Contact: President Brooke Buddemeier
Nuclear Terrorism Preparedness Working Group
The effects of nuclear terrorism
Carolyn (Cari) Seifert
Dispersion of radioactive materials can be accomplished by terrorist organizations using several methods. One of these methods is a dirty bomb and another is an improvised nuclear device or weapon. Dirty bombs are the dispersion of radioactive material associated with a conventional explosion device (or other means) the effects of which are described under Radiological Dispersive Devices. An improvised nuclear device or weapon is detonation of a thermonuclear device. Additional definitions of terms can be found in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Factsheet
One of the primary lines of defense against detonation of a nuclear device is interdiction. Interdiction is the use of methods and strategies that reduce the potential for the smuggling or illicit procession of a nuclear device as discussed on the Interdiction page. In addition, tighter controls of radioactive materials make it more difficult for the material to be stolen or diverted into terrorist uses. Interdiction relies heavily on intelligence gathering and other methods of determining the intent, tactics, and behaviors of terrorist groups attempting to utilize radiological or nuclear weapons. Members of the Society believe that detonation of a nuclear weapon is highly unlikely, nevertheless, the presentation The Effects of Nuclear Weapons provides additional information describing the mechanisms and effects of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have four main destructive effects:
Blast, Thermal Energy, Initial nuclear radiation, and Fallout
Initial nuclear radiation
Extent of damage
Within the closest 500 yards to the detonation of a one KT device, there will be radioactive bomb debris and activation products. Emergency personnel should be scheduled for short entries during the first day, the permitted exposures depending on the urgency of the need for their entry. Further information may be found on the First Response page, and the documents Guidance for Protective Action following a Radiological Terrorist Event and Background Information for the guidance.
Consideration of much bigger bombs leads to a different set of factors. A nuclear device detonated near the center of a metropolitan area could essentially destroy an area encompassed by a ten-mile radius. Blast damage would be significant to 20 miles and thermal flash burns even farther. In addition, fallout in the downwind direction would be in the tens of R/Hr for at least a hundred miles as shown in Nuclear Fallout. Evacuation and /or shielding of personnel and animals would be required.
Additional information related to the detonation of a nuclear bomb and associated issues can be found in Effects of Nuclear Weapons.
Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation Developed by the Homeland Security Council Interagency Policy Coordination Subcommittee for Preparedness & Repsonse to Radiological and Nuclear Threats.
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