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Here's what would actually happen in a nuclear apocalypse

We asked an expert how you would fare if you survived the initial blast

Here's what would actually happen in a nuclear apocalypse
10 August 2017

So nuclear war is a distinct possibility again! Mega! Cheers Kim Jung-un! Nice one Donald Trump!

If the button does get pushed and you’re directly under the missile, you don’t need to be a particularly brainy bod to recognise that’s probably curtains for you, but what if you actually did survive the initial blast? How would you fare in a world of dust and ionizing radiation?

We picked the brains of one Daniel Salisbury - a research associate at King's College's Centre for Science and Security Studies - to find out what would happen 'after the bomb'. From social effects to physical deterioration, it's a pretty grim read...

What does a nuclear bomb do?

Nuclear weapons have the following basic effects:

Thermal radiation – this is the heat given off by the nuclear reaction taking place. A nuclear explosion can generate heat of tens-of-millions of degrees Celsius (as opposed to temperatures of 5,000 degrees Celsius for regular explosives). As it heats the air a “fireball” or a very hot spherical mass of air is created. As the hot air cools a “mushroom cloud” is formed

Blast/shockwave – this is caused by the hot gaseous residues moving out spherically from the centre of the explosion and compressing the surrounding air. Objects standing in the way of the blast wave are initially subjected to sharp increases in pressure, and then decreases after the wave has passed

Ionizing radiation – the fission or fusion reaction produces ionizing radiation which poses a risk to human health immediately after the event, and longer-term. There are two types: Prompt radiation, released in the first minute following the detonation. There's also delayed radiation / fallout, found in debris lifted into the fireball during the explosion (and vaporised) and the residues of the weapon itself. The fallout is carried by the wind and falls onto the ground (hence the term “fallout”).

What are the physical effects?

This depends on how much radiation has been absorbed, calculated in SV (Sievert), which takes into account several factors including age, weight and proximity to the source. The longer you remain in the vicinity of the explosion, the more radiation you will absorb.

One hour of exposure

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever

Three hours of exposure

  • Diarrhea

Four hours of exposure

  • Headaches

Within one week of exposure

  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation 
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Bloody vomit 
  • Stools
  • Poor wound healing
  • Low blood pressure

After a week

If you were much closer to the explosion, each of these effects would be accelerated, with death a certainty between one to four weeks.

How would society hold up?

In short, not well...

1 – 2 days following attack

  • Fires still raging in areas surrounding major targets
  • Survivors trying to find any remaining food, water, medicines, petrol and other vital commodities – due to scarcity of resources there is likely to be violence.
  • Hospitals overwhelmed by walking wounded, key medical supplies begin to run out

3-4 days following attack

  • Bodies of first dead starting to badly decay, lack of burial space means a growing risk of spreading disease
  • Riots around government storage sites and military areas as survivors become more desperate for vital supplies
  • Those without access to stocks of water die

Up to 2 weeks following attack

  • Outbreaks of communicable diseases such as Cholera and Typhoid become widespread
  • Riots, looting and likely full-scale anarchy (dependent on government/military intervention)

There you have it. Good luck out there, buddy. See you by the flaming bins. Mine’s a rat kebab, if you’re buying.