SURVIVING NUCLEAR ATTACKSHow to Survive a Tactical Nuclear Bomb? Defense Experts Explain

By Robert K. Niven, Chi-King Lee, Damith Mohotti, and Paul Hazell

Published 17 January 2023

What would happen during a tactical nuclear bomb explosion, including the three stages of ignition, blast, and radioactive fallout? How one might be able to survive such an explosion?

There has been widespread discussion of Russia’s threat to use tactical nuclear weapons in its war on Ukraine.

Russia is estimated to have thousands of tactical nuclear weapons – possibly the world’s largest stockpile – which could be deployed at any time. The use of nuclear weapons is also embedded in Russian military doctrine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has appealed to the rest of the world to take the threat seriously.

In this article we examine what would happen during a tactical nuclear bomb explosion, including the three stages of ignition, blast and radioactive fallout – and how one might be able to survive this.

You see a sudden flash in the sky, as bright as (or even brighter than) the sun. You quickly turn your face away and run for cover.

The brightness suddenly vanishes, but returns again a short while later and continues – the distinctive double flash caused by competition between the fireball and shock wave. It gets incredibly hot and bright, and you shield your eyes to avoid retina burns.

The intense thermal radiation also causes skin burns, possibly through your clothing. Wearing pale-colored clothing or being indoors will help.

You’ve also received substantial doses of invisible nuclear radiation: gamma rays, X-rays and neutrons. You find cover to shield the worst of the heat and radiation.

You’ve now survived the first seconds of a nuclear detonation, hopefully a “tactical” bomb smaller than that at Hiroshima (which was the equivalent of 15 kilotons of TNT).

The fact you’ve lived this long means you’re on the periphery, not at ground zero. But to survive the next few seconds, there’s a few things you’ll need to do.

The Blast Wave
Next will come the blast wave. This consists of an overpressure shock wave followed by an outward blast wind, often with reverse winds returning to ground zero.

This will destroy or damage all built structures within a certain radius from the epicenter, depending on the yield and height of the burst.

For example, a 15 kiloton bomb would have a fireball radius of about 100 meters and cause complete destruction up to 1.6 kilometers around the epicenter.

A one kiloton bomb – similar to the 2020 ammonium nitrate explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut – would have a fireball radius of about 50 meters, with severe damage to about 400 meters.