Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 25, 2009

Rethinking The Unthinkable: Three Million Casualties vs. Four Hundred Thousand

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on September 25, 2009

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.

Harney concludes:

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.

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Comment by Quin

September 25, 2009 @ 7:54 am

I am thankfull you read and have posted this report. I received a link yesterday, but reading the title put off reading it thinking it would be a mathmatical exercise that would not be of interest. Oops. But I thinkhttp://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/2006/RAND_TR391.pdf this post on HLS is a great example of how blogs like this allow those with the time (and interest) to plow through the chaff and find excellent articles and issues we may have missed in our hurry.

That said, RAND had an excellent study, somewhat similiar to this that I read several years ago: http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/2006/RAND_TR391.pdf

Some more reading for today. I will say this, which is a bit dangerous since I only read the summary of Professor Haney’s article, but I do not think such an attack is inevitable. There are two ways to get a nuke, buy/steal one or create one. The second would be nearly, if not, impossible for a non-state organization to develop. Acquiring material, learning the science, developing the infrastructure and high quality manufacturing tools and techniques to manufacture one, and then having the ability to deliver one, all without being able to test one without being caught, might be the stuff of James Bond movies, but of impossibility in real life.

But acquiring one, through theft or purchase (or “gift”) is a much scarier proposition, and a screaming reminder of the need for non-proliferation. While George Tenant may have implied in his book a few years ago that the Russians could not account for all of their nukes after the dissolution of the USSR, time probably has shown that that worry has come to pass. That said the acquistion by a rogue state run by ideologues (NK or Iran) who have no qualm selling to the highest bidder or the right martyr makes this not an exercise but a real life crisis.

Some quality afternoon reading for the day.

— This post brought to you by Determined Sentry 2009 —

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 25, 2009 @ 8:46 am

Well Chris a great post and well-written and very very important topic. What is of interest of course is that some will view this post as a analytical framework of why not to worry and some of why to worry. Nothing new here. But there are some basics to list and admit have not read the Harney article yet.
First as to the Federal Civil Defense Program which lasted from 1951 to 1994 under Public Law 81-920, as amended and then repealed by P.L. 103-337 exactly one year after it had finally after 22 years of discussion been made an all-hazards statute by P.L. 103-160! Atomic and nuclear (hydrogen) explosions are almost separate categories of both weapons and destructiveness. Both generate heat, blast, and radioactive fallout and depending on height of burst vast amounts of depositional materials. Note that the 10 mile EPZ and the 50 mile EPZ used for fixed nuclear power stations, and that Emergency Planning assumes a core-melt accident is based on EPA PAGs for both fallout of depositional material and the so-called plum-exposure pathway for agricultural and livestock in the food chain. That latter comes not from EPA but from FDA. And guess what numerous efforts to change that guidance over the years. But back to civil defense. The history of civil defense is garbled both by the experts and the historians and those with axes to bear on both sides. Two very very recent history pieces are those of Charles Perrow, PhD, emeritus prof whose original claim to fame came from the book captioned “The Normal Accident.” Another CD history is that by Professor DEE GARRISON, PhD emeritus prof at Rutgers. And of course the former Preparedness Directorate that briefling existed in DHS under the leadership of George Foresman from October 2005 to March 2007 under Secretary Chertoff’s 2SR reorgnization also produced by contract a history of Prepardness and civil defense that is mostly wrong. Okay why do I make this bold statement repudiating much of those efforts by many to distort the history. Well simply because declassified NSDDs and PD indicate the wrong take on most of the civil defense history. It was really never a strategic factor after the Nixon-Kissenger era and the formal introduction of MAD into the nuclear strategic planning. And by the way just so everyone knows, MAD is still the US strategic doctrine and underlies the SIOP and its execution. How do I know, because fo the published testimony of retire USAF 4 star Lee Butler who was a primary designer of the current version. If MAD had not killed civil defense and its efforts to protect at least a portion of the population from fall-out and other problems, but not from blast effects or heat, then Carl Sagan’s publication of Nuclear Winter arguments along with others in 1983 edition of Science Mag certainly ended the willingness of most Americans to believe that our nuclear strategy, including MAD was sound, but because their only basis for opposition was the federal civil defense effort that was the chosen target. This is why so important to get the civil defense history correct, and it is yet to be done because those for and against muster skillfully their arguments but no balanced history has been written, nor will it probably as long as CD is used as a stalking horse for lack of preparedness. Finally, available from the FAS is the document that in various versions was the technical planning guidance for domestic targets of nuclear attack by the former Soviet Union. This document is NAPB-90 and unfortunatley don’t have the FAS url at hand. Two disclosures! First never was lawyer for the civil defense program while at FEMA OGC for 20 years. Why, it was considered a grant program to the states and locals and not a national security program in FEMA. Just read the NSDDs and PDs and you will see why. Also, although COG and COOP came out of CD as concepts for the STATE and LOCALs there were always separately funded and authorized at the federal level and not under the control or management of those managing the CD program. Second, the planning for weapons effects is very very different than the planning for fixed nuclear power stations or chemical or biological preparedness. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the largest component entering FEMA under President Carter’s Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978 were the 900 FTE and those staffed in the former DCPA that became part of FEMA. After TMI which began in late March 1979, and Carter gave FEMA off-site saftey those who never knew, did not care to know, or were otherwise unqualified often gave misinterpretations of radiological effects based on their CD weapons effects knowledge, not general knowledge of radiation including the technical field of health physics–this is the study of ionizing radiation on the human body and the largest source of health physics knowledge in the US has been the medical profession and the nuclear navy. Both those sources of health physics knowledge have dealt with radiation on a more or less successful basis for over 1/2 a century.
It is not fair to blog posters to have blog commentators post comments long than the blog posts. So will end this except to say will now read the Harney article and hopefully all of the above is fully disclosed in it. Okay perhaps that is unfair but it should at least have and hopefully does cite the important September 2003 CSIS study entitle “Civil Security” [a name that would still be better to be used as opposed to “homeland security”] that was led by Ms. Amanda J. Dory and in 97 pages discusses in detail why Chris’ post above is right on. It points out that citizen preparedness and knowledge of WMD must be enhanced and it is necessary to learn what we can from the former federal civil defense effort and not just castigate its “duck and cover” concepts. Remember while many argue that the entirety of the CD effort was conduted in “bad faith” and next to Viet Nam one of the principle reasons for distrust of the federal government, I do not. Faced with the nuclear capability and potential willingness of the Soviet Union to engage in Nuclear War, what choice did any responsible elected official have except to protect to some extent the populaion of the US. Was it a fig leaf? Maybe! But still it did erect what has become an Emergency Planning and Preparedness research and practioner community and for that reason alone deserves careful study. Hoping little in this comment is new to any of the readers of this blog. Thanks again Chris and Mr. Harney for your fine efforts!

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 25, 2009 @ 8:50 am

A very brief post-script! The British government has reached the conclusion that a biological terrorism attack, as opposed to a chemical or radiological attack, is the most likely kind of WMD attack to occur and is preparing accordingly with detail planning occurring as to evacuation of LONDON. The December 2008 Commission report would seem to agree. Clearly more to be done across the board.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 25, 2009 @ 11:19 am

URL for NAPB-90 is as follows:


Comment by Clinton J. Andersen

September 26, 2009 @ 12:23 am

“I will say this, which is a bit dangerous since I only read the summary of Professor Haney’s article, but I do not think such an attack is inevitable.”

I like the optimism but the fact of the matter is Haney is right. Even if you haven’t done a significant amount of research just put your shoes inside the mind of today’s terrorist. You hate your enemies more than anything in the world. The hate rages inside of you so fiercely it’s almost as if you had 100 children and they killed them all in front of you. The reason behind your hate is God. God says that your enemy must die so you will find a way. But, you’re also not an idiot. You’ve gone to college and you know that setting off a car bomb or blowing yourself up is usually a one time act. So you need to take the time to create the ultimate plan. Sure, one could most likely pull of another 9/11 but what would be the point? Yes, the enemy would most likely go into another spiral but it would be even shorter than it was last time. Furthermore, not nearly as many of the enemy would be afraid. So what do you do? You turn to the weapons that exist that would cause fear. Chemical, Biological, perhaps a Radiological device if necessary. But ultimately, ultimately a nuclear weapon is the be all end all of fear. As much as we would like to think these guys are hiding in the sand, well… they are… they have the scientists with the fortitude to create even a crude device. Even if just radiological for now… the people of the enemy lands won’t really distinguish the difference.

As far as SIOP and execution… we have constraints in place. That being said… we can also issue what we receive. We have a very well designed system in place that is practiced multiple times a day. Have no worries about that.

Comment by Clinton J. Andersen

September 26, 2009 @ 12:26 am

P.S. – If you could put your shoes inside the mind of a terrorist… we might not need a war. :-) Instead, perhaps put your mind inside the shoes of a terrorist.

Comment by christopher tingus

September 26, 2009 @ 8:38 am

An informative post indeed!

From our perspective here on Main Street USA, it is the Europeans who have far more to be concerned with as their harshness in political leadership and the demographics of their neighborhoods lend more to such a biological attack taking place on EU soil before America despite all the anti-American rhetoric.

Keep an eye on German politics, the revitalization of its manufacturing base, the comments from the Vatican in parallel w/German-EU commentaries and newly imposed statutes, the devalued dollar, the value increase of the EURO, while China increases its gold coffers from citizen to Beijing and a new world reserve currency as the Europeans seek to become the Middle East power broker and chellenge the “Brutes of Tehran” as it will no longer wish to deal with the “KGB Putinites” after this long cold winter and knows full well that it must seek direct oil supplies and less dependence on Putin w/his own plans forging ahead…

….an interesting time in history when WE must all prepare and communicate effectively with one another agency to agency for we must demonstrate our resilience and our fortitude in commitment to one another and to our beloved nation for even the terrorist looks to America w/differing attitude than to the Europeans who have far less tolerance for religious diversity and have a mentality which is far different that Americans who fled such intolerances of government and church. The next crusade is on the march and the Germans will soon downsize the EU to ten nations and leave the others out in the cold!

Where is our commitment to improving civil defense in America where fellow citizen is better prepared against all scenarios whether man-made or natural! If we can keep printing “fiat” dollars for everything else, then let’s commit to an extensive educational and preparedness program for each citizen must be better prepared in survival techniques.

Thank you for such a post for it affords us here on Main Street USA a much clearer idea of the reality in expectations we may have to someday challenge as we should not be complacent in any manner, however my bet is that any biological attack will take place on European soil sooner than expected as EU politics and the Vatican are willingly propelling themselves to a challenge which will initially bring the “Brutes of Tehran” and the harshness of EU leadership head to head!
Christopher Tingus
64 Whidah Drive
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

Just for the record, a death toll of 400,000 far exceeds any prior domestic disaster and not many in world history exceed that number. While there is no planning basis for mortuary activities, I believe a toll of 50,000 dead would be more than adequate as long as some surge capacity existed. Under EO 12656 mortuary services are the responsibility of HHS but they have no way to deal with contaminated remains. FEMA got the hit in Katrina for lack of disaster preparedness for remains of the dead.

Comment by Kayden

March 9, 2017 @ 3:26 am

Show maacmettihally that, if you move due north or south, one degree of latitude equals approximately 111 km (69 mi) everywhere on earth. Assume that the earth is a perfect sphere with the radius of 6378 km. October 25, 2012 airdogspace2

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