Archive for the ‘Probability’ category

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?

Warren Buffet on a nuclear “incident” – part 2

May 8, 2008

I’m researching the probability of a nuke attack and I want to revisit my post of 1/21/08 regarding Warren Buffet’s remark that a nuclear incident on U.S. soil is a “virtual certainty.”

According to a footnote on page two of a paper by political scientist John Mueller (pdf file), who argues the risk of an atomic bomb is “vanishingly small” and has been “substantially exaggerated,” Mr. Buffet is worried about any nuclear event, including reactor accidents, and he had a time frame of 100 years. The footnote states: “…Contacted by the Wall Street Journal, however, Buffett says he was worrying about any nuclear explosion, not just one set off by terrorists, and that he was talking about something that might come about over the next century, not within a ten-year period…”

Even if Mr. Buffet’s comments are based on a time frame of 100 years and includes Chernoyble-like disasters, there seems to be no doubt that he believes nuclear terrorism is a threat. As I noted earlier, he’s concerned enough to be an Advisor to the Board of Directors of the The Nuclear Threat Initiative. He told his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders to watch the movie, Last Best Chance, which dramatizes terrorists obtaining unsecured Russian nuclear material. Here are additional excerpts from the 6/19/05 interview Mr. Buffet gave CNN’s Lou Dobbs, which I cited in my 1/21/08 post:

“…And, you know, thousands of years ago we had psychotics and we had religious fanatics and we had megalomaniacs. But about the most they could do was throw a stone at somebody if they wished evil on them.

“Today, since 1945, the ability to inflict evil, or harm, on other people in huge numbers has grown exponentially. And right now there’s the knowledge around to use nuclear material. And we’ve got to hope that the wrong people don’t get their hands on it.

“… there are lots of loose nukes around the world. We’ve got multiple governments that have the capability. We have lots of chemical and biological agents that are ill guarded around the world and it should be at the top of the list for our government.

“… There are people out there that would like to do a lot more than the World Trade Center or the Spanish trains or that sort of thing.

“… The nuclear, chemical and biological threat is real. And it’s one we should attack.”

Two side notes:

1) When I read something in the press and I’ve known the inside story, there are often mistakes. I don’t have 100% faith in the press to accurately quote and get a story straight. Apropos to this post, recently there was a misunderstanding with Mr. Buffet. The press quoted him saying that the dollar will soon be “worthless.” He actually said it will soon be “worth less.”
2) In the “irony department”—in this case, nuclear power plants may be the only practical solution to global warming so nuclear energy has the potential to both destroy the earth and to save the earth—The Wall Street Journal reported on 12/7/07 that Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was interested in nuclear power: “MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., controlled by investor Warren Buffett, notified the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday that it is pursuing the possibility of building a nuclear power plant in Payette County, Idaho…”

Three miles from a 10 kiloton nuke – will I live or die?

April 6, 2008

In the prior post I explained why I’m planning for a bomb size of 10 kilotons. Now I’ll look at the risks from the blast and radiation.

While I believe I have a chance of sustaining no injuries or only minor scathing from the affects of the blast, there are many variables to consider and I’ll return to those risks—from shock, heat, fires and flying debris—at a later time. Ultimately, it may be too difficult to determine risk because of unknown variables. For example, will I be standing next to a window that gets blown out or will I be in an interior room? (The U.S. Dept. of Energy website on the Manhattan Project discusses Hiroshima: “…and the blast wave shattered glass in suburbs twelve miles away.”) In any case, I feel blast affects are secondary to radiation risk, where there is a calculable risk of death.

It’s impossible to know the full risk of radiation without knowing wind direction. If I’m upwind of the blast, the best-case scenario, the risk is from immediate radiation or what’s call “ionizing radiation” (the RAND Corporation report cited below calls it “flash radiation”). I’m having difficulty calculating the precise dose of immediate radiation from 10 kilotons at three miles so, for now, I’ll quote a RAND study, which says the zone of 100% mortality is about a radius of three quarters of a mile: “For a 10-kiloton airburst, everyone will be killed by lethal doses of flash radiation to a distance of 0.7 miles.” This is from the RAND Corporation’s Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy, page four of a report titled, “Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack.”

So, beyond three-quarters of a mile, some live and some die. Even if certain death is unlikely from immediate radiation at three miles, there will be some low level of radiation exposure, which could eventually manifest in health problems. But, at the moment, I feel immediate radiation affects are secondary to “residual radiation,” aka, nuclear fallout. On a bad wind day and sans a fallout shelter, I could be fatally zapped.

Quoting from page six of a report by The Preventive Defense Project, a joint Stanford-Harvard program, titled, “The Day After: Action in the 24 Hours Following a Nuclear Blast in an American City” (the link is a pdf file):

“Further downwind from the detonation point, a plume of radioactive debris would spread. Its shape and size would depend on wind and rain conditions, but the area over which people who did not shelter themselves or flee within hours would receive lethal radiation doses within a day would range from five to ten square miles: the area of Brooklyn for New York, northwest Washington for Washington, DC, or the upper peninsula for San Francisco – but the direction from ground zero depending on the wind.”

(Note: I thought fallout begins to hit the ground within 15 minutes so I’m confused about the above phrase, “flee within hours.” I’ll return to the topic of evacuating versus sheltering in place with better information on how quickly I need to evacuate.)

While immediate radiation creates a circular pattern of radiation exposure, fallout creates an oval pattern that moves downwind from the blast. The Preventive Defense Project’s “The Day After” report has a map of Washington, D.C., with two overlapping ovals placed on top of the map to show the approximate fallout patterns. The smaller, dark oval is the 50% fatality zone, and the longer, lighter oval is the 10% fatality zone. The visual isn’t that important to see (on page eight if you want to follow the link above to the study) but the caption to the illustration tells me what I need to know:

“Over 50% of the population within the dark red oval (approximately 5 miles long) would incur fatal radiation in the course of the first day if they stayed unsheltered in that area. Absent elaborate shelters people should leave as soon as possible.

“Over 10% of the population in the lighter oval (about 8 miles long) would incur severe radiation injury, sometimes fatal, in the first day if they stayed unsheltered in that area. Light shelters could offer significant protection. There and nearby, sheltering offers the better option.”

The bottom line for me is that there’s a 50% mortality risk in an area five miles downwind of the blast. I’m three miles from my target so, depending upon conditions, my location has a high risk of death and, short of death, a high risk of severe radiation exposure. I don’t have access to an “elaborate shelter” so, if my target is nuked, I’ll need to jump into action.

Fortunately, I’m upwind from my target so, on most days, I’m at low risk. I could dig up historical weather information to better define my risk, and I may do that in the future; but I’m not sure if calculating risk based on the weather, reliably unpredictable, is a good use of my time. Also, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to convincingly monitor wind direction in the immediate hours after a blast.

I’m beginning to wonder, what if I’m over-reacting? What if the probability of a nuke attack is infinitesimally small?

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

April 5, 2008

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.

Will I survive a nuke? Assessing the risk

April 4, 2008

I live and work near a known terrorist target so I’m anxious to answer the question: Will I survive a nuclear blast just three miles from ground zero?

I’m not a nuclear scientist or a ballistics expert or military strategist, but I’m surfing the web looking for those guys. This exercise is more back-of-the-napkin than doctorial thesis as I don’t think even a room full of Noble laureates could guarantee an answer. I’m simply looking at probabilities to help me define my risk.

In the next post I estimate the most likely bomb size.

In the post that follows the next post I’ll get started on estimating the risk of death and injury from both the blast and the radiation. I’ll come to a partial conclusion but there are many variables to check so I’ll be fleshing out this answer over time.

Eventually, I’ll look into the probability of an attack, weighing the specific risk to my local target, which will help me decide if I should move to safer ground. Even if I can survive a nuke in good health, I have no doubt that the post-apocalyptic quality of life will suck for a long, long time, so that too will affect my decision to stay or split. I’ll also consider the possibility that a nuclear attack anywhere in the U.S. may create a nationwide syndrome of fear of future attacks.

If you live or work near a target and want to assess your risk, sorry to be glib but I believe a nuke is most likely to explode during business hours, 9AM to 5PM. Not only will there be maximum amounts of people near the target, the most likely bombers are media savvy and want good press coverage. Planning for a potential nuke attack needs to consider both work and home, but the emphasis should probably be on where you work.

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Warren Buffet on Nuclear Bombs

January 21, 2008

[Go to a 5/8/08 UPDATE on this post]

“It’s inevitable.” A quote by Warren Buffet.

This is old news but worth reviewing to get it in the record of this blog. It’s important because if I needed just one person to make the case that a nuclear attack on U.S. soil was a slam-dunk, it would be Warren Buffet. He thinks it’s inevitable.

Warren Buffet is the second richest person in the world and the most respected investor on Wall Street. He’s cautious and self-effacing; he’s the opposite of flamboyant and not prone to hyperbole. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns not just insurance companies (like GEICO), but it owns at least one reinsurance company, which means Warren Buffet insures other insurance companies. His business is to predict, plan and pay for the cleanup of disasters (in fact, he lost $2.4 billion from 9/11; see the last quote below for his take on covering nuclear disasters). He also serves as Advisor to the Board of Directors of The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group working to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.

From the lips of Warren Buffet regarding a nuclear bomb in the U.S.:

In a CNN interview with Lou Dobbs on 6/19/05, Warren Buffet said, “It’s the number one problem of our time.”

Both CNN and the BBC News on 5/6/02 quote Warren Buffet with this: “We’re going to have something in the way of a major nuclear event in this country… It will happen. Whether it will happen in 10 years or 10 minutes, or 50 years … it’s virtually a certainty.”

A Slate piece on 6/18/02 quotes Warren Buffet with this: “I don’t know anything [about potential threats to U.S. security] but I know basic probabilities. … I understand how things that seem very unlikely happen when time passes. … There’s just plenty of people out there who hate us … more psychotics, more megalomaniacs, more religious fanatics today than 50 years ago.”

A Fortune piece on 11/11/02 quotes Warren Buffet with this: “…the ultimate depressing thing. It will happen. It’s inevitable. I don’t see any way that it won’t happen. But we can reduce the probabilities. If there’s a 10% probability of something happening in a given year–and I don’t know if that’s the right probability; nobody knows–then the chances that it will happen in 50 years are 99.5%. If you get it down to 3%, there is about a 78% chance. If you get it down to 1% per year, there’s like a 40% chance, so reducing the probabilities per annum of anything happening obviously increases the chance significantly that your kids will get through their lifetimes without this happening. You can’t get rid of the knowledge [how to make a bomb]. You can try to control the materials [enriched uranium and loose nukes]. You’ll never get rid of the intent. It is the ultimate problem of mankind.”

Finally, the UK’s Guardian on 5/6/02 quotes the “Oracle of Omaha” on whether he’ll offer nuclear terrorism insurance. I’m confused by the last sentence in the quote below. Perhaps he believes financial institutions are willing to insure themselves for small disasters but not large disasters, even if the probability of a large disaster were the same or greater. Or perhaps he believes these companies are worried about terrorism but they’re not willing to pay the high premiums, especially for nuclear events. I give up, you decide:

“…It could make the World Trade Centre loss look like nothing. We are excluding nuclear, chemical and biological events in terrorism insurance. The twin towers came close to the limit of what we can do. We cannot do nuclear, chemical and biological. We will take an occasional nuclear risk if they’ll pay us enough. It’s strange that financial institutions want terrorism insurance but they’re not willing to buy what I’m worried about.”

Mr. Buffet, I’d like a clarification on that last sentence. Please call me.

Journalist Paul L. Williams talks about an ‘American Hiroshima’

December 11, 2007

My post of 10/25/07 (“How much is that nuclear bomb in the window?”) mentions award winning journalist Paul L Williams. He has a large body of work documenting attempts by terrorist groups to obtain enriched uranium and nuclear weapons and their conviction to use them. He was interviewed on 11/28/07 on a radio show called Third Rail Radio, which bills itself as “politically abrasive new media radio” talking about “the stuff that old media won’t touch.” He talks about nuclear terrorism and you can listen to the podcast here. It’s just audio and runs, I’m guessing, about 45 minutes.

Dr. Williams has an impressive bio. He was a consultant to the FBI. He has been a subject on PBS, History and Discovery channels and is a guest on Fox News, MSNBC and NPR. He won the National Book Award and has written numerous books on terrorism, the latest being, The Day of Islam: The Annihilation of America and the Western World.