Brighter Than a Thousand Suns

If you live where I do — in or near Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC — I guarantee that reading this article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will seriously make you contemplate moving.


To visualize the destructiveness of a nuclear bomb, imagine a powerful strategic nuclear weapon detonated above the Pentagon, a short distance from the center of Washington, D.C. Imagine it is a “near-surface” burst — about 1,500 feet above the ground — which is how a military planner might choose to wreak blast damage on a massive structure like the Pentagon. Let us say that it is an ordinary, clear day with visibility at 10 miles, and that the weapon’s explosive power is 300 kilotons — the approximate yield of most modern strategic nuclear weapons…
At Pentagon City, a shopping and office complex about seven-tenths of a mile from ground zero, light from the fireball would melt asphalt in the streets, burn paint off walls, and melt metal surfaces within a half second of the detonation. The interiors of vehicles and buildings in line of sight of the fireball would explode into flames…
Just beyond this range, about 1.6 miles from the Pentagon, aircraft at Reagan National Airport would be exposed to a light flash from the fireball more than 3,000 times brighter than a desert sun at noon. The thermal radiation would melt and warp aluminum surfaces on aircraft. Interior sections of the aircraft illuminated by the fireball would burst into flames. The tires of the aircraft would catch fire, as would the tires and fuel hoses of service vehicles near the aircraft…
The first indicator of a mass fire would be strangely shifting ground winds of growing intensity near ground zero. (Such winds are entirely different from and unrelated to the earlier blast-wave winds that exert “drag pressure” on structures.) These fire-winds are a physical consequence of the rise of heated air over large areas of ground surface, much like a gigantic bonfire.
The inrushing winds would drive the flames from combusting buildings horizontally toward the ground, filling city streets with hot flames and firebrands, breaking in doors and windows, and causing the fire to jump hundreds of feet to swallow anything that was not yet violently combusting. These extraordinary winds would transform the targeted area into a huge hurricane of fire.
Within tens of minutes, everything within approximately 3.5 to 4.6 miles of the Pentagon would be engulfed in a mass fire. The fire would extinguish all life and destroy almost everything else.


The point of the article is about how the U.S. government has never factored fire in its estimates for the damage caused by a thermonuclear weapon — they only look at damage caused by the initial blast, even though the fire that follows would be just as devastating. And, unlike blast, from firestorm there is no escape; you might survive the blast if you’re deep in a sub-basement somewhere, but the firestorm would turn your sub-basement into a brick oven. Author Lynn Eden cheerily summarizes that “[t]he firestorm would eliminate all life in the fire zone” — which, if ground zero were the Pentagon, would extend as far as Capitol Hill.

Now, when you live in the nation’s capital, you know that you’re living in a target zone. But you know it in a kind of abstract way. You certainly don’t think about it in the horribly specific terms this article lays out. Go ahead, read it and see if you don’t get a cold chill too.