- Nov 22, 2003
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Something to ponder:
Ten Kilotons and the Port of Long Beach
aburnearth_featuredimage.jpg60,000 killed instantly. The blast and subsequent fires might completely destroy the entire infrastructure and all ships in the Port of Long Beach and the adjoining Port of Los Angeles. Six million people might try to evacuate the Los Angeles region. Two to three million people might need relocation because fallout will have contaminated a 500 square kilometer area .
By Josh Manchester
In the wake of North Koreas unconfirmed nuclear test, one tends to focus the mind once again on the awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the terrible logic that prevented their use for so many decades in the Cold War.
A study recently released by the RAND Corporation examines the effects of a 10 kiloton nuclear blast on the Port of Long Beach.
The study created a scenario and then used detailed scenario analysis to understand the effects of the blast within the first 72 hours the explosion. It then used strategic gaming (a different method of analysis) to examine the effects in the weeks and months afterwards. The study was performed by RAND with a number of representatives of the real estate and insurance industries as participants as well.
In the scenario, terrorists conceal a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon in a shipping container and ship it to the Port of Long Beach.
RANDs conclusions are harrowing:
Within the first 72 hours, the attack would devastate a vast portion of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Because ground-burst explosions generate particularly large amounts of highly radioactive debris, fallout from the blast would cause much of the destruction. In some of the most dramatic possible outcomes:
* Sixty thousand people might die instantly from the blast itself or quickly thereafter from radiation poisoning.
* One-hundred and fifty thousand more might be exposed to hazardous levels of radioactive water and sediment from the port, requiring emergency medical treatment.
* The blast and subsequent fires might completely destroy the entire infrastructure and all ships in the Port of Long Beach and the adjoining Port of Los Angeles.
* Six million people might try to evacuate the Los Angeles region.
* Two to three million people might need relocation because fallout will have contaminated a 500 square kilometer area.
* Gasoline supplies might run critically short across the entire region because of the loss of Long Beachs refineries responsible for one-third of the gas west of the Rockies.
As far as the economic effects in the next weeks and months, RAND concludes that the economic costs would exceed $1 trillion (compared to 9/11, which cost $50-$100 billion) and that decision-makers would be faced with two very large issues: keeping the global shipping supply chain operating and restoring orderly economic relationships.
Michael Wermuth, head of RANDs Homeland Security Program, spoke with PajamasMedia and answered a few questions as to why Long Beach, and why this delivery method. He explained that the study made no predictions about probabilities. Ifand it is still a very big ifterrorists are ever able to acquire or build a device of this type, bringing it in through a port in a container is as plausible as any other method. Getting it out of a port to deliver it elsewhere would be more problematic. The venue could have been other places, but considering the amount of trade that flows through the Ports of LA and Long Beach, that site was chosen for that reason.
As to the development of the attack scenario and its aftermath, Wermuth noted that RAND uses a lot of material in its research for such activities. We are, of course, aware of apocalyptic views and do not always agree with them, especially from the Hollywood viewpoint.
The RAND study is useful because it serves as a clarifying event: while the focus of the study was purely on economic effects, it raises many more questions in the realms of deterrence, non-proliferation, and national defense.
Deterrence and Non-proliferation
Can a regime of deterrence be developed that provides extreme disincentives for the sources of such weaponry? Terrorists cannot create nuclear weapons on their own not yet anyway only states can. What sorts of policies can be clearly articulated to states that are tempted to proliferate? How forceful must these policies be to be useful? The simplest policy might create a kill list of states to destroy should certain triggers occur. The least of these might be the transfer of certain types of nuclear materials. The most might be a nuclear blast within the territory of a state allied with the US.
How does such a policy address the scenario in which a state cannot reliably store its own nuclear materials? If the state knew it was on the kill list, and could not store its materials securely, it might be extremely incentivized to give up its nuclear capability.
Or, a more complex policy might create different rules for different states. North Korea might be deterred differently from Pakistan, for example. The advantage to such differences is largely moral: creating different thresholds for the use of a devastating response allows one to take civilian populations, the nature of a given regime, and other considerations into account more clearly on a case by case basis. But the disadvantage is strategic in nature: any system which has differences in how it treats similar actors is open to abuse because enemies can find ways of using such seams against the systems guarantor.
Allied Assurance and Defense
One of the hallmarks of nuclear strategy is the concept of assurance, the process by which the US assures its non-nuclear allies that it will retaliate on their behalf if they are attacked. This nuclear umbrella will have to be included in new nuclear doctrine, especially as it applies to smaller or less-developed states.
From a defensive perspective, how might a nuclear attack in a less-developed state affect that state? Would it be worse, not as bad, or merely different? For example, a less-developed economy is less interconnected, meaning that an attack on a key node might not shock the entire system as in our own country. At the same time, if governance is weaker, or if quality healthcare is less prevalent, it seems such an attack could easily collapse a less developed state. Considering such consequences would be useful in developing rehabilitation strategies should such a nightmare occur.
Much of the infrastructure in the United States was originally conceived with national defense squarely in mind. The highway system is one example. When the interstate highways originally were built, one out of every five miles had to be straight in order to allow returning American bombers alternative places to land, in case their bases had been vaporized. (CORRECTION: Some sources say that the US highway system was never intentionally designed so planes can land on it, and the author may be in error. See http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/mayjun00/onemileinfive.htm)
How might our critical infrastructure be protected today? One classic aphorism about defense planning of any kind is the idea that one cant be strong everywhere. For example, it seems that our containerized and bulk cargo supply chains are extremely concentrated in several key ports in other words, there are single points of failure in our supply chain systems. New ports cant be created overnight, but if the entry of cargo into the US were very decentralized, it might mean that a nuclear blast would have less of a catastrophic effect on the economy; at the same time, it might be easier for nuclear devices disguised as cargo to enter the country. How does a homeland security planner deal with such paradoxes? Or should he? Should the private sector instead develop as it will?
Such questions are no doubt on the minds of many. Perhaps its time to start a national conversation about them.
Josh Manchester is a Marine veteran of the Iraq campaign. His blog is The Adventures of Chester.