Consequences of a Nuclear Explosion in an American City

This paper, from February’s International Journal of Health Geographics, (abstract here), analyzes the consequences of a nuclear attack on several American cities and points out that burn unit capacity nationwide is far too small to accommodate the victims. It says just training people to flee crosswind could greatly reduce deaths from fallout.


The effects of 20 kiloton and 550 kiloton nuclear detonations on high priority target cities are presented for New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. Thermal, blast and radiation effects are described, and affected populations are calculated using 2000 block level census data. Weapons of 100 Kts and up are primarily incendiary or radiation weapons, able to cause burns and start fires at distances greater than they can significantly damage buildings, and to poison populations through radiation injuries well downwind in the case of surface detonations. With weapons below 100 Kts, blast effects tend to be stronger than primary thermal effects from surface bursts. From the point of view of medical casualty treatment and administrative response, there is an ominous pattern where these fatalities and casualties geographically fall in relation to the location of hospital and administrative facilities. It is demonstrated that a staggering number of the main hospitals, trauma centers, and other medical assets are likely to be in the fatality plume, rendering them essentially inoperable in a crisis.


Among the consequences of this outcome would be the probable loss of command-and-control, mass casualties that will have to be treated in an unorganized response by hospitals on the periphery, as well as other expected chaotic outcomes from inadequate administration in a crisis. Vigorous, creative, and accelerated training and coordination among the federal agencies tasked for WMD response, military resources, academic institutions, and local responders will be critical for large-scale WMD events involving mass casualties.

I’ve long said that emergency response is something we should be spending money on. This kind of analysis is both interesting and helpful.

A commentary.

Posted on April 6, 2007 at 10:24 AM β€’ 25 Comments


Andrew β€’ April 6, 2007 11:10 AM

We do several things in California that subtly have this scenario in mind:

1) All security guards get four hours of counter-terror & Weapons of Mass Destruction training, in which the advice to flee crosswind is emphasized more than once. Police get more both in academy and in-service training. Firefighters and EMS workers get even more than that, with hazmat and radiation training and formal discussion of nuclear weapons effects.

2) All First Responders without exception, and many others, get formal training in triage (Simple Triage and Rapid Transport) in which patients who require immediate advanced medical attention to survive are sorted from lesser casualties by the mechanism of R-P-M (Respiration, Perfusion, Mental Status) estimated by 10-15 second evaluations per casualty. If there are no hospitals left, inference is obvious.

3) California fire departments take the FEMA CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) concept dead seriously, and frequently conduct community CERT trainings in which disaster plans are emphasized. We expect that even with fire stations destroyed and agencies out of service, trained people are going to be coming out of the woodwork.

4) Some businesses and most agencies maintain their own disaster caches, sometimes in oddly remote areas.

5) The county and state OES (Office of Emergency Services) focus their efforts on two things: the obvious priority of staying alive, and just as important, maintaining communication with each other, with higher, and with the news media. Towards that end we have a lot of ham radio operators, ARES/RACES etc. who volunteer.

6) California Highway Patrol has some interesting training, including rotation through the MOUT simulator at Camp Pendleton. Freeway reversal in coordination with CalTrans is in their game plan. I’m sure they have a few other tricks up their sleeve. Note their profusion of paramedic air units scattered across the state.

7) Everyone gets trained in ICS (Incident Command System) which is similar to its Federal equivalent SEMS.

8) The California National Guard and its backup the California State Military Reserve recognize that they may go into play with or without Federal help and plan accordingly. CNG maintains an excellent hazmat / WoMD training facility.

9) Last but not least, a nice huge massive wildfire is good low-scale practice for a nuclear firestorm. πŸ™‚

Seriously, any response to a nuclear strike is going to be massively disorganized and chaotic. The choice is not between this and an organized response. The choice is between this and NO RESPONSE. Katrina is a lesson that California is taking seriously. The Feds aren’t coming.

Matt from CT β€’ April 6, 2007 11:30 AM

Seriously, any response to a nuclear
strike is going to be massively
disorganized and chaotic.


Give that man a cigar.

Unless we want to live in a totalitarian state…you will not have an organized response by anyone on a broad scale to an event such as nuclear strike or pandemic flu.

Freeway reversal…that’ll work. I wonder how many cars won’t start due to the EMP pulse, and how many gas stations will not be able to pump gas due the electrical grid going tits up.

We, as Americans, have a very bad philosophy of the last 50 years or so of expecting everything to be perfect. It infects our national pysche — from suing for every hot cup of coffee, to wanting to defeat Al Queda but without any blood or collateral damage.

We don’t have enough burn beds for a nuclear strike. Wow. Why should we? Why should we put that sort of an unproductive strain on the economy? If we establish that we need enough beds for a strike on a major city, shouldn’t we have enough for two strikes? Three? MADD?

Life, and the world, isn’t perfect. The best we can do is train and prepare to handle the normal emergencies and crisis that come our way.

Some events will overwhelm individuals, communities, states, and nations. We have to accept that, and we have to not think of how to we handle the impossible to handle (victims from a nuclear strike), but how do we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and continue on towards tomorrow and the day after that.

Yes, people will die who could’ve been saved…but we shouldn’t be worried about individuals in the wake of nuclear attack or pandemic flu — but about how society continues on.

merkelcellcancer β€’ April 6, 2007 11:34 AM

Raised in southern California in the mid to late fifties duck and cover with the largest school book under the desk was the mode of the day.

I was one of the small voices that questioned the fact that we should be covered in plastic that would make a nice cleanup — shrink wrap.

wiredog β€’ April 6, 2007 11:59 AM

@Matt from CT
EMP is only a problem with high airbursts. A groundburst, as in this scenario, isn’t an issue. Blocked roads is more of an issue.

Nicola β€’ April 6, 2007 12:32 PM

An interesting java applet from scientist of FAS: as we say in Italy, an image is worthier a thousand words.
Bye all.

FP β€’ April 6, 2007 1:15 PM

It may be possible to decrease the potential casualties by educating the general population. But there is also the psychological aspect. Telling us to stock up on duct tape, perpetuating duck and cover drills, and having two minutes of hate against foreign devils every lunchtime, only instills fear. If at every step we must be prepared for every disaster imaginable, we cease to live in a free society.

Anonymous β€’ April 6, 2007 5:27 PM

@FP: preparation does not have to be in the current mode of spasmodic paranoia! Reasoned risk assessment and proportionate response bring confidence, not fear. Many current efforts (and Two Minutes’ Hate) are scary only because they show no sign of reason or proportion.

Matt from CT β€’ April 6, 2007 5:50 PM


Wow…did do some googling. I knew EMP would cover a large area from an aerial detonation.

I had still figured it would cover a greater-then-blast area at ground level which it doesn’t really seem to do.

The other interesting tidbit was the the power of the pulse doesn’t even go up linear with the power of the bomb, but as a square root — so a small bomb puts out a much stronger pulse per kiloton then a big one.

Mark J. β€’ April 6, 2007 11:09 PM

The local news story today was about an agreement between the local hospital (which is a Level One trauma center) and the regional bus line. The hospital was saying that the bus line garage is perfect for hospital overflow in a large scale disaster. The bus garage has backup power, security, and space. I still couldn’t help but wonder about the grime, oil, and grease, but I suppose (hope) they have a plan in place to deal with that.

Peter Pearson β€’ April 7, 2007 12:52 PM

This thread needs a contrarian opinion, so . . .

Most of us probably will live to see a terrorist nuke detonated in a major city, but I’m willing to bet that the casualties will be far smaller than the millions suggested in this discussion. I base this prediction not so much on weapons-effects expertise as on an appreciation for the inclinations of organizations with names like “Center for Mass Destruction Defense” and their interactions with an excitement-hungry press and power-hungry bureaucrats. If scary headlines will sell papers to people who will then vote to surrender more power and money to study and “manage” this problem, all the major participants are happy. We can even have this threat managed by the same organizations that managed the storm threat to New Orleans.

β€œThe whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.??? – H.L. Mencken

OK, “imaginary” doesn’t apply here, but the rest of the quotation does.

cenoxo β€’ April 8, 2007 12:17 AM

A few more sobering links:

High_Yield Detonation Effects Simulator

Current nuclear weapon estimates at The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Paintings by Chesley Bonestell:

The Atomic Bombardment of New York

(And its aftermath)

Consider also the huge swaths of stick-built homes in American cities, loss of electrical and water utilities, deaths of EMTs and firefighters, destruction of firefighting equipment, and debris-clogged streets. The result would be unstoppable firestorms in multiple locations.

9/11 would be a pinprick.

Mike β€’ April 8, 2007 7:51 AM

Yes, but would Jericho Kansas be spared, and would the cloud from Denver be visible there?

Moz β€’ April 8, 2007 12:16 PM

really neat photos of early Fireballs

serious write up of damage after an attack

If we are to handle sensibly a world in which politicians are trying to profit from our sense of fear, we really need to find ways to discuss this kind of safety sensibly. Just giving up and saying “democracies can’t be organised” shows that you’ve never been to a democracy. Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries, some of the few countries which can now claim to be close to democratic ideals, have managed to have serious levels of nuclear preparedness. I believe also general disaster preparation and emergency response is much better than most.

One thing that’s probably needed, however, is a general agreement about how to move responsibility for preparations away from private buisness and towards the state in one direction and local people in the other direction. For example, “just in time” techniques make great business sense; insurance against a months loss of business will normally be much cheaper than keeping a months worth of stock. However, a month of no food supplies might be a much bigger problem for the people who suffer from it. I believe that computerised supermarket food distribution would completely fail for a long time in the case of a high air burst nuclear attack.

Anonymous β€’ April 8, 2007 10:02 PM

Moz said: “…computerised supermarket food distribution would completely fail for a long time in the case of a high air burst nuclear attack.”

Paper, pencils, and human brains would take over for dead computers quickly enough. The real worry WRT transportation is how powerful EMPs might damage electrical systems in planes, trains, trucks, and automobiles.

When the electron surge stops, so may everything else.

Stephan Samuel β€’ April 9, 2007 10:20 AM

I think Mike above got it right. This is little more than a movie plot threat. We spend lots of time looking for nuclear weapons due to Jericho, Sum of All Fears, The Peacemaker, Wag the Dog, etc. We also spend too much time looking for people to hijack planes and use them as weapons. Most likely, the next terrorist is going to be creative.

derf β€’ April 9, 2007 5:08 PM

What about radiation burn from people ripping off “hot” items from the blast zones? What about contamination from food items brought out of the blast zone? To effectively deal with these cross contamination issues, there would have to be a border enforced around the affected area and enough security to handle the survivors streaming out and the gangs heading in to loot.

DougC β€’ April 10, 2007 1:19 PM


He’s right. The JIT system is so finely tuned I doubt seriously that pencil and paper etc could take over in any reasonable way. If the link to the warehouse servers goes down, the scanners do too, and they don’t even know what they’ve sold — and would you like to be in a line where the checkout person had to write it all down? After looking up each price?

For one thing, even a day’s disruption can’t be made up easily by even a fully functioning transport system. You can’t just assign twice as many trucks the next day, because they don’t exist, nor do twice as many roads. Add hoarding behavior to this and you’ve got quite a mess. A small study of the gas crisis of the ’70s shows the demand peak from everyone going from average half full tanks to obessively filling at every opportunity is mainly what made things so bad. I was a professional driver at the time. I now live along the I81 corridor in SW VA, and I can say for a fact that even were there twice as many trucks, they simply would not fit, as they are already almost always nearly touching as is. Adding more traffic slows things down to fewer total vehicle miles per hour.

Our world is becoming less and less resilient than ever, a place where tiny percentage differences in huge numbers means food or other shortages, starvation, and more than a little inconvienience. Ironically, this effect is more pronounced in the “developed” countries. Perhaps we should replace that word with “dependent”.

ron β€’ July 29, 2007 6:24 PM

How will America burn?

He said, Remember this, Dumitru.
The Russian spies have discovered where the nuclear warehouses are in America.
When the Americans will think that it is peace and safety – from the middle of the country,
some of the people will start fighting against the government.
The government will be busy with internal problems.

Then from the ocean, from Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico,
He told me two other countries, but I didn’t remember what they were.
They will bomb the nuclear warehouses. When they explode, America will burn!

arlinda β€’ January 9, 2008 10:42 AM

i like very much to know every thing about nuclear weapons
so it’s very interesting to read this kind of materials for me

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