Those who remember the paranoid days immediately following September 11 may recall Nuke-O-Matic. The site let you pick a location and size of nuclear weapon, and then see how extensive the damage would be, with concentric circles color coded for the level of devastation.
This article, “Study details catastrophic impact of nuclear attack on U.S. cities” summarizes the latest serious paper on this grim topic. It looks at the effect of the detonation of a 20 kilogram bomb (the sort that could be manufactured by terrorists) versus a 550 kilogram bomb (the kind that would be acquired, say from the many nuclear weapons that went missing when the USSR dissolved) on four US cities: New York, DC, Chicago, and Atlanta (Angelinos, don’t take offense; the study was prepared by researchers at the University of Georgia, Cham Dallas and William Bell, both with the Center for Mass Destruction Defense and world-renown experts on toxicology, casualty estimation and management, and mass displacements of people).
The full report appeared in the “International Journal of Health Geographics,” and used block-level Census data and an analysis of prevailing weather patterns to reach its conclusions.
The study finds that hospitals would not be able to handle the injured population (due both to sheer numbers and the fact that many hospitals would be destroyed in an attack). However, the authors stress that preparedeness, particularly educating the public as to what to do (most importantly, knowing whether and how to flee) would lower casualties greatly.
From the article describing the report:
Among the study’s findings:
* 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. Mass fires would consume cities, reaching out nearly four miles (6.3 km) in all directions from the detonation site.
* 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.
* A 550 kiloton detonation in Washington, D.C. would destroy hospitals in the District, but its fallout plume would also incapacitate hospitals in Baltimore, nearly 40 miles away.
The researchers note that in all four cities studied, hospitals are concentrated in the area most likely to be destroyed. Another weak link is the inability of the nation’s hospital system to treat the burn victims a 550-kiloton detonation would create. 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.”
Dallas acknowledges that the consequences of a nuclear attack would be grim, but stresses that there are ways that tens of thousands lives could be saved.
“If a nuclear detonation were to occur in a downtown area, the picture would be bleak there,” Dallas said. “But in urban areas farther from the detonation, there actually is quite a bit that we can 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.”
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. People in areas upwind of the detonation site, on the other hand, are safest staying where they are.
Dallas also recommended changes in burn treatment. The current approach is to treat all patients intensively, which is clearly impossible when the number of patients is large. He instead recommend rapid wound cleaning and administration of antibiotics and painkillers, which could be done by trained non-medical personnel.