Will I survive a nuke? Estimating what size nuke to plan for

I want to know if I’ll survive a nuclear blast just three miles from ground zero. The first step is to estimate the size of the bomb that would most likely be used in an attack.

Disclaimer to Self: If I’m wrong about my conclusion, i.e., if a larger bomb is used, well, I could unexpectedly get nuked.

Nuclear bombs range in size from .25 kilotons to 100,000 kilotons (100 megatons). Hiroshima was 12.5 kilotons and Nagasaki was 22 kilotons. A suitcase nuke is about 1 to 3 kilotons. Given a particular size bomb, there are variables that affect the extent and type of damage such as weather, terrain (including tall buildings) and where, in relation to the ground, the bomb is detonated. A groundburst causes less blast damage to the surroundings but it creates more debris so nuclear fallout is worse. An airburst causes more blast damage but less fallout.

During the Cold War the possibility of state-sponsored nuclear war gave a legitimate fear of large bombs, in the megaton range. Today, with terrorism a greater risk, I think the smaller the bomb, the greater the risk (if anyone can correct me on that, please do). While very small bombs can be hard to make as you need a minimum amount of fissile material for a bomb to work, larger bombs need more enriched uranium, which is hard to get. Also, terrorists would likely deploy a nuke tactically, so the smaller the bomb the easier it is to sneak into place.

I believe 10 kilotons is the size to plan for. A bomb of this size is small and simple so it could be “homemade” and snuck into place. A couple of important studies, one from the Preventive Defense Project, a joint Stanford-Harvard program, and one from the RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank, both chose 10 kilotons as a likely size. It’s also roughly the size of Hiroshima so we have firsthand information about the actual damage caused by that load. While Hiroshima was an airburst (about 1900 feet), the Preventive Defense Project modeled their results on a bomb at ground level or in a tall building, hundreds of feet in the air.

Planning for 10 kilotons provides a margin of safety because I think there’s a greater probability of something smaller than 10 kilotons, like a suitcase nuke (I keep wondering, where are all the Russian suitcase nukes?). Also, an untested, homemade 10 kiloton bomb by a non-state group may “fizzle” and produce a lower yield, which is what happened to the North Korean underground test in 2006. And bomb much larger than 10 kilotons could fizzle and yield 10 kilotons or less.

The target I live near is on the water so it would not make sense to use a large bomb as half the blast would be wasted over the water. You hear that, you would-be-bombers? Don’t waste your money on big bombs near the water.

Explore posts in the same categories: Preparation, Probability

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