How Accurate Is Fallout’s Version Of A Nuclear Hellscape?

With the recent release (and well earned success) of Amazon’s Fallout TV show this past April, the conversation surrounding a real life nuclear fallout and what it would be like has naturally started to become a topic of conversation. No surprise there, as we saw similar conversations about mutating fungal infections pop up all over the place when HBO’s The Last of Us saw its resounding success back in 2023. People love the apocalypse as a source of entertainment, which is weird considering we pretty much had our own near-apocalyptic event in 2020 that wasn’t very fun, but I digress. 

While the show has brought in a new generation of fans to the franchise, the OGs have been living and breathing the world of Fallout for decades thanks to its many successes across a number of video games. But with the idea of nuclear war back in the spotlight of TV entertainment, and the current world geopolitical climate constantly dredging up fears of a real life attack, there are natural questions about what a post-nuclear world would actually look like. Should we expect to see two headed cows grazing in fields of irradiated grass? Will there be giant mutant lizards that can tear you limb from limb? Will humans caught in the radiation suddenly develop the ability to live forever as a very scary looking zombie?

The reality is, probably not. 

Fallout Ghouls
Feral ghouls as they appear in Bethesda’s 2015 RPG Fallout 4.

A brief summary of the Fallout universe, for the uninitiated; the world timeline between real life and the franchise’s universe diverges following the events of World War II, when nuclear energy is instead used to power human industry and innovation instead of being regulated and limited in its uses. This causes a boom in the global economy, which eventually leads to heightened aggression between the US and China, the two world superpowers. These aggressions finally come to a head in 2077 when nuclear war erupts, decimating the entire globe in a matter of two hours. All the games take place at varying lengths of time following the war, generally around 200 years after the fact. Some people were able to seek shelter in underground Vaults developed by Vault-Tec, while others who weren’t as lucky were transformed into ghouls due to exposure to massive amounts of radiation. With the collapse of civilization and societal structures, the earth becomes a lawless hellscape with various factions fighting to survive.

The world of Fallout is a compelling one, and the concept of post-nuclear civilizations have certainly been explored in many other stories and mediums. But Fallout provides stories from across the United States and from the perspectives of many different survivors of different origins. We learn the origins of many of the vaults, the objectives of those running each Vault, and the different factions that vie for control of the wastelands above ground. There are certainly many ways to predict what a post-nuclear America would look like, but does the immersive world of Fallout provide any semblance of what a realistic wasteland would look like? Or is it all in the service of entertainment? Not surprisingly, it’s a little bit of both. 

The first concept that should be understood is the science behind a nuclear apocalypse. What does a nuclear explosion actually look like, and what is the aftermath? We do have real world examples of this based on the horrific bombings of Japan that ended World War II in the Pacific. We know that a nuclear explosion releases an immense amount of energy in the form of heat, blast, and radiation. The effects of this explosion include: 

  • Blast Wave: A powerful shockwave that demolishes buildings and infrastructure within a large radius of the blast zone.
  • Thermal Radiation: Intense heat that ignites wildfires over that same large radius if not larger, also causing severe burns. Within a certain radius, everything is likely instantaneously vaporized.
  • Ionizing Radiation: Emission of gamma rays and neutrons that can cause acute radiation sickness and long-term health effects.
fallout brotherhood
No amount of power armor (depicted here as it appears in the Fallout TV show) will save you from the effects of nuclear radiation.

And that’s just the immediate results of the bombings. The term “fallout” actually refers to the radioactive particles that descend to earth following a nuclear blast. These particles contaminate air, water, soil, anything and everything essential to life. Exposure to this nuclear fallout is what causes things like Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) and other long term health effects like genetic mutations which lead to other chronic health conditions like cancer. ARS causes more short term but immediate and intense effects like nausea, vomiting, radiation burns, and often death. The likely result of this fallout would lead to a nuclear winter, since the sun would be blocked by the massive levels of soot and smoke from the bombs. That would be the most likely cause of life being wiped out across the world. Not from the bombs themselves, but from the lack of habitability that would happen in the aftermath.

Which then leads us to the subject of the Vaults. In a free market capitalist system like the US, it’s very easy to expect that the private market would absolutely dominate and “sell” the concept of safety from nuclear annihilation, and that the government would endorse it. In fact, that has already proven to be true. During the economic boom following World War II, companies began to market and sell “home bomb shelters.” Some of these shelters even came with a government subsidy or Civil Defense certification, further increasing their appeal. In today’s market however, this obviously leads to a whole host of other problems, including that survival will favor the wealthy upper class and other “desirables” identified by that class. Another key aspect of the Vaults in Fallout is that many of them exist as “fronts” for government and privately endorsed experiments on unwitting participants, to explore the effects of various stresses on humans during this period of bunkering. These concepts are highly realistic, and it’s not hard to imagine that experiments on unwitting test subjects during the course of this confinement would absolutely happen.  

Fallout diamond city
Diamond City, a makeshift town patched together in the ruins of Boston, is depicted here.

So, what about those that don’t make it underground? Can we expect to see ghouls and two headed cows roaming the landscape in 200 years post war? Not likely. We can certainly expect to see genetic mutations on anyone or anything with intense exposure to radiation. Anyone that is within a close enough range to the blast will likely just be vaporized immediately, but those who are far enough from the impact site will be spared immediate death. The question is whether or not that’s a good thing. If folks aren’t killed by radiation poisoning, they will likely die within the next few years due to any other number of factors; nuclear winter, famine, or cancer developed from the mutations caused by the radiation. There is no evidence to suggest that the human genome will somehow magically adapt to radioactive exposure within as short a span of time as a couple of centuries. And we have no scientific evidence or basis to even speculate what things might look like after a millennia. It’s possible that after an extended length of time, thousands of years or more, we could see evolutionary adaptations, but certainly not within the length of time depicted in the Fallout universe. 

At the end of the day, the TV show and the games are entertainment. They’re meant to feed our curiosity about nuclear war, the effects of nuclear fallout, and how society adapts and changes in the wake of those things. And while the story is rooted in some very real fears (nuclear war is never a far off possibility in 2024), the embellishments are a reminder that Fallout is a story first and foremost. Let’s just hope we don’t ever get to a point where we have to think about these concepts as more than a hypothetical. 

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