A botched ballistic missile warning in Hawaii, a canceled nationwide seminar on nuclear casualties, and a president who can’t stop tweeting at North Korea have people thinking about the unthinkable: a nuclear attack on the US.
On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly canceled a presentation, planned months in advance, called the “Public Health Response to a Nuclear Disaster,” swapping it with a seminar on the flu. The switch followed dozens of news outlets calling attention to the event, as well as Saturday’s terrifying false alarm in Hawaii of an imminent “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND,” which horrified islanders and nuclear experts alike.
Nuclear paranoia, a hallmark of the Cold War, blossomed over the long weekend into another signature of the Trump era. Canada and the US on Tuesday hosted a meeting of foreign ministers in Vancouver to discuss diplomatic measures to rein in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, which it has been expanding, with alarming success, for a year. On Friday the Huffington Post published a leak of Department of Defense plans to build more nukes. And last month, even as it failed to agree on a budget for the federal government, Congress easily passed an extra $4 billion to bolster US missile defenses in Alaska and elsewhere.
How exactly such an attack might play out — or if it is even plausible — divides nuclear security experts questioned by BuzzFeed News. But if it did happen, despite decades of anxiety and seminars and school drills, most Americans wouldn’t know the basics of protecting themselves from fallout. US health authorities would be woefully unequipped to deal with the number and severity of casualties, while the climate effects of a “nuclear autumn” would starve billions.
North Korea right now likely has 10 to 20 small atomic bombs assembled, according to an estimate by the Federation of American Scientists. A leaked Defense Intelligence Agency analysis concluded this summer that North Korea currently has the bomb material for perhaps 60 weapons in all, and has produced miniaturized warheads to launch on missiles. Some analysts view the paranoid North Korean regime as dangerously prone to use these weapons in a misunderstanding of what it views as an imminent US invasion, while others argue that Kim Jung Un is more likely to follow the logic of nuclear deterrence — that nuclear weapons are essentially too dangerous to ever use.
So in the face of this uncertainty, we plan.
In the aftermath of 9/11, nuclear terrorism took center stage in civil defense planning, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) putting the detonation of an improvised atomic bomb by terrorists at the top of the “National Planning Scenarios” list fundamental to nationwide civil defense and disaster planning. A ballistic missile detonation isn’t on the list.
The Department of Homeland Security’s “Nuclear Blast” readiness website neatly encapsulates this thinking: “The danger of a massive strategic nuclear attack on the United States is predicted by experts to be less likely today,” it tells readers who get past the frightening blast photo on the homepage. “However, terrorism, by nature, is unpredictable.”
In addition to these calls for stocking up on emergency supplies and locating your local fallout shelter, public health officials have for more than a decade produced reports and held seminars similar to Tuesday’s canceled one (the CDC last held one in 2010) to educate medical personnel about nuclear detonations. The advice has centered on how hospitals outside the fallout and blast zones might deal with tens of thousands of victims of burns, crush injuries, and radiation poisoning.
But much of the information in these plans is outdated or irrelevant to North Korea. For example, the National Planning Scenarios assume a detonation equivalent to 10 kilotons in TNT, roughly the size of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima. But in the last year, Kim Jung Un has tested a nuclear bomb at least 10 times larger than that, as well as a ballistic missile with the range to reach the entire continental US.
“When people look really hard at what three 100-kiloton bombs would really do to Washington, DC, they are not going to like it. You cannot imagine there is planning that could account for it,” Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies told BuzzFeed News.
“The people who die in the blast will be the lucky ones, against all the people who will die slowly,” he said. “We don’t really want to think about this horror, and a lot of the deeper reasons behind civil defense calls for shelters are as a way to shield ourselves from facing what we are really talking about here.”
In the face of these inadequacies, nuclear weapons experts are publishing their own worst-case scenarios, in the hope that lawmakers will face the gravity of the threat.
In December, for example, Lewis outlined a scenario in the Washington Post for how a panicked North Korea, after shooting down a South Korean airliner amid US military exercises, could unleash its weapons. It would start with short-range missiles landing in Seoul, Tokyo, and Busan, South Korea, followed by long-range missiles landing in New York and outside Washington, DC, killing 2 million people in all. “As it had been in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the infrastructure to provide medical care was overwhelmed,” he wrote, in this small scenario.
Depending on their exposure, people could die in hours to days from acute radiation poisoning, which kills rapidly dividing cells in the intestines and bone marrow. A massive and swift triage effort from every doctor, hospital, and government authority, as well as civilian volunteers, would be needed to identify possible survivors, Harvard Medical school’s David Weinstock told BuzzFeed News. That made the canceled CDC seminar worthwhile, in his view.
Public education is also important for getting simple basics across, Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists told BuzzFeed News. If people in a fallout zone stayed in a sealed basement for a few days, exposure to radiation could be significantly reduced.
“Depending on where and how the weapon detonates, the knowledge about basic precautions in the surrounding areas could save a lot of lives,” Kristensen said, particularly since North Korean missiles are not especially accurate.
A more horrifying scenario than the one Lewis envisioned is possible if North Korea continues weapons development over the next five years, Rutgers University atmospheric scientist Alan Robock told BuzzFeed News. It would likely mirror estimates of casualties from a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Such a war involving about 100 warheads would directly kill 20 million people and starve another billion as smoke and dust would cripple global agriculture for several years, by obscuring sunlight and dropping global temperatures. Robock and his colleagues are starting a $3 million effort to fully model the atmospheric effects of a nuclear war between North Korea and the US.
In Robock’s scenario, China or Russia could mistake US missiles headed for North Korea as an attack on their nuclear arsenals, he added, triggering full-scale use of thousands of very powerful hydrogen bombs and wiping out humanity.
Kristensen is more skeptical than Lewis about North Korea quickly developing a warhead that can survive reentry on its way to the East Coast, “although it presumably is only a matter of time before it demonstrates that it can.”
Even though we’re all freaking out about North Korea, he noted, we’ve actually been under nuclear threat from Russia since 1947 and China since 1964. North Korea is a new worry, but not an entirely novel one for civil defense.
“The key is not to blunder into a crisis with overreactions and bluster that escalates to nuclear use,” Kristensen said, “or to conduct a preventive attack on North Korea, which could well cause them to retaliate with nuclear weapons.”
For now, the unidentified emergency management official who triggered the false alert has been reassigned. “I know first-hand how today’s false alarm affected all of us here in Hawaii, and I am sorry for the pain and confusion it caused,” Gov. David Ige said in a statement.
Hawaii had restarted its nuclear alert system in December amid the rising tensions with North Korea.
“Civil defense is weird,” Lewis added. An air of unreality surrounds all the planning and precautions for nuclear war, dating back to the “duck and cover” school drills of the Cold War, suggesting that a threat to all of humanity was somehow winnable.
All the planning for precautions and war games, Lewis said, “has always been a substitute for critical thinking about how not to have nuclear warfare in the first place.” ●
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Dan Vergano at email@example.com.
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