Archive for June 2008

The likelihood of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil – part 1

June 18, 2008

Before I make the decision to start nuclear survival preparations—and, perhaps, make lifestyle changes–I need to know: What’s the probability of a nuke attack on U.S. soil?

Many people have qualitative opinions but I’ve found little quantitative analysis. Perhaps the risk can’t be calculated; or perhaps the numbers have been crunched and classified, I don’t know. But I’m looking for more than vague commentary with language like “serious threat” or “vanishingly small.”

The challenge is to decipher the misinformation and conflicting information. Some initial observations:

  1. There’s stuff from experts on both sides, pro and con (pro, it’s a serious threat; con, it’s not a serious threat).
  2. There may be people with extreme positions on both sides–alarmists and naysayers–and it’s hard to know who’s reasonable and who’s extreme.
  3. Voices in the debate may have an agenda, pro or con. After all, the Iraqi nuclear threat was one of the primary reasons President Bush took the U.S. to war.
  4. Short of a pro-agenda (that there’s a serious threat), I wonder if there’s a simple bias. When I think of everyone involved in securing the safety of America, from government to private security firms to equipment suppliers, I think of the old Mark Twain saying: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This would be unfortunate because the people involved in securing our lives know the most about the threat.

Another issue to consider as I weigh the threat is a passive mindset, an out-of-sight out-of-mind thing. Does the low frequency of domestic terrorist incidents–and a zero-incidence of nuclear terrorism worldwide–make it underrated as a risk? It’s easy to dismiss the absurd. As journalist Mark Steyn said recently on Fox News, “Every jihadist is a joke if you catch them in time. If those September 11th guys had been caught on September 10th, they would have seemed like jokes too.”

Does the headline “Nukes Kill 100,000!” sound absurd? It sounds like science fiction except it would have been an accurate headline in 1945 after the bombings in Japan. Didn’t the 9/11 Commission accuse the CIA and the FBI of a passive mindset when the Commission said that a “failure of imagination” contributed to the success of the 9/11 attack?

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Mapping an explosion: blast map calculators

June 16, 2008

I found some interactive blast map calculators that were mildly entertaining to my inner-geek. Unfortunately, I couldn’t achieve 100% functionality, which might be because I’m on a Mac (I’ve not tried them on a PC yet). Nonetheless, they’re link-worthy:

Fallout Calculator – from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). You can choose from a selection of major international cites (New York City is noticeably absent), wind speed, wind direction and bomb yield. On my Mac I could not adjust the bomb yield (I tried using both Safari and Firefox). The results, a series of concentric ovals, “depict calculated radiation doses of 300, 25, and 1 REM at 96 hours after detonation.” Clicking anywhere on the map will move the location of detonation to that point. FAS, an organization endorsed by 69 Noble Laureates, was founded in 1945 by scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. A main focus of the group is to reduce nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapon Effects Calculator – also from the FAS. This tool is “to give an idea of the devastating blast effects of ground-level, shallow subsurface, and low-altitude nuclear weapon detonations.” Choose a city (New York again is absent) and a bomb yield. Clicking anywhere on the map will move the location of detonation to that point. The results are three concentric circles, which are not explained.

The High-Yield Detonation Effects Simulator (HYDESim) – an experiment in AJAX and Google Maps programming by Eric A. Meyer. Based on public data (from the classic book, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons), it shows “overpressure,” which is the destructive air pressure or shock wave created by the bomb measured in pounds per square inch (psi). You pick the bomb yield and four concentric circles show the overpressure created at four distances from the point of detonation. I had difficulty moving the point of detonation around the google map. You can find additional coordinates (latitude and longitude) for cities by clicking here. It’s interesting to note that a 10 kiloton bomb creates 0.25 psi at 4.01 mile and “most glass surfaces, such as windows, will shatter within this ring, some with enough force to cause injury.” Note to self: if the U.S. is ever threatened with an imminent attack, move desk away from window.

Blast Maps – from the website for the book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison of the Belfar Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Internet Explorer and a PC are required so I’ve not messed with this one yet

Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer – online retro edition – Wow, this is cool. During the Cold War you could purchase a circular slide rule from the U.S. Government Printing Office based on information from the classic book, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (same source for the HYDESim above). John Walker has recreated this calculator online in a unique way: for blast affects you input the variables of bomb yield and distance, and for radiation affects you input time and dose rate. The output is an image of the original slide rule showing the results. Click here for the instructions.