WASHINGTON, D.C. (WTVR) – Hollywood has destroyed pretty much every major city at one point or another, lots of times with nuclear bombs detonated by terrorists. It turns out it’s harder in real life.
Planning for the unthinkable, a U.S. government study analyzed the likely effects from terrorists setting off a 10-kiloton nuclear device a few blocks north of the White House. It predicted terrible devastation for roughly one-half mile in every direction, with buildings reduced to rubble the same way that World War II bombing raids destroyed parts of Berlin. But outside that blast zone, the study concluded, even such a nuclear explosion would be pretty survivable.
The little-noticed, 120-page study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency was hardly a summer blockbuster. The study, “Key Response Planning Factors for the Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism,” was produced in November by the Homeland Security Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Even though the government considers it “for official use only” and never published it online, the study circulated months later on scientific and government watchdog websites.
The report estimated the blast zone would extend just past the south lawn of the White House and as far east as the FBI headquarters. “Few, if any, above ground buildings are expected to remain structurally sound or even standing, and few people would survive,” it predicted. It described the blast area as a “no-go zone” for days afterward due to radiation. But the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and the Pentagon across the Potomac River were all in areas described as “light damage,” with some broken windows and mostly minor injuries.
The government study predicted 323,000 injuries, with more than 45,000 dead. A 10-kiloton nuclear explosion would be roughly 5,000 times more powerful than the truck bomb that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
The blast zone could be smaller or larger, depending on the city. In more dense cities, including New York, towering buildings could help confine how far debris flies, though the radioactive fallout cloud would still drift over a larger area.
The government’s study did not examine the plausibility of terrorists building a nuclear bomb or smuggling one into Washington, which is protected with radiation sensors and other technology designed to thwart such an attack. It didn’t say why it chose the intersection — 16th and K streets northwest — as the epicenter for its fictional nuclear bomb.
The biggest difference between the disaster that the government studied and the nightmares of incoming ICBMs from the former Soviet Union is the size of the explosion. Cold War-era fears imagined massive hydrogen bombs detonated in the sky, not a smaller device — one that might fit inside a parked van — exploding on the street.