What To Do If Nuclear War Seems Imminent

by Ben_LandauTaylor2 min read13th Sep 20187 comments



This document describes precautions to take in a scenario like the Cuban Missile Crisis, where nuclear war seems plausibly imminent within the next days or weeks. This is not a guide for what to do if a missile is currently inbound and will strike within minutes or hours.


If tensions between nuclear powers are running extremely high, and you are in or near a plausible target during a nuclear war (such as a major city in the United States or Europe), then I recommend evacuating to a safer place as soon as possible, and staying for days or weeks until things have calmed down. New Zealand is an excellent place to go.

This plan requires that you maintain a valid passport, so that you can leave your country on short notice if needed. No other special preparations are needed.

Proper calibration here should include substantial tolerance for false positives. For people with the means available, I think it was correct to evacuate during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though it did not end up leading to nuclear war.

Why New Zealand?

New Zealand is of little or no strategic relevance to the current conflicts between nuclear powers. The experts I’ve talked to agree that it’s implausible that anyone would target New Zealand with nuclear weapons, or that anyone would invade New Zealand in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

New Zealand is easy to enter. Anyone with no notable criminal history and a valid passport from most countries, including the US, EU, and Canada, can get a New Zealand tourist visa on arrival, with no need for a prior application, and stay for up to 90 days. (Make sure to get a round-trip ticket, or they might not let you in.)

New Zealand is a major food exporter. If supply chains are disrupted, you’ll be close to the source.

New Zealand is very stable internally. It has a strong Anglo tradition of governance, reasonable national pride, no coups or civil wars within the last century+, negligible riots or ethnic strife, etc.

New Zealand is culturally familiar. It’s an English-speaking country that’s firmly within Western Civilization. As such, most of my audience will be more comfortable staying there while waiting for tensions to calm down, and will stick out less if there’s chaos or rioting after a war.

No other country is so good on so many of these dimensions.

Backup Plans

If you are unable to enter New Zealand, then there are many other countries which look like good options: many South American countries, Australia, and Botswana. Partial notes here.

If you are unable to leave your country (this is unlikely if you have a valid passport; see below), then you should drive to a small town far from any metropolis or other plausible target. (After brief examination, for people in the Bay Area, I recommend the Modoc Plateau in northeast California as a default unless/until more research is done.) Once there, organize, acquire supplies, and find a location to dig fallout shelters. Construction is described in Nuclear War Survival Skills, the full text of which is online. The book claims untrained civilians can build the shelters in 1-2 days.

Other Concerns

How will I know when to evacuate?

This will probably be obvious. Past diplomatic crises between nuclear powers have frequently been widely publicized.

If I decide to evacuate, I will send a brief alert to anyone who signs up to receive one via this form.

Won’t all the flights get booked due to mass panic?

Probably not, judging by past cases. For example, it looks like there were no large-scale evacuations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in spite of very alarming headlines. (It seems to me that most people have trouble thinking about nuclear destruction in a way that permits any action whatsoever.)

What about nuclear fallout?

Based on a friend’s analysis, fallout risk in New Zealand is low unless New Zealand itself is targeted, and the experts I’ve talked to agree that this is implausible.

Fallout is dangerous for about two weeks. Nuclear War Survival Skills (full text) describes how to build shelters, which would be uncomfortable but effective.


7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:24 PM
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I see that New Zealand is also a major wood exporter. In case of an energy crisis, wood gas could serve as a renewable alternative to other energy sources. Wood gas can be used to power unmodified cars and generators. Empirically this worked during the Second World War and works today in North Korea. Also, FEMA once released some plans for building an emergency wood gasifier.

NZ is such a cliche for nuclear escape by now that I wonder if it might be targeted in a full-on nuclear war just to get the escaping rich westerners.

Would any "participants in nuclear war" (for lack of a better term) be interested in killing escaping rich westerners?

Interestingly, I had a similar "plan" set up myself, with Iceland as destination (way closer to where I live)

A few thought that seem to be worth mentioning.

The survival guide is rather dated, 30+ years and close to 40 for what was not updated in the rewrite. I wonder if the weather patterns have not changed enough to make some of the argument moot.

Even if NZ is a good place to run, it may or may not be where you want to be. Clearly the people on the various sides pushing the buttons all know this. They will have their national bunkers and protected transportation (anyone see the recent story about the 4 USA plains that are designed for operating in such an environment?) . As the war works towards it's conclusion one or all sides will start looking at where they want to live after the war complete. They will then clearly be targeting such locations -- not with nuclear weapons (those starting to loose the war and thinking removing that option from the winning side might offer a better strategic negotiation stance might....) but clearly the power governing such places will likely change. What will your status be?

Last, in such a case why would NZ leave their boarders open. They may immediately put a block on such free entry. Even if they don't just what is that countries carrying capacity for immigrants? How quickly would NZ devolve into a Hobbesian state of nature environment?

Of course the other big question here would be just how one would rationally evaluate the event of such an outcome and so achieve a less wrong outcome? Clearly you don't want to uproot yourself and your family, throw away what is likely a pretty good job, throw away your house and possible other creature comforts just out of fear. That seems to be one of those quantity over quality approaches. I suppose some do think that way but for me I would prefer a shorter, higher quality life than a longer but low quality life.

>The survival guide is rather dated, 30+ years and close to 40 for what was not updated in the rewrite. I wonder if the weather patterns have not changed enough to make some of the argument moot.

None of the advice in the survival guide is dependent on weather patterns. Specifically, although some places, e.g., extreme Northern California, are likely to be survivable without a fallout shelter after a nuclear war, there is no place in the continental US that is guaranteed to be survivable, so since fallout shelters *are* a guarantee and can be built by most families, the survival guide advises everyone to build a fallout shelter as soon as war has become likely.

The author of the survival guide (Kearny) was focused on the survival of his country (the US) as a whole and didn't give advice about "selfish" survival strategies such as bolting to New Zealand that do not contribute to the survival of the country as a whole.

Someone who does advise about "selfish" strategies is Joel Skousen, who has worked as a consultant to wealthy Americans on the subject. Skousen stresses that the main danger faced by people who've prepared for nuclear war is refugee flows consisting of millions of completely-unprepared Americans. Most large American urban areas have only enough food (e.g., in supermarkets and warehouses) to feed their populations for about 4 days, and once that food is gone, the people start walking into the countryside. So for example, Skousen has investigated the behavior of refugees near the end of the European Theater of WWII and has found that everything within about 5 miles of a road gets ransacked by refugees looking for food.

(The problem of refugees is why during the cold war Switzerland and some of the Scandinavian countries required the entire population to be prepared. E.g., Swiss cities could shelter their entire population in large communal fallout shelters whereas anyone building a house in suburban or rural Switzerland was required by law to also build a co-located fallout shelter.)

Skousen started out advising people to move to sparsely-populated parts of the US, but many people who did so reported back to Skousen that they ran out of money after a few years and that there was no way to earn money in the regions Skousen advised them to relocate, so nowadays he focuses more on strategies like having one member of the family learn how to fly a plane, then relocating to western Montana (the place in the US he considers the most survivable) using the plane on the first serious signs of war.

(The missile fields of eastern Montana and nearby are separated from western Montana by mountains that fallout will not cross. Yes, I have noticed that Skousen's thinking is distorted by paranoia and conspiracy theories.)

Follow up on my own comments. Skimming through the Myst's and Facts chapter I wonder if such a migration would even be needed. One might only need to consider taking a few weeks off work and visiting friends/family or a vacation to a strategically uninteresting location in the USA that is also not directly downwind of a primary target.