"Terrorist with Nuke" Movie Plot

Since when did The New Scientist hire novelists to write science stories?

A truck pulls up in front of New York City's Grand Central Station, one of the most densely crowded spots in the world. It is a typical weekday afternoon, with over half a million people in the immediate area, working, shopping or just passing through. A few moments later the driver makes his delivery: a 10-kiloton atomic explosion.

Almost instantly, an electromagnetic pulse knocks out all electronics within a radius of 4 kilometres. The shock wave levels every building within a half-kilometre, killing everyone inside, and severely damages virtually all buildings for a kilometre in every direction. Detonation temperatures of millions of degrees ignite a firestorm that rapidly engulfs the area, generating winds of 600 kilometres an hour.

Within seconds, the blast, heat and direct exposure to radiation have killed several hundred thousand people. Perhaps they are the lucky ones. What follows is, if anything, even worse.

The explosion scoops ...

EDITED TO ADD (3/24): Here's the full article.

Posted on March 24, 2006 at 11:51 AM • 41 Comments


bobMarch 24, 2006 12:48 PM

I thought EMP was the result of an exoatmospheric nuclear blast interacting with the ionosphere?

arlMarch 24, 2006 12:48 PM

I don't have access to the rest of the text but it looks like a resonable question to start asking. The device in question is something that can be found in several countrie's stockpiles.

Is the "Sum of all Fears" that much different from "Debt of honor".

Will EvansMarch 24, 2006 12:52 PM

How many time must the same scenario, with villain changed in guise, be resurrected and regurgitated, it eschatology is trite now, and really is no more interesting than stale bread and fabio spread.

NicMarch 24, 2006 12:53 PM

Gee, where is this writer's imagination. Iif our security measures are so bad (don't laugh please) that the bad guys have their hands on a 10 kiloton nuclear weapon, why haven't they procured two, or three, or...
Imagine how much more devastaing simultaneous explosions in New York, Washington, London and Paris would be!

It New Scientist is going to present fiction, the least they could do is hire decent writers :)

J.D. AbolinsMarch 24, 2006 1:15 PM

Pete Johnson, thank you for the URL for the fulll text.

The New Scientist's teaser for the article/story is "What if New York City was dirty bombed?".

Reminds me of the BBC TV movie "A Dirty War" where London is the target. Unlike the New Scientist article, the movie spent most of the time on the precursors to the attack and the work of investigators. Another difference is that the NS story involves a nuclear bomb while the BBC movie involves conventional explosives that disperse radioactive materials. The latter would be much simpler to construct and a likely threat.

A Dirty War info at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/dirty_war/...

AndrewMarch 24, 2006 1:27 PM

I am not sure which is more unrealistic: the idea that a swift government response will rapidly succor the casualties (as seen in the Sum of All Fears movie), or that no effective response will leave hundreds of thousands dying in the streets.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. All hospitals are required to have disaster plans, EMS services and local agencies as well, and at least an introduction to the subject is now included in emergency service worker training.

The weak link will be disaster logistics as usual, particularly with much of the military logistics network with Iraq rather than North America on the brain.

There is no effective treatment for high numbers of radiation casualties other than supportive care. However, providing this supporting care will require that large numbers of injured persons be transported to hospitals and makeshift facilities across the country.

I am not at all sure that this will happen. This is not a "science" question (as we know how to build and maintain logistics networks) but rather a "politics" question, as in are we willing to spend a little effort in advance to make disaster logistics work when many lives ride on it.

New Orleans. Sigh.

arlMarch 24, 2006 1:35 PM

Actualy its not a bad read. While the attack described is pretty much an "example", the ideas that follow may be important. In the past we considered a nuklear attack to involve a massive ICBM attack and response (MAD), the odds of a smaller attack continues to grow. Having the means to treat a large number of radiation patients could be a good idea!

KeesMarch 24, 2006 1:49 PM

"I am not sure which is more unrealistic: the idea that a swift government response will rapidly succor the casualties (as seen in the Sum of All Fears movie), or that no effective response will leave hundreds of thousands dying in the streets."

Remember the 'swift' government response to 9-11 - Katrina/New Orleans?

If this movie plot happens I think the government will be sitting in a primary school reading stories to kiddies and hoping the problem will go away.

JDMarch 24, 2006 1:53 PM

Here's a scenario I find all too rational:

Terrorists or other criminals get their hands on a nuke (only a matter of time) and smuggle it into the U.S. (easy enough). Why use it to blow up just one city when they can blackmail the entire nation? They announce that they will explode a nuke somewhere in the country in 3 days as a demonstration (to get everybody's nerves rattling thoroughly), then in exactly 3 days set it off in some remote area. They then announce that a second bomb is concealed in a major American city (not named, let them all panic) and will be set off if the following list of demands is not met.....

What will our brilliant government do then?

Ed T.March 24, 2006 1:57 PM

I don't think the story is all that implausible, though certainly some license with facts was taken (a ground nuke creating EMP?) We certainly have evidence of what a Hiroshima-size bomb will do to an urban area (just look at what happened to Hiroshima), and is it that unlikely that someone with a serious beef against the US will manage to get hold of the parts needed to assemble a weapon of that size, given that we have all those lovely nukes floating around the FSU, where the general officers don't make much above poverty level, and they have to find some way to obtain the funds to do critical maintenance and operations?

Now the real question will be whether Tom Clancy sues, based on "violation of copyright", for them stealing the plot elements from one of his novels.


Lou the trollMarch 24, 2006 2:23 PM

Quoting ~EdT. "Now the real question will be whether Tom Clancy sues, based on "violation of copyright", for them stealing the plot elements from one of his novels."


You slay me... lol!

Lou the troll

VickiMarch 24, 2006 2:49 PM

Just a note--"government response" doesn't just mean Washington/the feds. While the only president we have was reading children's stories on 9/11, the city police and fire departments mobilized themselves, if anything, too effectively. (It would have worked better if not for the bad luck, and bad judgment, that the city emergency command center was in the World Trade Center.) The Transit Authority successfully got everyone out of the stations under the Twin Towers.

wkwillisMarch 24, 2006 2:55 PM

I wonder what the results of several hundred nuclear weapons going off in several hundred cities in America and the rest of the world?
Why do they seem to assume only one bomb? If you can build one, you can build a hundred. If you can steal one, you can steal a hundred.

RobertMarch 24, 2006 3:14 PM

"let them all panic) and will be set off if the following list of demands is not met.....

What will our brilliant government do then?"

Well, I'm not sure what the government would do, but I can tell you what the general public reaction would be. 99% of the muslim appearing persons in the USA would be killed within 48 hours.

greygeekMarch 24, 2006 3:18 PM


What, am I the only person old enough to remember "duck and cover" and all the nuclear horror stories that went with it?

The "new" part is that you have to go all the way back to the 50's for the horror stories to have such a small bomb. That and it arriving in a truck. Back then the bad guys at least had jet planes. Why don't the terrorists rent a bizjet to deliver their bomb? Or buy one. Osama's family is rich enough to do that.

This is SO BOOOOORING. And where are the mutated ants and stuff. Can't anybody at least be a little creative with their horror fantasies?

AGMarch 24, 2006 3:22 PM

First->A US city would not be hit with a nuke by todays terrorist...
They are too smart to go for a "hard target" with such a precious cargo they would go for an easy target.
My bet would be a large Arab city in a country that is friendly with the US.
How about the Suez Canal? Panama Canal?

Second-> Why bother with nukes? Regular bombs are just a good "terror" weapons, easier to build, and easier to move.

AnonymousMarch 24, 2006 3:28 PM

"Why do they seem to assume only one bomb? If you can build one, you can build a hundred. If you can steal one, you can steal a hundred."

Refining enough fissionable material to build a bomb is a laborious and expensive proposition if you're a country just starting out in the business -- like Iran.

Besides, one bomb, intelligently used, can buy plenty of terror and concessions. No need to destroy what you can exploit.

Fred F.March 24, 2006 3:37 PM

I think we should secure Yellowstone National Park.

Do you want to know the reason?

Well, the whole park is the caldera of a sleeping super volcano. Last time it erupted, most of the US was covered in ashes, so was the rest of the world but the terrorist are suicidal so everyone can do a small sacrifice to bring back purity to the world, and the western world would suffer the most anyway.

The idea is to trigger the next super-eruption, and with a big enough nuclear device it may be possible. Why limit yourself to terrorism? Go ahead and win, wipe-up the US and then you can deal with Israel on your terms.

How is that one for a movie plot? It has all the features, nuclear weapons, natural disaster, beautiful vistas, and I have the copyright so Hollywood don't even think about it without contacting me first.

billswiftMarch 24, 2006 4:06 PM

Yes a ground burst causes EMP. The way I remember the explanation is that EMP is caused by an asymmetric fireball (edge of the atmosphere or surface of the Earth). EMP from a ground burst is strictly localized though.

Fred F.March 24, 2006 4:12 PM

Oohhhh Ohhhh I came up with another one, although this may be harder. Let's take the nuke to the ice shelf in Antartica and make it come loose. Then we would flood most of the US and Israel, that would be another cool (pun intended) movie.

royMarch 24, 2006 4:58 PM

Skyscrapers provide plenty of fuel for fires, so even a small nuclear detonation in Manhattan would result in a firestorm which would burn the island to the ground over a few days time.

If an extra 10,000 people in New York City suddenly needed immediate emergency medical attention, the available resources would be exhausted before the emergent needs were met. Ergo, shortfall. With 100,000 extra emergency cases? Treatment would be the rare exception, not the rule.

Police, military, and security people are trained to assume the worst, which is always defined as nuclear or bacteriological contamination, where the prime directive is 'containment', which means using deadly force to prevent the victims from escaping. If a nuclear detonation went off in New York City, first responders would immediately close bridges and public transport, and set up roadblocks at natural choke points.

A 40-footer could hold 25 tons of high explosive and be trucked to anywhere in New York City. Set off by remote control or a timer, the explosion would prompt the authorities into a 'lockdown', ensuring mass panic among the teeming millions, and that failure would make them switch to immediate total evacuation. A mere good scare could put New York City out of action for days.

But on the other hand, DHS figures it's worth risking New York City rather than inspecting all the shipments coming through there, because inspection would hurt profit margins.

So, what was New Scientist up to? My money says the people flogging the 'promising treatments' want giant chunks of government money.

Mike C.March 24, 2006 5:15 PM

The nuke would be more effective if set off under a bridge or in a parkade. It would be most effective if set off within the sewer system.

All that aside, this is simple regurgitation of the Soviet briefcase nuke fears of the 50's.

David MohringMarch 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Spend some time this weekend and listen to the 1946 NBC radio series

"Doomsday" and I think "Zero minus one" both mention the detonation of atomic weapons smuggled into the USA. But you really should download and listen to all the episodes and consider that they were all authored within a year of Hiroshima.

The risks are nothing new. The solution put forward in the Fifth Horseman may probably remain the only real hope of mitigating the long term threat.

I for one am proud to live in one the few countries with a truly enlightened view concerning the nature of the nuclear arms race...

RyMarch 25, 2006 3:09 AM

>I for one am proud to live in one the few countries with a truly enlightened view concerning the nature of the nuclear arms race...

Enlightened? Sticking your head in the sand makes you "enlightened"? Pretending nuclear weapons don't exist won't make them go away. Ask the Aussies if the terrorist threat is real, and ask yourselves why you *wouldn't* be a target if the Islamic extremists targeted a group as "harmless" as a bunch of AUS tourists. Being a Westernized, open, predominantly Christian, and gender-equality favoring nation, you're on the short list for Osama and his ilk, whether you like it or not.

David MohringMarch 25, 2006 6:14 AM

>Enlightened? Sticking your head in the sand makes you "enlightened"? Pretending nuclear weapons don't exist won't make them go away.

To save the S/N ratio, I won't quote individual paragraphs of David Lange's 1985 Oxford Union debate speech, but if you had bother to read or listen to it, Lange responded to the same allegation and utterly refuted it.

> ask yourselves why you *wouldn't* be a target

I know we are a target. New Zealand willingly sent SIS special forces to Afghanistan, at the request of the UK and USA, to hunt for underground secret bases ( there were none ). After the invasion of Iraq, at the request of the United Nations, NZ sent engineers to help rebuild essential services ( and withdrew the unit soon after when despite the claims of Bush, the war was no where near over ).

But, as David Lange correctly points out in his speech over twenty years ago, what defensive use are Nuclear weapons against terrorists?

Who would we retaliate against with Nuclear weapons?

Any such Nuclear retaliation puts us, and in fact the world, at a far greater risk from escalation.

JungsonnMarch 25, 2006 5:05 PM

Yeah give those - highly educated - terrorists new ideas...

I'm againts suggestions on terroristic "howto's" because they maybe going to do it.

For this reason:

It is the same with articles about "normal" suicide, it is scientifically proved that when a newspaper places news about a daily suicide, that the suicide rates increases. And mostly done in the same way it was told in the newspapers.

Strange, but true

JakeSMarch 26, 2006 12:36 PM

Fred F.:  sorry, no copyright - the Yellowstone scenario is already a movie plot - at least, it's been on TV more than once.

Okey2March 27, 2006 8:13 AM


Could you provide us with some references? The experimental setup to filter all the intervening variables in such an observational study (it is obvious it cannot be done experimentally) seems pretty hard. I, for one, am immediately skeptic.

Clive RobinsonMarch 27, 2006 8:27 AM

@bob & Stephen

Put overly simply you are both wrong/right ;) EMP is actually a side effect of the "Radiation Transport" mecahnisum which gets the energy quickly from the center of the detonating bomb (about the size of an eyeball) into the surrounding environment.

Due to the fact that the matter in and around the detonating bomb cannot physically move away (inertia) in anything like a comparable time scale, the bulk of the bombs energy is released in a massive burst, this escapes by stepping down the electromagnetic spectrum.

In "theory" the rising edge of the detonation pulse is close to infinate (as "man" can practically get currently ;)
and contains a very very large amount of energy. Often you will read about "thousands of volts per/meter" field strengts at "X Km from ground zero".

As the radiation steps down the electromagnetic spectrum it will inter-react with any kind of matter it crosses. If the matter forms a resonant cavity or transmission line (wave guide etc) then energy will be trapped or propergated within them.

There are many atmospheric layers that cause ducting (ie look like wave guides) which is why you sometimes can see television stations from many hundreds of miles away at certain times of year.

So the bombs electrmagnetic energy will travel through all atmospheric layers and out into space. If it intersects with a layer within the layers capture angle then the energy will propergate down the layer within the layers bandwidth.

A similar effect (in reverse) is seen in a Magnatron and other microwave power tubes where electrons travel past resoant cavities or down transmission lines gaining energy at a specific frequencies (by bunching). The usual example given in most text books is the Klystron amplifier, but a traveling wave tube exhibits similer effects.

Incidently if you have read "The sum of all fears" Tom Clancy actually describes a secondary effect of the EMP pulse crossing the resonant chambers in microwave TV uplinks that supposudly pump out sufficient power to disable the sats thay are aimed at... I know some research was done into using very small nukes and resonant cavities as beam weapons both before and during Ronald Regans Presidency. What I do not know is if any of them became practical as battle field / space wepons...

@ Kees
You could always buy an old MK40 Torpeado and put your bomb parts in it and launch it from a mile or so off of the coast into a quite stretch of beach. I have spoken to a couple of Articifers in the past and they reconed that provided you are not to worried about accuracy the early (ie 1940-50) ones could be made to travel in excess of three NMiles (around 5KM).

On the same note put your armed bomb in one and send it in the direction of a gently shelving beach you could do this from ten or twelve miles out, it would drop to the seabed in moderatly shallow water where it would then detonate (after a preset time ;). The resulting wave would have a significant effect (see "Good Buy California" for a story plot on this and putting them into Earth Slip Prevention bore holes...).

Apparently some drugs smuglers actually did modify torpeadoes succesfully, but the people they used to launch them had difficulty pointing them in a sufficiently accurate way. Also they got quite damaged and where not re-usable, which I guess ss the cargo volume of a torpedo is a bit limited effectivly limited their use.

Clive RobinsonMarch 27, 2006 8:34 AM

For those in the UK that like these Movie plots the Travolta film "Broken Arrow" is on this week on one of the terestrial channels.

Basically the movie plot is John Travolta (who plays an Airforce Pilot) steals some nukes to sell to criminals. One of the nukes goes off in a copper mine, and the film shows a helicopter going down due to the EMP pulse.

It also shows the radio equipment just being "turned off" to protect it from the EMP pulse (which will obviously not protect it in any way as the EMP gets in through the antenna and case and power supply leads), but hey why get in the way of a story line ;)

shoobe01March 27, 2006 10:06 AM

EMP: Anything that expodes causes some EMP. You can hear the static on radios and so on. It usually doesn't matter as they are on the ground, so don't (usually) propogate very far. Same should hold for ground nukes. Sure, some EMP effects might take place, but mostly within range of blast effects; who cares if the car won't start when its on fire and upside down?

Lots, and lots, and lots of movies and books with plots like this. One thing that causes the more often downfall is trying to smuggle the bomb ashore. Why bother in somewhere like NYC, or even easier, a major Canal? Just fire it from the ship. Sadly, there are enough who would volunteer for this duty.

Luckily, most bombs have some systems to prevent just blowing them up. Also they go bad over time so a 10 or 15 year old bomb will, at best, not blow real hard.

Pat CahalanMarch 27, 2006 12:11 PM


If money starts going into better anti-radiation medication, that will be a benefit for the 1/3 of us Americans who will get cancer at some point in our lives.

JoshMarch 29, 2006 11:30 AM

It's clear that we must develop a space based defense against asteroid strikes. How else could we deal with terrorists who control the orbits of asteroids? No cost is too great when the risk is a mass extinction event.

DigiLifeMarch 29, 2006 3:12 PM

some facts to consider:

the world trade center was reported by it's engineers via the media on public tv (with terrorist sleepers watching) to be able to withstand up to a 727 hitting it. any 2 yr old could tell you to just get a bigger plane if you want to knock it down. who's side are the media on anyways? (they also asked an "expert" on public tv how to find and capture osama bin laden, the respone was get a spy into their ranks. think osama's still hiring now?)

airplanes are powered by diesel fuel which does not require an ignition source if sufficiently compressed......say by flying into a building? and those planes were fueled for long distance and only went a short distance so the tanks were nearly full. instant bomb. obviously the plan b if the planes didnt knock the buildings down, they could still do a little dammage.

the terrorists spent 2 years planning this. looks like they figured out that the bombs in this world already exist in places noone looks and can easily be set off where desired. a dangerous way of thinking that eliminates all the need for nuclear weapons and the complexities of obtaining/using them. or building traditional bombs. guess who paid for the planes that the terrorists used? low cost terrorism. it gets worse if by fear the terrorists can get us all to kill each other so they don't have to.

the best targets are large goups of people where the people cannot easily disperse. skyscrapers and tunnels are perfect. why do we still build such things again? i didn't know we like being jammed together and crowded so much.

there was the emergency response which added more people to the scene......perhaps a double shot next time, first to cause the response while killing as many as possible and a second to kill all the responders. as for goverment response.....no need to worry about that, they'll wait till it's obviously safe again before becoming "the usual" problem. seen that in wake of 911 and this past hurricane season.

what will the terrorist sleepers think of next? i bet it wont be 60 year old nuke bomb movie plots. speaking of which, wonder what the next great horror flick is gonna be? media is awesome huh? being a sleeper is the terrorist's best life. wonder what else is on the news too. it's never good news ............ unless your a terrorist.

DigiLifeMarch 29, 2006 3:23 PM

oh i forgot one:

one forth of the population of the United States live within 4 miles of new york city.

news channel 3: wildfires in California today are ...... (scribble, scribble).... (click) news channel 5: the columbine high school shooting of...... (scribble, scribble).... (click) news channel 13: A worker at a Downtown building who was using a pellet gun with a scope to scare pigeons ....... (scribble, scribble).... (click). (terrist 2 comes in) hey i got a good movie for tonight. Swordfish. something about terrorism so horrific and high definition, color corrected and all that......

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