Sunday, March 1, 2015

Nuclear Strike of the Month (March 2015): Target Houston Ship Channel

NUKEMAP Simulation of 15kT Ground Burst in the Houston Ship Channel
Note on the Nuclear Strike of the Month Series: In this series I want to illustrate various ways attacks using nuclear weapons can play out.  I will be using Dr. Alex Wellerstein's online NUKEMAP tool to generate the estimates of the blast and follow-on effects.

My rationale is to show a wide range of nuclear attack scenarios short of all-out thermonuclear war. The idea is to give readers a feel for the destructive power of nuclear weapons, provide scenarios as thought experiments for your own planning, and to discuss what nuclear weapons can and (sometimes more importantly) what nuclear weapons can't do.

For a variety of reasons, it is my opinion we will see nuclear weapons used in warfare sometime between now and 2030. We might as well brush up on the basics. 

Nuclear Strike of the Month: Houston Ship Channel

The Nuclear Strike of the Month for March 2015 takes us to sunny Houston, Texas. We will red team a nuclear strike by a terrorist group (or by a nation-state wanting the U.S. to think it was attacked by a a terrorist group) using a weapon similar in yield to that which struck Hiroshima.

The Scenario
In the days and weeks preceding the attack on Houston the news was more of the "new normal" in the United States. Official unemployment remained close to 8%, but even the major media outlets were channeling their inner Zero Hedge and bringing on guests who openly mocked the figures as being extremely divorced from reality.

The Big Dip of 2015 seemed to have settled out. Markets appeared to have finally found a floor a bit south of Dow 10,000. The Congressional fight over TARP 2.0 continued to be in the headlines. It looked like the banks would get it passed, but with much tighter margins than Version 1.0 in 2008. If nothing else, watching Tea Party Republicans and far-left Democrats standing shoulder to shoulder in denouncing the bill provided fantastic political theater, even if in the end, their angry pronouncements against the bailout were in utter vain. The rolling bank failures which had kicked off with the Greek bond default and the failure of two mid-major trading houses seemed to be settling out as well.

The employed went about their business hoping they could ride things out as in 2008, but more and more families were being sheared off from the formal economy. In Houston, the whip-sawing of energy prices between $35 and $85 kept anyone from becoming too relaxed. With crude oil hovering at $60 a barrel for the last month or so, most could talk themselves into believing another run-up past $100 was in the cards. Especially with the gains the Islamic State was making in Saudi Arabia.

The fashionistas at the New York Fashion Week had made it clear hemlines were dropping. Death Metal was actively competing with the angry anti-cop themes of Heavy Hip-Hop and moody folk reboots for dollars and downloads.

In other words, as far as most of the residents of Houston, Texas were concerned, the world was ticking along more or less as it had been since 2003, just with worse music.

Radiation, Fireball, and Blast Effects Overlaid on a Satellite Map
The Attack
The container ship slowly making its way up the channel towards Buffalo Bayou looked like any of the thousands of other ships hauling intermodal containers which paid call in Houston every year. On that hot afternoon in Texas, not one of the drivers on I-10 or the workers at the big ExxonMobil Baytown facility or the tourists at the Battleship Texas knew what lurked in a slightly rusty standard container loaded in the heart of the ship.

Investigators later determined the nuclear warhead had an effective yield of 15 kilotons. Their reconstruction seemed to indicate the warhead had been encased in a large tank and surrounded by soft plastic forms. The assumption is the detonator was linked to a wireless repeater and probably linked to instructions sent by a basic web bot linked to either a time stamp or activated manually. The investigators suspected something had not gone as planned since the ship was far enough into the channel that direct blast damage to the ExxonMobil facility was minimal, but this was conjecture.

Looking out from the observation deck of the San Jacinto Monument, the last thing a construction worker from Killeen ever saw was what looked like lightning crackling up from a ship in the channel. Then his retinas burned out. Before he could register the pain, the blast sent him hurtling to the ground, his body bathed in gamma rays and fast neutrons.

It was a ground burst on a river. The mushroom cloud looked bottom-heavy as shown from the pictures and video shot from witnesses in the towers of downtown Houston. The mix of steam, vaporized metal, ejected riverbed, smoke, and ash rose and drifted northeast.  The explosion rattled windows for miles and set off car alarms across the city, but direct damage from the blast was relatively limited.

Interstate 10 turned into a demolition derby as tractor trailer rigs and pickup trucks were blown from the road or their drivers left holding the wheel at over sixty miles per hour, flash-blinded.

The blast wiped out the Lynchburg Ferry, reduced the obelisk of the San Jacinto Monument to a cracked stub half its original size, and did what no Imperial German, Nazi, or, Japanese warship had ever managed to do, and sent the Battleship Texas to the bottom of the channel, leaving it keeled over, its mast and two of its big guns above the water, like a few fingers of drowned man, locked in rigor mortis.

The Aftermath
One of the reasons the death toll remained relatively low was the blast and path of the fallout left the major hospitals and fire stations mostly unscathed. The EMTs, firefighters, and emergency room doctors and nurses had thousands of hours of experience in handling refinery fires, explosions, and trauma response.

Close by at Texas A&M, Texas Task Force One was activated and on the scene within a few hours, bringing hundreds of trained Urban Search and Rescue personnel to the scene, plotting radiation fields, establishing decontamination areas, and coordinating with local firefighters and law enforcement to get as much understood and in-hand before every federal agency with an acronym descended upon Houston.

The fallout was intense and sickened thousands, killing hundreds. One of the worst parts though was the mix of vaporized salt water and radioactive particles. It stuck like glue to rooftops, roads, automobiles and any other exposed surface, leaving a residue of radioactivity which was incredibly difficult to clean. The Lynchburg canal became a key drainage point for the fallout, and eventually tanker ships, left idle by the recession which accompanied the Big Dip in stock prices around the world, served as floating wastewater repositories.

The nuclear forensics work conducted by experts from the U.S. Department of Energy was slow in getting off the ground. Whatever remnants of the warhead left behind after the blast were under the waters of the Houston Ship Channel, in a twisted mass of radioactive metal and river mud. But nuclear forensics doesn't require much material and the PhDs at DOE could be pretty clever when spurred to action by something more important than dodging budget cuts to their research projects. And when the results matched up extraordinarily well with samples of enriched uranium spirited out of Fordow, Iran a few years earlier, a series of hard choices filtered up to the Oval Office. Either Iran had been framed, or the Revolutionary Guards had overplayed their hand in dramatic fashion. Either option meant a drastic response was coming. Who would be on the receiving end remained to be seen...

Thoughts and Plans
This blast is on the high end of what is typically expected from a terrorist nuke. A few of the things I'd like you to take away from this nuclear blast include:

  • Ground bursts generate significant fallout. Look over the radiation fields generated by the fallout from this hypothetical attack and think over scenarios. In this case, you have a mall on the fringes of the fallout path (think of all those contaminated cars) and a high school under a 10 R/hour field. Would the administrators be able to keep everyone in doors, at least until first responders could arrange either an evacuation, or to keep them supplied in place for a day or two until the radiation levels were down enough to allow a quick evacuation?
  • Zoom out. This is a 15 kT explosion, on par with Hiroshima. Is the result as big as you expected?
  • What sort of knock-on effects from an attack like this could you expect? How much shipping traffic goes through the Houston Ship Channel each year? What sorts of petrochemicals leave the area? What would have to be abandoned temporarily? How do you evaluate and repair a shipping channel after a nuclear explosion?
  • How would you respond to such an event? Does your ready kit have the kinds of tools or equipment to monitor radiation fields?

Clown Show Disclaimer

Due to the subject matter of this post, it will be necessary to provide the following disclaimer. Blog posts like this tend to bring out comment trolls ready to gin up the Clown Show of name-calling, knee-jerk willful misinterpretation, and angry discourse generating much sound and fury, but which in the end, signifies nothing. Such comments will be deleted. 

I am not promoting nuclear war. I am not attempting to wish such an attack upon any population anywhere.  I am attempting to provide a plausible scenario which might lead to the use of nuclear weapons. My expectation is that you will use this scenario to war game whatever plans you may be putting into place to deal with this new era we find ourselves in and see if you are as ready as you hope.


John Risner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flagg707 said...

Effects of surface shots on water would be expected to generate significant pressures on the bay. I am not sure a large bay was ever the site of a nuclear weapons shot. One would expect significant short term radioactive contamination and a probably moderate levels of radioactive materials making it into the sea life.

The Fukushima accident has a few parallels, at least with releases into the sea, but maybe not the best example.

If you like in-depth source materials, I suggest this link to the Hardtack I nuclear weapons tests, many of which were lit off on barges near Pacific Islands.

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