Nuclear weapons: Predicting the unthinkable

November 22, 2009

If a nuclear weapon were detonated in a metropolitan area, how large would the affected area be? Where should first responders first go? According to physicist Fernando Grinstein, we have some initial understanding to address these questions, but fundamental issues remain unresolved.

"The predictive capabilities of today's state-of-the-art models in urban areas need to be improved, validated and tested," says Grinstein. "Work in this area has been limited primarily because of lack of consistent funding."

At the upcoming 62nd Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society's (APS) Division of in Minneapolis, Adam Wachtor -- a student who worked with Grinstein at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico -- will present his efforts to improve the way that models track the movement of radioactive fall-out carried by the wind. His wind models track the aftermath of a plume of hot gas released by a small, one-ton device in a typical urban setting at a three-meter resolution.

Current models use wind direction and wind speed to draw a predicted cone-shape area of fall-out. Wachtor's results show that these models are too simple in some ways. For instance, they do not include the complex dynamics of movements around buildings, which can concentrate fall-out preferentially in certain areas. They also indicate that small changes in the location of the blast and the temperature of the plume released can have a large effect on the contamination patterns.

The simulation is part of a larger coordinated effort between DHS (FEMA), the National Laboratories, DTRA, NRL, and private contractors, each of which has concentrated on a different piece of the project. Other studies have shown that, depending on the situation, buildings can provide some degree of shielding from the radiation.

The hope of the researchers collaborating in this effort is to eventually provide practical information to guide first responders. "We're preparing for [a possible] crisis," says Grinstein -- however unthinkable it may be.

More information: The presentation "Effects of release characteristics on urban contaminant dispersal" by Adam Wachtor of the University of California, Irvine is at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 22, 2009.

Source: American Institute of Physics

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not rated yet Nov 23, 2009
At the case of nuclear strike, such models will go to the hell, because infrastructure of modern society would collapse. We can imagine, what happened in New York, when single pair of building collapsed.
not rated yet Nov 23, 2009
"DHS(FEMA)" will not allow such an adventitious crisis to go to waste.
not rated yet Nov 23, 2009
@Alexa, you hit the nail on the head. If a nuclear strike was to happen our economies will literally go back to the stone age.
not rated yet Nov 23, 2009
The experiences of Nagasaki and Hiroshima suggest otherwise except perhaps for 'Greenies' that might commit seppuku at the sight of a mushroom cloud in their backyard.
not rated yet Nov 30, 2009
Actually, the chance of a single small nuclear weapon being set off in a metropolitan area is a LOT higher than an overwhelming strike. The former could be done by a well funded terrorist group, while the later requires the resources of a nuclear state.

So studying how to respond to this threat is very much desired. I hope that people remember that the first responsibility of our government is to the protection of its citizens and not make fun of the required expenditures.

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