Everything You Need To Know About Surviving A (Real Or Imaginary) Nuclear Attack

by Cate Carrejo
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

My friends and I like to play this game called Scenario! in which we pose theoretical events to each other and figure out how we would all respond. The situations are typically apocalyptic — zombie outbreak, novel viral contagion, and a personal favorite of mine, nuclear disaster. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to survive a nuclear war, and in light of recent events, I will now share my secrets with you.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw a lot of panic and nihilistic humor about the potential of a nuclear war with North Korea, following President Trump's comments the previous day escalating the rhetoric against the hermit nation.

"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen," Trump said before a crowd of reporters at his golf property in New Jersey. Although this is objectively terrifying, it doesn't mean impending death. There are ways to ensure that you survive a nuclear attack, and you can even start today if you feel so inclined.

Now first off, you have to understand that this Scenario! is so extremely unlikely that you shouldn't spend any time truly worrying about it. My guess would be that if North Korea were to successfully land a nuclear attack on the continental United States, the U.S. would respond with so much force that the DPRK wouldn't even get another chance to fire a BB gun. A nuclear war between these two countries would be more like a chess game wherein one player starts by moving a pawn and the other player responds by flipping the entire table over. But for the sake of the Scenario!, I digress.

An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the type that North Korea tested last month, is designed to reach halfway around the world, but it can still only go so far. U.S. targets on the East Coast (Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston) may be outside this range, according to David Wright, nuclear physicist and co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. However, North Korea would have three prime targets on the West Coast, all economically and culturally significant: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. If this thing really does look like it's ramping up in the coming months, my advice would be to hightail it out of those three cities.

So to make this as interesting as possible, let's say that you live in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles when an alert comes on your phone that a nuclear missile is headed straight for the Staples Center. About 2.4 seconds later, your cell service shuts down because the networks are overloaded, but before it does, you manage to check on your handy NUKEMAP and see that you're well outside the blast radius (assuming a 10 kiloton warhead and a surface blast intended to provoke maximum fallout). You're smart and you've stocked up on potassium iodide caplets to help shield your thyroid from radiation poisoning.

Shelter is the most important thing you can do in the event of an attack. If impact is imminent, stay where you are. Running may be your natural instinct, but it's much more likely to get you killed or injured, according to FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. Get to a basement if possible; otherwise, try to make your space as airtight as you can. The resulting radiation cloud from the blast could head toward you at anytime, so make sure to wait 24 hours before heading outside.

Fresh water and food are your primary concerns next. If you have anything lead-lined, such as the aprons you wear during x-rays, put it on before you go out in search. Leaving your shelter might be the most dangerous thing you do, since looting and violence are almost guaranteed to start near the affected areas. Make sure to take a weapon, only use it if necessary, and try to leave your shelter guarded by someone else. While you're out, remember that canned foods are your best bet, and try to get them from the most protected area within the store. My advice would be to head toward the Laurel Canyon area (or the richest part of town in whatever city an attack might occur), since I'm betting that the wealthiest among us will probably have figured out alternative plans already.

When you get home or back to your makeshift shelter, strip down and put on clean clothes. According to Business Insider, this will reduce 90 percent of external contaminants and further help keep you safe from radiation poisoning. There will still be radioactive particles left on your skin and hair, but there's no guarantee that you could safely take a shower without risking further contamination.

So you've checked off the basic needs, and hopefully you're still alive. If you've made it a couple of days, there should be an evacuation coming soon. It's probably not going to be worth it to try to drive out of there, even if you have a car — LA traffic is already bad enough, and it's sure to be a standstill with people trying to get out of the city. Once you've been rescued, try to get high up in a remote mountain somewhere so you on don't have to worry about nuclear runoff or living in the middle of a prime target city again.

Now, this Scenario! was built on several assumptions, including your distance from the payload (the nuclear warhead), the size of the payload itself, the number of missiles launched, and the city in which the theoretical attack took place. But the important thing to know is that if you don't die on impact, you have a real chance of surviving. If you can get proper shelter, water, and food, in that order, you'd probably be shocked at what you can survive. Where there's a will there's a way, and the will to live has historically been the strongest one of all.