What would happen if terrorists set off a nuclear warhead?

I saw Gov. Rendell on TV yesterday talking about how easy it’d be for terrorists to sneak a bomb into one of our ports on a container ship (he used Philly as an example). What would happen if they really did that and it went off? Aside from the obvious destruction would it knock out the power grid? Not just the EMP but have a major city suddenly stop using power. What about medical care? Is it true that 1 city being bombed would completly overwhelm the entire nation’s healthcare system? I assume FEMA has contigency plans but are they public? I’ve read cold-war era civil defense plans from Britain that say they wouldn’t even try any relief effort for 14 days so that resources wouldn’t be wasted on people who die anyway. Would our gov’t do this? Would they euthanize radiation victims for lack of resources?

The Bush administration would invade Sri Lanka.

This is GQ, not GD. They’d invade France of course. :smiley:
I don’t think there’s a clear answer here. It would depend on the bomb. It’s been noted that a nuke on the ground (not an airburst) wouldn’t be all that bad. Radiation wouldn’t be able to get thrown as far so it’ll be mostly whoever was too close to the blast who’ll die (and not millions of people within 500 sq miles).

None of the things mentioned in the OP happened in Japan even though the country was a staggering ruin at the end of a long and costly war. So they are unlikely to occur in a healthy and prosperous United States of today. And a suitcase bomb would likely cause less havoc than the hurricanes that hit Florida.

Setting the bomb off on the ground could be worse than an airburst. An airbust will destroy a larger area but kick less dirt into the air and creat less fallout. If terrorists set one off on the ground they’d send alot of dirt into the atmoshpere that would be carried on the winds and then fall back to Earth.

There are much worse things than nukes, and much worse things to do with nuclear material. Read *The Hamlet Ultimatum * for nightmares.

Pony nukes are bad, but hurricanes are far worse.

Again, it would depend on the size of the blast. A terrorist bomb isn’t going to be a hundred mega tonne nuke (if it was, someone seriously dropped the ball). A small nuke’s fallout isn’t going to be much. An airburst will cause more damage and kill more people either way (bigger the nuke = more rads in the air = more chance of killing someone with the radiation exposure). A ground blast on water won’t kick up much dirt but will hurt the water supply.
At a guess, a mini-nuke in a harbour (ports are usually pretty far from a city’s core) won’t do all that much where as a nuke in downtown NY will take out easily a dozen buildings and several hundred thousand people.

It’s all in the location.

That depends on what you mean. The number of patients that can be handled by severe burn centers and radiation treatment centers is small, so those may easily be overwhelmed by a large number of patients. There is considerable capacity for growth, especially in the military, but treatment might not reach the same standards as pre-established facilities. A major problem would also be to get enough health care resources to the effected area quickly enough. Would the whole health care system break down? That’s extraordinarily unlikely: it hasn’t happened in other major disasters.

At least in some aspects, yes. There may be portions of plans that are not public, and/or are run more locally. This CDC site says your local emergency-response agency may be able to provide more information.

This seems extremely unlikely. There are plenty of people who could be saved by medical intervention before 14 days have passed (example: a nuclear attack could be expected to produce many victims who suffer from trauma, say, from buildings collapsing, but who don’t have the additional complications of radiation injuries and severe burns). It would be ludicrous to deny aid to those people. Likewise blanket euthanization of radiation victims sounds crazy.

Remember that Cold War planning centered on massive nuclear exchanges that would destroy many cities almost simultaneously, wrecking most of the infrastructure and health care system of a modern nation. This is a very different situation from a single city being attacked.

PS, silenus, The Hamlet Ultimatum lacks any plot info on amazon and some other sites I checked, what kind of nightmares are we talking about?

The Hamlet Ultimatum revolves around a terrorist blackmail plot involving nuclear material. The Bad Guys have mixed the plutonium with magnesium and such in fireworks, with which they have blanketed the NE United States. Plutonium is no less radioactive for being burned. Properly done, radioactive ash scattered to the right altitude, with the right winds could render the entire area uninhabitable for 6000 years or so.

If you think about it, blowing plutonium up is the **least ** effective way of killing people with it! :eek:

As observed, it is dependent on location, and also prevailing winds regarding airborne fallout. Many of the medical care facilities in Philadelphia could easily find themselves in the “hot zone” of GZ, with others would likely be lined out once a Cameo was run.

I recall reading (sorry, no cite) that a suitcase-type nuke detonated at ground level (in London or Dublin IIRC) would be contained within 1-2 blocks radius whereas an airburst would cause damage over a far greater area.

As for people being left to die, there’s the concept of triage - you give the victim a quick once-over and if their injuries are too severe, you move on and look for someone you’re likely to save; later you may come back. It’s a question of trying to save the most rather than trying to save the first. Not a nice thing to have to do.

I was thinking more along the lines of 100-500 kilotons. One of the unaccounted bombs from Russia.

In that case, the Powers That Be should just chalk up the city where the bomb was detonated, and the people there, as a total loss. The nations health care system wouldn’t be overwhelmed. Just leave the people in the nuked city to die. At this point, the President should be worrying about doing everything possible to prevent this happening somewhere else in the US, rather than focusing on the demolished city. While this may seem cold and heartless, nuclear weapons going off in the country ain’t exactly a warm and fuzzy scenario.

There would be an immediate press release declaring Saudi Arabia was not responsible in any way. If it turns out OBL was the culprit, we would get the proverbial shoulder shrug out of Washington.

The ensuing panic triggered by a nuclear detonation in a US city would dwarf any hurricane-related fears we’ve seen in our lifetimes. With 24/7 media coverage fanning the flames of hysteria and 280 million people obsessing on the next likely (or unlikely) target, we would likely see a financial panic and resulting economic ripple effect. The post-Nagasaki analogy bears little semblance to this scenario.

As stated so eloquently above, this is GQ, not GD.

Nuclear Thermal Weapons Effects

Nuclear Blast Mapper

Health & Environmental Effects

Radiological Dispersion Weapons: Health, Social, and Environmental Effects - A Briefing Paper

Most of the links I could find concentrate on a nuclear exchange between two countries and not a single use by a terrorist organization. In time we will probably see such reports.

Possibly true, but your answer has virtually no relation to what the OP asked.

It’s a given that the panic that happened after 9/11 would look like 90% off day at Walmart next this. Can anybody answer my question about the power going out? Not just from EMP but from an entire city suddenly being taked off the grid.

The northeastern power grid is a funny thing. It is not an entity, but a conglomeration of the dozens of different power producers, transmitters, and distributors. Over them are major state- or multistate-level control centers with fantastically sophisticated monitoring and switching capacity.

Theoretically, there are protections and precautions in place at every major control center that would try to compensate automatically for a cut-out and then default to the operators’ efforts to reroute the power across the grid.

As we saw in the last blackout, practice does not work as well as theory.

The centers think they’ve rejiggered to avoid a general blackout. Nobody knows for sure until an event is triggered.

So there’s no possible general answer to this what if. It all depends on where, how, when, how much, and every other question word.