How Radiation Kills, and How to Protect Yourself in a Nuclear Disaster

How Radiation Kills, and How to Protect Yourself in a Nuclear DisasterMost guides simply explain how to protect yourself against radiation poisoning. You can’t see, hear, smell, touch, nor taste it, but radiation is everywhere, and it’s quite powerful. Some nuclear devices on Earth today can produce enough radiation to literally melt your bones and tissue.

Because radiation is so deadly yet invisible, it’s important to understand how it works. In this guide, we explain what radiation really is, why it’s so deadly, and how to protect yourself from it with real knowledge and understanding.

Types of Radiation

This killer can be classified into three types of waves and particles: Alpha, beta, and gamma/X-ray.

Alpha radiation is a heavy short-range particle, a sort of “ground zero” risk. Alpha radiation is generally safe to be around with little protection because it can’t penetrate the skin. It can, however, be inhaled or ingested through the nose and mouth. Open cuts can absorb alpha radiation, which will damage tissues and cells.

Exposure Risks:

Alpha radiation poses the greatest risk through inhalation and ingestion. Alpha radiation is 5 to 20 times more potent than beta or gamma radiation. If exposed, the skin should be immediately and thoroughly washed of contamination, dust, and debris to prevent accidental ingestion.

Beta radiation is a lighter short-range particle. Beta radiation also exists at “ground zero,” but it can travel several feet in the air and can penetrate the skin. Beta radiation can cause serious injury to internal organs, and it will cause skin burns with direct contact.

Exposure Risks:

Beta particles pose the greatest risk while you’re near a source of radiation with no bodily protection. Full protective clothing and a respirator are required to prevent absorption.

Gamma and X-ray radiation are the particles the nuclear physicists fear. These particles’ energy can travel great distances (several hundred meters in the air), and it can easily penetrate the entire body, destroying the very DNA in your cells at a rapid rate.

The widespread genetic and tissue destruction from this type of radiation is what leads to real sickness in a nuclear disaster. If you’re exposed to high enough levels of gamma or X-ray rays or particles, a painful death shortly follows.

Exposure risks:

Several feet of concrete or several inches of dense material (such as lead) are required to block this type of radiation. Exposure to any area containing any level of gamma or X-ray radiation can cause health problems and should be avoided at all costs.

Long-Term Effects of Radiation Poisoning

Think you’re safe because you don’t have a population center, nuclear silo, or power plant in your ZIP code? Think again. Irradiated material can travel thousands of miles through the air, contaminating entire cities and regions for potentially hundreds of years.

Perhaps the most well-documented study concerning a modern nuclear disaster can be found in the melt-down of the Chernobyl Powerplant. When one of Chernobyl’s reactors exploded during a test in 1986, it launched unprecedented amounts of radioactive material into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Related reading: EMP Attack Survival Guide

A 1,000-square-mile Exclusion Zone had to be created to seal off the area, and over 116,000 people were evacuated. To this day, over five million people are still living in areas surrounding Chernobyl that are considered contaminated. Many of these individuals experience higher rates of cancer, genetic defects, chronic illness, and early death.

Surviving the effects of radiation contamination means creating a “SHTF” plan with the right tools and gear. So, how do you protect yourself in the event of a nuclear disaster like Chernobyl? Like Fukushima?

Like the next one to come?

How to Protect Against Radiation

Protecting against radiation means two satisfying two requirements: Protecting your physical self from poisoning, and protecting your property, food, water, and valuables from contamination. These are the steps you should take to protect against radiation in a disaster:

Buy the right protective suit

Protective radiation suits are typically made of polymer or other synthetic, waterproof materials that can be easily sprayed and washed to remove radioactive dust and debris. A protective suit will guard against direct radionuclide contact with the skin and orifices.

Get a good filtration mask

A properly rated respirator or gas mask will prevent you from inhaling and ingesting radioactive particles and contaminated dust. In combination with a protective suit, a mask will afford you the ability to navigate potentially irradiated zones without direct contact with radioactive material.

Invest in a Geiger counter

Suits and masks can protect against irradiated particles and debris, but they can’t stop the absorption of raw radioactive energy. You need a method of measuring radiation in the environment – yes, you can already hear the beeping and crackling. We’re talking about investing in a Geiger counter.

A Geiger counter (also called a dosimeter) measures the unseen radiation that may be around you. If exposed to excessive levels, the counter/meter will report an audible alarm, letting you know it’s time to beat feet ASAP. Don’t worry, we’ll go over how to measure radiation and what’s safe.

Plan a sealed protective shelter

In the event of nuclear disaster, you’ll need to find a long-term shelter that can be effectively sealed off. Standard buildings and properties suffice if you’re not in an area struck by excessive fallout (“ground zero”), but extra work will be required to insulate and protect against dust and contamination.

That means buying sandbags, plastic sheets, and duct tape. Lots of it. Windows, doors, and any path to the outside world and open-air must be hermetically sealed off. If you’re in an area exposed to high levels of gamma or X-ray radiation, a basement or thick concrete structure is your only safe bet.

Invest in water filtration

Radioactive contamination will affect drinking water, and simply boiling it to purify it won’t do the trick. The EPA recommends using reverse osmosis, carbon filtration, and ion exchange to properly decontaminate irradiated water.

That all sounds scientific, but there are radiological filtration systems available that will remove radioactive isotopes from water, making it safe to consume.

Stock up on radioprotective agents

Baking soda, dietary pectin (commonly found in apples), and potassium iodide tablets are all radioprotective agents. These three “medications” will effectively reduce the risk radiation poses to your thyroid, kidneys, and sensitive tissues.

Prepare to defend yourself

Of all the possible disasters we face, a nuclear disaster is likely the worst scenario. Nuclear fallout effectively destroys entire urban centers and ecosystems without prejudice, including the food and water they provide. Other survivors may not be as well-prepared as you.

Stockpiling the right arsenal is a given in this situation. We recommend checking out our last guide on how to build an unregistered survival rifle using a receiver blank.

How to Measure Radiation

As you read this, you’re being bombarded with all kinds of radiation. It’s pouring out of your computer screen, your cellphone, the bricks in your house’s walls, even the bananas in your kitchen. Rest assured, this background radiation is completely normal and safe.

But how much is too much?

To know this, we need to learn how radiation is measured. The Sievert measures the biological risk of exposure to radiation, and it’s the unit of measure that most Geiger counters/Dosimeters use to report exposure.

Understanding Sievert Measurements

Before we explain how to read a Geiger counter, let’s understand the Sievert measurement system. The Sievert is broken down into 1,000 millisieverts (mSv). One millisievert is 1,000 microsieverts (uSv). Most daily radiation levels are measured in uSv, and annual doses are measured in mSv. If you’re measuring doses by sV for any reason, you’ve got a disaster on your hands and should run very far away.

To give some real-world context, getting a dental X-ray will expose you to 5 uSv (five microsieverts). A mammogram will expose you to 400 uSv. Staying in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone for two weeks will expose you to about 1,000 uSv, or 1 mSv.

The EPA says that no single member of the public should be exposed to more than 1 mSv in one year. US radiation workers can be exposed to 50 mSv (50,000 uSv) per year.

Time is a Factor

How much radiation do you need to be exposed to, in order to feel pain and physical symptoms? Research says it takes around 400 mSv (400,000 uSv) in a short period of time, a few hours to days. The magic word here is time. For reference, Fukushima plant workers received around 180 mSv during the disaster.

That’s three times the annual allowable dose, received nearly all at once. One of the workers died from aggressive cancer as a result. It takes just 100 mSv (100,000 uSv) absorbed over one full year to cause cancer.

Want to know the extreme possibilities? Sadly, real-world data exists. That data says it takes around 8 Sv (8,000 mSv) to receive a fatal dose of radiation. Standing next to the exploded Chernobyl reactor for ten minutes back in 1986 would have exposed you to approximately 50 Sv, resulting in a graphic and incredibly painful, almost-instant death.

How to read a Geiger Counter

Now you know how much radiation exposure it takes to receive a dangerous or fatal dose. And now you can also learn how to read a Geiger Counter.

Most Geiger counters report readings in microsieverts represented like this: “5.2 uSv/Hr”. This reading would mean you’re receiving about 5 microsieverts per hour where you stand.

More expensive models will also report the total level of radiation you’ve been exposed to. Using our example, your Geiger counter would read “15.6 uSv” total radiation absorbed after three hours. 

What Daily Radiation Levels are Safe?

Annual doses and exposure only tell half the story. To learn what levels of radiation are truly safe, one must look at average daily and hourly absorption. Regardless of your location on Earth, you’ll receive approximately 10 uSv per day from background radiation, or 0.41 uSv/Hr.

When the Fukushima Plant failed, it released approximately 13.9 uSv/Hr of radiation in localized areas. If you were to remain in that location continuously for one year without protection, you’d absorb around 122,000 uSv (122 mSv) of radiation, enough to cause aggressive cancer.

Doing reverse math, we can take the annual safe dose that US radiation workers are limited to. Again, that’s 50 mSv or 50,000 uSv per year. That works out to receiving 137 uSv daily, or 5.7 uSv/Hr.

If we go off the EPA’s recommendation for exposure (1 mSv per year), that figure drops to just 0.12 uSv/Hr.

5.7 microsieverts per hour

That’s the magic number you should use to limit your hourly radiation exposure. In the event of a nuclear disaster, background radiation will likely be much higher than normal. Limiting exposure to just 1 mSv per year may not be possible.

You may also likely expose yourself to hourly radiation levels higher than 5.6 uSv in a disaster zone. In the event this occurs, every effort should be made to limit your exposure time in these irradiated areas.

If you’re forced to remain in an area of risk, you should attempt to record your daily and monthly levels of exposure, and you should make every attempt to keep total annual exposure under 50 mSv.


Radiation is a complex, invisible, and dangerous killer. Although most of us preppers plan for more likely scenarios, the risk presented by a nuclear disaster demands some level of consideration.

A quick summary: A nuclear disaster produces radiation through waves and particles. Full protective clothing and a respirator should be worn to protect against irradiated particles. “Ground zero” of any nuclear disaster should be avoided at all costs, lest survivors suffer direct exposure to concentrated (and quite deadly) nuclear energy and waves.

Your shelter should be sealed off from the open-air and outside word in the event of a nuclear disaster. Radiological water filters, a Geiger counter, and radioprotective agents like potassium iodide tablets are critical investments. You should limit daily radiation exposure to less than 5.6 microsieverts per hour, reported by a Geiger counter. Annual exposure should be limited to less than 50,000 microsieverts.

This article has been written by Travis Noonan for Prepper’s Will.

Other Useful Resources:

Learn how to Safeguard your Home against Looters

Find Out What’s the Closest Nuclear Bunker to Your Home

Knowledge to survive any medical crisis situation during a major disaster

The vital self-sufficiency lessons our great grand-fathers left us

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