The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
November 4, 2004 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Blast Maps. The threat of nuclear terrorism is not limited to New York City or Washington, DC. While New York is widely seen as the most likely target, it is clear that Al Qaeda is not only capable but also interested in mounting attacks on other American cities. Imagine the consequences of a 10-kiloton weapon exploding in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Charlotte, or any other city Americans call home. From the epicenter of the blast to a distance of approximately one-third mile, every structure will be destroyed and no one would be left alive. A second circle of destruction extending three-quarters of a mile from ground zero would leave buildings looking like the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. A third circle reaching out 1 mile would be ravaged by fires and radiation. Harvard professor Graham Allison's website lets you visualize these consequences in the city of your choice. Just enter a zip code.
More inside.
posted by matteo (44 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Allison has a chilling book out, where he explains that

terrorists would not find it difficult to sneak such a nuclear device into the United States. The nuclear material required is actually smaller than a football. Even a fully assembled device,such as a suitcase nuclear weapon, could be shipped in a container, in the hull of a ship or in a trunk carried by an aircraft. Since Sept. 11, the number of containers arriving at U.S. points of entry that are being X-rayed has increased to approximately 10 percent: 500 of the 5,000 containers currently arriving daily at the port of New York/New Jersey, for instance. But as the chief executive of CSX Lines, one of the foremost container-shipping companies, put it: "If you can smuggle heroin in containers, you may be able to smuggle in a nuclear bomb."

The good news? Although "we're living on borrowed time, the good news is this attack is preventable.'', the professor thinks.
posted by matteo at 9:03 AM on November 4, 2004

Fear on.
posted by four panels at 9:08 AM on November 4, 2004

When you said "visualize the consequences" I was hoping for a bit more than circles drawn over a mapquest map.

This whole thing feels like a shill.
posted by ChasFile at 9:15 AM on November 4, 2004

remember when we used to see this kind of thing about the nasty communists?
posted by andrew cooke at 9:15 AM on November 4, 2004

Lets wargame this.
OBL nukes a US city.

Pretend for a horrible instant that you are Dick Cheney. How would you have your monkey respond?
posted by Fupped Duck at 9:16 AM on November 4, 2004

Bummer. This site uses ArcIMS and geospatial data (looks like out-of-the-box vendor data or maybe national-level Census TIGER data). It's a good example of how easy it is getting to use geospatial data and the web to make a point. Not a pleasant point, of course, but I am interested; This is the sort of tool, and data, that I work with in my day-job (which I should probably get back to now...).
posted by mmahaffie at 9:21 AM on November 4, 2004

Pretend for a horrible instant that you are Dick Cheney. How would you have your monkey respond?

Nuke Iran?
posted by keswick at 9:23 AM on November 4, 2004

keswick wins!
posted by chrisroberts at 9:25 AM on November 4, 2004

When you said "visualize the consequences" I was hoping for a bit more than circles drawn over a mapquest map.

OK, wait:



ps I hereby concede that videogames and Hollywood movies tend to be more... spectacular than a KSG professor's site.
posted by matteo at 9:48 AM on November 4, 2004

Bush has no interest in protecting those of us in LA, SF, NYC or Boston. First off, we overwhelmingly voted against him; he most likely sees us as traitorous commie-pinko sodomites undeserving of his time. Second, any terrorist attack on a major city will increase his popularity rating 40 points. Third, a nuke-attack would satisfy his hankering for an "end days" scenario.

Hell, I'd be surprised if he doesn't implement the attack himself.
posted by fungible at 10:22 AM on November 4, 2004

Oh, Chicago too.
posted by fungible at 10:23 AM on November 4, 2004

I only know one zipcode. I was hoping I'd get something more satisfying than a bunch of circles.
posted by cell at 10:26 AM on November 4, 2004

Daddy ... err ... Jesus Bush will protect us.

Never fear again for your safety as we have a strong and decisive leader in charge of JesusLand.

And besides, God loves us more than anyone else in the world and we can prove it by the SUVs we drive, our obesity and all the stuff God gave us with easy credit payments.

But seriously, I've heard many, many times from the young ones that to be a "christian" meant you had to vote Republican. Wonder how the little innocent ones got that idea? Perhaps from the same idiots that keep saying "bring on the apocalypse"?
posted by nofundy at 10:27 AM on November 4, 2004

Quit fearmongering. The cowards already won the 2004 election.
posted by substrate at 10:35 AM on November 4, 2004

I guess this has value from an awareness perspective, but I just don't see that "suitcase bombs" are that likely. The equipment required to make a bomb that size basically requires a state actor spending a lot of time, effort and money, and it would probably tend to get noticed.

I think a stolen warhead scenario is much, much more likely. There, you're probably talking about a much larger device -- 10 KT is pitifully small. I'm not sure what MIRVed warheads rate at, but let's just say a megaton -- a hundred times more powerful than this visualization.

So, actually, now that I think this through, blast radii based on a 10 KT device are probably a really bad awareness tool, since they give a really diminished estimate of the damage. For example, here in Rochester, his 10K device wipes out my zip code and about a third of each adjacent one -- not very much, really, all things considered.

The most plausible scenario remains a bomb in a cargo hold, triggered on port call. Putting in at any of our major ports, it would be crippling to the national economy. (Imagine a 1 MT device exploded at water level in New Orleans, or at the Jersey docks -- one cripples traffic in and out of the Mississippi, the other closes down one of the nation's most active seaports.)
posted by lodurr at 10:42 AM on November 4, 2004

I don't know any zipcodes so just put one in at random and I managed to wipe out a large section of New York. I should be a terrorist.

Could any MeFites in the vicinity of the Avenue of the Americas please report to the disintegration booths.
posted by biffa at 10:45 AM on November 4, 2004

How likely is it that the bad guys would nuke Los Angeles to take out Hollywood, home of the Great Satan's propaganda arm? The real hard-core believers say that the US' export of its culture is corrupting the Islamic world, so that seems like it would be No. 1 on the target list, yes no?
posted by alumshubby at 11:01 AM on November 4, 2004

Much more plausible than either a stolen weapon or a suitcase bomb is a dirty bomb. Just a bunch of any kind of explosive surrounded by any kind of radioactive material from any source. No need to figure out how to obtain fuel with the right level of refinement, how to configure the thing and ensure detonation, or how to get a large stolen weapon through a port.

If al-Quaida's goal in attacking the WTC was economic disruption in addition to the deaths and physical destruction, imagine a dirty bomb exploded on Wall Street or downtown Washington DC. Recall the painstaking cleanup process after a few envelopes of anthrax got shredded opened here and there, and imagine the cleanup after a dirty bomb explosion.

The good news is, within the US there are pretty good controls on the materials that might go into such a weapon,, and even in Iraq, no car bomb has been laced with radioactive material -- and I doubt whether the perpetrators of those bombings would be holding back if they had the right stuff.
posted by beagle at 11:07 AM on November 4, 2004

I'm not sure what MIRVed warheads rate at, but let's just say a megaton -- a hundred times more powerful than this visualization

Nup. 100-500KT, with a bias towards the lower end.

And that's a hydrogen bomb, where stealing the bomb alone may not be sufficient; most countries have permissive action links or something like them to prevent people from kaboom-enizing weapons they've stolen.

It's more likely, from what I recall, that bad guys would have to either just use the fission core, or use the U/Pu in the fission core to build a new and almost certainly less efficient weapon. So 10--20KT might be all they could reasonably expect.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:10 AM on November 4, 2004

The nice thing about dirty bombs, at least if Nova isn't lying to me, is that they're basically mythical. The designs work against themselves. If you have a big kaboom, you spread your nasties over a wide enough area that they're far less dangerous. If you use a small kaboom, you end up with only a block contaminated.

Apparently the only serious dangers from a dirty bomb are the bomb itself, apart from the radioactives, and public panic. A normal car bomb might kill 50 people; a dirty car bomb might kill 50 from the blast and another 1 or 2 ten years later from cancer, and however many in the panic.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:14 AM on November 4, 2004

Why are we so afraid of the non-existent terrorist group? This is propaganda, people.
posted by bwerdmuller at 11:22 AM on November 4, 2004

There is next to no chance of a proper nuke being detonated within the US at any point by a terrorist group. You really are giving them too much credit. There is no terrorist mastermind, no international terrorist group working to destroy the great satan.
The only people working to destroy the US are living there right now, they are your neighbours and colleagues and they are stripping away the wonderful openness of your society to make them feel better about an invisible bogeyman.
Even the dirty bomb beagle mentions is vastly over-played in the media. It's not nearly as effective as you may have been led to believe. Take a chill pill and live life to the full each and every day. You have a much higher chance to get hit by a car tomorrow (unless you are Katherine Harris).

on preview - ROU get's it right - you have more to fear from nano-holes and being effectorised ;-D
posted by longbaugh at 11:24 AM on November 4, 2004

OK, so my tonnage is off on the warheads.

Dirty bombs are far, far more dangerous as a propaganda and panic weapon than a real weapon. The waste cleanup would be expensive and disruptive and pose a constant reminder of vulnerablility (and a constant metaphor for POISON) to our irrational, fear-prone American public.

But how about another kind of dirty bomb that I haven't heard about, but which someone must have thought of. Dirty bomb scenarios have often been fronted for stolen medical waste; what if someone just created a good-sized concussive bomb to disperse a lot of stolen medical waste? I mean, like, blood and bandages and stuff like that. The number of casualties would probably range from zero to small, but the disruptive effects could be tremendous.
posted by lodurr at 11:36 AM on November 4, 2004

longbaugh, I know that I talk about these risks as a way of pointing out how absurd it is to try to protect against them. Assuming someone's got a bomb, it's easy for them to get it close enough to the US to do damage; not a damn thing we could do about it, without having a pretty radical ongoing impact on our ability to engage in commerce with the outside world.

Yet I recognize that a lot of people don't process that, so I tend to be careful where I bring that up. A lot of people don't get -- don't believe -- that there's nothing they can do. And they don't grasp the low probabiliities. Anything we're talking about requires a fair amount of logistics support, and what we now know about al Qaeda and their ilk is that their logistics tends to be very low-cost, commodity-tech. Osama's dialysis machine is probably the most sophisticated device they've ever bought.
posted by lodurr at 11:41 AM on November 4, 2004

Looks like everyone pretty much agrees that a ballistic missile tipped with a nuclear weapon is not the most likely scenario for an attack on the US. Not even a probable one. So "fighting the last war" thinking.
Which brings up the most obvious question:
WTF are we doing flushing billions down the Faith Based Missile Defense toilet?
Is it the Jeebus/Armageddon defense? Hell, with Jeebus on our side, who can stand against us?

Are we still allowed to ask such obvious questions?

Wouldn't the money be better spent on kevlar vests and armor for humvees and ammo for practice rounds. I hear all these are in short supply. Won't someone think of the troops?
Is defense contractor pork more important than the troop's lives?
And don't even think of trying to blame Clinton or "them damn libruls" 'cause its been all yours for awhile now suckers!
High time some right wingers had a little heart to heart with their elected representatives about doing the correct thing for our country and our troops.
What?! You unpatriotic or something? You want a piece of me? Just remember, I've got guns, thanks to my pals at the NRA!
posted by nofundy at 11:52 AM on November 4, 2004

Someone familiar with DC want to punch in 20050 (the whitehouse don'tcha know) and tell us how much of the goverment this would wipe out on a day that both the senate and congress are in session. My knowledge of the US capital is zero so if there is a better place to centre it give us that instead.

A full size van can haul 3-4000 lbs easy and a set of overloads would double that. Heck even Safari's can haul ~6000lbs. And it wouldn't be much of a stretch to drive it over from Canada or any out of the way coastal community where you could drive it off a ship. They sure didn't X-Ray my Caravan the last time I crossed over.
posted by Mitheral at 12:10 PM on November 4, 2004

As mentioned in the name of the file, you must in all ways prevent this from being thought necessary.
posted by wah at 12:11 PM on November 4, 2004

"Manned flight? No man has even gotten off the ground yet!"

--Random idiot, December 16th 1903.
posted by Cyrano at 12:23 PM on November 4, 2004

I figure the first terrorist nuke to go off will be in Russia. They've got a lot more nukes over there, and nearly as many pissed off Muslims.
posted by Jart at 12:26 PM on November 4, 2004

Working nukes? The international jihad can't even piece together a dirty bomb.

why? because they haven't done it yet? you assume they're in a hurry. it was 8 years between the WTC attacks, sk
posted by matteo at 12:29 PM on November 4, 2004

I thought the gun-type nuclear bomb was relativly easy to make, the only had part is getting the refined material, but many countries are working on or have breeder reactors.

Its main disadvantages was its size, but they could just use a whole shipping container so that would only be a disadvantage for ICBMs.
posted by Iax at 12:55 PM on November 4, 2004

why? because they haven't done it yet? you assume they're in a hurry. it was 8 years between the WTC attacks, sk

See also, Bin Laden's latest missive. Essentially it was a mirror image to Bush's "You have 48 Hours to Give Up". Instead of 'give up' though, it was 'vote out Bush'.

Not that I needed a mass murderer to point out the obvious, but that's essentially what the thinly veiled threat entailed. "Do the right thing or pay the consequences."

One thing 'they' have over us is most definitely patience. Our 'quick fix' society is going to need a major overhaul. 'Twould have been nice if we could have done it on our own terms.
posted by wah at 12:57 PM on November 4, 2004

I read the Bin Laden message as an admission of failure on his part. His fondest wish for the last 36 months has to have been, do something to follow up on 9/11: for example, disrupt the Olympics or the elections. He has to have tried, but somehow he was stymied (except perhaps in Spain). So he gets on the tube and blows hot air, instead.
posted by beagle at 1:43 PM on November 4, 2004

Previously, related.
posted by adampsyche at 1:52 PM on November 4, 2004

Someone familiar with DC want to punch in 20050 (the whitehouse don'tcha know) and tell us how much of the goverment this would wipe out on a day that both the senate and congress are in session.
if an atomic device bearing about the yield of the Hiroshima weapon went off outside the White House, people for roughly a mile in each direction might die [which would include Congress]. But most people in the District of Columbia would survive, while the main effect on Washington's suburbs would be power failures and broken windows.
From Gregg Easterbrook's essay The Smart Way to be Scared, which also discusses dirty bombs:
Since this has never been used, effects are hard to project. Most likely, even an extremely large dirty bomb (say, an entire truck converted to one) might kill only those within a city block. Fallout would probably threaten only those a few hundred or thousands of yards downwind.

Yet if people heard on the radio that a dirty bomb had exploded--if they so much as heard the word radiation--panic might set in. In Manhattan or Washington, mass chaos to escape might result in more deaths than the bomb itself.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:54 PM on November 4, 2004

beagle, I read the Bin Laden message as an admission of failure on his part.

That would make sense, except that recruitment is up, he is seen as something of 'cultural hero' for evading the might of the U.S. and is, actually, sitting pretty as he reaps the rewards for taking an oppositional stance.

Some of Zawahiri's statement are also along the same lines, essentially arguing that reform is necessary for Islam, but should come from within rather than being imposed (by force of arms) from without.

His fondest wish for the last 36 months has to have been, do something to follow up on 9/11: for example, disrupt the Olympics or the elections.

I don't quite see it like that, mainly because of the patience they have displayed so far. It was more of a 'well, we kicked them in the balls, did they figure out why?'

The election demonstrated quite assuredly that "No, we still think you hate us because of our Freedom (and not because we want to impose it upon the rest of the world)."

There will be more radicalized people who see force as the only way of making the point. They will, IMHO, split atoms at some point to illustrate this concept in no uncertain terms.

This will push everyone to harder, more violent states of being. I have spoken, online, with one of the brave young men (seriously) who is going to be one of the one's "pushing the buttons". He had no qualms about killing millions or a billion to demonstrate that the U.S. is God's gift to the world and blast them to Hell if they don't agree.

This sentiment has been expressed to me by any number of Bush supporters. They do this when one is able to push them to admitting they agree with the proposal through rhetorical argument.

My googlewhack for the concept is 'logarithmic epistemology'. My argument for why that conception is accurate is being posted over the course of this month (see my hompage for the first few bits. It starts by redefining the concept of numbers (0 and 8 specifically) to one that is more accurately reflected by reality, a.k.a. 'spacetime')
posted by wah at 2:10 PM on November 4, 2004

errr, not 8, 8.

The sideways 8.

posted by wah at 2:11 PM on November 4, 2004

uggg, that keeps happening. I'm trying to put in the character for 'infinity'. It works on 'preview', and changes on 'post'.

I'll shut-up now.
posted by wah at 2:12 PM on November 4, 2004

They're lying to you. Hide under the bed, fear the blast, imagine the prickle of radiation, the rush of hot air.
Stay at home. Watch TV. Vote Bush. Your unaborted babies will all make fine soldiers.
posted by seanyboy at 4:55 PM on November 4, 2004

I just nuked a third of St. Paul, Minnesota. Oh well, guess I'm moving to Minneapolis. Now I know why we have Twin Cities.
posted by graventy at 8:12 PM on November 4, 2004

Ya'll must be using better nukes that I did. I could barely take out my apartment and still get the gas station down the road.
posted by Cyrano at 11:31 PM on November 4, 2004

Previously, related.

Ah Adampsyche, those fearful and paranoic post 9/11 months (Nov. 01) here on good ole Metafilter. Thanks for the "blast" from the past. Makes me nostalgic.

I plugged in my zip code (11211 Williamsburg, Brooklyn) and effectively destroyed a HUGE chunk of the hipster nation. I'm afraid new art and neo-postpunk music will be in short supply for the foreseeable future, and although I'll have terrible burns and a serious case of radiation sickness, rents will come down nicely.
posted by Skygazer at 12:42 AM on November 5, 2004

I'm with lodurr -- I was surprised, too, at how small the effects were for a 10 KT bomb. I "dropped" one on Penn Station, and Columbus Circle seems just fine. I'll meet y'all at the Borders in Time Warner Center. We can have lattes after the apocalypse. And the East Village is fine, too. I call meetup at Veselka.
posted by Vidiot at 5:10 PM on November 7, 2004

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