With increased activity in testing of nuclear devices, North Korea is one step closer to making good on its threat to nuke some portion of the USA or its territories. It is still not an imminent threat since North Korea apparently lacks the technology to build a warhead can withstand the extreme heat of high-speed reentry into the atmosphere—the last two missile warheads burned up on reentry.
Even more disturbing is that North Korea has long been suspected of being the “trigger event” for a third world war between Russia, China, and the United States. So, with President Trump threatening a military response, it’s time to take nuclear preparations seriously. That said, I do not think Russia and China are ready yet to take on the US in a full blown war (until into the next decade) so it is still possible that another Korean war may not cause Chinese and Russian intervention—though you should count on that as an absolute.
First, let’s be clear about one thing: nuclear war is very survivable, even with minimal preparations, so don’t believe the “everyone is going to die” claims about nuclear winter and total destruction. 50% of Hiroshima survived without any preparations, though many were very sick. Keep in mind too that even Russian and Chinese war doctrine doesn’t include nuking American cities on a first strike, despite the verbal threats. In reality, they intend to nuke US and NATO military facilities first and blackmail the West into submission.
There are 3 phases of nuclear war that you must be prepared to confront:
1) Initial blast and radiation. The blast area of destruction is only 5-7 miles from any nuclear target, so don’t prepare against blast effects, which is very expensive—relocate instead. Avert your eyes immediately from even a distant explosion and duck behind anything that will shield you from the instantaneous line of sight radiation and intense heat and light. Most will never see any blast effects, but almost everyone will have to deal with residual radiation from anywhere from 2 weeks to a month, which is not that difficult if you prepare in advance.
2) Immediate panic and cut off of electricity and supplies. Because both Russian and Chinese nuclear doctrine dictates the use of high altitude Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse weapons (EMP) just before a physical nuclear strike, the electric grid will go down—which guarantees a lot of panic as people are plunged into darkness, lack of communication, and the cessation of all government services, like sewer and water.
Don’t believe the hype about Iran or North Korea doing an EMP strike. It takes six simultaneous high altitude nuclear weapons exploding to blanket the entire US grid, not one. So, only Russia and China have that capacity. Remember too, that a total loss of electricity, including all TV and Radio may be your best immediate warning that a physical nuclear strike is about to fall within 15 or 20 minutes. That’s not a lot of time, but it may allow you to get a head start out of town or make a quick call to warn the family.
This threat requires preparation to get to your secured home or retreat very quickly without getting caught in major traffic snarls. Don’t get on a freeway that is already packed. Use secondary roads, and map out routes that allow you to cross any freeways at an over or underpass NOT associated with an on-ramp or an exit. Those will be the only ones not blocked with traffic.
3) Long-term famine and Social Unrest: This gets into full swing within 3 days of an attack and may last more than a year depending on how quickly parts of the grid can come back up and how well industry can re-establish supplies lines. While it’s hard to predict how these things will play out, this is where your long term food and water storage supplies come in. Don’t expect to be able to grow a garden that first year in a suburban area during high levels of social unrest without lots of theft. That will only be possible in rural and secluded areas. That’s where having a rural retreat is a good long term solution.
This article will deal mainly with the first threat—surviving the radiation. It takes a heavy mass of materials to shield from gamma radiation, which is much more potent than X-rays, so forget about using medical grade X-ray shielding materials. Your wooden house and roofing materials are like paper to gamma rays, so not much shielding there either.
Nuclear protection purists would demand a reduction in radiation that is almost total requiring 13.8 feet of water, 10 feet of earth, 6 feet of concrete, or about 1.3 feet of lead—a Protection Factor (PF) of a billion, all of which are very costly to achieve. This Survival Blog article discusses the relative protection factors for various materials.
As a practical matter, we have to arrive at a compromise between cost of construction and shielding. You need less shielding the farther you are away from an explosion since radioactive dust starts to fall out from the sky closest to the detonation and only the finer high altitude particles travel longer distances, depending on the wind direction. In short, you get less radiation the farther from blast zones you are located.
For example, Immediately to the West of Seattle, which has multiple nuclear targets around Puget Sound including the trident submarine base, you would probably need a PF of 1000 to shield against several inches of radioactive dust on your roof. That amounts to 22 inches of concrete or 3 feet of dirt. But, further to the West in Idaho, the radioactive dust from Seattle would be a fraction of that, requiring much less shielding.
Many experts demand a “one size fits all” PF of 1000, but that means that very few could afford to build a shelter or safe room—and they don’t. Because most areas of the country, not directly downwind and within 50 miles of a blast one, are not subject to those high levels, most people can survive with a protection factor of only 32, meaning that that radiation level is reduced to 1/32 of normal. That involves 12” of concrete over your basement shelter—not 22”, which is doable, and not too costly.
Because of the much higher costs of protection close in to target areas, I recommend that your money is better spent relocating, even within the same general area, to avoid being directly downwind or close to a nuclear target.
Choosing the type of shelter: Your two basic choices are to buy a prefabricated tank style shelter that is buried underground, or to build a basement style shelter within your own home, or as an extension. The only advantages to the buried tank shelter are that it is quicker to install, and covering with dirt is cheaper than concrete.
However, they are more expensive per square foot of usable space, and they often come designed with expensive blast doors and valves, which you don’t need outside of a blast area. Sadly, many also are designed with costly NBC or HEPA filters inside the shelter, but the sheet metal filter enclosures are not thick enough to stop radiation trapped in the filter from reaching those inside the shelter. The average cost is $50k-$75k, and you can build a lot of basement for that price.
But the worst problem with buried shelters is the fact that you have to go outside and open a hatch to get inside. The notoriety of bringing in a huge tank shelter on a semi-truck and burying it in your backyard with a crane guarantees that the whole neighborhood is going to know about it.
How do you get in if that entrance is surrounded by others wanting shelter? All your loading of supplies and equipment is down through that vertical ladder well, which is not easy. In addition, the ventilation pipes emerge from the ground and are subject to tampering or blocking. If you do use a buried shelter, put a shed or building over it. That way the vents are protected from view and tampering. Still have to cross open ground to get into the shed, which is a security risk.
The basement shelter avoids all of those disadvantages since you access it and stock it with supplies from within your home. No one can view any of that activity. Vents go up through walls into the attic, and HEPA air filters can be concealed in or under normal cabinets. The basement safe room or shelter (never call it a “bunker”) is also easier to conceal, and it should be concealed. In cases of massive social unrest, you want to have the option of avoiding confrontation by hiding out in a concealed safe room with a steel security door, communications, and alternate battery powered electricity.
If you do an extension to your home with a basement shelter underneath, label the basement part as non-livable “storage” only, and don’t show any of the plumbing that might pertain to a future shelter. Install all that after the occupancy permit is granted. This book on the Secure Home has all of the architectural details on how to do that plus detailed listings of all the equipment necessary to outfit the shelter.
But, if you have an existing basement the best way to achieve total privacy without a permit or inspection, is to build a concealed shelter within the basement. We have engineered plans to do just that here.
As a minimum, prepare your home to give you added protection without a formal shelter. In a basement, that would involve building two addition stacked walls of concrete block (6ft high and 8ft across) into a corner of a room away from any window, but leaving a 24” entryway. Cover that with a makeshift ceiling of 2×4 on 12” centers with ¾” plywood.
Then stack 3 levels solid 4” concrete blocks on top of that makeshift ceiling. That will give you the minimum radiation protection you need. Have a port-a-potty inside as well as some food and stored water. It will be tight, but at least you’ll survive. If you don’t have a basement, you’ll have to do four block walls inside an above ground room to get the sidewall protection. Do the lowered ceiling on top of those 4 six foot high walls.
It takes about two weeks for gamma rays to dissipate so you will need to buy a radiation meter to tell when it is safe to come out or to go back into a shelter (since in a war, there may be multiple nuclear events).