The Growing Concern over Small Nukes

Stephen DeAngelis

April 25, 2008

When analysts involved in national security affairs get together to contemplate the future, they must look at both the probability and potential consequences of various risks. Some risks have a high probability of occurrence but their consequences can be easily mitigated. Other risks are less likely to occur but their consequences are so significant that they can’t be ignored. Arrayed between those two extremes are innumerable other risks with varying degrees of probability and outcome. One of those risks, the explosion of a small nuclear weapon inside the United States, was the topic of hearings held on Capitol Hill [“Risk of Nuclear Attack on Rise,” by Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post, 16 April 2008].

“Concerned that not enough attention is being paid to the risk of a nuclear attack, a Senate committee yesterday looked at the consequences of such a terrorist strike in Washington — and said that more could be done to save lives. A hearing, called by the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, featured charts showing the horrific effects of a small nuclear device detonating near the White House. It was the panel’s third session in recent months on the threat of a nuclear explosion. ‘The scenarios we discuss today are so hard for us to contemplate and so emotionally traumatic that it is tempting to push them aside,’ said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the panel’s chairman. ‘However, now is the time to have this difficult conversation, to ask the tough questions, then to get answers.’ The committee summoned witnesses yesterday who said the risk of such an attack on U.S. cities has grown in the past five years because of the spread of nuclear technology and the growth of a global terrorist movement.”

I’m sure that not everyone sees the risk the same way Lieberman describes it. Some analysts believe that the global war on terror has reduced the global terrorist movement. Others believe that all of the attention to nuclear weapons in India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran (not to mention the futile search for a hidden Iraqi nuclear program) has made the world more sensitive to the movement of nuclear material. Regardless of where one might fall on the spectrum of probability, one must admit that the consequences of such a detonation would be horrific (both physically and emotionally).

“Yet the experts agreed that even such a disaster didn’t constitute the doomsday scenario imagined during the Cold War. Most District residents would survive. And ‘much could be done to save lives’ if the government made the right preparations in advance, said Ashton B. Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. At the committee’s request, [Cham E. Dallas, director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia,] prepared a report on the effects of a small nuclear device exploding near the White House. A 1-kiloton device, which could fit into a suitcase, could kill about 25,000 people, he said. A 10-kiloton explosive, which could be hidden in a van, could kill about 100,000, Dallas said. The 10-kiloton blast would release fatal doses of radiation in the immediate area and destroy almost all buildings within a half-mile radius, he said. The intense heat would burn people for many blocks and spark fires. Windows would shatter for miles, Dallas testified, gesturing to a color-coded map that showed damage as far out as Union Station. The danger wouldn’t be limited to those in the blast area. A radioactive plume would start drifting from the blast point, subjecting those in its path to lethal levels of radiation, Dallas said. The plume’s direction would be determined by weather conditions. Dallas’s model envisions a 10-block-wide ‘death plume’ moving east, the direction the wind typically blows in Washington. It billows down Constitution Avenue, reaching Benning Road NE in 30 to 60 minutes.”

That might not be a doomsday scenario, but it’s pretty bad. I’ve been working with government leaders to help them understand the capabilities of a ResilienceNet™ Fusion Center. Such a fusion center would be connected to sensors that would detect a nuclear plume, alert local authorities and simultaneously gather all necessary meteorological and traffic data then feed it to a computer model that could determine where the radioactive plume will drift and issue recommended instructions for carrying out an evacuation. This kind of automated sense, think, and act system would go a long way towards saving thousands of lives. It would also help prevent panic and help keep people in unaffected areas off the roads in order to help with the evacuation. The Congressional experts agree:

“‘With proper communication, people can flee from the plume area,’ Dallas said, noting that they can walk or run from what will likely be a narrow band of high danger. But, he added, authorities need to ‘put more effort’ into testing their ability to swiftly alert those in danger. Most people outside the blast zone or the path of the plume should stay in their homes for at least the first few days after an attack, and will probably suffer limited health problems, the experts said.”

The experts recommended additional training and exercises to better prepare those who would have to respond to such a catastrophe. With faster warning and better communications, a properly operating fusion center could help reduce challenges that would be faced by healthcare providers as well as other first responders because it could significantly lower the number of casualties. Even a well prepared system can be overwhelmed and anything that can help that from happening should be pursued.