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How a single terrorist nuclear bomb would affect a city

The effects of a single terrorist nuclear bomb, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 
Matthew Bunn Nickolas Roth28 SEPTEMBER 2017,   The escalating threats between North Korea and the United States make it easy to forget the “nuclear nightmare,” as former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry put it, that could result even from the use of just a single terrorist nuclear bomb in the heart of a major city.

At the risk of repeating the vast literature on the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and the substantial literature surrounding nuclear tests and simulations since then—we attempt to spell out here the likely consequences of the explosion of a single terrorist nuclear bomb on a major city, and its subsequent ripple effects on the rest of the planet. Depending on where and when it was detonated, the blast, fire, initial radiation, and long-term radioactive fallout from such a bomb could leave the heart of a major city a smoldering radioactive ruin, killing tens or hundreds of thousands of people and wounding hundreds of thousands more. Vast areas would have to be evacuated and might be uninhabitable for years. Economic, political, and social aftershocks would ripple throughout the world. A single terrorist nuclear bomb would change history. The country attacked—and the world—would never be the same.

The idea of terrorists accomplishing such a thing is, unfortunately, not out of the question; it is far easier to make a crude, unsafe, unreliable nuclear explosive that might fit in the back of a truck than it is to make a safe, reliable weapon of known yield that can be delivered by missile or combat aircraft. Numerous government studies have concluded that it is plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a crude bomb if they got the needed nuclear material. And in the last quarter century, there have been some 20 seizures of stolen, weapons-usable nuclear material, and at least two terrorist groups have made significant efforts to acquire nuclear bombs.

Terrorist use of an actual nuclear bomb is a low-probability event—but the immensity of the consequences means that even a small chance is enough to justify an intensive effort to reduce the risk. Fortunately, since the early 1990s, countries around the world have significantly reduced the danger—but it remains very real, and there is more to do to ensure this nightmare never becomes reality.

Brighter than a thousand suns. Imagine a crude terrorist nuclear bomb—containing a chunk of highly enriched uranium just under the size of a regulation bowling ball, or a much smaller chunk of plutonium—suddenly detonating inside a delivery van parked in the heart of a major city……….

The silent killer. The bomb’s immediate effects would be followed by a slow, lingering killer: radioactive fallout. A bomb detonated at ground level would dig a huge crater, hurling tons of earth and debris thousands of feet into the sky. Sucked into the rising fireball, these particles would mix with the radioactive remainders of the bomb, and over the next few hours or days, the debris would rain down for miles downwind. Depending on weather and wind patterns, the fallout could actually be deadlier and make a far larger area unusable than the blast itself. Acute radiation sickness from the initial radiation pulse and the fallout would likely affect tens of thousands of people. Depending on the dose, they might suffer from vomiting, watery diarrhea, fever, sores, loss of hair, and bone marrow depletion. Some would survive; some would die within days; some would take months to die. Cancer rates among the survivors would rise. Women would be more vulnerable than men—children and infants especially so.

Much of the radiation from a nuclear blast is short-lived; radiation levels even a few days after the blast would be far below those in the first hours. For those not killed or terribly wounded by the initial explosion, the best advice would be to take shelter in a basement for at least several days. But many would be too terrified to stay. Thousands of panic-stricken people might receive deadly doses of radiation as they fled from their homes. Some of the radiation will be longer-lived; areas most severely affected would have to be abandoned for many years after the attack. The combination of radioactive fallout and the devastation of nearly all life-sustaining infrastructure over a vast area would mean that hundreds of thousands of people would have to evacuate.

Ambulances to nowhere. The explosion would also destroy much of the city’s ability to respond. Hospitals would be leveled, doctors and nurses killed and wounded, ambulances destroyed. (In Hiroshima, 42 of 45 hospitals were destroyed or severely damaged, and 270 of 300 doctors were killed.) Resources that survived outside the zone of destruction would be utterly overwhelmed. Hospitals have no ability to cope with tens or hundreds of thousands of terribly burned and injured people all at once; the United States, for example, has 1,760 burn beds in hospitals nationwide, of which a third are available on any given day.

And the problem would not be limited to hospitals; firefighters, for example, would have little ability to cope with thousands of fires raging out of control at once. Fire stations and equipment would be destroyed in the affected area, and firemen killed, along with police and other emergency responders. Some of the first responders may become casualties themselves, from radioactive fallout, fire, and collapsing buildings. Over much of the affected area, communications would be destroyed, by both the physical effects and the electromagnetic pulse from the explosion.

Better preparation for such a disaster could save thousands of lives—but ultimately, there is no way any city can genuinely be prepared for a catastrophe on such a historic scale, occurring in a flash, with zero warning. Rescue and recovery attempts would be impeded by the destruction of most of the needed personnel and equipment, and by fire, debris, radiation, fear, lack of communications, and the immense scale of the disaster. The US military and the national guard could provide critically important capabilities—but federal plans assume that “no significant federal response” would be available for 24-to-72 hours. Many of those burned and injured would wait in vain for help, food, or water, perhaps for days.

The scale of death and suffering. How many would die in such an event, and how many would be terribly wounded, would depend on where and when the bomb was detonated, what the weather conditions were at the time, how successful the response was in helping the wounded survivors, and more. Many estimates of casualties are based on census data, which reflect where people sleep at night; if the attack occurred in the middle of a workday, the numbers of people crowded into the office towers at the heart of many modern cities would be far higher. The daytime population of Manhattan, for example, is roughly twice its nighttime population; in Midtown on a typical workday, there are an estimated 980,000 people per square mile. A 10-kiloton weapon detonated there might well kill half a million people—not counting those who might die of radiation sickness from the fallout. (These effects were analyzed in great detail in the Rand Corporation’s Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack and the British Medical Journal’s “Nuclear terrorism.”)………


September 30, 2017 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, Reference, safety

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