Family Preparations for Nuclear War

Today, I’m addressing a subject that I suppose should have had more emphasis earlier in SurvivalBlog: The risk of nuclear war, and how families can plan and prepare to survive it.

The Risk

The risk of nuclear war is now actually greater than during the bad old Cold War. Back then, there were just a handful of nuclear powers that were divided into two or three camps. But today, there are umpteen factions and even terrorist groups with potential access to nukes. Face the facts: We live in a dangerous world. Someday, one or more of hose nukes is going to go boom.

If at all possible, i recommend relocating to a lightly-populated region, soon. Ideally, that would be one that is not down-wind of major nuclear targets. But at least move out beyond the expected  blast, thermal, and overpressure radii!

It makes sense for every family to have a shelter. A lot of your preps to survive fallout will also double for being prepared for the ash fall from a major volcanic eruption. And the storage food in your shelter can of course be used in other disasters–or even just surviving an extended period of unemployment. The general advice that I’ve given my consulting clients is:  For an existing house: Buy a house with a full dry basement and then retrofit half or all of it into a walk-in gun vault/fallout shelter with a vault door that opens inward. If you are going to the expense of adding a walk-in vault, then it it worth spending a bit more to have it double as a fallout shelter!  For new construction, I suggest that you have a cased well drilled in one corner of the planned footprint of your shelter, before you excavate your basement.


Once the missile re-entry vehicles (RVs) start to drop, unless you are within the blast radius you will likely have an hour or more to get you family safely into your fallout shelter. But once the fallout from ground bursts begins to settle, you need to have your sheltered buttoned up, and you need to be breathing filtered air.  So, obviously, the better that you have your sheltered built, stocked, and ready, then the less time you will waste, after any nuclear detonations. Those first critical couple of hours should not be spent in a frantic rush to get most of your food and water into your shelter. It should already be there!  Rather, your should be spent going though a very short prepared checklist, to shift perishable food, batteries, medicines, and crucial “one of” items down to your shelter.


First and foremost, you need to put a lot of mass between your family and the fallout. Concrete and soil thickness are your friends. Study up on gamma-stopping  “halving thicknesses.” A shelter with two halving thickness is good. But three or four halving thicknesses is better. Rather than reiterate it all here, I will simply refer you to a great SurvivalBlog article: Protection from Radioactive Fallout by Tennessean, posted in 2013.

Air Filtration

Yes, you can build yourself a dandy fallout shelter with beaucoup mass between you and the gamma emitters. But  without proper air filtration, you face the risk of having irradiated fallout dust enter your shelter!  You will then be breathing beta and gamma emitters into your lungs, in contact with your skin, or taking them into your digestive tract. True HEPA filters and commercially-made hand, treadle, or electric-powered pumps are best, but they are expensive. Home-made substitutes can be fabricated. Tose are detailed in the book Nuclear War Survival Skills. 

One important design consideration for your shelter is that you need to provide an Airlock/Foyer/Vestibule. This is your decontamination and clothing-shedding room, for anyone who is coming in from the fallout dust-contaminated outdoors. And, needless to say, that this space must be outside of your shielding wall and outside of your filtered air space. And it would be best for this vestibule to have a shower for decontamination. You’d also need some empty trash barrels with trash bag liners to hold contaminated clothing.


Ideally, a shelter should be constructed in a basement that is served by either gravity-fed spring water, or a hand-pumped well.  But I recognize that less than 1% of you reading this have a shallow well casing inside your basement! So, for most of us, comes the daunting task of storing enough water to provide a scant one gallon of water per person, per day for three months. That is a lot of water–both in terms of weight and volume. For a family of four, that equates to 365 gallons. If stored in seven gallon food grade super pails, that means you would need 53 pails of lightly-chlorinated water. Assuming that they are stacked three pails high, that equates to about 3,100 pounds in a 25 square foot footprint. Using the more commonly available 5 gallon pails, that would take up even more space.

Potassium Iodate

For anyone who will be occupying your shelter, it is important to lay in a supply of Potassium Iodate, to prevent thyroid damage after a nuclear attack. This is a Thyroid blocker for radiological emergencies only. It is not to be used at any other time. Potassium Iodate (KIO3) is available from Ready Made Resources and several other SurvivalBlog advertisers. Note: One recent scientific paper suggested that KI or KIO3 is best for people under age 50. Apparently for those over 50, the risks outweigh the reward.

Provisions, In Depth

A deep larder of stored foods will be crucial. If you don’t have a sufficient food stockpile, then you will be forced to emerge from your shelter early. An early emergence will both increase the gamma dose of those who exit and also increase the risk of contaminating your shelter–with the requisite in and out traffic.)

Food storage is also crucial for another reason; Every calorie of food that you have stored represents one less calorie that must be purchased, grown, raised, fished, or hunted after you emerge from your shelter. That equates to more time in your shelter and less time outdoors kicking up fallout dust (and possibly inhaled on ingested), as well as that much less time having your body penetrated by hard gamma rays. It also means that your family will be one less family that is putting a demand on the retail food supply. With extra food stored, you will thus be part of the solution instead of contributing to the (food shortage) problem. And yes, it will be a big problem. A famine following a nuclear war could kill as many people as the preceding nuclear weapons effects.


Don’t overlook the importance of sanitation. At the very minimum buy several big bundles of toilet paper rolls, diaper wipes, and a couple of rolls of heavy duty black plastic trash bags.  (All of those are available via mailorder from Walgreens, one of our affiliate advertisers.)

It is noteworthy that as each 5 gallon bucket of stored food and water is consumed, it can can be re-used as commode bucket–with black plastic trash bags as liners. Also be sure to get a couple of snap-on toilet seats. (These fit standard 5 gallon and 7 gallon food grade pails.)


I recommend white LEDs powered by a deep cycle battery bank for lights inside your shelter. This is because they  draw less tan 1/0th the current of traditional filament light bulbs. Even though the spectrum that they throw is not the most healthy, living with that for three months certainly beats living in pitch darkness.  To provide minimal lighting for three months without any charging, you should plan on a bank for four to six golf cart/marine deep cycle 6 volt  batteries. They should be wired in a series/parallel, so that the output voltage is 12 volts.

Communications And Monitoring

Don’t overlook having a few Faraday-enclosure protected radios in your shelter. Being cooped up in a shelter is bad enough, but to be cooped up and cut off from news of the outside world would be terrifying. Test them first, to see if you need an external antenna.  After you have rigged that, be sure to leave your radio disconnected, until needed–both from power and from the antenna–since both can couple EMP to your equipment.

I would recommend a “DC to daylight” multi-band scanner as a critical radio to have on hand for monitoring.  Store it in a Faraday can inside your shelter, at all times. To reiterate a recommendation that I coincidentally posted just last week:  The Icom R6 Sport Wide Band Handheld Communications Receiver is a really good value for the money. They operate on standard AA batteries, or with a wall outlet AC-to-DC power cube. For some reason the model with the red case presently sells for $30 less than the model with the black case. Go figure…  Note that these will not demodulate trunked police dispatch transmissions. But that is an issue mostly in big cities. (If you do live in a major metro area with trunked traffic, then get a more expensive Uniden Trunk Tracker scanner.) And of course no commercially-made scanner can demodulate military frequency hopping/spread spectrum or various forms of encryption. All in all, the Icom R6 handheld is a great way to have a very portable scanner than covers AM and FM broadcast, police, fire, weather, air traffic control, shortwave broadcast, various amateur bands, MURS, commercial, CB, Marine Band, and much more. One further suggestion: Invest in a good pair of folding headphones to use with your scanner.

radiation Monitoring

Radiation dose, rate, and survey metering (three distinct measurements) is a fairly complex subject that would take a feature-length article to discuss fully. In this piece I’ll just suffice by summarizing:

  • A dosimeter measures your total dose of radiation received, from the being of an event, when you zero the meter.
  • A rate meter measures the level of radiation that you are receiving per hour.
  • A survey meter (aka “Geiger Counter”) measures the amount of radiation emitted by a contaminated item or other discrete/point source.

My advice is to buy the best modern equipment you can find, starting with a Nuk-Alert. Also get some redundancy by getting a surplus set of “pen” type dosimeter, rate meter, and charger. Those are available from several of our advertisers, most notably Ready Made Resources. Of all of the instruments, a rate meter is the most important. (If you keep a daily log book of radiation readings, then just a regularly-recalibrated rate meter can also let you know your total dose.The book Nuclear War Survival Skills describes how to make an improvised fallout ratemeter. But that is a poor substitute for a good set of modern instruments!

Just last week, I heard that the USAF has surplussed their Canberra combination survey/rate/dose meters, because they were standardizing with meters that use size AA batteries. These are the slightly older model that use 9 VDC batteries. At eBay, use the search phrase “Canberra NRC ADM-300”.  They originally cost the taxpayers around $3,000 each. At less than $200 each, they are a tremendous bargain. They should all still be within calibration specifications.


Having a family and perhaps a pet or two all cooped up in a 200 square foot shelter for three months (or more)  is undoubtedly going to cause a lot of stress and frayed nerves. To prevent mental breakdowns, I suggest storing a Bible, some Bible study books (a concordance and commentaries), lots of paperback novels, numerous board games, a chess and checkers set, a chess strategy book, musical instruments, an iPod (pre-loaded with the family’s favorite hymns, songs, and classical music), several new decks of playing cards, a cribbage board, and a book of card game rules


I suggest that you hunker in your bunker even longer than authorities will recommend. Here is some Ground Truth to ponder: Government officials have more of a vested interest in re-establishing a functional economy than they do in assuring your health and longevity. I should mention that I’ve already been lied to once, this way. I was stationed in Stuttgart, West Germany with the 2nd M.I. Battalion in the spring of 1986. I was then partially down-wind of the Chernobyl reactor melt-down. The European and USSR governments lied about the risks, as they later admitted, because they wanted to prevent any panic and dislocation. We were falsely told that it was safe to be outdoors. They did issue a warning on milk, but otherwise there were no warnings or special precautions taken, for fresh foods in the FRG (West Germany). They also didn’t issue an advisory about wearing dust masks, because there were insufficient supplies of them on hand for the entire population. So again, they compromised public health to prevent panic. More recently, the government of Japan also intentionally downplayed risks, following the Fukushima meltdown. To expect genuine altruism and sincerity by government officials in any radiological emergency is naive.

safe Emergence

Your family’s emergence from your shelter should be gradual. Plan on sleeping every night in your shelter for the  next six months. (This dubbed “partial emergence”.) Remember: Radiation damage is cumulative. So if you can spend half of your time in the shelter after the announced “safe emergence” date, then you will cut your exposure to residual radiation nearly in half.

During the first year of emergence it will be important to wear at least a paper mask–but preferably an N95 mask–as much as possible. Footwear must be removed and hands washed in a vestibule whenever returning from outdoors.  And any un-packaged foods that are purchased, grown, or gathered must be washed before bringing them indoors.

A Shattered World

In the aftermath of a full-scale nuclear exchange, life will never be the same as it was before. There will surely be massive depopulation of the northern hemisphere. The global economy might take a century or more to fully recover. Cancer rates will be higher for at least for several decades. Average life expectancy will probably drop down into the mid-50s and possibly even lower for both men and women for a few decades. But the bottom line is that nuclear war is indeed survivable!

For Further Study

This article is just introductory to the topic.There is obviously a lot more to consider in fully stocking a shelter that I haven’t discussed here. That is largely common sense:  First aid, sleeping bags, privacy screens, fire extinguishers, intruder security measures, cooking implements, spill clean-up, pet care, et cetera.  Just one important note on first aid that differs from preparing for many other disasters:  If you are close to a nuclear target, then expect to have to treat lots of lacerations and flash burns. And if anyone gets a blast of gamma through their body before entering your shelter, then also expect to have to treat both vomiting and diarrhea.

For more in-depth study, I strongly recommend that every American family get a hard copy of Dr. Cresson Kearney (et al)’s book Nuclear War Survival Skills.  It is a truly crucial reference book! – JWR



  1. Question about shelters: I have been looking recently at building a fallout shelter but often times the price that companies want for them are not only beyond my reach, but many of their preexisting designs are not something I would be interested in. I could care less about a kitchen and TV room in my shelter.

    So, my question is, with looking at early civil defense recommendations, does anyone have any knowledge and thoughts if these older designs are worthwhile? Meaning, do they REALLY work, or are they more for FEELING safe. Also, any ideas on how to build a ceiling in an existing basement?

    1. Kearney had this warning in NWSS, “WARNING: Permanent home fallout and blast shelters described in widely available FEMA pamphlets have protection factors in line with the PF 40 minimum standard for public shelters in buildings. In heavy fallout areas a sizable fraction of the occupants of PF 40 shelters will receive radiation doses large enough to incapacitate or kill them later. Permanent shelters built specifically to protect against nuclear weapon effects should have PFs much higher than PF 40.”,

      In recent years, the recommendation seems to be PF 1024 or higher, 10 layers of shielding,

      You might consider some of these,, or

    2. If you can get your hands on some of the old FEMA shelter building plan from the 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s, there were a number of plans to retro fit an existing basement. Some of these were as simple as a lean-to in the corner of a basement to building a small room with sand or cement filled cinder block walls and a lowered (and supported) ceiling filled with solid cement bricks. Try Amazon as I’ve seen books that have some of these old shelter plans from that era. Also, I think a fallout PF of 40 is way too little. 100 or 250 should be the minimum depending upon your proximity to likely target areas.

  2. Just yesterday, someone was telling me of going through a hurricane, in a regular home, inadequate shelter, due to a faulty forecast which led to some bad decision making.

    As Kearney said, “Shelter, the Greatest Need.” It is the one thing that takes planning, time and resources. A shelter should account for risks from floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and nuclear events. There are areas with very little existing sheltered protection from fallout for tens of millions of people.

    I would encourage all folks to construct shelters, if possible, where they live. These could have secondary uses for storage, guest rooms, etc…

    Earthbags are an option.

    For all the YouTube videos, there are very few that cover a low cost fallout shelter that the masses could construct. Something with overhead protection from fallout seems to be really hard to do… Kearney’s expedient shelters are an option, but as he states, a more permanent shelter is better.

  3. Food for thought. There are a couple of items that popped into my mind about living in a bunker for an extended time period that might be useful. Time will drag and change perspective. How to keep track of time? A good clock and a calendar seem like a necessity as outside references will be lacking and days will be hard to keep track of. A couple of cheap watches with days and date capability should work. Maintaining a daily routine will also help, Awake and sleep cycles, exercise, meal times etc. I am also looking into installing some type of fiber optic light system to help normalize the day cycle and lower the power demand.

  4. For those who aren’t following the topic too closely, there are a number of hardened targets in the US that are likely to draw a ground-burst in the event of a nuclear war.

    Those include the Minuteman III silos and command centers in Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana, command and control centers like Cheyenne Mountain, Site R, Mt Weather, etc, the SLBM bases in Washington State and Georgia, and the B-2 and B-52 bases in Missouri and Texas. Any airport with a runway 10,000 feet or longer, can serve as an alternate B-52 base, and may be a target as well.

    (Note: Hard targets (buried underground) require a ground burst to kill. Softer targets, buildings, airports, cities, are typically engaged with Air-Bursts because of the enhanced blast effects from an air burst. Air-bursts cause relatively negligible fallout when compared to ground-bursts).

    As the wind direction in the upper levels is consistently Westerly or Southwesterly, if you live to the East or Northeast of one of these targets, you are much more likely to get fallout than if you live South or West of the target.

    (Note: weather patterns (High or Low pressure systems) can cause localized and short term changes in ground and low level fallout patterns. Which is why you need the radiation survey meter).

    This FEMA fallout map, developed in 1990, shows the potential fallout patterns from a Counterforce strike against the US. It should be noted that the SALT II reductions have eliminated some of the targets, particularly in the Mid-West.

  5. The risk of nuclear war is real. A nuclear war might mean as many as 4000 nuclear weapons detonated around the world. If that happens survival will be difficult and difficult to prepare for. Most of us will simply be killed in the first month or so either from a direct hit or from the consequences of the war.

    What is more likely is a limited exchange of nuclear weapons either by a rogue country or terrorist who acquire a nuke or two or three. The most likely target is Israel followed by Iran. Only slightly less likely is NYC or LA or DC or Paris or London. A nuclear event of this kind will be much more survivable unless of course you live at ground zero. History, simple logic and common sense tells us that sooner or later there will indeed be a nuclear exchange of some kind.

  6. Jim, can you recommend some type of manual blower air system for a shelter as you describe. The ones I have seen are way to pricey. Looking for a hand crank fan that can be hooked to flexible ducting to bring in filtered air from outside. Have already figured the HEPA filters, etc., but I can’t find a good quality (not China) hand operated blower. Thanks.

  7. What about a dome home? They are concrete, and can be buried underground. But, are there any windows that would survive such a blast? I know we have hurricane windows, but I cannot imagine any glass that would survive something nuclear. That leaves a dome home without windows, which would certainly not be preferable. However, dome homes are totally safe in hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornados.

    1. It depends on the thickness of the concrete [thin shell, not good for PF], see The PF is probably only 2-4, not good.

      However, if it has been sufficiently reinforced, then you can add layers of shielding, maybe even beyond the standard PF 1024. Layers could be more concrete, dirt, sand, sandbags, earthbags, etc… Burying it is an option with low water tables…

      The hard part is always the entrance, you need that shielded turn, so that you can’t actually see into the shelter from the outside. A good place for a shower….

      The cheapest and fastest, I have seen is an AI Utility Dome kit, well reinforced, with three layers of earthbags [3ft of compressed road base] that brought the PF up to over 1024. You could probably do the same thing with the heavy duty zip tie dome… I would recommend the riser or silo options… If you stack the bags correctly, there is less pressure on the dome structure… Very labor intensive and a lot of work for 100 sqft…
      Monolithic would work great as well…
      Basalt roving could probably be used as well, but check with an engineer…

      The problem is that you end up with this huge mound that visitor’s can’t keep their eyes off of…

  8. Here is an excellent tool for determining blast and fallout effects for a multitude of nuclear weapons and strengths which are in current arsenals worldwide. This mapping program will also show fallout patterns, blast radius and safe distances from ground zero. You can center the blast anywhere you want.

  9. I own three shelters….so I’ll weigh in here. The Cresson Kearney book is highly recommended. It was this book that drove me to build permanent shelters for myself, friends, and eventually professionally. I’m semi-retiring soon, but like to share what I’ve learned, doing this for 30 years. The comments suggesting ten halving thicknesses are sound for fallout areas. That’s roughly forty inches of earth, or 27 inches of concrete. Please consult an architect for correct re-bar size and spacing, and support walls and spans. A ten or twelve foot wide shelter of any length is stronger than a larger square one. Shorter spans involved in the ceiling. Please have two entrances and make them rather small in volume….larger entrances admit more gamma energy. I prefer 48″ diameter corrugated steel pipe, welded at a 90 degree angle, with a ten foot horizontal leg and as much on the vertical leg as you can get (deeper burial of the shelter). There is no penalty for over-achievement when it comes to shielding. Roll the vertical leg of the elbow entrance over to about 60 degrees so you can use a stair instead of a ladder. Form this elbow into your concrete shelter area before you pour the concrete. Retro-fitting is possible, but the entrance will require a welded flange on the shelter end to bolt it to the shelter wall. Small holes can be drilled into the valley corrugations for use as a decontamination shower at the base of the stair. Bed any corrugated steel pipe you use (including a large pipe used as the shelter room) 3/4″ minus crushed rock for most of the diameter of the pipe, then use road base over the top for at least two feet. After that, any fill will suffice.
    Proper shelter ventilators are expensive because 1) they are worth it 2) The good ones, such as the Swiss units, are rigorously tested on shock sleds and in chemical weapons labs to certify that they will protect occupants from all known chemical and biological agents. The gas filters on the Andair AG ventilators will also capture Iodine 131 and other isotopes negating the need for thyroid block agents during the shelter stay. Good gas masks will also serve against the I-131. The Andair AG (formerly known as LUWA) units include blast valves, pre-filters, electric/manual air pump, and gas filter. Previous to the 9/11 attacks, the Swiss certified their gas filters for 2,000 hours of continuous use after unsealing them. However, endurance testing at the lab for one year in continuous operation proved the gas filters still able to absorb three heavy gas attacks. A fresh filter will absorb six heavy gas attacks. They remain effective against all biological aerosols indefinitely or until they are clogged (the pre-filter vastly extends the life of the gas filter).
    For those who simply cannot afford a premium air handler, a plywood box fabricated with an enclosed furnace filter and a DC axial computer fan of 6 inch diameter will capture a great deal of airborne fallout particles. A piece of furnace filter media taped over your air pipe will help. Avoid ventilation in the first several hours, during the heaviest periods of fallout deposition. This will extend the life of your filters.
    The intensity of the fallout dose rate will fall dramatically after the first 48 hours after an attack. Assuming (never a good idea) only one wave of a nuclear attack, the dose rate will deteriorate to 1/1000th of the dose rate an hour after fallout arrival. We don’t get to know how many attacks will occur, and over what period of time. Plan accordingly. A “rain-out” can cause fallout that would normally fall hundreds of miles away from your locale….to be pulled to the ground in your area. Scavenging….like cloud seeding, can cause dose rates to soar to as much as 12,000 rads per hour instead of a few hundred. That’s where a deeper shelter will make a huge difference. I prefer at least 8 feet of earth cover. Protection factor is over one million.
    An eight to ten foot diameter steel pipe shelter can be made if you are handy with tools and aren’t afraid to get dirty. Once finished, they are sure nicer than a Kearney shelter. Concrete shelters are fine if builders use enough of it! Bare minimum ceiling thickness should be 24 inches (PF500), and 30 inches is better. Swiss home shelter specification is 30 inches. This is insufficient for shelters within 7500 feet of a surface burst (prompt neutrons require a more robust shielding specification, and they turn corners in entrances much more readily. FEW people will have to be concerned with prompt neutrons.
    Government planners and many folks prefer to believe that limited nuclear war (or none at all) will be more likely than an all-out nuclear attack. That’s because this scenario is more manageable. That doesn’t mean the worst won’t occur. We don’t get to know.
    Do NOT attempt to use shipping containers for fallout shelters. They are NOT designed to support tons of earth overhead. The same thickness (12 gauge) of steel in a corrugated steel pipe can be safely buried to a depth of 43 feet because of its SHAPE. Submarines are cylindrical for a reason.
    You cannot store too much food and water. Consider post-attack bulk food stockpiles of rice, beans, corn, olive oil, salt, sugar sufficient to feed your family for a decade. All except the oil can be stored in less-than-ideal temperatures.
    After replacing many, many golf-cart batteries in our shelters over the years, we went to gel cells. My current gel cells are 15 years old and still working hard. Solar panels keep them constantly charged. Neglect them, and they will fail just like any other battery. These require gel-specific charge rates. Do not use a lead-acid charger on gels! Lead-acid golf cart batteries will work, they just don’t last as long as I’d like. Since your shelter’s battery bank will be the only power you will likely have for the rest of your life, consider 10, 20, 30 batteries, and make them gels for long life. The battery store will be CLOSED. You may need this power supply to run your home or a well pump, or any number of chores. Solar power is more practical in the long term than any generator/fuel set up. More panels are better than fewer. Have spares. The panel store will be closed, too!
    Former Secretary of Defense, Rick Perry, appeared in a segment of How The World Ends. I was interviewed as well. Perry said that nuclear war was more likely than ever, an opinion expressed by the author of this article. I concur. I also believe this government leaves its citizens in the dark when it comes to various threats, unlike the Russian government, which involves tens of millions of its citizens in shelter drills every two years. {Hint: They HAVE shelters.]
    Get busy!
    You can view a steel shelter by searching Youtube, “Pete Larson, Nat Geo”

  10. If we had an event such as this, what effect would it have on our nuclear power plants? If they were to meltdown the half life is MUCH worse if I’m not mistaken.

  11. What goes in must come out. If you store 53 pails of water, food, tp and other personal supplies, it will come out as refuse. This will have to be stored also and the smell factor will be unpleasant. If possible a “crib” septic with a covered hole for dumping would be an asset. Most people with indoor plumbing don’t realize how much they flush down.

  12. In addition to food and water, you need to stock up on food supplements. Especially Vitamin D. More and more, I am reading that this vitamin can prevent many degenerative conditions. Lack of Vitamin D may be the reason African-Americans are more susceptible to a number of diseases: cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, asthma. Dark skin inhibits the production of Vitamin D by sunlight. In Africa, there is plenty of sun, so it’s not a problem. In North America, it’s a problem, especially in the winter. And it will be a problem for you if you are living in a fallout shelter for months, without exposure to sunlight.

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