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What Would Happen If A Nuke Hit Washington, D.C.?

Fears of the damage from a nuclear accident are still strong a year after Fukushima, but that’s not the only dangerous thing about nuclear technology.

Last year’s nuclear meltdown in Japan made the prospect of widespread nuclear disaster all too real, both for Japanese citizens and countries around the world that rely on nuclear power. But a power plant catastrophe isn’t the only nuclear axe hanging over our heads. Nuclear terrorism is still very much a problem, as evidenced by a recent summit of world leaders aiming to quell the nuclear threat. So what would really happen in the event of a nuclear detonation?

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A U.S. government report (PDF) offers some hints: A 10-kiloton nuclear device (5,000 times the explosive power of the truck bomb used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) detonated a few blocks away from the White House would destroy everything a half mile in every direction. Outside of that, though, the city wouldn’t be entirely decimated. Here’s what we could expect:

  • Most people in a half-mile radius outside the blast wouldn’t survive. Between a half-mile and a mile, survival would depend on what kind of shelter people were taking cover in. Cars would be overturned at a mile radius, and light structures would be damaged.
  • The U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, Supreme Court, Pentagon, and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials would only experience light damage–meaning people would experience minor injuries and there would be some broken windows.
  • There would be 323,000 injuries and over 45,000 deaths. At least four area hospitals would so damaged that they couldn’t function.
  • Anyone exposed to the thermal pulse of the blast would end up with burns on their skin. Risk of this would be reduced for people inside buildings and out of the direct line of site of the detonation.

  • Anyone up to five miles away would experience temporary blindness from the overwhelming flash of light from the blast. This can happen even to people who aren’t looking in the direction of the blast.
  • Glass in buildings wouldn’t break immediately; the shock wave that triggers breakage travels slower (up to a 30-second delay) than the flash of light. That means anyone who goes over to a window to look more closely at the flash of light would be at risk of injury from breaking glass.
  • Nuclear fallout–a mixture of dust, debris, and radioactive fission products that are blasted into the sky from the heat of the detonation–could land anywhere within 20 miles downwind of the explosion. An underground shelter is obviously the best place to be to avoid this; a vehicle is the worst.

There’s no need to cower in fear at the prospect of a nuclear detonation; most world leaders agree that the likelihood has decreased over the past 10 years. Still, the possibility is there. At the very least, make sure you know where your nearest underground shelter is located.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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