This post is about the assumptions used to prepare for a deliberate nuclear attack on an American city. The post summarizes a recent article that argues policy makers are using the wrong assumptions. The author suggests alternatives.
Terrorists are determined to attack us again—with weapons of mass destruction if they can. Osama bin Laden has said that obtaining these weapons is a “religious duty” and is reported to have sought to perpetrate another “Hiroshima.” …. America’s margin of safety against a WMD attack is shrinking. — “World At Risk; The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism;” December 2008
Herman Kahn wrote On Thermonuclear War in 1960. He thought the unthinkable, and believed the nation could survive a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, even though cities would be destroyed and millions would die.
His views contributed to the Cold War’s MAD doctrine (mutually assured destruction), characterized most vividly by the Doomsday Machine in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
Back in the day (or at least the 80s part of the day), people speculated about the Fate of the Earth if we had a nuclear exchange with Russia. Humanity would be destroyed and life as we know it on the planet would come to an end.
It was all fairly hopeless. Civil defense, bomb shelters, hiding under the desk — why bother? We’re all dead anyway.
Then we won the Cold War. No nuclear winter. Time for fear to take a break.
But fear demands something to be afraid of.
Apparently nukes don’t do it for us anymore. The WMD Commission report generated maybe 15 minutes of concern. The global economic crisis, H1N1, — that worked for a little while. Maybe 20 minutes in fear time.
We don’t get worked anymore up about humanity ending. If it didn’t happen in the Cold War, it’s certainly not going to happen now.
So… what to fear? This week, we — or at least the media — worry about an al Qaeda cell detonating a hydrogen peroxide bomb in, maybe, Pittsburgh.
Change the channel.
What time does “Dancing With The Stars” come on? Isn’t Tom DeLay going to come out against health care while he’s dancing?
Behind the public’s Andy Warhol attention span, serious people think about threats to the nation in serious ways. Maybe these people are ignored, but when public fright time arrives, they are ones who have done the thinking policy makers will use during times of crisis.
Robert C. Harney, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, is one of the serious thinkers about the evolution of the domestic nuclear threat.
Al Qaeda wants to detonate a nuke in the United States. If they are successful, millions will die. That’s the conventional narrative.
What follows is an excerpt from Harney’s recent article in Homeland Security Affairs: Inaccurate Prediction of Nuclear Weapons Effects and Possible Adverse Influences on Nuclear Terrorism Preparedness.
OK, the title may not sing. But the content does. [Disclosure: I am the executive editor of Homeland Security Affairs.]
Harney demonstrates estimates of millions dying and cities becoming wastelands are based on flawed assumptions.
Yes, ten of thousands could die in a nuclear attack. Maybe more. Harney is the first to acknowledge it would be horrific. But — and here’s the unthinkable part — not hopeless. We would recover.
Why is Harney’s argument important?
If policy makers believe millions will die and cities will become uninhabitable, why even bother preparing? Why not spend limited resources on what you can do something about?
But if the conventional wisdom’s estimates are wrong, then policy makers can justify preparing for the unthinkable.
Here’s Harney’s argument (summarized largely in his words from the paper; my emphasis is in bold).
The unthinkable is probably inevitable. At some time in the future a terrorist group will detonate a nuclear explosive in a major metropolitan area.
Once nuclear weapons are in the hands of unstable states or states that support terrorism, there is little doubt that one or more will ultimately wind up in the hands of non-state or state-supported terrorist organizations. Terrorist possession of a nuclear weapon will result in its use against a “highest-value” target – most likely a large city with major economic value, cultural and/or religious significance, and a dense population in which high casualties will result.
The likelihood of an attack has prompted considerable public debate about what are the best steps to prevent such an attack. In many of these discussions estimates of the number of casualties or the size of the area that would be damaged by an attack are used to reinforce the importance of action.
Ironically … these estimates may evoke inaction in some critical areas. Paraphrasing many examples, [the examples] typically state: a Hiroshima-sized weapon detonated in a major metropolitan area will kill a million people or will vaporize everything within a half-mile of ground zero or some other equally dramatic claim….
To this author, the estimates do not ring true – they sound excessive. The estimates are often quoted or repeated by individuals who clearly lack technical expertise in nuclear weapons effects and original sources for the estimates are seldom cited. Although it is possible that some are the product of hyperbole used in political oratory to reinforce a point, the frequency is too high for this to always be the case. It is more likely that valid estimates made for a military attack scenario have been improperly extrapolated to the terrorist scenario.
However, if the policymakers making such statements actually believe these estimates, then inaccurate information is being used to set policy, and something should be done to rectify the situation.
Harney discusses the standard methodology used to predict the effects of nuclear weapons.
The “standard” analysis is an outgrowth of military effects analysis. … virtually all examples used to guide novice or inexperienced effects predictors will be based on military analyses. The optimum altitude airburst [i.e., dropping a nuclear device from an airplane at exactly the right height above a city] is far and away the most common analytical assumption in nuclear effects analysis. As we shall see, this may be the source of the putative overestimates.
He applies the standard analysis to a hypothetical 10 killoton airburst explosion in Manhattan and concludes,
… over six million people are directly affected, and total casualties are estimated to be in excess of 2,700,000. The areas and the casualty estimates determined in this fashion are consistent with those mentioned in the public debates.
This traditional casualty analysis coupled with observations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki presents a nearly “hopeless” picture. That is, one would expect that the southernmost one-quarter of Manhattan would be devastated. Roads through damaged areas would be impassable. Evacuation to mitigate fallout effects would probably be impractical in some areas. Power, water, communications, transportation, and sanitation disruptions would extend well beyond the damaged areas. The expected number of injuries would exceed the number of hospital beds in the entire nation …. A significant fraction of the first responders would be among the casualties. Many of the “injuries” might become “fatalities” due to inadequate medical care, shortages of food, and lack of shelter. The expected economic damage is severe, almost beyond comprehension. Economic repercussions would continue for years.
Guided by a strategic analysis that uses these standard assumptions,
… a weak U.S. government might consider giving in to terrorist demands (if voiced ahead of time), rather than suffer the effects of such an attack. Since permitting such a catastrophic attack would be utterly unacceptable, actions likely to be taken to prevent anticipated attacks might further erode Constitutional rights. As the aftermath of such an attack is “hopeless,” planning for emergency response would probably be inadequately funded. Why prepare for something that is beyond accommodation, especially when there are always competing priorities for using available funds? Furthermore, since the Cold War has conditioned the public to view nuclear attack as the end of the world and the “hopeless” scenario does nothing to contradict this view, little or no personal preparation will be made for self-preservation and survival. Inadequate planning and preparation at all levels would greatly magnify the effects of an attack when it comes.
Harney’s conceptual innovation is “nontraditional effects analysis,” an alternative to the standard assumptions that paralyze policy makers.
There are fundamental differences between an airburst and a surface burst….. For a variety of reasons, we anticipate that terrorist attacks are more likely to use a [less damaging] surface burst than an airburst.
… A terrorist bomb is unlikely to be mounted on a missile. It is unlikely to be man-portable. It is likely to be large and heavy. Delivery by aircraft will probably require a multi-engine aircraft,… [but] an airburst can be made extremely difficult, if not prevented. Transport to the top floors of the tallest skyscrapers is difficult and likely to be detected…. Even if the bomb could be detonated on a tall building, the effects would be closer to surface burst levels than to airburst levels. Transport by truck, however, is relatively easy and difficult to prevent. Thus, it is more likely for a terrorist weapon to be detonated at street level than at the optimum airburst height.
Harney then describes three models of surface level detonations, under a variety of conditions. He maintains:
Contrary to the predictions of traditional analysis and experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the more “realistic” analysis presents a picture that is much less dire. Fatalities are 20% of those predicted by the standard analysis, while injuries are 10% of those predicted and the damaged area is 5%. Much of the infrastructure will survive. Most evacuation routes will remain viable (permitting relocation for fallout mitigation). Food, water, sanitation, power, communications, and transportation will remain available to most of the city. Transportation to or from the rest of the country, especially air travel, is likely to be minimally affected. Airports are seldom located in the high population density areas that are attractive for casualty production. The first response system will remain intact. At most one or two police precincts and fire stations will be within damage zones. Only a small fraction of first responders will be among the casualties.
The majority of the health care system will remain intact. Few hospitals, clinics, or potential shelter areas may be located within the small damage zones and thus will remain intact and operational. Few health care professionals will become casualties. Regional health care facilities … have the theoretical capacity to handle the most badly injured. However, most of the 60,000-70,000 beds are occupied during ordinary times and emergency rooms are almost always crowded. Diagnostics and elective procedures account for at least part of the occupation of beds and many emergency room visits occur in lieu of seeing primary care physicians. In a major emergency, many could be discharged by applying triage to those already at the facilities as well as to the victims of the explosion. Nevertheless, emergency treatment facilities will be stressed. This should be considered during planning for disaster preparedness, as well as in any discussions of generally improving national health care.
Harney estimates that instead of 2 or 3 million casualties (in the hypothetical Manhattan scenario), a more realistic estimate is less than 400,000 casualties.
Although horrific and highly stressing of existing resources, this scenario is nearly ideal for disaster response and relief by local, state, and national entities. Because structures and roads will be undamaged outside the immediate blast area, the effects of fallout from a single nuclear event can be minimized through immediate and effective response including fallout prediction and a combination of evacuation, sheltering in place and/or decontamination. Sheltering for as little as one day can reduce the fallout exposure to less than 20% of the maximum possible accumulated exposure at any location, even if the individual then elects to remain in the contaminated area. It can reduce the total exposure to less than 1% of the maximum possible if the individual elects to walk out of the fallout zone (estimated to take a few hours at most). There is a place for renewed interest in civil defense.
Such civil defense must have a personal emphasis, not just a governmental emphasis. An unprepared population will suffer needlessly in any disaster, manmade or natural. In general, those people most likely to survive are those who are prepared to survive and who will not wait passively for the government to save them. Government has been willing to educate people what to do to prepare for earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados, although it could be more aggressive in this education. It should do the same for terrorist attacks, especially in likely target areas.
The promulgation of unrealistic estimates does the government and the general population a great disservice. People should not be persuaded to believe that a terrorist-initiated nuclear attack is the end of the world. We will probably experience such an attack at some point in the future and the world will not end. Millions will not be killed by a single event, although tens of thousands may. We will be forced to deal with the consequences. People tend to rise to the challenge in adverse situations, but they give up in situations perceived as hopeless. Terrorist attacks, no matter how devastating, should not be made to appear hopeless.
The government must not be forced by public opinion to take short-sighted actions, such as appeasement, to avoid such attacks. Appeasement seldom works in the long term and even appeasement will not prevent every possible attack. This does not mean the government should not act vigorously to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, but it should be proactive not reactive, and certainly not over-reactive. The public and especially public servants and elected officials deserve better education concerning the facts about weapons effects. Disaster planning should consider realistic and stressing scenarios but not doomsday scenarios. Emergency response capabilities adequate to address the threat of limited nuclear attack should be developed, and the nature of those capabilities should be communicated to the public.
Reading Harney’s article will change the way you think about threat of terrorists using a nuclear device. In the realm of the unthinkable, Harney offers hope and reasons to act.
You can read his article online here, or download it here.