Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Houston, We Have a Problem: Exploring the Impact of Nuclear Terrorism (Part 2)

This is Part 2 in our exploration of the impact of nuclear terrorism.

Ground Zero

What Happens After the Nuke Goes Off?

Note: I’m no scientist so all the of the stuff that I’ll use in the scenario is estimates and SWAGs. Also, my scenario may be a little “Tom Clancy”, but it’ll do in a pinch. So, we’ll assume that my science is more or less accurate (maybe), and that the bad guys can get away with what I’ve had them do. Since I’m familiar with Houston, we’ll use it for our nightmare scenario. Here goes.


It’s a hot Friday afternoon in June 2006. The Astros are at home and 30,000 fans are in Minute Maid Park watching the game. Rush hour will begin in a couple hours as downtown empties out for the weekend. Unknown to everyone, a group of Al Qaeda terrorists has smuggled a small 15-20 kiloton nuclear bomb through a container in the Houston ship channel. The bomb was rigged to blow if it was discovered, but the bad guys got lucky and the bomb is “in play”. Posing as utility workers, they have smuggled it to the top floor of the nearby JP Morgan Chase building—the tallest in Houston. They’ve done their homework and know that this elevation will cause more destruction.

Bottom of the sixth. Bases loaded. And a flash of blinding white light.

Houston drops off the face of the earth. The broadcast of the game goes blank. In those first moments, as the fireball consumes thousands of souls, the world is unaware of what just happened. The blast and EMP knock down several commercial aircraft. One of them crashes into a large refinery near the ship channel ignighting a huge chemical fire. A massive surge of water rushes through the Houston Ship Channel. This combined with blinding light from the blast causes a barge to veer off course sending it smashing into the 610 bridge. It collapses cutting a major evacuation artery. A mushroom cloud rises over downtown and the industrial areas nearest to downtown catch fire. It's hell on earth.

Minutes pass, and then phones begin to ring throughout the country. Reports come into the Texas State Operation Center about a mushroom cloud over Houston, and the first shaky video begins to come in over the TV networks. Now the chaos truly begins.

Effects Estimate (Revised)

The First Hour

I was working in the Texas State Operations Center on Sept 11th. (Lucky me. I get to have all the fun.). Like everyone else, I remember it as a weird, surreal day. In the first hours after it became clear that our country was under attack, we felt helpless. What was going to happen next? What was the next target? Was Texas going to get hit? Once we had made the initial decision to stand up the operations center to its full capacity, all we could do was sit and wait for things to happen—and pray that we weren’t next.

The world seemed to stand still as the towers crumbled, but it didn’t. People were in motion. Telephone networks went down as the country collectively went “oh shit” and picked up the phone. Downtown Houston began to empty out as people made their own decisions as to what was the next target. DFW airport gained a large population as all the planes were grounded. There were runs on gasoline in West Texas. We received panicky calls from Texans with loved ones living or visiting New York.

As the day drew on, the requests for assistance began to flood in. We stood up our urban search and rescue teams and began to deploy them to New York. With that, we had something to do and that grounded us. Working is better than waiting.

Hell on Earth (Revised)

The first hour after an attack will be about two things: assessing the situation and continuity of government. Officials will be rushed to secret locations or into command posts. There will be a scramble to figure out what the hell just happened. Remember those first moments of Sept 11th when nobody was sure what was going on? It will be the same in this scenario. A large explosion doesn’t have to mean a nuclear bomb. The 1947 Texas City disasterwas mistaken for a nuclear detonation and the blast was so severe that a tidal wave produced by the explosion sent a 150-foot, 30-ton barge 100 feet inland.

So the first step will be figuring out what happened. Was it a nuke? If so, how big? What is the wind doing? What will the weather be doing in the next few hours and days? Eventually, all these details will be sorted out. By then, Houston will be burning.

Local (what’s left of them), State, and Federal resources will be assembled and thrown at the problem. A fallout plume model will be created, and then decisions will be made on what to do with the population. Of course, people will already be deciding what to do on their own. Anyone not caught in the blast is likely to flee in whatever direction they can get out the fastest. This will take some of them through the fallout. Whatever broadcast stations are still operational will probably try to give the best advice they can to the population. Some of it will be wrong.

Communications Breakdown. Projected Impact.

It will fall on the homeland security and emergency management community to sort things out. The next priority will be to save as many lives as possible. That means a massive evacuation. In a hurricane evacuation you have days to blanket the airwaves with information. Now the biggest problem will be figuring out who is left to broadcast. Some 60-70 languages are spoken in Houston so the information will have to be broadcast in several languages. More hours will pass as the emergency alert system is activated and definitive word is passed to the population.

Eventually, people will begin moving away from the hazards. Triage stations will be set up outside Houston to treat the injured and decontaminate the exposed. Radiation monitoring stations will be set up. Plume models and weather reports will be refined and modified. A massive shelter effort will be mounted.

All of this will probably take 24-36 hours before the government is able to finally get a handle on the situation. In the interim thousands will have died, and thousands more will die from exposure to radiation. 70-80 of the country’s petrochemicals passes through Houston one way or another so the US economy will probably collapse. It will take day, even weeks, for all the fires to die down.


Are We Prepared? Yes and no. The government can mount a response to this. It will take a massive effort, but we could get though it. These blog posts amounts to a long dissection of a short article (a “fisking” in blogoshpere terms), but its not as easy to plan for this type of disaster as the Times would make it sound. Tweaking some data on will not prepare the population or the government for this event. Only training can do that.

Have we trained for this? Yes and no. I participated in Unified Defense ’04 (more info)--a huge Northern Command exercise designed to test our capacity to handle large-scale disasters. In the scenario, a nuke was detonated near Cotulla, TX after the terrorists were pulled over with the bomb in a stolen car.

Let me get this straight. I’m smart enough to acquire a nuke and smuggle it into the US. But, I’m dumb enough to transport it in a stolen car so I get pulled over? Another part of the scenario had a CAT 4 or 5 hurricane bearing down on Houston plus a nuclear power plant meltdown. And I think the Martian might have invaded somewhere.

It was a cop out to have the nuke go off in the middle of nowhere (my apologies to Cotulla and Dilley). Forget the Hurricane. Nuke Houston and see what happens. The other thing that we never do in these exercises is the recovery portion. We go for a day or two and get through the landfall of the hurricane or the evacuation of the city. But, we never fight all the way through. Phase IV anyone?

What we need is a national level exercise like UD04 where a major city gets hit, and then we practice all phases of the response and recovery. I know its been played before, mostly at the federal level. Lets play it all the way down from the feds to the locals. Invite officials from other large cities to observe. Let chaos reign. Invite failure.

One of the greatest things that I learned in the Army was that “learning is winning.” You can get your ass handed to you by the OPFOR at NTC or JRTC, but as long as you got better, you won. If we are truly to be prepared for the nightmare scenario then we need to spend some time staring into the abyss.

Now, is this scenario plausible? Yes. Probable? Will the bad guys get their hands on a nuke. Who knows? I think its worth investing the energy in planning for this because it can help you with other planning efforts. Is the sky falling? Let's hope not.

Note: The original version of this post contained some bad science. Some smart folks pointed out my mistakes, and I corrected them. Fact checking is a wonderful thing.


At June 02, 2005, Blogger J. said...

Great post, but hell, a "small" 10 MEGATON nuke?? Come on, I think our definitions of small differ... certainly a 10 kiloton nuke would have been more reasonable and just as effective in creating chaos. Or are you illustrating the usual "over the top" mentality in designing worst-case scenarios that are meant to "challenge" decision-makers? My feeling is these worst-case scenarios do exactly what you detail - lots of handwringing about "what do we do" and how the feds will play, but no long-term remediation analysis. Maybe if we went with more rational and smaller-scale exercises, there might be some time to focus on Phase IV. But very good post, I'll have to digest this at leisure.

At June 02, 2005, Anonymous Bill Badger said...

Kris - I agree with "j", 10 MT is a big fucking hydrogen bomb. A 10 KT fission device is much more doable by the AQ crowd (or North Korea, etc). And in many ways almost as effective. Blast and thermal effects follow the inverse-square rule. The biggest difference would be that a 10 KT fission device detonated at ground level isn't going to scoop out nearly so much dirt. That dirst is going to become radioactive and fall back to the ground. The smaller the device, the less dirt. Also, the dirt doesn't do as high into the atmosphere. A 10 KT device means most of your fallout will stay local and be carried by surface-level winds (mostly SE to NW). A fusion device (that 10 MT whopper in your scenario) would throw a lot of crap into the stratosphere, which would tend to follow the jet stream (W to E). A whole new set of problems.

At June 02, 2005, Blogger mdmhvonpa said...

"What we need is a national level exercise like UD04 where a major city gets hit, and then we practice all phases of the response and recovery. I know its been played before, mostly at the federal level. Lets play it all the way down from the feds to the locals."
It will never happen. The economic 'fallout' would be unacceptable to any major city government. Short term impact always wins out over long term goals these days.

At June 02, 2005, Blogger Thunder Pig said...

Big or Little,any nuke is very bad news for the entire country, especially in a metro area. It would, in my humble opinion, result in us becoming a second-rate nation afterward. You are at least doing some thinking along the lines of "what if?".

A good web site you might look at is found at
Sorry, I don't yet know how to put html tags in the comments yet, but I'll learn.

The scenario that most scares me is an EMP attack, which is less likely than the "glory" of taking out an American city terrorists would love to do.

At June 02, 2005, Blogger Kris Alexander said...

J and Bill.

I screwed up the science end of this. What's a few megatons between friends? I'll blame it on being a product of the Texas public school system. Thanks for pointing out my errors. I'll fix this evening.


At June 02, 2005, Blogger Eagle1 said...

Nice work. It's good that the state and federal agencies practice, but I keep thinking that the average citizen needs to plan out his escape routes, too. And we need to practice using them. Losing the 610 bridge just means a heck of lot more traffic on other routes with less capacity...nice example.

At June 06, 2005, Anonymous Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg said...

Kris- really amazing post! Did you also create the graphics?

Even though I lived through both 9-11 and the NY blackout, both relatively insignificant events in comparison to a nuke, I can't even begin to imagine how we'd cope with something on this scale. I'm not sure that I agree with Thunder Pig's assertion that it would make us into a second rate nation, but we certainly aren't very well prepared for such a scenario...

At June 06, 2005, Blogger Kris Alexander said...


Thanks for the compliments. The graphics are all mine, except for the stuff that I borrowed from FAS's impact calculator. I am truly a "Powerpoint Ranger".


At June 07, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Some 60-70 languages are spoken in Houston so the information will have to be broadcast in several languages."

We've gotten by fine just using two languages, even disasters. And it's not too dificult to find someone that can speak both languages either.

I'd sure hope the powers that be wouldn't waste their time on such silliness as broadcasting emergency instructions in numerous languages when it's not, IMO, necessary.

At June 07, 2005, Blogger Kris Alexander said...

RE: Anonymous said... "Some 60-70 languages are spoken in Houston so the information will have to be broadcast in several languages."

While I agree that there is no way to broadcast in all those languages. It will hinder you evacuation and recovery efforts if you don't make some accomodation for languages. Also, you'll have to decontaminate and medically treat people who speak all those languages after the incident. The inability to communicate would hinder that. Hospitals deal with this all the time. Big ones have full-time translators. All of them are required to have a contract translation service, usually telephonic.

We have gotten by in disasters by primarily broadcasting in Spanish and English, but there have been problems. I think the best bet is to plan on a multi-language effort, which is in fact required in emergency planning standards.

And have no doubt that this isn't an important part of terrorism response planning. Let's say that we had to do a mass immunization after a bio-terror attack. How do you communicate complex medical information to people who don't speak english? In that case "getting by just fine" isn't good enough.

Anyway, thanks for reading and your comments.


At June 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A plane won't fall because of an EMP, sure there are electronics on a plane, such as the radar and what not, but the actual movement of a plane is mostly mechanical, unless you count those airbuses that use the joysticks. Turbines would stay on, the pilot would still be able to control the plane through his steering wheel and pedals. Even if they lost power to their engins, and a joystick was being used, a plane would begin an ocilation, where as it loses speed it falls, then when it gets enough speed to lift it will rise again, and so on. During this process the pilot would still be using the pedals to move the rudder, which controls left/right motion, so a pilot would at least crash land in a suitable site, such as a farm or something. The only way a pilot would completely lose control is he were caught in the actual blast, though at that point, I don't believe it would matter much where it would land, since the blast would take out anything the plane would have hit beforehand anyway.

At December 27, 2005, Blogger Phantom Lord said...

This was a great post and I have no doubt that what you laid out could very well happen.

Katrina showed us we are no where near prepared for evacuating people after a disaster. God forbid a Nuke ever goes off in this country, I think more people will die after the attack from radiation poisioning to being killed in riots as people become desperate to survive.

Let us just hope and prey what you have posted her never comes to pass, but as we in New York learned on 9/11 they only need to be lucky once to cause devistation.


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