Tim TrottTim TrottDo or do not, there is no try

Surviving the Bomb

By , Monday 6th March 2000 in Security & Privacy

When the German physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission in 1939 they unleashed a genie that changed the world forever.

Within five and a half years of the scientific principle being demonstrated, The US Manhattan Project, under the leadership of Robert Oppenheimer, had succeeded in building the first atomic bomb from scratch. Almost all of this time was spent in purifying the uranium 235. The design of the actual bomb itself was so simple that after a single test, at Trinity, New Mexico, the Enola Gay confidently delivered a single bomb to Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.
Nagasaki Nuclear Explosion
Nagasaki Nuclear Explosion

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Such a simple design could not remain the exclusive property of the West for long and in 1949 the Soviet Union began testing fission bombs. So began the Cold War and for forty years paranoid superpowers stockpiled an estimated 22,000 megatons of incendiary hell between them while their leaders poised sweating over the launch buttons. East-West relations may have thawed since President Kennedy blockaded Cuba during the missile crisis of October 1962. but just because Communism lies rusting on the ideological scrap heap does not mean that nuclear weapons pose any less a threat to world peace. The break-up of the Soviet Union left a superpower-sized arsenal without a superpower to control it. Corruption and bankruptcy among the Russian military has led to weapons-grade uranium, plutonium and tritium being available on the black market. Washington security analyst Dan Needlemeyer estimates that 30 per cent of the former Soviet Union's nuclear scientists have taken the opportunity of its break-up to seek work in other countries.

"Some of these will have come to the US." he says "but the records of the visas that have been issued in the last few years' show that most of them have gone elsewhere." The clear implication is that countries at the fringes of the nuclear club are buying in highly trained personnel to accelerate their nuclear programmes.

For all that the established members of the nuclear club talk of nuclear non-proliferation and strategic arms limitation, nuclear weapons stand poised to enter a new chapter. In over fifty years, only two nuclear bombs have ever been detonated in an act of aggression. As the recent posturing between India and Pakistan has shown however, nuclear weapons are now in the hands of young nations who still harbour religious, ideological and territorial grievances. According to former CIA intelligence officer Jed Krepowski, Britain's close links with the US has earned us many enemies in the Middle East.

"Terrorist organizations whether state sponsored or not may now have the resources and the motivation to acquire or manufacture a nuclear device for use on mainland Britain."

After the first atomic blast, President Harry Truman said that control of the bomb was "the number one problem of the world," adding confidently that "we would in time come to some intelligent solution." Truman was too optimistic. According to the former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hans Grumm: "Any really determined nation could now produce the bomb."
Fat Man - The Atomic Bomb at the End of World War II
Fat Man - The Atomic Bomb at the End of World War II

Photo Source: Wikipedia

In 1945 the United States was the only nation to possess atomic weapons. The USSR acquired them in 1949, followed by Britain in 1952, France in 1960 and China in 1964. In 1968 Britain, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in an attempt to make it very hard for anyone else to join this club. Since France and China refused to sign however, the most which could be said of the treaty is that it slowed the spread of nuclear technology somewhat.

Enter Saddam

Remains of Tammuz 1 nuclear reactor at El-Tuwaitha
Remains of Tammuz 1 nuclear reactor at El-Tuwaitha

Photo Source: Unknown source, please advise

India acquired the bomb in 1974 after promising that the technology was for peaceful use only. Israel, South Africa and North Korea pursued independent nuclear research programmes. Pakistan and Syria were sold nuclear weapons technology in the form of the M-11 and M-9 missile systems in 1991 by China, who also supplied technicians to help build a secret nuclear reactor in Algeria to enable the production of weapons grade plutonium.

In 1981 Saddam Hussein paid France £180 million to build the Tammuz 1 nuclear reactor at El-Tuwaitha, 16 kilometres south-west of Baghdad. Its official purpose was for research into nuclear energy but Israel was so concerned about the reactor's potential to produce material for nuclear weapons that it launched an airstrike and destroyed the facility shortly before its completion. None of the recent entrants into the nuclear arena are believed to have any delivery systems that could be used to launch a nuclear strike against Great Britain. But the very existence of so many nuclear reactors increases the chance that Highly Enriched Uranium 235 (HEU) or plutonium 239 could fall in sufficient quantities into the wrong hands. In 1996, a US Pentagon official told the New York Times: "A terrorist with a little technical know-how and 20 pounds of smuggled plutonium could make a bomb powerful enough to destroy a city. That's what we should be worried about." It is not a scare tactic, says Hazel O'Leary, former US Secretary of Energy, to say that the next Oklahoma City or World Trade Centre bombing could involve a terrorist's nuclear device.

Barrel of a Gun

A terrorist organization that wishes to pursue this strategy must first decide whether to build a Hiroshima-style uranium bomb or a plutonium device of the kind dropped on Nagasaki. A uranium bomb is by far the simplest to construct and even US college students, poring through declassified Government technical papers, have put together designs for rudimentary A-bombs.

Detailed blueprints for such devices are available to anyone with access to the Internet. A sub-critical mass of uranium 235 is fired down the barrel of a large gun into another sub-critical mass of uranium such that when they collide they form a critical mass. If the collision occurs fast enough to weld the two masses together, the fission chain-reaction has time to initiate and nuclear detonation occurs. The principal difficulty with building a uranium bomb is in obtaining a critical mass. Most nuclear reactors use uranium fuel rods that contain only three per cent uranium 235 mixed with the non-fissile uranium 238. Military devices based on uranium generally require at least 90% U-235. Because the two isotopes are chemically identical, the process of 'enriching' or increasing the proportion of uranium 235 is a highly complex process that would be beyond the capability of any terrorist group.

Some nuclear reactor designs however (notably the type supplied to Iraq by France) do use fuel rods of bomb-grade uranium. These could be hijacked en route to the reactor and rapidly converted into crude bombs. According to Steven Dolley and Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute, an independent consultancy, even uranium at 80 per cent enrichment can be made into bombs simply by increasing the masses involved. Plutonium is easier to obtain because it is produced as a by-product of uranium fission in nuclear reactors. According to William Peden, spokesperson for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, there are over 100 tonnes of plutonium in storage at the Sellafield reprocessing plant. Furthermore, the critical mass required for a plutonium device is much lower, perhaps 8kg, compared with 15kg for an HEU bomb.

Building a plutonium device is not without its own problems however. Plutonium is a strong alpha radiation emitter, burns spontaneously in air, is absorbed directly by the bone marrow and causes cancer at lower concentrations than any other radioactive element. It is also invariably contaminated with plutonium 240. This isotope is spontaneously fissile, which means that it will tend to initiate nuclear fission even in sub-critical masses of plutonium. This has the effect of causing the bomb to fizzle rather than explode unless the neutron density in the plutonium is raised extremely quickly, much quicker than can be achieved by simply firing one piece of plutonium at another. Instead, a hollow shell of plutonium must be made to implode very evenly by the pressure wave from a layer of high explosive surrounding it. This compresses the plutonium, increasing its density and initiating fission. Despite these complications, Dr Theodore Taylor, one time atom bomb designer, says the procedure for making such a weapon is now so widely known that a terrorist might be able to build one in a few weeks using purloined plutonium.

Within a millionth of a second of detonation, the temperature in the immediate vicinity of a nuclear bomb rises to ten million degrees Centigrade, as hot as the centre of the Sun. This energy explodes outwards at 186,000 miles per second as an intense flash of electromagnetic radiation of all wavelengths. X-rays and gamma rays deliver lethal doses to anyone within two miles of ground zero, infrared radiation spontaneously ignites wood, paint, plastic, clothing and hair out to at least ten miles.

A colossal fireball billows from the point of detonation to form a raging sphere of hell that expands to two miles across and rises into the sky at three hundred miles an hour. The light from the fireball is bright enough to temporarily or permanently blind anyone looking directly at it from up to fifty miles away. Meanwhile, the shock wave created by the superheated air expands at more than the speed of sound, around 750 miles an hour. At two miles, the interval between the initial flash and the blast is less than ten seconds - not enough to take cover from a force that at this distance is capable of destroying reinforced concrete buildings. At five miles an estimated 50 per cent of people are killed by the blast itself or by falling masonry from collapsing buildings. Every window within twenty miles shatters and shards of glass tear through every house and office block at several hundred miles an hour. As soon as the first blast has passed outwards, a second wave rushes in the opposite direction as air is sucked in to replace that thrown out. This double blow causes buildings, already weakened, to collapse in the direction of the ground zero point.


Burst fuel tanks, gas mains, and collapsed buildings add fuel to the fires started by the initial flash and the myriad separate fires coalesce to create a "firestorm". The fire's cause sufficient updraft to form their own wind, blowing inwards from all sides and fanning the flames. Even in cellars and bomb shelters, the temperature is enough to kill and those that are not roasted alive are asphyxiated (as the fires consume all the available oxygen) or poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes. The gale force wind blowing inwards also makes it almost impossible for survivors to run away from the flames.

After sixty seconds of sustained energy release, the fireball has cooled sufficiently and is no longer luminous. A column of dust several thousand feet tall is sucked up from the ground by the updraft of the fireball. This dust mixes with the 30 per cent of the nuclear fuel that was blasted apart by the explosion before it could achieve fission and folds over into the apocalyptic signature of the mushroom cloud. Depending on rainfall and wind conditions, this spreads radioactive fallout that will be lethal to anyone for an hour after detonation over an area of up to nine hundred square miles.

Nuclear Briefcase

Nuclear Briefcase
Nuclear Briefcase

Photo Source: Wikipedia

This horrifying scenario describes the result of a ten-megaton warhead detonated as an air burst. This size of warhead, as well as the method of delivery, almost certainly lies outside the capabilities of any terrorist organization today. But it is precisely the kind of weapon that was pointed at the UK throughout the Cold War by missile silos and mobile ICBM launchers in Warsaw Pact countries. All it takes is one mistake and the world could be facing nuclear Armageddon, and we've been close.

On January 25, 1995 a US scientific probe, launched from Norway, was mistakenly identified by Russian radar technicians as a possible nuclear launch from an American submarine. Within six minutes, President Boris Yeltsin had been briefed by his top military advisers and the 'nuclear briefcase' was activated to authorise a retaliatory strike for the first time ever. In order to allow the Russian ICBM's time to clear their launch sites, President Yeltsin had just four minutes in which to verify the nature of the threat. On that occasion, a nuclear launch was aborted with two minutes to spare but Russia's early warning and nuclear command systems are deteriorating steadily as a result of the cash a crisis that has plagued the Yeltsin regime since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Former Russian defence minister, Igor Rodionov, asserts that "if the shortage of funds persists, Russia may soon approach a threshold beyond which its missiles and nuclear systems become uncontrollable." In such a climate, the likelihood of accidental or ill-judged nuclear launches can only grow more likely.

Terrorist Devices

A terrorist device is likely to have a much smaller yield, in the region of 10 to 20 kilotons. In addition, it would almost certainly be delivered as a ground burst detonation, which reduces the blast radius, as the ground absorbs much of the explosion. Nevertheless, the damage and fatalities that would result from such a device would far exceed the combined destructive power of every terrorist bomb ever exploded in the United Kingdom, according to Dr Kenneth Robertson, a lecturer in terrorism at Reading University. "A ten kiloton bomb, detonated at ground level would create a crater 100 metres in diameter and 20 metres deep," says physicist Dr Alan Phillips of the Canadian Project Ploughshares organization. The destructive range of the heat, radiation and blast damage might be only a tenth of that from a ten-megaton air burst but because of the greater volume of ground material contaminated by the explosion, the long term health risks due to fallout would be much greater. A huge area downwind of the blast site might be rendered uninhabitable for months or years.

Unless a nuclear detonation occurs as the opening salvo in a deliberate hostile act from a foreign nuclear state and after a long period of escalating international tension, you are unlikely to have enough warning to build yourself an adequate blast shelter. "A surprise or accidental launch of ballistic missiles from Russian nuclear submarines in the Barents Sea, off the coast of Finland, would give UK strategic command officials less than fifteen minutes warning before impact," says Dieter Gruner, former defence adviser to Helmut Kohl. "Even if your government decided to pass this warning on to the public, there wouldn't be time." A terrorist organization might issue more warning than this but given the unprecedented nature of such a threat the security forces would undoubtedly waste considerable time in seeking confirmation before embarking on the colossal task of evacuation.

Surviving the Bomb

Just because the blast catches you by surprise doesn't mean that there is nothing you can do to improve your chances of survival. If you are outside when you see the initial flash of light, run for the best available cover that you can reach in ten seconds. If you are within two miles of a one megaton explosion, the blast wave will hit you before your ten seconds are up but ten seconds exposure to the thermal pulse at that range will have burned you to a sooty smear before then anyway. In that case, you can stop reading here.
Illustration Of Family Building Fallout Shelter
Illustration Of Family Building Fallout Shelter

Photo Source: BBC News

If you are still alive after ten seconds and you are standing behind a very solid, low wall or earth embankment or lying in a ditch then you are in with a chance. If you are indoors when you see the flash, move away from any windows and position yourself in the corner formed by two load-bearing walls, preferably underneath a solid wooden table. This will help prevent you from being crushed when the ceiling collapses as the floors above you implode.

Stay under cover for at least two minutes, or until the blast wave has passed. If no blast wave reaches you in two minutes then you are obviously over 25 miles from ground zero and the only danger is likely to be from breaking windows. At this point you may count yourself among the two thirds of the population that have survived the explosion itself but your continued safety depends very much on what you do next. All roads in a 15-mile radius of the explosion will be impassable and the emergency services may take many days to find you. If the bomb was detonated as a ground burst, you now have no more than half an hour before radioactive fallout blankets all exposed surfaces and exposes you to lethal doses of radiation.

Deadly Dust

If you can find a building that still seems substantially intact, go immediately to the lowest floor and use any available furniture, blankets, carpeting etc to close off broken windows and doorways. Fallout will land as fine dust and it is important to keep it as far away from you as possible. If the water mains have not been broken, fill as many containers as you can find; preferably ones with lids. Once fallout has settled, radiation outside will not drop to safe levels for at least two weeks and although you can survive that long without food, you will need between two and three pints of water every day. If there is no mains water, fill containers from the cold water tank in the loft. Because it is much higher up, the water in the tank will become too contaminated to drink once the fallout blankets the roof.

The next thing to worry about is the radiation dose you received as a result of your exposure to the initial blast. This will depend on how close to ground zero you were, how quickly you took cover and how dense that shelter was. Every 15cm of earth or 10cm of concrete between you and the bomb will have halved the radiation dose you received. The first symptoms of radiation sickness are nausea, vomiting, headache and dizziness and you can gauge the extent of your dose by how long these symptoms take to appear. If you are experiencing them now, just thirty minutes after the blast then you have probably received more than 500 Rads, which is fatal even with medical intervention. If the symptoms are also accompanied by bloody diarrhoea, fever and blood circulation problems your dose may be as high as 5,000 Rads, which would kill you within a relatively swift 48 hours, from profound damage to the central nervous system.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

If the nausea doesn't begin for a few hours, your dose is more likely to be in the 100 to 400 Rad range. You'll feel fine within a day as you enter the two week latent phase before suffering diarrhoea, loss of hair, and small haemorrhages of the skin, mouth and intestines for anything up to a couple of months. Provided that you don't receive additional radiation doses within this period you will almost certainly recover naturally, although your cancer risk will be raised by between one and five percent. To check that you aren't exposed to any more radiation as you hide up in your shelter, you need a radiation dose-rate meter.

A commercial meter, even if you had one, would be completely inaccurate at the very high radiation levels associated with fallout. One such meter tested at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory read only 16 Rads per hour when it should have read 400. The Kearney Fallout Meter was designed at the Oak Ridge Labs for domestic use. A novice following simple instructions and using just a tin can, aluminium foil, fishing line and plasterboard can build one in six hours. "It doesn't need batteries or any external calibration and is as accurate as dose-rate meters costing a thousand pounds," says its inventor Cresson Kearney.

There is no medicine that will prevent the damage that radiation causes to human cells but if you happen to find yourself near an abandoned chemist, you can protect yourself from radioactive iodine. This is a common component of fall out and can be inhaled or swallowed along with contaminated drinking water. Iodine is absorbed by the thyroid gland and the high concentrations that accumulate there can cause thyroid cancer.

Taking 130mg of potassium iodide half an hour before exposure will saturate the thyroid gland with unradioactive iodine and prevent the radioactive form from being absorbed. Radio-iodine has a half-life of eight days so you will need about three months' supply if you plan to stay in the contaminated area.

Nuclear Survival Kit

First Aid Kit: Medical help is unlikely to be available. A medical kit is an obvious must-have item. It should include water sterilization tablets to keep your supplies clear of infection. Radiation depresses the immune system so there's an added danger of infection from poisoned water or food.

Salt: A person can survive solely on water for many weeks, but a lack of salt can cause painful cramps. Salt should be amongst the resources stored, as well as other food types not prone to decay, like powdered milk and canned foods. To quote an official UK survival guide from the 80s: "Don't forget your tin opener"

Radio: You'll want a radio to stay in touch with what's going on outside during your stay, but beware the Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP). Keep your radio inside a metal box when not in use so as to limit its exposure to the electrical surge that accompanies a nuclear detonation. EMP could otherwise render it useless.

Seeds: US nuclear survival expert Cresson Kearney recommends storing seeds. Even after emerging from a shelter - after a fortnight most fallout should have decayed - the survival of central food distribution systems should not be taken for granted. Rad-free soil should be found and the cultivation of vegetables begun.

Plastic Bags: These will be an all-purpose survival aid. Suitably secured they can be used to safely store large amounts of water. They can also be filled with radiation-absorbing soil to help blanket your shelter against fallout. Plus they are a necessity to store waste as well as dead bodies.

Nightlights: To stand a reasonable chance of survival means spending up to two weeks in a shelter. Nightlights are essential.

Whitewash: Whitewashing your shelter or the windows and walls of your homes decreases the chance of fire from the nuclear heat flash. A greater percentage of heat will be reflected back.

Insect Repellent: Grimly enough, you can expect an increased insect population in the days immediately after a nuclear attack. Their exoskeleton bodies render them more resistant to radiation than people, and with heavy casualties they'll have plenty of food. Keep them out of your fallout shelter with plenty of fly repellent.

Spinach: It might seem like an unlikely survival aid, but a 1986 US Military study said it had an inhibiting effect on the effects of radiation on the human nervous system due to its antioxidant status. It's probably more useful than vodka, the favoured Russian solution.

Peanuts: If you have to eat the same sort of food for weeks or even months on end, what should you choose? Cresson Kearney, nuclear scientist and author of Surviving Nuclear War recommends peanuts. Despite their fat content they are a good source of protein. So get stockpiling... as long as you're not allergic, that is.

Pillowcases: Pillowcases are another surprise boon. Filled with soil they form makeshift sandbags to be placed around your fallout shelter. Whether you go for an unscrewed door against a wall or simply a trench in the ground, surrounding yourself with as much soil as possible limits your exposure to radiation and could be a life saver.

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About the Author

Tim Trott

Tim is a professional software engineer, designer, photographer and astronomer from the United Kingdom. You can follow him on Twitter to get the latest updates.

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