Fact vs. Fiction: How to survive the nuclear apocalypse, according to the movies

We’re approaching the end of the world as we know it, but will you be fine?

North Korea is ramping up its nuclear missile program, the UN is trying to set down sanctions to deter future tests, and President Donald Trump is content to wage a Twitter war with Kim Jong-un until he get the launch codes to start a real battle.

You know things are getting bad when Putin is calling for peaceful dialogue to settle with North Korea.

Film and television try to depict what nuclear war and its aftermath might be like for the survivors, but since we’ve never had to deal with a true nuclear war (knock on wood), we should confirm with science if the choices of our Hollywood heroes would be NUCLEAR WINS or NUCLEAR FAILS.

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Can you survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator? (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), on the run from Soviet agents, stumbles onto the site of an atomic bomb test in Nevada and runs into a ridiculously detailed model of an All-American neighborhood (seriously, did the mannequins need running water, television, and a fully stocked fridge of food when it was all going to be annihilated in ten seconds or less?). Indy takes shelter in a lead-lined refrigerator and rides the nuclear shock wave to safety. Good for him! Bad for us viewers who had to watch the rest of the movie.

George Lucas attempted to defend this bit of movie magic in a New York Times profile, claiming that he put together a “six inches thick” dossier that explained that if the fridge was lead-lined and if Indy didn’t break his neck when the fridge suddenly took off at Mach 1 and if he were able to get the door open (notice that there are a lot of “ifs” that have to happen to get the desired result), then the odds of surviving “from a lot of scientists [emphasis Lucas’s] are about 50-50.”

I don’t know which scientists Lucas talked to, but the general scientific community seems to agree that the odds of surviving a nuclear blast in a refrigerator are not the same as the odds of “heads” during a coin toss.

Lucas also has a six-inch thick dossier predicting 50-50 odds that Shia LaBeouf swinging with CGI monkeys wouldn’t look ridiculous. Lucas should never try gambling.

The good people at Overthinkingit.com conducted a scientific peer review of the scene and concluded that a lead-lined fridge would not have been thick enough. It would have liquefied around him, encasing him in molten lead, if you can possibly picture in your head what that might look–

Right. Of course you can.

And even if Indy survived the initial launch of the fridge, he would have most likely broken his neck and/or been turned to jelly when it crashed back down to the ground. Additionally, lead-lined refrigerators aren’t common household appliances, so this plan, even if it were viable, wouldn’t be any option for the average person. So if your last-ditch effort involves throwing out all your leftovers and squeezing yourself next to the orange juice, the scientific community at large agrees that this would be a NUCLEAR FAIL. 

Can you escape nuclear annihilation in a bank vault? (The Twilight Zone)

What about hiding in a bank vault like Henry Bemis, the bespectacled sad sack from The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”? In the episode, Henry takes his lunch break in the security vault at the bank where he works, and when he comes out, he finds that there’s been a nuclear attack. The bank building and everything in the surrounding area has collapsed, but Henry and the vault are unscathed.

Who knew Vault-Tec made bank vaults?

In real life, a bank vault might be a NUCLEAR OPTION. While most of Hiroshima was wiped out by the nuclear bomb dropped on the city in 1945, the vault at Teikoku Bank and its contents survived intact. The manufacturer of the vault, Mosler Safe Company, went out of business in 2001, so there’s no guarantee that any other bank vault has the same quality of strength. But if you have adequate air and food supplies, a way to get out of the vault after the blast, and the right supplies to flee the local radioactive area, then it seems like there might be a small chance for survival.

Would you be safe from radioactive contamination with a soda bottle gas mask and shower curtain hazmat suit? (10 Cloverfield Lane)

So let’s say you rode out the blast in your fallout shelter but didn’t have time to grab a proper hazmat suit, and for whatever reason, you need to leave while the fallout radiation is still high. Could you survive in a DIY version like Michelle in the 2016 film 10 Cloverfield Lane?

In the film, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is essentially held hostage by Howard (John Goodman), who claims he saved her life by bringing her down to his underground bunker because there’s been some sort of attack. Michelle and the other bunker occupant, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), agree that there are too many inconsistencies in Howard’s story and formulate a plan to escape. But just in case Howard is telling the truth about a chemical or nuclear attack, the two make preparations to leave the bunker safely. Michelle creates a makeshift hazmat suit out of duct tape and a discarded shower curtain. Using a page from Howard’s survival guide, Emmett makes a gas mask from a soda bottle.

Doesn’t matter if you’re trapped in a crazy man’s basement. As Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work!”

Without spoiling the movie too much, Michelle gets the chance to test out the suit’s capabilities, and it works! This part didn’t really surprise me; there have been instructions on how to make homemade gas masks around for quite a while now. National Geographic, Wide Open Spaces, and Business Insider have all offered instructions on how to make DIY gas masks. One man even made a mask based on instructions from a 1946 Popular Science article!

Wars come and go, but gas masks never go out of style.

Despite the availability of gas mask guides, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of articles on how well the masks actually hold up. Brian and Jason, the hosts of the YouTube channel Scam School, tested how long their masks could last against tear gas grenades. There’s no live timer on the video, but it seemed like the pair didn’t last more than several minutes. While that might do in a pinch, it doesn’t appear that a homemade gas mask would be able to withstand an intense amount of toxic air. But if used after the nuclear fallout has died down (experts predict that after two weeks, fallout radiation will decline to less than one percent), it might be sufficient to serve as additional protection when fleeing a contaminated area.

But what about the hazmat suit? This was tricky to verify, since most homemade hazmat suit tutorials are purely for costuming purposes, and there’s not a lot of people who are willing to walk through chemical gases to test if their makeshift suits would protect them from burns. Bunch of cowards.

Hazmat suits vary in their levels of protection, with the highest grade ones having a self-contained breathing apparatus. At a basic level, hazmat suits are made from impermeable materials that ensure that contaminants don’t touch the wearer. Michelle’s suit seems like it would fulfill that basic condition, although I’m not sure exactly how long it could withstand more extreme conditions. Still, it does seem like a shower curtain hazmat suit and soda bottle gas mask would offer some degree of protection that would be better than nothing. I’m going to declare this as a NUCLEAR OPTION, but not necessarily a surefire win.

Bathing in a radioactive stream will make you sick, but you can still survive, right? (Z for Zachariah)

If you survive the blast, don’t congratulate yourself just yet. The next major obstacle is surviving radiation fallout, which as mentioned above poses the greatest threat in the first two weeks after the blast. We know radiation poisoning can lead to cancer and cause burns, but the films The Day After (1983) and When the Wind Blows (1986) included vomiting, spontaneous bleeding, skin sores, and hair loss in their unflinchingly tragic portrayals of radiation poisoning. For a reference, check out Denise (Lori Lethin) from The Day After before and after she gets exposed to fallout radiation:

I know. The ’80s was a tragic time for women’s hairstyles.

Denise left her shelter for several minutes five days after the initial blast, and it’s implied that she’s doomed to die from acute radiation poisoning. However, Z for Zachariah (2015) has a less fatalistic take on the harmful effects of radiation. In the film, nuclear apocalypse survivor Ann (Margot Robbie) is the lone occupant of an isolated valley that’s been mostly spared the effects of fallout. One day, a fellow survivor named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) arrives, and he bathes in one of the valley’s springs. Ann rushes out to warn him that the water is contaminated, and although Loomis quickly leaves the stream, he still ends up suffering from radiation sickness. However, even with limited medical supplies and skills, Ann is able to nurse him back to health. No doubt Loomis forced himself to stay alive because radiation poisoning or not, a man is not going to give up the chance to be alone with Margot Robbie.

But how could Loomis survive bathing several minutes in a radioactive spring? Wouldn’t close contact with the water put him at an equal, if not higher, risk of dying from exposure to radiation than poor Denise?

What If? answered a similar question from a reader who wondered what would happen if someone swam in a nuclear fuel pool. Fuel pools are relatively safe to swim in, because human divers go down in them to do maintenance. What If? explains that “every 7 centimeters of water cuts the amount of radiation in half” and theorizes that “as swimming safety goes, the bottom line is that you’d probably be OK, as long as you didn’t dive to the bottom or pick up anything strange.” Popular Science interviewed a few nuclear fuel divers and noted that one diver received a 16 mrem dosage, “which wasn’t a lot.”

Ann warns Loomis that the water he’s bathing in comes from outside the valley, which is contaminated, but we don’t know by what or by how much. We also don’t know exactly how high the radiation levels are, but Loomis begins vomiting after he leaves the water, which means the dosage must have been high if he immediately felt the effects. Luckily, Loomis is equipped with medicine, iodine, and a hot Australian woman to help him out.

So long as the water isn’t terribly contaminated and there’s a steady supply of potassium iodine and other forms of medication, I’m going to declare this as a NUCLEAR OPTION. With quick thinking and the right supplies, it looks like there’s a chance to be nursed back to full health. The company of an award-winning actress is optional.

If you do want to start preparing for a nuclear apocalypse and don’t want to spend time fact-checking Hollywood’s advice, visit ready.gov and check out the planning guides from FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.


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Susan Velazquez

Susan is a recent college grad and writer who enjoys all things from the 1980s, snarking on dumb television, and reveling in celebrity gossip. Oh, and she has serious interests like reading historical fiction, getting involved in social issues, and consuming French fries.

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  • Kenneth Morgan

    Okay, let me get this straight: people actually sat down for some considerable length of time to carefully determine the scientific accuracy and plausibility of an Indiana Jones movie.
    With all due respect, that’s a definite sign that a person has far too much free time on their hands.

  • Florin

    I don’t think anyone needed to know the fridge scene was ridiculous.And if there was such a person they surely aren’t smart enough to do a Google search for anything more complicated than porn.

  • Loren Pechtel

    I haven’t seen the Z movie but I must object. If he starts vomiting from the radiation exposure he’s almost certainly dead. That implies something like a 10Sv dose–and that’s dead in a few days, the doctors can’t help.

  • Hard Little Machine

    Whatever it is, blame Trump.

  • Kali

    Of course, in the 50s lots of people built bomb shelters that were even less protected than the vault in “Time Enough at Last.” After all, it’s not exactly clear how deep the vault is; they use a simple trick to cut down the time it might have taken. We do see how thick the door is (although there’s no indication that he locked it afterwards), and we can only assume that the walls of the vault itself are also that thick (which it probably would have to be).

    If there is an issue, it’s the fact that Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) immediately LEFT the vault and went outside. By any stretch of the imagination, his long-term chance of survival would not be good.

    Everybody, watch Threads. Not a feel good movie by any means, but if you REALLY want to see the chance of survival after the apocalypse, there’s your prima facie example. Not one member of the main cast survives to the end, but I’m not about to tell you more. It’s a great movie. Naturally, it’s British. Ours was “The Day After,” and boy was THAT a crappy movie.