From the archives: A nuclear apocalypse is far more likely than a zombie outbreak.
But then, it’s rarely pleasant after a nuclear war. In honour of the launch of Fallout 4, set in the aftermath of virtual atomic conflict, we were about to be taken into an ex-government, ex-secret nuclear bunker and trained to survive the apocalypse. Not the zombie kind, which has of late spawned an entire industry of movies, games, and survival books, but the real thing, which hasn’t.
You probably haven’t thought nearly as much about atomic weapons as you have about zombies. That’s odd. Zombies don’t exist, while on the other hand there’s a nuke programmed with your postcode sitting in a bunker right now (see “Atomic Weapons: A Consumer’s Guide” later in this story for more details). The real apocalypse could be four minutes away from now. Really.
If a nuke lands near your house, rather than on top of it, we figured you’d like some tips on how to survive the apocalypse.
Here, we were lucky: a bunker had been provided. Kelvedon Hatch is an underground, three-floor complex built in the early 1950s with its own power, water, and filtered air conditioning. Disguised as a hill with a bungalow on top, the deception is somewhat marred by a huge radio mast. The bunker saw various uses, most notably as a regional HQ for government in the event of the big one, before being sold off in the 1990s with most of its accoutrements intact.
Fully stocked, it can support up to six hundred people for up to three months. Those supplies are important: the first thing we learned was that you will die from dehydration in about three days or from starvation in three weeks. If you don’t have safe sources of food or water, you can drink your own urine (or, indeed, someone else’s) up to three times before it becomes toxic. Muscle meat from apparently healthy animals may be safe, but not other parts. Anything exposed, gritty, or dirty is very unsafe. Tinned food, if you can find it, is your best bet, and you can use living plants to filter water simply by putting their roots in it—rhizofiltration. Species like sunflowers are amazingly efficient at absorbing contaminants from the environment, but it can take weeks.
You’re better off in the bunker. Not just because that’s where the food is, but because it can keep others out. One of the first effects of nuclear warfare, and one that can hit before the bombs, is a breakdown in law and order as people try to self-evacuate from cities to the safer parts of the country—deep rural areas like northern Scotland and remote Wales. The roads will clog, petrol will run out as supply chains collapse, food supplies will be hoarded, and violence will break out.
We know this because the UK government ran three exercises in the late ’70s and early ’80s called Scrum Half, Square Leg, and Hard Rock, positing attacks of around 100-200 nuclear warheads. The results were a massive breakdown in infrastructure, starting as international tensions rose, and “vast destruction, enormous casualties and widespread chaos” as the bombs fell, with easily more than half the population dead in the first few days after the actual attack.
Anyone left will probably want to eat you. Get in the bunker.
Once you’re in the bunker—stay there. Assuming you haven’t been injured by the heat flash, initial radiation, or blast wave from a nuclear strike, your next major problem is fallout: the now-radioactive soil and other materials pushed into the air by the blast. Alpha radiation isn’t dangerous while it’s outside you, because it’s easily stopped by air and your skin; inside you, inhaled or ingested, it’s vastly disruptive to DNA. Beta radiation is more penetrating but still hugely attenuated by modest shielding. Gamma is best avoided.
However, the good news—for certain values of good—is that the sort of fallout radiation provided by standard thermonuclear weapons has a reasonably short half-life. It decays by a factor of ten for each factor of seven increase in time—in other words, after seven hours, the radiation has decreased tenfold. After two weeks, it’s down to one thousandth. 14 weeks, one ten thousandth.
But how much radiation was out there to begin with? There’s no good news here: it’s impossible to tell unless you measure it. Where a bomb falls, how high up it explodes, prevailing winds, and later weather are all important and unknowable variables. The UK government did maintain a large network of Royal Observer Corps stations equipped to determine some of this and report back to central HQ so that contamination could be tracked. Like the rest of the UK nuclear civil defence infrastructure, though, the ROC was dismantled in the 1990s. This was partially on the grounds of cost, but that was secondary to the main conclusion reached after the exercises: nothing anyone could do would make any difference whatsoever. Worse, everyone knew it.
Why would anyone let you into the bunker? Here, we were told, having useful skills would count in your favour. Mechanical and electronic maintenance chops, medical or personal defence training, physical strength—anything that could justify giving you space and scarce resources. We did get some emergency medical training, but it used a coffin lid as the work surface, so expectations weren’t high.
While you’re in the bunker, don’t get sick and do as you’re told. Being an arse will be punishable by death.
Once inside, you can ponder the question of how to survive outside once the immediate danger is over. We were given firearm and self-defence training—assuming there are enough guns and ammunition to go around, it doesn’t take long to pick up the basics of shooting insane cannibalistic survivors (a zombie fixation may actually help here). Self-defence is harder and takes much more practise: enrolling now in a reputable martial arts course will get you up to speed in a year or so, and our instructor particularly recommended learning about pressure point fighting. Intense pain and paralysis can be very persuasive.
Most gadgets will be useless after a nuclear attack. Despite its reputation as “being designed to withstand a nuclear attack,” the Internet will have gone away, as will main electricity and the cellular networks. To prepare for the apocalypse, you can invest in walkie-talkies and Geiger counters, together with solar chargers and a stock of rechargeable batteries. Keep any radio equipment in a sealed tin to reduce the chances of damage by electromagnetic pulses from a high altitude detonation. The only long-distance communication working after a nuclear attack will be shortwave radio, so if you’re really keen on rebuilding civilisation get yourself a ham radio licence.
One recent innovation that does have some potential for post-apocalyptic survival is the quadcopter/drone. No consumer drone comes as standard with radiation detectors, but Geiger counter kits as small as a matchbox are available and, if you have the requisite electronics skills, can be simply interfaced to a telemetry transmitter. The whole setup will be light enough to be lifted without impacting flight range or duration and will give you a quick way to scout your immediate surroundings for radiation hot spots or insane cannibalistic survivors. It will also announce your presence and location to same, so use with discretion.
Other standard survivalist skills—trapping animals, staying hidden, navigation, improvising weapons, and so on—are less likely to be useful, unless you’re alone in an uncontaminated area. If it is, you won’t be. Leadership training and a good supply of printed pornography for trading will be more helpful. The bottle-tops in our knapsacks were supposed to stand in for money, but vintage copies of Knave would probably be more effective.
At the end of our evening in the Kelvedon Hatch bunker, we were escorted out past the ranks of silent teleprinters and lethality wall charts, treated to a mock attack by insane cannibalistic survivors, given sandwiches in the gift shop, and put on the train home.
None of us was in any doubt that, had it been a real apocalypse, we’d have been long dead. Those of us old enough to have lived through the 1980s—when the Soviets came within hours of launching a nuclear strike by mistake—knew that already. Such days have gone, but the warheads haven’t: while they exist, so does the possibility of Armageddon. The post-apocalyptic world in Fallout 4 is fantastic, not because of its monsters and machinery, but because so much is still standing.
No wonder everyone prefers zombies.