Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 22, 2013

Nuclear Explosion Simulators: Check out NUKEMAP 2.0…and 3D

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 22, 2013

The first NUKEMAP, a nuclear detonation simulator, appeared in February 2012. At the time I described it:

Created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at the American Institute of Physics and blogger at “Restricted Data The Nuclear Secrecy Blog,” this simulator is the best example of an admittedly small class of apps. It allows one to pick the target and yield of the device, either through drop down boxes or by entering unique values.  For the sake of simplicity, it defaults with an idealized air burst which eliminates the computational messiness of modeling the influence of unique geography and weather.

So this isn’t your National Lab/FEMA 3-D model tailored to individual cityscapes.  But it gives you a general idea about the varying effects of different sizes of nuclear weapons.

A year later that program hit “10 million detonations” and Wellerstein was able to publish on the subject.  What particularly struck him about the popularity of his program:

There’s only one lesson that I’ve been a little disturbed by. An awful lot of people are amazed at how small the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were compared to thermonuclear weapons. That’s true —but it’s because the megaton-range weapons were insane, not because the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were small. By human standards, 10-20 kilotons should still be horrifying. From a view of 100,000 feet, though, it’s a lot less impressive than the Tsar Bomba, even though the latter was a lot less of a realistic threat than weapons of “smaller” yields, and is certainly a lot less of a threat today. When you put “small” nukes next to monstrous nukes, it is easy to lose perspective. That’s not my goal — my goal is to help people get a sense of scale, something that I think is even more important in a post-Cold War age.

He’s followed through with those thoughts and has released the next version(s) of NUKEMAP: NUKEMAP 2.0 and NUKEMAP 3D.

2.0 is:

“a massive overhaul of the back-end of the old NUKEMAP, with much more flexible effects calculations and the ability to chart all sorts of other new phenomena — like radioactive fallout (finally!), casualty estimates, and the ability to specify airbursts versus ground bursts. All of these calculations are based on models developed by people working for the US government during the Cold War for use in government effects planning.”

There is also an option, powered by Google (so please do not blame the programmer for any discrepancies) that allows for a count of affected hospitals and other medical offices, schools, and churches.  The casualty estimate comes from data that averages the population in the affected area over a 24-hour period, so that means it doesn’t just take into account Census data that looks at residency but also at who might be working in the area during the day (i.e. the number of people in down or mid town Manhattan).

The 3D version gets to his concern that some users were underwhelmed by the effects produced by “small” nuclear weapons.  As you can see from the picture at the beginning of this post, a little visual stimulus (combined with casualty estimates…) might go a long way to reversing this trend.

Alex developed the original and these follow up programs as educational tools for students of nuclear history and security programs/non-proliferation.  Yet I believe there is a strong argument for their use in the homeland security enterprise.

For those working in homeland security, I think a quote from Alex is very insightful in terms of the usefulness of this program:

“It hit this funny intersection between what people called ‘fun’ and ‘scary,’” Wellerstein said at a Thursday event, noting that this is “a really powerful intersection.”

Problem was, some users of Wellerstein’s original doomsday simulator have been surprised to find that the damage wrought on a city by a relatively low-yield bomb — say, one of 10 kilotons, the potential size of a North Korean or terrorist nuke — didn’t look all that catastrophic, he said.

“People lose the sense of scale because the big ones are so outrageously big,” he said.

I hope I’m wrong, but I would still bet that many professionals involved at the local or state level may still believe in the Cold War model that any nuclear explosion will mean that their city is gone.  They have no role.  Leave it up to the “feds.” While these sites represent educational rather than planning tools, the simulations made possible can still give local and state officials a picture of what they could face during their “worst case scenario.”  In addition, it could help those communities surrounding large urban areas begin to conceptualize what they could possibly face.

Nuclear attack is undoubtedly the definition of a low probability, high consequence event.  The NUKEMAP tools are useful educational tools for officials at any level.  And if you, or they, are concerned about the discrepencies that may emerge between the National Lab/FEMA reports and these programs, I would just suggest that those are also not useful for making specific plans.  I would argue they provide definitive answers regarding questions of sheltering in place vs. evacuation, but that the value of open source information could possible outweigh the “coolness” of FOUO reports and information.

At the very least, these sites deserve your interest:

2d: http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/

3d: http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap3d/

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Comment by John

July 23, 2013 @ 1:08 am

The website has been down all day >.<

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 23, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

Sorry John. It looks like I should have waited a few more days before advertising the sites, to let Alex work out the bugs. It seems like he had server issues – but they are back up now. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t take a week or so to work through all the kinks, especially with the casualty estimator.

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