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Imagine there is a nuclear war and the only people, who survive it without getting sick (without breaking their DNA and suffering from radiation-induced diseases) is the military personnel (couple of hundreds - max. 1000 people) inside the NORAD bunker.

For how many years/decades/centuries could these people maintain a civilized way of life?

By "civilized" I mean access to

  1. modern sanitary systems (hot water, sewage),
  2. electricity,
  3. good-enough transportation (at least cars, ideally - airplanes as well),
  4. telecommunication (at least stationary phones, ideally - mobile phones) and
  5. computers.

I thought, how these people could get access to such goods after a nuclear war. One possibility: Allegedly, there are large warehouses in Russia, where various goods (from napkins to trucks) are stored for two purposes:

  1. Supply of the troops in case of war (allegedly, those warehouses contain spare parts for weapons as well).
  2. Support of people after natural disasters (when e. g. an earthquake happens somewhere and the Russian Emergency Control Ministry sends food and medical equipment into that region, those goods come from these storages).

Let's assume that such facilities exist in the US as well. Then, after a nuclear war the NORAD survivors need to find the nearest warehouse of that sort and part of their needs will be covered (provided that those storage facilities were not destroyed during nuclear attack).

If the storage facility contains gasoline, they could use it for cars and generate electricity from it.

The question is - could they have mobile phones and Internet with most of the people, who maintained these systems, killed? Could they maintain a modern level of medical support without access to medical schools?

Another question: If there are up 1000 survivors, for how long could they live off these emergency supplies (before they run out and the survivors learn to produce these goods themselves) ?

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    $\begingroup$ Ever played Fallout? That would be the "civilised way of life" $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek May 6 '15 at 7:05
  • $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek No, I didn't play "Fallout". Do you mean these survivors could not live (almost) like we do? $\endgroup$ – DP_ May 6 '15 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't have a hard science tag, so that implies that you are willing to write around impossibility. But yes, keeping a modern American quality of life is not possible in any way, in the event this actually happened. Hospitals are useless without doctors, and cell phones and the internet quit pretty soon after the grid does. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy May 6 '15 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ While I have no insider information, I find it safe to assume NORAD is fitted with enough supplies to cause envy to any civilian survivors in the U.S or Russia. $\endgroup$ – Emilio M Bumachar May 12 '17 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ Uhm, one thing: GASOLINE HAS LESS THAN A YEAR SHELF LIFE! Even when specially prepared for long-term storage, we're talking about a couple of years max here $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Sep 20 '18 at 10:43
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1st rule of survival: Drop everything you do not need How long can you operate laptop inside a house which is in the fire? Why would you want to stay inside burning house?

The same rule applies for cell phones. You do not need them because there is no one using them. Who do you call if it is safe to assume, that everyone is dead?

So, you are going to replace cell phones by walkie-talkie or military radio. Because you already have it, it requires only batteries to run, everyone alive has access to it and you do not have to constantly check how much free minutes do you have remaining on your allowance.

Also, you do not have to operate the whole internet. You will most probably operate just intranet, running only inside your bunker. Why? Because it is safe to assume that everyone outside the bunker is dead, Jim.

To answer your question: Such military bunker is going to have a power generator running on diesel. Also, it is safe to assume that after the worst nuclear strike someone will crawl out and provide alternative sources of energy for that bunker - namely solar and wind.

Well equipped bunker with reasonable resource sharing and alternative sources of energy can maintain "normal" life for pretty long.

The amount of time depends mainly on these criteria:

  • How many resources do you actually have
  • How much are people willing to save energy and rationalize food
  • How many people are there
  • How much are they willing to go outside and obtain food.

But believe me, having access to your favorite cat video server would be amongst the last items on your wish list, if you actually survive nuclear blast.

As I stated in the comments, do at least read about game called Fallout. It touches the idea how life inside bunker might look like

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    $\begingroup$ "it is safe to assume that after the worst nuclear strike someone will crawl out and provide alternative sources of energy for that bunker - namely solar and wind." Beg to differ. 1000 people will need generation capacity of ~1 MW. Building such a plant from scratch is, shall we say, non-trivial, particularly when limited to local resources (no shipments from suppliers). The bunker becomes uninhabitable as soon as the diesel runs out. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast May 6 '15 at 16:10
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I think @Pavel Janicek had a great answer but I wanted to add / elaborate on what he said.

If you assume civilized means technological, then a technological civilization requires certain levels of infrastructure to run. That infrastructure requires a certain number of people to maintain and those people must have the correct combination of skills.

For sake of a story, I'd assume a random collection of people have almost no chance of maintaining a technological civilization. Even if you get a very smart & knowledgeable group of people, the chances that they have the correct combination of experience and skills to maintain the infrastructure is vanishingly small.

If you need a small group to maintain civilization for a story, then you'll have to resort to some sort of planning to have ensured each "salvation" bunker had the proper skills mix, proper quantity of people, good psychological profiles, a proper mix of genders, and a proper mix of ages.

I'd assume you'd want

  1. Most bunker assignees to be of child bearing age but you'd probably want a mix of other ages too.
  2. A majority of bunker assignees to be women.
  3. You'd want both thinkers and doers (e.g. engineers and mechanics) with a weighting towards the doers.
  4. All bunker assignees to be of good physical health and fitness.
  5. You'd want to not have any one person possess unique knowledge, otherwise you'd lose an entire set of technology with the loss of one person.
  6. Widely different genetic makeup to ensure healthy off-spring

I don't know but I suspect that 1000 people is not enough.

Furthermore for breeding purposes, I read a study a while back that indicated the following numbers of people required to maintain the race:

  1. 50 people can maintain the race, but it requires very strict and severe protocols regarding procreation (e.g. each woman gets impregnated by as many different men as possible during their life).
  2. 500 people can maintain the race, with strict procreation protocols but not as severe as those for 50 people (single partners are possible if the genetics board approves the match)
  3. 5000 people can maintain the race, with loose procreation protocols.
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  • $\begingroup$ A majority of bunker assignees to be women - imagine there are 1000 survivors and the goal is to keep the population at least at that level (i. e. 1000 or more). Why is it necessary for the initial population to consist primarily of women (and not approx. 50 % men and 50 % women) ? If there is some paper/book I can read about this (percentage of men vs. women in a small population, sufficient to sustain itself), please tell me. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – DP_ May 7 '15 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ For genetic reasons, a 50/50 mix is better. However, a woman's contribution to procreation requires much more time than a man's. So a single man could impregnate many woman while the first one is carrying the baby to term. Of course the conditions will be harsh so maybe we don't want to keep 1/2 or more of the population barefoot and pregnant from the beginning. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B May 7 '15 at 13:38
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The question needs to be split into two parts that make up a civilized society.

A) Technology

B) Culture

From a technological perspective, your survivors face the problem of selection. The military personnel do not represent all or even nearly all of the skills and knowledge necessary for maintaining a high-tech society. Some of this can be compensated for if we assume that they secured enough books and other written knowledge, but some requires training and experience.

Secondly, much of the technology we use today requires vast networks of production, specialised machinery to create and even maintain. The rare earths required for cell phones and computers - where are you going to get them? The robots that assemble modern car engines - unlikely they brought some to a military installation.

So there will definitely be a change in technology, and many high-tech gadgets will become valuable as they continue to work for the time being, but can no longer be repaired or maintained.

The cultural challenge will be even more interesting. How many poets, writers, musicians, actors or philosophers will be in your military installation? How many people with a non-military mindset? The whole micro-society will run according to military customs because that is what everyone is used to. How long such a strictly military society will remain civilized is a good question.

Add to this the small group size and the confined space and you could well have a Lord of the Flies scenario on your hands. Now you asked specifically about technology, but such tech is a group effort and while many inventions are made for the military, not all that many are made by the military.

From that perspective, considering the cultural aspects, your society is going to be doomed to maintain the tech that they brought with them for as long as possible, and then gradually slide into a lower-tech, more pragmatic approach.

So for how long - that was the main question.

Modern computers run for about 10 or so years until something fails. Order of magnitude, maybe it's 5 years, maybe 20, but according to this article, the oldest computer still working has been doing so for 50 years. But it went through several upgrades, and spare parts as well as trained engineers to maintain it are maybe not easily, but available. Without spare parts, or with a limited supply, I doubt you can keep a computer running for more than 100 years, no matter how hard you try.

Cars can go for a million miles, but again that assumes regular maintenance, spare parts, etc. The oldest of these cars have also been running for about 50 years. Funny how that works out.

Electrical systems and plumbing, water pipes, etc. can last a lot longer. I don't have numbers on that and this answer is getting long. So let's sum up my prediction:

  1. For about a decade, they could largely maintain the level
  2. For about a century, they would experience a slow drop to more mechanical, more simple, more pragmatic levels, as high-tech devices one-by-one stop working
  3. Basic electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems can theoretically be maintained indefinitely. A fall back to the stone age is unlikely.
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