The impact of nuclear attacks on U.S. cities

Summary:Researchers from the Center for Mass Destruction Defense (CMADD) at the University of Georgia have created a detailed simulation of the catastrophic impact a nuclear attack would have on American cities. They've looked at the detailed consequences that such attacks would have on four cities, Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., and concluded that the destruction of the major hospitals in the downtown areas of the four cities would be almost nearly complete. They also give some solutions to reduce the number of lost lives, which could reach 5 million for the New York City area. Frightening...

Researchers from the Center for Mass Destruction Defense (CMADD) at the University of Georgia have created a detailed simulation of the catastrophic impact a nuclear attack would have on American cities. They've looked at the detailed consequences that such attacks would have on four cities, Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., and concluded that the destruction of the major hospitals in the downtown areas of the four cities would be almost nearly complete. They've estimated the numbers of direct deaths from the blasts and indirect ones from burns and radiations. They also give some solutions to reduce the number of lost lives, which could reach 5 million for the New York City area. Frightening...

Below is diagram showing the thermal impact of a 550 kiloton surface nuclear detonation on New York City with weather as of September 17, 2004. The destruction of the major hospitals in the downtown area would be almost nearly complete in the city. (Credit: CMADD)

The impact of a nuclear attack on New York City

"The likelihood of a nuclear weapon attack in an American city is steadily increasing, and the consequences will be overwhelming," said Cham Dallas,Cham Dallas, the director of the Center for Mass Destruction Defense (CMADD), a CDC Center for Public Health Preparedness at the University of Georgia. He wrote this study with William Bell, CMADD senior research scientist.

It is interesting to note that the two researchers decided to focus on 20 kiloton and 550 kiloton nuclear detonation.

For comparison, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in the 12 to 20 kiloton range. Bell explained that a 20 kiloton weapon could be manufactured by terrorists and fledgling nuclear countries such as North Korea and Iran, while a 550 kiloton device is commonly found in the arsenal of the former Soviet Union and therefore is the most likely to be stolen by terrorists.

And here are what would be some of the effects of nuclear attacks.

A 20-kiloton detonation would leave debris tens of feet thick in downtown areas with buildings 10-stories or higher. Roughly half of the population in downtown areas would be killed, mainly from collapsing buildings. Most of those surviving the initial blast in downtown areas would be exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. While the main effects from a 20-kiloton explosion would be from the blast and the radiation it releases, a 550-kiloton explosion would create additional and substantial casualties from burns. Such an explosion would superheat the blast zone, causing buildings to spontaneously combust.

Besides the direct effects of such an impact, "a 550 kiloton detonation in New York would result in a fallout plume extending the length of Long Island, resulting in more than 5 million deaths." And these deaths would be caused by burns, both because hospitals would be destroyed or because they're not designed to handle simultaneously a great number of burn victims.

A 550-kiloton detonation in Atlanta, the least densely populated of the four cities studied, would result in nearly 300,000 serious burn victims. "The hospital system has about 1,500 burn beds in the whole country, and of these maybe 80 or 90 percent are full at any given time," Bell said. "There's no way of treating the burn victims from a nuclear attack with the existing medical system."

Still, the number of deaths could be dramatically reduced -- if the public was correctly informed in advance of what to do.

In certain areas, it may be possible to turn the death rate from 90 percent in some burn populations to probably 20 or 30 percent -- and those are very big differences -- simply by being prepared well in advance," Dallas said. One intervention is to mount a public awareness campaign to teach civilians what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Since radioactive plumes move downwind, a person can look up at the trees to see which way the wind is blowing and then flee perpendicular to the wind. Because the plumes are significantly longer than they are wide, moving as little as one to five miles perpendicular to the plume can mean the difference between life and death.

This whole study, which took three years to be done, has been published online on February 28, 2007 as an open access document by the International Journal of Health Geographics under the name "Vulnerability of populations and the urban health care systems to nuclear weapon attack: examples from four American cities" (Volume 6, Article 5 of 2007). Here are three links to the abstract and to the full paper in HTML format and in PDF format (33 pages, 7.02 MB). The above illustration comes from this document which contains many other frightening images.

Here is the conclusion of this must-read study "Among the consequences of this outcome would be the probable loss of command-and-control, mass casualties that will have to be treated in an unorganized response by hospitals on the periphery, as well as other expected chaotic outcomes from inadequate administration in a crisis. Vigorous, creative, and accelerated training and coordination among the federal agencies tasked for WMD response, military resources, academic institutions, and local responders will be critical for large-scale WMD events involving mass casualties."

I sure hope that such a situation will never occur.

Sources: University of Georgia News Service, March 20, 2007; and various websites

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Topics: Health

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