Here Today, Ground Zero Tomorrow: Are You Living in a Nuclear Threat Area?


Are you living in a nuclear threat area? The question is a broad one, but there are a few factors that will help you determine whether you’re living in an area that is likely to be targeted for nuclear attack, and what your proximity to Ground Zero means for your chances of survival.

As is to be expected, densely populated metropolitan areas are much more likely than rural areas to be targets for attack. Terrorist attacks are about wreaking havoc and causing fear, so the more people impacted the better. Potential terrorist targets include:

  • Large cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles, etc.
  • Symbolic American cities such as Philadelphia or Hollywood.
  • Heartland cities such as St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago.
  • Cities or locations on the West Coast (taking advantage of maximum casualties created through east-traveling fallout).
  • Major sporting events such as the Super Bowl.

If, on the other hand, the attack is military in nature, the targets include:

  • Strategic missile sites and military bases.
  • Centers of government such as Washington, DC, and state capitals.
  • Important transportation and communication centers.
  • Manufacturing, industrial, technology, and financial centers.
  • Petroleum refineries, electrical power plants, and chemical plants.
  • Major ports and airfields.

This is a lot of information to take in; there’s a good chance that wherever you live, you live near enough to at least one of these potential target sites. Should this information lead you to the conclusion that it’s in your best interest to have an underground shelter prepared wherever you live, rightly so. However, it’s important to take into consideration the likely blast radius of an attack and to have some knowledge of how quickly fallout is likely to reach you.

The type of nuclear attack most likely to occur today (versus, for example, during the Cold War) is the type of “dirty bomb” used by terrorists. Smaller in size than the nuclear warheads that threatened the United States in the 50’s, the initial blast radius is likely to be limited to about a square mile. Anything within this radius will be instantly vaporized as the radiation rapidly heats all surrounding material to its equilibrium temperature (the same temperature as the atomic bomb’s matter). Should you be caught within this radius, there is nothing you can do.

Immediately following the initial blast will come a spherically-expanding shock wave (also known as a blast wave). The pressure of this wave will move outward from ground zero, weakening structures which will then be toppled and torn by the blast winds. The pressure of the wave also wreaks fatal havoc on the human body. Of course, the radius of overpressure damage varies depending on the size of the initial bomb. It is likely that if you are close enough to ground zero to see the explosion with your own eyes, you will not have enough time to find cover before the blast wave reaches you. Knowledge that it is coming, however, may buy you a few precious seconds. A 1-megaton explosion would likely mean instant death for anyone within a 0-2 mile radius, with a 50% chance of death for those within about 5 miles of the blast, depending on the kind of structure they are in at the time the blast wave reaches them.

Assuming, for example, that you live on the outskirts of a major city that has been targeted and you have escaped vaporization from the initial blast and lethal damage from the shock wave, your first reaction at such proximity must be to find shelter from the fallout. The tremendous heat produced from a nuclear blast causes an up-draft of air that forms the familiar mushroom cloud. When a blast occurs near the earth’s surface, millions of vaporized dirt particles also are drawn into the cloud. As the heat diminishes, radioactive materials that have vaporized condense on the particles and fall back to Earth. The phenomenon is called radioactive fallout. An interesting note is that range for significant radiation doesn’t increase, as one may have expected, proportional to the size of the weapon. Nevertheless, the closer you are to the blast, the more quickly the fallout will reach you. The further you live from the likely epicenter of an attack, the more time you are likely to have to escape the fallout. For a 1-megaton attack, anyone living within about a mile and a half of ground zero, should they survive the blast, will receive an almost instant dose of lethal radiation.

This fallout material decays over a long period of time, and is the main source of residual nuclear radiation. Fallout from a nuclear explosion may be carried by wind currents for hundreds of miles if the right conditions exist. Effects from even a small portable device exploded at ground level can be potentially deadly. Nuclear radiation cannot be seen, smelled, or otherwise detected by normal senses; it can only be detected by radiation monitoring devices. This makes radiological emergencies different from other types of emergencies, such as floods or hurricanes. Monitoring can project the fallout arrival times, which would be announced through official warning channels. However, any increase in surface build-up of gritty dust and dirt should be a warning for taking protective measures.

The key information to take away from this is that, the nearer your proximity to one of the potential target areas described above, the more essential an underground bomb shelter is. Should you survive the initial blast, a quick retreat into a well-stocked shelter can mean the difference between life and death from blast wave effects, subsequent fires, and radiation poisoning for you and your family.