The escalating threats between North Korea and the United States make it easy to forget the “nuclear nightmare,” as former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry put it, that could result even from the use of just a single terrorist nuclear bomb in the heart of a major city.
At the risk of repeating the vast literature on the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and the substantial literature surrounding nuclear tests and simulations since then—we attempt to spell out here the likely consequences of the explosion of a single terrorist nuclear bomb on a major city, and its subsequent ripple effects on the rest of the planet. Depending on where and when it was detonated, the blast, fire, initial radiation, and long-term radioactive fallout from such a bomb could leave the heart of a major city a smoldering radioactive ruin, killing tens or hundreds of thousands of people and wounding hundreds of thousands more. Vast areas would have to be evacuated and might be uninhabitable for years. Economic, political, and social aftershocks would ripple throughout the world. A single terrorist nuclear bomb would change history. The country attacked—and the world—would never be the same.
The idea of terrorists accomplishing such a thing is, unfortunately, not out of the question; it is far easier to make a crude, unsafe, unreliable nuclear explosive that might fit in the back of a truck than it is to make a safe, reliable weapon of known yield that can be delivered by missile or combat aircraft. Numerous government studies have concluded that it is plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a crude bomb if they got the needed nuclear material. And in the last quarter century, there have been some 20 seizures of stolen, weapons-usable nuclear material, and at least two terrorist groups have made significant efforts to acquire nuclear bombs.
Terrorist use of an actual nuclear bomb is a low-probability event—but the immensity of the consequences means that even a small chance is enough to justify an intensive effort to reduce the risk. Fortunately, since the early 1990s, countries around the world have significantly reduced the danger—but it remains very real, and there is more to do to ensure this nightmare never becomes reality.
Brighter than a thousand suns. Imagine a crude terrorist nuclear bomb—containing a chunk of highly enriched uranium just under the size of a regulation bowling ball, or a much smaller chunk of plutonium—suddenly detonating inside a delivery van parked in the heart of a major city. Such a terrorist bomb would release as much as 10 kilotons of explosive energy, or the equivalent of 10,000 tons of conventional explosives, a volume of explosives large enough to fill all the cars of a mile-long train. In a millionth of a second, all of that energy would be released inside that small ball of nuclear material, creating temperatures and pressures as high as those at the center of the sun. That furious energy would explode outward, releasing its energy in three main ways: a powerful blast wave; intense heat; and deadly radiation.
The ball would expand almost instantly into a fireball the width of four football fields, incinerating essentially everything and everyone within. The heated fireball would rise, sucking in air from below and expanding above, creating the mushroom cloud that has become the symbol of the terror of the nuclear age. The ionized plasma in the fireball would create a localized electromagnetic pulse more powerful than lightning, shorting out communications and electronics nearby—though most would be destroyed by the bomb’s other effects in any case. (Estimates of heat, blast, and radiation effects in this article are drawn primarily from Alex Wellerstein’s “Nukemap,” which itself comes from declassified US government data, such as the 660-page government textbook The Effects of Nuclear Weapons.)
At the instant of its detonation, the bomb would also release an intense burst of gamma and neutron radiation which would be lethal for nearly everyone directly exposed within about two-thirds of a mile from the center of the blast. (Those who happened to be shielded by being inside, or having buildings between them and the bomb, would be partly protected—in some cases, reducing their doses by ten times or more.)
The nuclear flash from the heat of the fireball would radiate in both visible light and the infrared; it would be “brighter than a thousand suns,” in the words of the title of a book describing the development of nuclear weapons—adapting a phrase from the Hindu epic the Bhagavad-Gita. Anyone who looked directly at the blast would be blinded. The heat from the fireball would ignite fires and horribly burn everyone exposed outside at distances of nearly a mile away. (In the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, visitors gaze in horror at the bones of a human hand embedded in glass melted by the bomb.)
No one has burned a city on that scale in the decades since World War II, so it is difficult to predict the full extent of the fire damage that would occur from the explosion of a nuclear bomb in one of today’s cities. Modern glass, steel, and concrete buildings would presumably be less flammable than the wood-and-rice-paper housing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the 1940s—but many questions remain, including exactly how thousands of broken gas lines might contribute to fire damage (as they did in Dresden during World War II). On 9/11, the buildings of the World Trade Center proved to be much more vulnerable to fire damage than had been expected. Ultimately, even a crude terrorist nuclear bomb would carry the possibility that the countless fires touched off by the explosion would coalesce into a devastating firestorm, as occurred at Hiroshima. In a firestorm, the rising column of hot air from the massive fire sucks in the air from all around, creating hurricane-force winds; everything flammable and everything alive within the firestorm would be consumed. The fires and the dust from the blast would make it extremely difficult for either rescuers or survivors to see.
The explosion would create a powerful blast wave rushing out in every direction. For more than a quarter-mile all around the blast, the pulse of pressure would be over 20 pounds per square inch above atmospheric pressure (known as “overpressure”), destroying or severely damaging even sturdy buildings. The combination of blast, heat, and radiation would kill virtually everyone in this zone. The blast would be accompanied by winds of many hundreds of miles per hour.
The damage from the explosion would extend far beyond this inner zone of almost total death. Out to more than half a mile, the blast would be strong enough to collapse most residential buildings and create a serious danger that office buildings would topple over, killing those inside and those in the path of the rubble. (On the other hand, the office towers of a modern city would tend to block the blast wave in some areas, providing partial protection from the blast, as well as from the heat and radiation.) In that zone, almost anything made of wood would be destroyed: Roofs would cave in, windows would shatter, gas lines would rupture. Telephone poles, street lamps, and utility lines would be severely damaged. Many roads would be blocked by mountains of wreckage. In this zone, many people would be killed or injured in building collapses, or trapped under the rubble; many more would be burned, blinded, or injured by flying debris. In many cases, their charred skin would become ragged and fall off in sheets.
The effects of the detonation would act in deadly synergy. The smashed materials of buildings broken by the blast would be far easier for the fires to ignite than intact structures. The effects of radiation would make it far more difficult for burned and injured people to recover. The combination of burns, radiation, and physical injuries would cause far more death and suffering than any one of them would alone.
The silent killer. The bomb’s immediate effects would be followed by a slow, lingering killer: radioactive fallout. A bomb detonated at ground level would dig a huge crater, hurling tons of earth and debris thousands of feet into the sky. Sucked into the rising fireball, these particles would mix with the radioactive remainders of the bomb, and over the next few hours or days, the debris would rain down for miles downwind. Depending on weather and wind patterns, the fallout could actually be deadlier and make a far larger area unusable than the blast itself. Acute radiation sickness from the initial radiation pulse and the fallout would likely affect tens of thousands of people. Depending on the dose, they might suffer from vomiting, watery diarrhea, fever, sores, loss of hair, and bone marrow depletion. Some would survive; some would die within days; some would take months to die. Cancer rates among the survivors would rise. Women would be more vulnerable than men—children and infants especially so.
Much of the radiation from a nuclear blast is short-lived; radiation levels even a few days after the blast would be far below those in the first hours. For those not killed or terribly wounded by the initial explosion, the best advice would be to take shelter in a basement for at least several days. But many would be too terrified to stay. Thousands of panic-stricken people might receive deadly doses of radiation as they fled from their homes. Some of the radiation will be longer-lived; areas most severely affected would have to be abandoned for many years after the attack. The combination of radioactive fallout and the devastation of nearly all life-sustaining infrastructure over a vast area would mean that hundreds of thousands of people would have to evacuate.
Ambulances to nowhere. The explosion would also destroy much of the city’s ability to respond. Hospitals would be leveled, doctors and nurses killed and wounded, ambulances destroyed. (In Hiroshima, 42 of 45 hospitals were destroyed or severely damaged, and 270 of 300 doctors were killed.) Resources that survived outside the zone of destruction would be utterly overwhelmed. Hospitals have no ability to cope with tens or hundreds of thousands of terribly burned and injured people all at once; the United States, for example, has 1,760 burn beds in hospitals nationwide, of which a third are available on any given day.
And the problem would not be limited to hospitals; firefighters, for example, would have little ability to cope with thousands of fires raging out of control at once. Fire stations and equipment would be destroyed in the affected area, and firemen killed, along with police and other emergency responders. Some of the first responders may become casualties themselves, from radioactive fallout, fire, and collapsing buildings. Over much of the affected area, communications would be destroyed, by both the physical effects and the electromagnetic pulse from the explosion.
Better preparation for such a disaster could save thousands of lives—but ultimately, there is no way any city can genuinely be prepared for a catastrophe on such a historic scale, occurring in a flash, with zero warning. Rescue and recovery attempts would be impeded by the destruction of most of the needed personnel and equipment, and by fire, debris, radiation, fear, lack of communications, and the immense scale of the disaster. The US military and the national guard could provide critically important capabilities—but federal plans assume that “no significant federal response” would be available for 24-to-72 hours. Many of those burned and injured would wait in vain for help, food, or water, perhaps for days.
The scale of death and suffering. How many would die in such an event, and how many would be terribly wounded, would depend on where and when the bomb was detonated, what the weather conditions were at the time, how successful the response was in helping the wounded survivors, and more. Many estimates of casualties are based on census data, which reflect where people sleep at night; if the attack occurred in the middle of a workday, the numbers of people crowded into the office towers at the heart of many modern cities would be far higher. The daytime population of Manhattan, for example, is roughly twice its nighttime population; in Midtown on a typical workday, there are an estimated 980,000 people per square mile. A 10-kiloton weapon detonated there might well kill half a million people—not counting those who might die of radiation sickness from the fallout. (These effects were analyzed in great detail in the Rand Corporation’s Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack and the British Medical Journal’s “Nuclear terrorism.”)
On a typical day, the wind would blow the fallout north, seriously contaminating virtually all of Manhattan above Gramercy Park; people living as far away as Stamford, Connecticut would likely have to evacuate.
Seriously injured survivors would greatly outnumber the dead, their suffering magnified by the complete inadequacy of available help. The psychological and social effects—overwhelming sadness, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, myriad forms of anxiety—would be profound and long-lasting.
The scenario we have been describing is a groundburst. An airburst—such as might occur, for example, if terrorists put their bomb in a small aircraft they had purchased or rented—would extend the blast and fire effects over a wider area, killing and injuring even larger numbers of people immediately. But an airburst would not have the same lingering effects from fallout as a groundburst, because the rock and dirt would not be sucked up into the fireball and contaminated. The 10-kiloton blast we have been discussing is likely toward the high end of what terrorists could plausibly achieve with a crude, improvised bomb, but even a 1-kiloton blast would be a catastrophic event, having a deadly radius between one-third and one-half that of a 10-kiloton blast.
These hundreds of thousands of people would not be mere statistics, but countless individual stories of loss—parents, children, entire families; all religions; rich and poor alike—killed or horribly mutilated. Human suffering and tragedy on this scale does not have to be imagined; it can be remembered through the stories of the survivors of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only times in history when nuclear weapons have been used intentionally against human beings. The pain and suffering caused by those bombings are almost beyond human comprehension; the eloquent testimony of the Hibakusha—the survivors who passed through the atomic fire—should stand as an eternal reminder of the need to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used in anger again.
Global economic disaster. The economic impact of such an attack would be enormous. The effects would reverberate for so far and so long that they are difficult to estimate in all their complexity. Hundreds of thousands of people would be too injured or sick to work for weeks or months. Hundreds of thousands more would evacuate to locations far from their jobs. Many places of employment would have to be abandoned because of the radioactive fallout. Insurance companies would reel under the losses; but at the same time, many insurance policies exclude the effects of nuclear attacks—an item insurers considered beyond their ability to cover—so the owners of thousands of buildings would not have the insurance payments needed to cover the cost of fixing them, thousands of companies would go bankrupt, and banks would be left holding an immense number of mortgages that would never be repaid.
Consumer and investor confidence would likely be dramatically affected, as worried people slowed their spending. Enormous new homeland security and military investments would be very likely. If the bomb had come in a shipping container, the targeted country—and possibly others—might stop all containers from entering until it could devise a system for ensuring they could never again be used for such a purpose, throwing a wrench into the gears of global trade for an extended period. (And this might well occur even if a shipping container had not been the means of delivery.)
Even the far smaller 9/11 attacks are estimated to have caused economic aftershocks costing almost $1 trillion even excluding the multi-trillion-dollar costs of the wars that ensued. The cost of a terrorist nuclear attack in a major city would likely be many times higher.
The most severe effects would be local, but the effects of trade disruptions, reduced economic activity, and more would reverberate around the world. Consequently, while some countries may feel that nuclear terrorism is only a concern for the countries most likely to be targeted—such as the United States—in reality it is a threat to everyone, everywhere. In 2005, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that these global effects would push “tens of millions of people into dire poverty,” creating “a second death toll throughout the developing world.” One recent estimate suggested that a nuclear attack in an urban area would cause a global recession, cutting global Gross Domestic Product by some two percent, and pushing an additional 30 million people in the developing world into extreme poverty.
Desperate dilemmas. In short, an act of nuclear terrorism could rip the heart out of a major city, and cause ripple effects throughout the world. The government of the country attacked would face desperate decisions: How to help the city attacked? How to prevent further attacks? How to respond or retaliate?
Terrorists—either those who committed the attack or others—would probably claim they had more bombs already hidden in other cities (whether they did or not), and threaten to detonate them unless their demands were met. The fear that this might be true could lead people to flee major cities in a large-scale, uncontrolled evacuation. There is very little ability to support the population of major cities in the surrounding countryside. The potential for widespread havoc and economic chaos is very real.
If the detonation took place in the capital of the nation attacked, much of the government might be destroyed. A bomb in Washington, D.C., for example, might kill the President, the Vice President, and many of the members of Congress and the Supreme Court. (Having some plausible national leader survive is a key reason why one cabinet member is always elsewhere on the night of the State of the Union address.) Elaborate, classified plans for “continuity of government” have already been drawn up in a number of countries, but the potential for chaos and confusion—if almost all of a country’s top leaders were killed—would still be enormous. Who, for example, could address the public on what the government would do, and what the public should do, to respond? Could anyone honestly assure the public there would be no further attacks? If they did, who would believe them? In the United States, given the practical impossibility of passing major legislation with Congress in ruins and most of its members dead or seriously injured, some have argued for passing legislation in advance giving the government emergency powers to act—and creating procedures, for example, for legitimately replacing most of the House of Representatives. But to date, no such legislative preparations have been made.
In what would inevitably be a desperate effort to prevent further attacks, traditional standards of civil liberties might be jettisoned, at least for a time—particularly when people realized that the fuel for the bomb that had done such damage would easily have fit in a suitcase. Old rules limiting search and surveillance could be among the first to go. The government might well impose martial law as it sought to control the situation, hunt for the perpetrators, and find any additional weapons or nuclear materials they might have. Even the far smaller attacks of 9/11 saw the US government authorizing torture of prisoners and mass electronic surveillance.
And what standards of international order and law would still hold sway? The country attacked might well lash out militarily at whatever countries it thought might bear a portion of responsibility. (A terrifying description of the kinds of discussions that might occur appeared in Brian Jenkins’ book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?) With the nuclear threshold already crossed in this scenario—at least by terrorists—it is conceivable that some of the resulting conflicts might escalate to nuclear use. International politics could become more brutish and violent, with powerful states taking unilateral action, by force if necessary, in an effort to ensure their security. After 9/11, the United States led the invasions of two sovereign nations, in wars that have since cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, while plunging a region into chaos. Would the reaction after a far more devastating nuclear attack be any less?
In particular, the idea that each state can decide for itself how much security to provide for nuclear weapons and their essential ingredients would likely be seen as totally unacceptable following such an attack. Powerful states would likely demand that others surrender their nuclear material or accept foreign troops (or other imposed security measures) to guard it.
That could well be the first step toward a more profound transformation of the international system. After such a catastrophe, major powers may feel compelled to more freely engage in preventive war, seizing territories they worry might otherwise be terrorist safe havens, and taking other steps they see as brutal but necessary to preserve their security. For this reason, foreign policy analyst Stephen Krasner has argued that “conventional rules of sovereignty would be abandoned overnight.” Confidence in both the national security institutions of the country attacked and international institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations, which had so manifestly failed to prevent the devastation, might erode. The effect on nuclear weapons policies is hard to predict: One can imagine new nuclear terror driving a new push for nuclear disarmament, but one could also imagine states feeling more certain than ever before that they needed nuclear weapons.
Prevention: The essential remedy. Given the horrifying consequences of such an event, while there is certainly a need to be better prepared to respond, the primary focus must be on prevention. Fortunately, there is good news on this front. To date, there is no evidence that nuclear weapons or the materials needed to make them have ever fallen into the hands of a terrorist group; even large and sophisticated terrorist groups that have tried to get nuclear weapons have failed to do so; and the international community has taken a wide range of actions over the past quarter-century (and particularly over the 2010-2016 period of the nuclear security summits) that have drastically improved the security measures for nuclear weapons and materials around the world.
Nevertheless, while the chance of such a nightmare unfolding is probably small, it is certainly not small enough to justify complacency. Al Qaeda had a focused effort to acquire nuclear weapons that reported directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the group’s leader, and included multiple attempts to get nuclear material and recruit nuclear expertise; Al Qaeda progressed as far as carrying out crude conventional explosive tests for their bomb program in the Afghan desert. The Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo—the group that launched nerve gas attacks in the Tokyo subway in 1995— also pursued nuclear weapons. To date, there are only hints of nuclear interest from the Islamic State, but if it did turn to nuclear pursuits, even with the imminent defeat of its geographic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it still has more money, people, and ability to recruit experts globally than most past terrorist groups, raising a serious concern. With at least two terrorist groups having pursued nuclear weapons over the past quarter-century, and possibly more, it is unlikely they will be the last.
Moreover, the past seizures of stolen weapons-usable nuclear material demonstrate that nuclear security failures have occurred at some point in the past. While nuclear security has improved dramatically in many countries in the past quarter-century, the possibility that terrorists could get the essential ingredients of a nuclear bomb still cannot be ruled out.
What then, must be done? First, major efforts are needed to recover some of the momentum imparted to nuclear security programs by the now-completed nuclear security summit process, revitalizing efforts to address remaining weaknesses. Second, because nuclear security is unlikely to be perfect, other layers of defense are needed to cope with nuclear material that has already been stolen, including stronger anti-nuclear smuggling efforts (especially national police and intelligence teams), better intelligence focused on nuclear smuggling, beefed-up interdiction abilities if intelligence identifies where such items are located, and improved means of detecting efforts to bring a nuclear weapon or its pieces into major cities. Third, deterrence can play a part, particularly in convincing states never to consciously provide nuclear weapons or materials to terrorists —and toward that end, continued investments in nuclear forensics capabilities are needed, to help identify where nuclear material might have come from. Fourth, more intelligence effort—and more international intelligence cooperation—is needed that is targeted on identifying and stopping terrorist plots aimed at nuclear terrorism, and dismantling groups that may harbor such ambitions.
No one knows what the real probability of nuclear terrorism is. It may well be quite low. There is no need for panic, which is exactly what terrorists have sought to achieve by repeatedly claiming to have nuclear weapons. But there is a need for prudent, focused action. Given the scale of the consequences, the countries of the world have an obligation to do everything in their power to ensure that the dark day after a terrorist nuclear blast never comes.