Best Place to Survive Nuclear War in the U.S.

In the wake of President Biden's mention of nuclear "armageddon", and Elon Musk tweeting that "nuclear war probability is rising rapidly," it is natural that people have pondered online what they would do, and where they would shelter, in the event of a nuclear war.

But, the safest place to go in the case of a nuclear bomb being detonated depends on where the bomb is targeted, as well as the size of the nuclear weapons, the time of year, the weather conditions, and variety of other factors, meaning the safest location will vary considerably.

Some estimates name Maine, Oregon, Northern California, and Western Texas as some of the safest locales in the case of nuclear war, due to their lack of large urban centers and nuclear power plants.

Nuclear bombs use heavy, unstable isotopes of radioactive elements to release immense amounts of energy, unleashing destruction on a site of choice.

nuclear blast mushroom cloud
Stock image of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb. Scientists reveal where the safest places in the U.S. would be in the wake of a nuclear war. iStock / Getty Images Plus

The U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945 killed many hundreds of thousands of civilians using nuclear fission bombs, with their uranium and plutonium fuels undergoing almost instantaneous chain reaction of atom splitting, releasing the equivalent energy of 15,000 and 21,000 tons of TNT, respectively.

Modern nuclear weapons are 20 to 30 times more powerful than those used on Japan, according to Business Insider. Russia and the U.S. each have between 5,000 and 6,000 nuclear weapons, while China has 350, France has 290, the U.K. has 225, and India and Pakistan each have around 160.

While there is no sure way to know where a nuclear bomb would be dropped, we can assume that they would initially be targeted at large and important population centers in the U.S., such as New York City or Washington D.C.

At the epicenter of the bomb, the shockwave of searing hot air would flatten most structures in its path, burning anything flammable.

"I am of the view that a rural area which is not downwind of a obvious target is the best place if you want to avoid fallout and other effects of the bomb. A good place would be a valley where the hills would give you some protection from heat and blast from bombs which go off [miles] from where you are," Dr Mark R. StJ Foreman, an associate professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden, told Newsweek.

Aside from the initial blast of fire and shockwaves from the bomb detonations, a nuclear war would have ripple effects throughout the entire country, with radiation being transferred via winds, as well as extreme weather patterns occurring due to the disruption to the atmosphere.

"I would want to be in a place where it is easy to dig a shelter or adapt an existing structure to provide protection if fallout was to be scattered over the land. I suspect that even if the nearest bomb detonation was a long way away that you might need to shelter for some days to reduce your radiation exposure," said Foreman.

"A railway tunnel would be a good place to hide if you know for sure that the trains will not be moving around. Another option would be to park a car above a motor mechanics inspection trench. Pack the inside of the car with sacks of soil. Then go under the car. The soil in the car and the fact you are underground would then shield you from gamma rays."

Even if you were outside of the area close to the detonation, radioactive fallout from the bomb may reach you via wind and rain. Radioactive dust can be blown many hundreds of miles and be inhaled, and also caught in rain clouds, falling to Earth in the water system.

"A good place to be would be in an area which is in a rain shadow, the Rocky Mountains cause the rain clouds to release their water as rain. If you go further east from the Rockies then you will end up in a rain shadow," Foreman said. "I would want to be in a rain shadow as rain can bring a lot of fallout out of the sky.

"I would want to be in an area where there is clay soil and some underground water which I can drill a well into. I would want a supply of groundwater after the nuclear war is over, by using water which has passed through soil and rocks the vast majority of the radioactivity will be filtered out of it.

"Also if you put some clean clay type soil in a bucket with rain water then stir it up then the majority of the radioactivity will bind tightly onto the clay. This would allow you to decontaminate the water."

Radiation sickness caused by the fallout can kill, depending on the intensity of exposure. Radiation can affect the gastrointestinal system, the bone marrow and the circulatory system, which can result in rapid death, or at lower doses, may cause cancers of the thyroid and other organs.

In the aftermath of a nuclear attack, the journey to rebuilding civilization would be a long and hard one.

After the U.S. bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it took years to restore the cities to their former functionality. In the case of multiple cities in the U.S. being bombed, it is likely that recovery would take much longer, with resources being spread wider.

"While surviving a large-scale nuclear attack is possible, the challenges post-detonation are to reconnect infrastructure and to reestablish supply lines," Kathryn A. Higley, a professor at the School of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Oregon State University, told Newsweek. "That would potentially be a large undertaking."