You don't have too look far beyond the front page of today's paper to know that we live in a dangerous world. What does civilization's biggest threat look like?

As the seat of American government, and an emblem of Western democracy, Washington D.C. is a natural target. With the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Department of Defence, a nuclear attack, however unlikely, would deal a crippling blow.

Nuclear bombs come in a variety of sizes. The smallest being the Cold-War era ‘Davy Crockett,’ which used a 35 kg (76 pound) shell that could wipe out anyone in a 150 metre (500 foot) radius. It also lacked an ‘abort’ feature. The largest nuke is Russia’s ‘Tsar Bomba,’ a behemoth with the power to instantly obliterate all of Paris.

But in this scenario, the nuke that descends upon D.C. has a 10 kiloton yield – slightly less than Hiroshima’s Little Boy, the first nuclear bomb ever deployed. A blinding flash of light, and a city block instantly vanishes.

In fact, any city block within 16 km (10 miles) of the blast site would easily be reduced to rubble. An explosion of this size would propel broken glass as far as 5 km (3 miles) in only 10 seconds. D.C.’s power grid would immediately fail, and the bomb’s Electromagnetic pulse would render most cellphones and electronic devices within 3 km (2 miles) completely useless.

After a nuclear detonation, our human instinct may become our worst enemy. Many people would likely head towards the blast site, hoping to rescue or reunite with loved ones. Others would take to the roads, hoping to escape, but a concrete basement, not a car, is your best chance of survival.

Upper-atmospheric winds, which move much faster than anything we experience on the Earth’s surface, would spread deadly radioactive dust far beyond the blast zone. The nuclear fallout could be travelling as fast as 160 km per hour (100 miles per hour), if not faster! From 32 km (20 miles) away, people would have roughly 20 minutes before harmful fallout would reach them.

Depending on atmospheric conditions, fallout could come in the form of deadly sand, ash, or colored rain. Those who didn’t find shelter soon after witnessing these effects, would severely increase their chances of harmful radiation exposure and long-term cancer risk.

An additional 130,000 preventable casualties would occur if these safety procedures weren’t followed. With improved technology over the last few decades, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System is capable of reaching the majority of those affected in a blast zone through a variety of channels. But evacuation would still be a logistical nightmare.

Rescuers would first try to relocate people from the worst-quality shelters. The evacuation would need to occur in several phases to avoid crowding, especially since most routes would be planned along sheltered passageways, places like subway tunnels and building lobbies.

Complicating the challenge would be the fact that most of the first-responders would be busy fighting the hundreds of fires that would be raging for several kilometers above ground. For the first 5 days following the explosion, anyone within an 128 km (80 mile) radius of the blast would need to remain behind adequate shelter to shield themselves from the likelihood of longterm radiation effects.

But while these precautionary measures might reduce further casualties, the country as a whole would remain in crisis. Think about the government, who would be in charge? The White House, the Supreme Court, the Capitol Building, and the Pentagon would almost certainly be in ruins.

If there wasn’t enough time to evacuate the President to the Emergency Operations Center in Virginia, the Presidency would be transferred to the highest ranking cabinet member who’s still alive. The military would follow a similar chain of command, filling the top positions almost immediately.

State governors would appoint senators to replace those who died, and would hold emergency elections to replace congressional representatives. The major emergency roles would be filled within 24 hours. The country’s new leaders would scramble to recover, and then likely retaliate.

While the agricultural industry in the northeastern United States would be jeorpardized for some time, chances are the American economy would rebound quickly. After all, rebuilding the nation’s capital will require a lot of man power, and billions of dollars.

Not to mention the economic boost from a surge in military spending that would likely follow the attack. At the end of the day, a nuclear attack on Washington would be a devastating tragedy, but would it compare to America’s retaliation?


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