Destructive Effects of a Nuclear Suitcase Bomb
dust is settling on the conflict in Afghanistan and not one major
figure from the Taliban or Al-Qaida has been found. Bin Laden remains
elusive and, according to some reports,
he may have moved to the Pashtun-dominated area of Pakistan weeks
that sense, Operation Enduring Freedom is so far a failure. And
that leaves one vital question still open. Does Bin Laden still
own the fabled nuclear suitcase bomb?
can safely assume that nothing of that nature was found in the Tora
Bora complex. One does not abandon equipment that cost millions
of dollars, especially if a heavy American attack on Afghanistan
was worked into Bin Laden’s war game tactics prior to September
answer, in my opinion, is somewhere between probably and not likely.
But, whatever one’s view is, the major question is concerned with
what these devices are capable of. The answer to that depends on
a number of different factors which I shall explore below. A likely
scenario of bomb parameters will be used and we shall arrive at
a set of numbers, which will show only too clearly what an undesirable
visitor such a device would be to an American city.
first parameter to establish is the explosive yield of the device.
Based on the various media reports and articles I have examined,
the alleged nuclear "backpacks" or "suitcases"
would appear to be in the one to ten kiloton range. As a benchmark,
the uranium fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima was just over ten
kilotons. However, the majority of the articles tend towards the
lowest figure of one kiloton and that is the number I will assume.
mode of detonation is very influential as to the range of the effects
of the nuclear explosion and is partly dependent on the intentions
of the terrorists. High altitude airbursts are normally intended
for Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) effects – i.e. to knock out electronic
command and control equipment. But this is not useful to terrorists
and is useless anyway for such a low-yield device.
ground burst minimises blast and thermal damage due to the shielding
of successive buildings and hills but maximises the production of
fallout particles. These particles are vacuumed up into the initial
fireball, which vaporises and then irradiates them before they condense
back into solids and float down to earth within hours.
a low altitude airburst would balance blast, heat, and fallout damage
into one infernal combination and has the dubious but added "bonus"
of the Mach Effect, which is a reinforced blast wave, created when
a fireball blast wave meets the initial blast wave reflected from
the ground in the manner of constructive interference.
method would a terrorist choose? I suggest the low altitude airburst
since it is emotive pictures of decimated sectors of cities and
high numbers of immediate casualties that they want the world to
witness. For sure, fallout from a ground burst could kill many more
over the following months and years, but that does not generate
the razor-sharp publicity that a terrorist hungers for.
could a terrorist pull off a low altitude airburst? The only conceivable
way to do this is to carry the weapon over ground zero in a light
aircraft. Getting the aircraft would probably be quite easy as would
be the loading of the device. Flying the aircraft over the city
is more difficult, but once again the nefarious deed could be executed
before the military were alerted, scrambled a fighter jet, and engaged
the enemy. The likelihood of a USAF fighter catching such a plane
is also diminished if a lower-priority city is chosen. In that respect,
I will assume a low-altitude airburst. If they can kidnap and fly
three out of four Boeing jets into their intended targets in one
day, they can do this as well.
ground detonation is still entirely possible from inside a hidden
building or a ship coming into port (though half the energy of the
blast could be directed towards the ocean) and these would be easier
operations. But this is primarily a question of what the terrorists
believe is desirable and achievable rather than what is easiest.
is the unlucky American city? Certainly, it will be a city and it
will be American as far as an Islamic fanatic with an extremely
rare and potent weapon is concerned. New York? Los Angeles? San
Francisco? New York has had a hard time of it with the two WTC attacks
and the downing of flight 587 (yes, I believe it was a terrorist
attack), so we may be forgiven for thinking the next attack will
the Eastern seaboard is the favoured route for bringing in smuggled
items and terrorists will not want to spend critical time in long,
hazardous journeys westwards. We know that some of the WTC terrorists
were based and trained in Florida and that the alleged terrorist
on trial just now was caught in the mid-southern state of Oklahoma
(ominously he had undertaken Cessna flight training). I suggest
that coastal cities further south or even into the Gulf of Mexico
may be at greater risk.
a city with a flat topology may be favoured above more contoured
cities since hills will deflect and absorb the blast waves as was
the case in Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks. Hiroshima was a flatter
city than Nagasaki and paid for this with a greater death toll and
destruction per square mile.
to get the last iota of destructive power out of their devilish
device, the terrorists would also favour southern cities because
of the hotter conditions and better atmospheric conditions. In other
words, clear, sunny skies are better "tinderbox" conditions
as would that time of day since Bin Laden would want clear conditions
for the infamous mushroom cloud to be recorded by the world’s media.
I have no topological maps of southern US cities to make such judgements,
but the reader can draw their own conclusions. So far, all this
is deductive common sense, but I now move onto the actual effects
based on a warm sunny morning in such an American city. The range
given in feet and miles will be for the actual distance from ground
zero and assumes the fireball centre to be 200 feet above it.
that fateful morning, the citizens close to ground zero will note
the unremarkable drone of a light aircraft flying above their buildings.
It is the last thing they ever hear.
the blinding, split second flash of a hundred suns registers with
them is unlikely because the intense heat that kills them also travels
at the speed of light. As the fireball expands rapidly to its maximum
diameter of 460 feet, its centre rages at a temperature of 10,000,000°
C for its brief lifetime. Note that temperatures in the WTC attacks
were unlikely to have exceeded 5,000° C.
objects up to 450 feet from ground zero of the initial flash will
vaporise. Metallic objects up to 670 feet away will melt. It is
needless to guess what happens to people caught out in the open
at these ranges – they cease to exist in any meaningful sense of
the word and join the raw material for the later fallout.
1400 feet from ground zero, rubbers and plastics will ignite and
melt whilst wood will char and burn. For victims out in the open,
3rd degree burns are inflicted up to 0.4 miles away,
2nd degree burns up to half a mile away and 1st
degree burns at up to nearly a mile away. It is at the extremity
of this range that we have the "open oven door effect"
which needs no further explanation.
bomb will expend about 35% of its energy as this radiated heat;
a further 50% is absorbed by the atmosphere and becomes a juggernaut
blast wave roaring across the city centre at speeds of up to the
limit of sound.
cities used to visiting hurricanes will not have witnessed the boiling
winds we describe here. As a comparison, a hefty hurricane-like
wind velocity of 116 miles per hour will hit residents at just under
half a mile from the blast, whilst those experiencing less damaging
winds of 70 mph at under 0.6 miles will feel fortunate.
those buildings which survived the melting effects of the heat radiation
will be finished off by the high winds further into the city centre
as winds approaching 670 mph will level or badly damage even steel
concrete structures within 740 feet of the blast. No one inside
this perimeter can hope to survive unless they are in good underground
the wind speed drops to 380 mph at about 1050 feet, tall multi-storey
buildings will be lucky to be left standing and survivors of the
heat pulse will suffer potentially fatal lung injuries. As the speed
drops to 225 mph at about 1650 feet, most dwelling houses will be
wrecked and the streets blocked by debris. Flying fragments become
the killer rather than sheer air pressure at these distances.
the initial radiation pulse did not ignite, the blast does by igniting
new fires due to damaged power lines, gas mains and oil tanks. Asphyxiation
can also occur at these ranges as much of the air is devoted to
fuelling uncontrollable firestorms, which have no mercy on wooden
I said, this factor will not be so important to devastation-minded
terrorists, but the statistics bear witness to further death and
misery. The main figure here is the LD-50 dose level which will
kill at least 50% of humans exposed to it for an hour or longer.
This value is 400 Rads for humans and the victim can die within
30 days. Assuming a weather wind velocity of 15 mph which gives
a simple ellipse pattern of fallout, then this lethal dosage can
extend downwind for up to several miles but will be confined to
a maximum width of only several hundred feet on average.
is to be noted that an instant gamma ray burst of 400 Rads from
the fireball burst will also have this effect up to about 700 feet
from ground zero, but the victim would surely be dead from heat
and blast effects already.
the winds drop to gale force at just under a mile, and the glow
of the fireball abates, the grim spectacle is over within minutes.
We are confronted with a scene of complete devastation within hundreds
of feet of ground zero. As the four mile high mushroom cloud silently
presides over its work, rescue services will find this a radiation-infested
no-go area for months and will concentrate on helping those who
have survived further away from ground zero.
who are capable of moving will be directed to get out of the immediate
area to escape the fallout which is beginning to rain down like
snow along the wind patterns of the day. The wreckage on roads as
well as every possible vehicle taking to the road at the same time
will hamper evacuation procedures as will the transportation of
the wounded and infirm.
located about three-quarters of a mile or more from ground zero
will have survived with mainly minor injuries, their immediate task
is to play their part in helping friends and relatives to evacuate
and beyond that lies the task of rebuilding and repairing homes
as well as shattered lives. Though only people in the immediate
area of the fallout will be in danger, panic and ignorance will
no doubt lead to widespread evacuation across the whole city.
on the Hiroshima bombing and scaling down for bomb yields, one could
expect fatalities of up to 20,000 and a similar number of injured.
If the contours of the land are favourable then these number could
drop by half as in the case of Nagasaki. Other factors such as the
time of day (e.g. not all people at work yet), accessibility to
good medical facilities, evacuation efficiency, and weather conditions
all have a large part to play in the final casualty figures.
is at war with international terrorism and will have to prepare
itself against all that its enemies can throw against it. In the
larger scheme of things, terrorists can only inflict minimal damage
to the American continent as a whole – forty thousand casualties
out of nearly 290
million people is 1 in 7250. As a comparison, a resident of
the U.S.A. dies every 13 seconds or 20,000 will die of natural and
unnatural causes every 3 days.
these are not the cold-blooded statistics which interest the average
citizen. Out of 77 major American cities, they may feel the odds
are closer to 1 in 77 rather than 1 in 7250. This is all about psychology
and a feeling of security and these terrorists know that only too
protection of Heaven may yet prevent such devices being used, but
one suspects that it is more a case of "In the CIA we trust"
rather than "In God we trust"!
Watson [send him
mail] writes from Edinburgh, Scotland.