Many Deaths Still Expected With Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons

April 27, 2005

A nuclear weapon that is exploded underground can destroy a deeply buried bunker efficiently and requires significantly less power to do so than a nuclear weapon detonated on the surface would, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. However, such "earth-penetrating" nuclear weapons cannot go deep enough to avoid massive casualties at ground level, and they could still kill up to a million people or more if used in heavily populated areas, said the committee that wrote the report.

"Using an earth-penetrating weapon to destroy a target 250 meters deep -- the typical depth for most underground facilities -- potentially could kill a devastatingly large number of people," said John F. Ahearne, committee chair and director of the ethics program at the Sigma Xi Center of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Many countries use underground facilities to conceal and protect military personnel, weapons, and equipment. Most of these facilities are beyond the reach of conventional explosive weapons and can be destroyed only by nuclear weapons. Earth-penetrating weapons have been considered as an alternative to conventional nuclear weapons because they could destroy such targets with up to 25 times less energy than weapons detonated at the surface.

The weapons' lower power would produce two to 10 times fewer surface casualties, but they still would lead to a large number of deaths and injuries, the report says. Fatalities could be further reduced if military commanders warned of an attack in time for people to evacuate. Commanders could also take advantage of wind conditions to minimize civilians' exposure to fallout. But a nuclear weapon burst in a densely populated urban area will always result in a large number of casualties, the committee emphasized.

Most of the weapons' destructive effect on a target is achieved at a depth of three meters. Beyond that depth, the weapon may fail, the committee said. Significant explosive power is needed to destroy targets located as deep as 400 meters, the report notes. For example, a 300-kiloton earth-penetrating nuclear weapon has a high probability of destroying a target 200 meters below, but a 1-megaton weapon is needed to destroy a 300-meter-deep facility.

The committee also examined the possible effects of using conventional or nuclear weapons to destroy chemical and biological weapons depots. Except for the BLU-118B thermobaric bomb -- a conventional bomb that can target a shallowly buried facility and destroy it with high pressure and heat -- conventional weapons are not likely to be effective in destroying chemical or biological agents, the report says. In a nuclear attack on a chemical weapons facility, far more civilian deaths will likely be caused by the nuclear blast itself than by the resulting dispersal of chemical agents. In contrast, the release of as little as 0.1 kilogram of anthrax spores, for example, would result in a number of fatalities similar to those caused by a 3-kiloton earth-penetrating nuclear weapon.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Source: National Academies

Explore further: Africa's growing and neglected cancer problem: We will all suffer

Related Stories

Why save a computer virus?

August 9, 2016

On average, 82,000 new malware threats are created each day. These include all sorts of malicious software – like computer viruses, computer worms and ransomware. Some are pranks or minor annoyances; others seek to pilfer ...

'Doomsday' ticks closer on nuclear, climate fears

January 10, 2012

Global uncertainty on how to deal with the threats of nuclear weapons and climate change have forced the "Doomsday clock" one minute closer to midnight, leading international scientists said Tuesday.

How contagious pathogens could lead to nuke-level casualties

May 19, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—What if nuclear bombs could reproduce? Get your hands on one today, and in a week's time you've got a few dozen. Of course, nukes don't double on their own. But contagious, one-celled pathogens do. Properly ...

Recommended for you

Engineers discover a high-speed nano-avalanche

August 24, 2016

Charles McLaren, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering at Lehigh University, arrived last fall for his semester of research at the University of Marburg in Germany with his language skills significantly ...

China unveils 2020 Mars rover concept: report

August 24, 2016

China has unveiled illustrations of a Mars probe and rover it aims to send to the Red Planet at the end of the decade in a mission that faces "unprecedented" challenges, state media said on Wednesday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.