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We assume that eight U.S. urban areas are hit: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, four with four warheads and four with eight warheads. We also assume that the targets have been selected according to standard military priorities: industrial, financial, and transportation sites and other components of the infrastructure that are essential for supporting or recovering from war. Since low-altitude bursts are required to ensure the destruction of structures such as docks, concrete runways, steel-reinforced buildings, and underground facilities, most if not all detonations will cause substantial early fallout.

Physical Effects

Under our model, the numbers of immediate deaths are determined primarily by the area of the “superfires” that would result from a thermonuclear explosion over a city. Fires would ignite across the exposed area to roughly 10 or more calories of radiant heat per square centimeter, coalescing into a giant firestorm with hurricane-force winds and average air temperatures above the boiling point of water. Within this area, the combined effects of superheated wind, toxic smoke, and combustion gases would result in a death rate approaching 100 percent.

Predicted Immediate Deaths from Firestorm after Nuclear Detonations in eight U.S. Cities.

City No. of Warheads No. of Deaths

Atlanta 8 428,000

Boston 4 609,000

Chicago 4 425,000

New York 8 3,193,000

Pittsburgh 4 375,000

San Francisco, Bay Area 8 739,000

Seattle 4 341,000

Washington, D.C. 8 728,000

Total 48 6,838,000

For each 100-kt warhead, the radius of the circle of nearly 100 percent short-term lethality would be 4.3 km (2.7 miles), the range within which 10 cal per square centimeter is delivered to the earth s surface from the hot fireball under weather conditions in which the visibility is 8 km (5 miles), which is low for almost all weather conditions. We used Census CD to calculate the residential population within these areas according to 1990 U.S. Census data, adjusting for areas where circles from different warhead overlapped. In many urban areas, the daytime population, and therefore the casualties, would be much higher.


The cloud of radioactive dust produced by low-altitude bursts would be deposited as fallout down-wind of the target area. The exact areas of fallout would not be predictable, because they would depend on wind direction and speed, but there would be large zones of potentially lethal radiation exposure. With average wind speeds of 24 to 48 km per hour (15 to 30 miles per hour), a 100-kt low-altitude detonation would result in a radiation zone 30 to 60 km (20 to 40 miles) long and 3 to 5 km (2 to 3 miles) wide in which exposed and unprotected persons would receive a lethal total dose of 600 rad within six hours. With radioactive contamination of food and water supplies, the breakdown of refrigeration and sanitation systems, radiation-induced immune suppression, and crowding in relief facilities, epidemics of infectious diseases would be likely.


Table 1 shows the estimates of early deaths for each cluster of targets in or near the eight major urban areas, with a total of 6,838,000 initial deaths. Given the many indeterminate variables (e.g., the altitude of each warhead s detonation, the direction of the wind, the population density in the fallout zone, the effectiveness of evacuation procedures, and the availability of shelter and relief supplies), a reliable estimate of the total number of subsequent deaths from fallout and other sequelae of the attack is not possible. With 48 explosions probably resulting in thousands of square miles of lethal fallout around urban areas where there are thousands of persons per square mile, it is plausible that these secondary deaths would outnumber the immediate deaths cause by the firestorms.

Medical Care in the Aftermath

Earlier assessments have documented in detail the problems of caring for the injured survivors of a nuclear attack: the need for care would completely overwhelm the available health care resources. Most of the major medical centers in each urban area lie within the zone of total destruction. The number of patients with severe burns and other critical injuries would far exceed the available resources of all critical care facilities nationwide, including the country s 1708 beds in burn-care units (most of which are already occupied). The danger of intense radiation exposure would make it very difficult for emergency personnel to even enter the affected areas. The nearly compete destruction of local and regional transportation, communications, and energy networks would make it almost impossible to transport the severely injured to medical facilities outside the affected area. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, which resulted in a much lower number of casualties (6500 people died and 34, 900 were injured) and which had few of the complicating factors that would accompany a nuclear attack, there were long delays before outside medical assistance arrived.

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