quick facts:
Radiation causes all sorts of bad things, including nausea, radiation sickness, cancer, and possibly death.
Sudden exposure of 500 rem will probably kill you.
100 rem will cause nausea and skin reddening, but you’ll probably be okay.
25 rem causes men to become temporarily sterile.
A dose over an extended time is better than a high dose at once.
A dose to a body part is better than a dose to your whole body.
You may be able to survive more radiation than you think. Anatoli Bugorski, a Russian physicist, earned the world record in 1978 after being struck by a particle accelerator and taking 300,000 R to the head. Despite some health problems, he continued working for years and he’s still alive.
Long before he was president, Jimmy Carter was one of the first service members to work with nuclear submarines, serving under Admiral Hyman Rickover, dubbed the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” When Canada’s Chalk River nuclear research facility experienced a partial meltdown in 1952, Carter was one of a handful of people on the entire planet who knew what to do.
Carter and his 22 fellow team members were lowered into the reactor to repair it. Little was known about nuclear safety at the time, and they were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Carter is edging up on age 100.
“We were fairly well instructed then on what nuclear power was, but for about six months after that I had radioactivity in my urine.” — President Jimmy Carter
When the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant melted down in 2011, the plant chief — Masao Yoshida — feared that Eastern Japan was doomed. It wasn’t, thanks to him and the brave Fukushima 50, who risked everything to save the day.
Despite alarming media reports that they were doomed to death, there were few injuries and only one confirmed cancer death. Mr. Yoshida also sadly died of cancer unrelated to the disaster. More cases of cancer may develop over time, but things could have been so much worse.
Meanwhile, tons of radioactive water was dumped into the Pacific Ocean and you probably didn’t even notice.
Nuclear War and Cancer
Long-term, cancer is of course a risk. A long-term analysis published in 2017 evaluated the cancer risk of 105,444 Japanese nuclear bomb survivors from 1958 through 2009 — 80,205 with individual dose estimates and 25,239 not in either city during the bombings.
I’m not a scientist, nor do I pretend to be, so I asked a real scientist, my friend and colleague Ari Allyn-Feuer to read the study and tell me what it said. He graciously agreed. Here is his interpretation:
Among those who survived the blast and the acute radiation, the majority of people fell into lower dose groups that did not have a significantly higher risk of cancer later on. Only for the upper dose groups, constituting about the 10% of survivors with the most radiation exposure, had a later cancer risk equivalent to or greater than the risk of cancer associated with being a lifelong smoker.
In the plainest English: 90% of survivors didn’t have significantly higher cancer rates.
Allyn-Feuer also said of the study:
“It speaks against fatalism. Getting further away and sheltering properly matter. For the blast, for acute radiation injury, and for cancer later on.”
Despite cancer, many survivors of the bombings have lived long lives, such as Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings and eventually succumbed to stomach cancer… at the age of 93.
“The reason that I hate the atomic bomb is because of what it does to the dignity of human beings.” — Tsutomu Yamaguchi, survivor of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Continue to part two.
IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING TO THREADS, STOP SCROLLING
At the start of Threads, a woman discovers she is pregnant. At the end of the movie, it is years after the nuclear holocaust and the woman is long dead. The baby is now a teenage girl and she is raped by another survivor. Months later, she gives birth to a horrible stillborn mutant, presumably deformed by exposure to radiation. Roll credits.
The finale is primed for maximum shock and horror. Potential doom of the entire human genome. But the sad reality is rape, genetic mutations, and stillborn births are already an everyday fact of life. My family understands this all too well: my wife had a horrible miscarriage, likely due to a genetic abnormality.