I’m a nuclear armageddon survivor: Ask me anything

From the archives: A nuclear apocalypse is far more likely than a zombie outbreak.

Press events are usually decadent affairs of food, drink, and well-dressed executives in up-market hotels. Not this one. A small number of journalists including your correspondent were dumped at dusk in a wet field in the Essex countryside, given blue boilersuits and a small knapsack containing bottle-tops and leaflets, and told to await developments. As most press events don’t ask for disclosure of any medical conditions, nor involve signing a waiver against accidents, those developments were unlikely to be pleasant.

But then, it’s rarely pleasant after a nuclear war. In honour of the launch of Fallout 4, set in the aftermath of virtual atomic conflict, we were about to be taken into an ex-government, ex-secret nuclear bunker and trained to survive the apocalypse. Not the zombie kind, which has of late spawned an entire industry of movies, games, and survival books, but the real thing, which hasn’t.

You probably haven’t thought nearly as much about atomic weapons as you have about zombies. That’s odd. Zombies don’t exist, while on the other hand there’s a nuke programmed with your postcode sitting in a bunker right now (see "Atomic Weapons: A Consumer’s Guide" later in this story for more details). The real apocalypse could be four minutes away from now. Really.

If a nuke lands near your house, rather than on top of it, we figured you'd like some tips on how to survive the apocalypse.

Step one: Find a bunker

Here, we were lucky: a bunker had been provided. Kelvedon Hatch is an underground, three-floor complex built in the early 1950s with its own power, water, and filtered air conditioning. Disguised as a hill with a bungalow on top, the deception is somewhat marred by a huge radio mast. The bunker saw various uses, most notably as a regional HQ for government in the event of the big one, before being sold off in the 1990s with most of its accoutrements intact.

Fully stocked, it can support up to six hundred people for up to three months. Those supplies are important: the first thing we learned was that you will die from dehydration in about three days or from starvation in three weeks. If you don’t have safe sources of food or water, you can drink your own urine (or, indeed, someone else’s) up to three times before it becomes toxic. Muscle meat from apparently healthy animals may be safe, but not other parts. Anything exposed, gritty, or dirty is very unsafe. Tinned food, if you can find it, is your best bet, and you can use living plants to filter water simply by putting their roots in it—rhizofiltration. Species like sunflowers are amazingly efficient at absorbing contaminants from the environment, but it can take weeks.

You’re better off in the bunker. Not just because that’s where the food is, but because it can keep others out. One of the first effects of nuclear warfare, and one that can hit before the bombs, is a breakdown in law and order as people try to self-evacuate from cities to the safer parts of the country—deep rural areas like northern Scotland and remote Wales. The roads will clog, petrol will run out as supply chains collapse, food supplies will be hoarded, and violence will break out.

We know this because the UK government ran three exercises in the late '70s and early '80s called Scrum Half, Square Leg, and Hard Rock, positing attacks of around 100-200 nuclear warheads. The results were a massive breakdown in infrastructure, starting as international tensions rose, and “vast destruction, enormous casualties and widespread chaos” as the bombs fell, with easily more than half the population dead in the first few days after the actual attack.

Anyone left will probably want to eat you. Get in the bunker.

During attacks, information coming in over the wires was to be marked up on giant sheets of perspex with chinagraph pencils. Crude but effective, it's proof against electromagnetic pulse, power failures, hackers and the server going down.

When a nuke goes off, you want simple tech that won't be disrupted by EM radiation.

We were taught some useful skills that would, in theory, increase our chances of being welcomed into a nuclear bunker, rather than being left out in the cold to die of radiation sickness.

Step two: Stay in the bunker

Once you’re in the bunker—stay there. Assuming you haven’t been injured by the heat flash, initial radiation, or blast wave from a nuclear strike, your next major problem is fallout: the now-radioactive soil and other materials pushed into the air by the blast. Alpha radiation isn’t dangerous while it’s outside you, because it’s easily stopped by air and your skin; inside you, inhaled or ingested, it’s vastly disruptive to DNA. Beta radiation is more penetrating but still hugely attenuated by modest shielding. Gamma is best avoided.

However, the good news—for certain values of good—is that the sort of fallout radiation provided by standard thermonuclear weapons has a reasonably short half-life. It decays by a factor of ten for each factor of seven increase in time—in other words, after seven hours, the radiation has decreased tenfold. After two weeks, it’s down to one thousandth. 14 weeks, one ten thousandth.

But how much radiation was out there to begin with? There’s no good news here: it’s impossible to tell unless you measure it. Where a bomb falls, how high up it explodes, prevailing winds, and later weather are all important and unknowable variables. The UK government did maintain a large network of Royal Observer Corps stations equipped to determine some of this and report back to central HQ so that contamination could be tracked. Like the rest of the UK nuclear civil defence infrastructure, though, the ROC was dismantled in the 1990s. This was partially on the grounds of cost, but that was secondary to the main conclusion reached after the exercises: nothing anyone could do would make any difference whatsoever. Worse, everyone knew it.

Why would anyone let you into the bunker? Here, we were told, having useful skills would count in your favour. Mechanical and electronic maintenance chops, medical or personal defence training, physical strength—anything that could justify giving you space and scarce resources. We did get some emergency medical training, but it used a coffin lid as the work surface, so expectations weren’t high.

While you’re in the bunker, don’t get sick and do as you’re told. Being an arse will be punishable by death.

Knowing how to shoot a gun will significantly increase your chances of survival—if you have a gun. This guy in a ghillie suit taught us how to drink our own urine. I'm not sure why we needed someone to demonstrate this. Hand-to-hand combat will help, if you don't have access to a shotgun or other insane-person-killing weapon.

Leave the bunker, but only when you have to

Once inside, you can ponder the question of how to survive outside once the immediate danger is over. We were given firearm and self-defence training—assuming there are enough guns and ammunition to go around, it doesn’t take long to pick up the basics of shooting insane cannibalistic survivors (a zombie fixation may actually help here). Self-defence is harder and takes much more practise: enrolling now in a reputable martial arts course will get you up to speed in a year or so, and our instructor particularly recommended learning about pressure point fighting. Intense pain and paralysis can be very persuasive.

When a nuke goes off, you want simple tech that won't be disrupted by EM radiation. Enlarge / When a nuke goes off, you want simple tech that won't be disrupted by EM radiation. Most gadgets will be useless after a nuclear attack. Despite its reputation as "being designed to withstand a nuclear attack," the Internet will have gone away, as will main electricity and the cellular networks. To prepare for the apocalypse, you can invest in walkie-talkies and Geiger counters, together with solar chargers and a stock of rechargeable batteries. Keep any radio equipment in a sealed tin to reduce the chances of damage by electromagnetic pulses from a high altitude detonation. The only long-distance communication working after a nuclear attack will be shortwave radio, so if you’re really keen on rebuilding civilisation get yourself a ham radio licence.

One recent innovation that does have some potential for post-apocalyptic survival is the quadcopter/drone. No consumer drone comes as standard with radiation detectors, but Geiger counter kits as small as a matchbox are available and, if you have the requisite electronics skills, can be simply interfaced to a telemetry transmitter. The whole setup will be light enough to be lifted without impacting flight range or duration and will give you a quick way to scout your immediate surroundings for radiation hot spots or insane cannibalistic survivors. It will also announce your presence and location to same, so use with discretion.

There was a little tuck shop where you could buy stuff with bottle-tops—to simulate what it would be like to buy stuff in the post-apocalypse world. Enlarge / There was a little tuck shop where you could buy stuff with bottle-tops—to simulate what it would be like to buy stuff in the post-apocalypse world. Other standard survivalist skills—trapping animals, staying hidden, navigation, improvising weapons, and so on—are less likely to be useful, unless you’re alone in an uncontaminated area. If it is, you won’t be. Leadership training and a good supply of printed pornography for trading will be more helpful. The bottle-tops in our knapsacks were supposed to stand in for money, but vintage copies of Knave would probably be more effective.

At the end of our evening in the Kelvedon Hatch bunker, we were escorted out past the ranks of silent teleprinters and lethality wall charts, treated to a mock attack by insane cannibalistic survivors, given sandwiches in the gift shop, and put on the train home.

None of us was in any doubt that, had it been a real apocalypse, we’d have been long dead. Those of us old enough to have lived through the 1980s—when the Soviets came within hours of launching a nuclear strike by mistake—knew that already. Such days have gone, but the warheads haven’t: while they exist, so does the possibility of Armageddon. The post-apocalyptic world in Fallout 4 is fantastic, not because of its monsters and machinery, but because so much is still standing.

No wonder everyone prefers zombies.

Atomic Weapons: A Consumer’s Guide

There are two basic models of nuclear warhead: fission and fusion. One pulls atoms apart, one slams them together. Fission happens when the nucleus of an atom splits into two (or more) lighter nuclei, which happens spontaneously in natural radioactivity. This decay process produces a little bit of energy, some new elements, and often spare neutrons—one of the components of an atomic nucleus.

The neutron is the Angel of Evil that powers all atomic weapons. In nature, it disappears harmlessly when it hits something, but if you have enough highly purified weapons-grade uranium or plutonium metal, the natural decay process produces multiple neutrons that can themselves cause further decay when they hit adjacent atoms. The number of neutrons builds rapidly, as does the amount of energy released as this chain reaction progresses. When it gets strong enough to create a run-away effect, the system goes critical—and the bomb goes off.

The two initial results of this are a huge amount of radiation, including a massive neutron pulse that by itself is extraordinarily lethal, thermal energy, and a large quantity of superheated radioactive material.

Fusion happens when two nuclei combine to form one heavier nucleus. Not all of the matter in the source nuclei ends up in the product, with the remainder converted to energy and, in the case of the hydrogen-to-helium transmutation in fusion warheads, free neutrons. This is much harder to arrange than fission as it needs a huge amount of energy to get going: once it does, though, it produces enormously more.

Fission bombs, first created at the Manhattan Project by American and British scientists during World War II and subsequently used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are the simplest. The first bomb, Little Boy, used a gun-type mechanism, where a slug of uranium was fired into a larger block; Fat Man used an implosion method, which compressed a sub-critical core of plutonium into a denser, critical state.

Fusion weapons, also called thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs, work by having an initial fission reaction to provide enough energy for fusion. Work on this started in the Manhattan Project, but took much longer to complete—the first full thermonuclear detonation was the Ivy Mike test in 1951. It produced 10 megatons, or five hundred times the explosive force of a fission bomb. The biggest ever detonated was the one-off Tsar Bomba, a Russian device detonated in 1961 (see video above). At 50 megatons, it was deemed more than sufficient.

Fusion weapons produce more neutrons than fission weapons, but the fusion process itself does not make significant amounts of radioactive elements, although the increased neutron flux does increase the amount produced from the fissile material. However, fusion weapons can be salted—coated in other elements such as cobalt—to produce large amounts of long-lived radioactive products, if the main aim is to impolitely contaminate an area for a long period. This technology would be by far the most economic way to end all life on earth. Thankfully, it is not thought ever to have been built.

Conversely, the fission aspect can be scaled down to make a so-called neutron bomb, where the explosive and contaminative effects are reduced and the neutron output increased. Although there’s a common perception that a neutron bomb would not produce too much physical damage—relying on the neutron flux to kill instead—they still operate in the 10-kiloton range. You’re unlikely to encounter one as a civilian, as they were intended for battlefield or anti-missile use.

As of 2015, some 10,000 thermonuclear warheads remain in military service, down from the mid-1960s peak of 30,000. The US and Russia have around 4,000 nukes each, in land-based, submarine, and airborne missiles, and in airborne bombs. If you live in a major city or area of military importance in the northern hemisphere, you are either being targeted right now or could be within a few hours. These modern warheads generally have a yield of around 0.5 to 1 megatons—or about 25 to 50 times more powerful than the Fat Boy bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Consumer experience

Nuclear weapons produce a fireball, a radiation burst, a heat/light pulse, and a pressure wave. Ground detonations also produce fallout.

The popular half-megaton-yield warhead, as deployed in the current Trident missiles, would have the following effects: a fireball radius of 1km; an air blast radius at 20psi (100 percent fatalities and major building destruction) of 1.7km and 5psi (domestic building collapse) of 3.5km; a 90 percent lethal radiation pulse of 2.3km radius; and a third-degree burn/blindness thermal/light pulse radius of 8km.

The various blast radii if a "normal" 500-kiloton nuclear warhead was detonated above London. If you're within the inner two circles, you're probably dead; if you're inside the third circle, you'll probably wish you were dead. If exploded over central London, immediate casualties and fatalities will be around 1.2 million. If a light south-westerly wind of 10km/hr is blowing at the time, it will push a 100 rads-per-hour fallout footprint around 120 kilometres (75 miles), or across East Anglia and out past Lowestoft. 1,000 rads total exposure is invariably fatal, so wrap up well and get into a bunker quickly.

If you see a mushroom cloud and are not crushed, blind, or on fire, you can work out whether you’ve already received a dangerous amount of radiation through a simple test. Close one eye and hold a thumb up at arm’s length. If it completely covers the cloud, you are probably in good shape and should evacuate immediately in the opposite direction. If you can still see the cloud around your thumb: good luck.

You can detonate nuclear weapons on your favourite location and observe the effects at Nukemap. If this story of death and woe and the end of humankind has piqued your interest, be sure to read our review of Fallout 4.