Nuclear weapons are not much of a worry: That’s the tenor of an AP story reporting on a U.S. government study that looked at the consequences of 10-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated on the corner of 16th and K Street in downtown Washington, D.C.
“The surprising conclusion?” according to the article, “Just a bit farther from the epicenter of the blast, such a nuclear explosion would be pretty survivable.” Well, that’s not so bad, right? Think again.
In the “government” scenario, the terrorists detonate the nuclear weapon at ground level, where the surrounding buildings and the earth absorb much of the blast effects. If terrorists are smart enough to get a bomb, then they just might be smart enough to figure that it is both more secure and more effective to put their bomb in a small private aircraft and detonate it as a low-altitude airburst in the manner of a traditional military-style attack. That would magnify the effects of the blast many times over.
Next, our geniuses in government apparently did not pay much attention to the effects of “mass fire” created by a nuclear explosion. In her book Whole World on Fire (2003), Lynn Eden argues that nuclear planners significantly underestimate the destructive power of atomic warfare because they don’t take into account the damage done by mass fire. Big mistake, Eden says.
Recent research suggests that nuclear weapons are much more destructive than previously thought because of the effect of mass fire. At the moment of detonation, the heart of an atomic fireball is four to five times hotter than the sun. It generates a firestorm of hurricane-force winds. Air temperature soars above the boiling point.
The government study advises, “For everyone within 50 miles: Head downstairs into a parking garage or basement.” That might work fine for protecting them from the blast wave or radiation, but it won’t save anyone from being deep-fried like a Krispy Krème donut by the nuclear firestorm.
We should never be complacent about the nuclear threat. We should worry a lot more about the people we know have or want to have nuclear arsenals—like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.
We should scratch our heads at government studies that by press accounts seem pretty sophomoric.
Most of all, we should worry about a President who thinks trading away the most important measure for protecting America against nuclear is just something he’ll get to after the next election.
This is not to say that the U.S. should not be worried about nuclear terrorism or the proliferation of weapons and technology. It should. But when it comes to national security, the U.S. ought to be able to defend against state nuclear threats and non-state actors. The President, however, is ignoring and making us more vulnerable to present dangers.