Recently, a friend of mine who lives in Manhattan posed to me the question of whether she should be afraid of living there due to the threat of terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb. As I feel this is a question that has plagued many people, I decided to do a little bit of research and compose a brief analysis of the situation. Please keep in mind that I am not an expert in terrorism, and my calculations should be taken with a grain of salt. The situation is very complex, there are many unknowns and potential sources for error, and I ended up having to rely on some guesswork. Nonetheless, I hope that my analysis is helpful to others who are interested in this question, or who find themselves living in constant fear of a nuclear weapon being detonated in their city.
1. Do terrorist groups want to nuke the United States?
It seems that yes, there are groups that would be willing to do this. According to the Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, “At the moment, al Qaeda is judged to be the sole terrorist group actively intent on conducting a nuclear attack against the United States.” Of course, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that other groups are also seeking to do this. I’m going to work under the assumption that Al Qaeda and those groups tightly connected to it are the only ones that would have the interest and/or capabilities of actually plotting such an attack at this time.
2. Where would terrorists get nuclear weapons?
Genuine nukes of great destructive power are quite difficult to build, and cost estimates for building full scale weapons (of the 25-35 kiloton variety) seem to be > $5 Billion. Furthermore, such weapons would likely take longer than a decade to build from scratch (though these numbers are a bit old, so the process may have become cheaper as technology has progressed). Hence, it seems highly likely that if terrorists intended to use such a weapon they would steal them, buy them, or get them through strategic arrangements with governments that already have them. Of course, different types of weapons with different yields would have different costs associated with them, and the amount of time that it would take for construction depends on the scale of the project (with more resources and more scientists it would likely go faster). Some people fear that there may be poorly controlled nuclear weapon materials in Russia (such as bomb-grade uranium). Others fear that nukes could be stolen from Pakistan, in part because of the country’s potential instability, and also because it is possible that Al Qaeda is conducting operations there. Iran also could be a potential source of danger, in part because it is run by a religious zealot and it is unclear how far he would be willing to take his anti-American sentiments.
3. What sort of weapons would terrorists be likely to use?
It would be far, far easier to attack the U.S. with a dirty bomb (a conventional bomb laced with radioactive material in a manner such that the material is spread by the blast) than with a full scale nuclear weapon since dirty bombs are so much easier and cheaper to construct or acquire. Such an operation would also seem to have a much greater chance of succeeding than use of a true nuclear bomb since it does not require recruiting high level nuclear scientists, massive deal making with large nations for supplies, or a laboratory which must be kept secret for a decade or more. The supplies for the construction of dirty bombs are relatively easy to obtain, though these weapons have far less destructive capability than true nukes. There has been at least one known plot (in actuality, probably more like two or three) to detonate a dirty bomb in the United States.
4. If terrorists did choose to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, how likely would they be to choose Manhattan as their target?
It seems quite likely that if terrorists attempted a nuclear attack on the United States, it would be carried out in either Manhattan or Washington DC. Manhattan is an obvious choice because the County of New York is the most densely populated county in the country, so damage and chaos could be maximized , and because Manhattan has enormous importance to the U.S. economy. DC is also a natural choice because of the opportunity it might provide terrorists to disrupt government operations. That being said, the United States is a huge place, and it is possible that for logistical reasons terrorists might find New York difficult. If I had to put a probability on it, I would guess that there might be a 3 in 10 chance that Manhattan would be chosen as a target.
5. If terrorists attacked Manhattan with nukes, how bad would it be?
The worst case scenario pretty much would be the detonation of a nuclear bomb (hidden in a truck or in an ocean shipping container). One source (a report by Ira Helfland, head of emergency medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital) estimates that a 12.5 kiloton bomb of this nature “smuggled into the port of New York aboard a shipping container and detonated at ground level” would end up killing approximately 260,000 people (about 52,000 of them would die immediately as a consequence of the blast, 10,000 would die soon after from direct radiation exposure, and the remainder would die from nuclear fallout). The study says that that several hundred thousand more would become sick from radiation sickness. There are about 1.6 million residents in Manhattan, which balloons to about 3 million during the day from people traveling into Manhattan. If we assume that the attack occurred during the day (when population densities are highest), and that in total 600,000 either die or get very sick, and that about 2.5 million people are in Manhattan at that moment (since some commuters will have left before the moment the attack occurred, or not arrived yet), then you would have about a 25% chance of dying or becoming seriously ill.
What about the case of a dirty bomb attack? In this case, it’s most likely that fewer than 10,000 people would die or become seriously ill, leaving a probability of less than 0.5% of sickness or death.
6. What have known terrorists plots on the united states been like?
Since 9/11 muslim extremists have concocted at least fifteen thwarted plots to carry out terrorist attack in U.S. In fact, the true number is probably quite a bit higher than this. The plots that I was able to find by conducting a few quick searches were:
-Shoe bomb in plane.
-Attempted construction of a dirty bomb.
-Blowtorches to collapse brooklyn bridge.
-Attack New York Stock Exchange and construct a dirty bomb.
-Bomb subway station Near Madison Square Garden.
-Assassinate diplomat with grenade launcher.
-Attack national guard facilities, synagogues and other places in Orange County, CA.
-Plot to blow up wyoming natural gas refinery, the transcontinental pipeline, and the NJ Standard Oil Refinery.
-Potential planned attack on the U.S. Capitol and World Bank headquarters.
-Blow up Sears Tower and FBI offices.
-Attack underground transit links connecting to New Jersey.
-Blow up ten commercial airliners.
-Attack U.S. Army base Fort Dix in New Jersey with assault rifles and grenades.
-Blow up jet fuel artery that runs through residential neighborhoods at JFK international airport.
-Attack the Empire State Building and U.S. nuclear power stations.
Note that all of these attacks have been thwarted, either by the incompetence of the perpetrators, or by effective government work. The only “successful” attacks since September 11, 2001 (that might potentially be considered terrorist attacks) that I managed to find in my quick searches were:
-An Egyptian gunman opens fire at an El Al ticket counter in Los Angeles International Airport, killing two Israelis before being killed himself.
-Joel Henry Hinrichs III detonated a bomb near the packed football stadium at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma killing himself in the process.
-Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, an Iranian-born graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, drives an SUV onto a crowded part of campus, injuring nine.
-An Afghani Muslim hit 19 pedestrians, killing one, with his SUV in the San Francisco Bay area.
-A man attacks Fort Hood with guns, shooting 44 people.
Something to notice here is that most of these attacks on the U.S. since 9/11 have failed or were foiled, and most of the ones that haven’t failed were relatively small scale. What’s more, all of the attacks listed are much, much less complex and difficult and expensive to pull off than building/acquiring, transporting and detonating a full scale nuclear bomb.
7. What is the (very roughly) estimated probability that a person living in Manhattan will die or become seriously injured/sick by a nuclear weapon attack within the next ten years?
This estimate will of course be very crude and inaccurate, but here goes. First lets consider the case of a full nuclear bomb attack. If such an attack occurred in the U.S. and went according to plan, there might be something like a 3 in 10 chance that it would target Manhattan. The chance of death or serious injury depends a lot on the strength of the bomb, but if we assume a large bomb of about 12.5 kilotons this might give a person in Manhattan a 1 in 4 chance of avoiding serious physical harm. What would the probability be that such a plan would be foiled by the government or botched by the perpetrators? The odds seem very good of this happening, as a great number of much simpler attacks that would involve many fewer people have failed. In fact, only about 1 in 5 of the attacks I managed to find information about succeeded, and the ones that DID succeed were some of the very simplest to organize. I would guess that the odds of the success of a full scale nuclear bomb attack are something like 1 in 100. If this seems low, keep in mind that this figure has to take into account the odds that the terrorists fail to acquire or build the bomb despite their attempts, that they run out of funding, that their facilities are discovered and raided, that their bomb is discovered during transportation, that their bomb fails to detonate, that members of their team lose their nerve, that they can’t get the bomb into the U.S., etc.
The next thing to estimate are the odds that SOME terrorist group is actually attempting to plan an attack like this. The plot would be very difficult and expensive to pull off, but on the flip side, would be massively effective at injuring the U.S. (through death, illness, property damage, and widespread panic), so the difficulty might be balanced to some degree in the terrorists minds by the potential damage caused. The enormous potential cost of this project and the expertise required may well be prohibitive though, so I’ll place the odds that Al Qaeda or a closely linked group would pursue completing this project within the next ten years rather arbitrarily at 1 in 10. Here I am assuming that only Al Qaeda terrorist group would even be willing to attempt such a project. All in all, this very crude estimate indicates that the likelihood that terrorists attempt to attack the U.S. with a full scale nuclear bomb, actually succeed in this plan, carry out this attack in Manhattan, and kill any one particular Manhattan resident (chosen at random) is about 1 in 13,300 (over a ten year estimated period). To put this in perspective, the chance that you eventually die of a car accident (rather than other potential causes of death) is about 1 in 6,800.
On the other hand, dirty bomb scenarios are far more likely to be carried out successfully, and far more likely to be attempted (in fact, they already have been) but are unlikely to actually kill or seriously harm a randomly selected person in Manhattan. We can estimate that, once again, there might be a 3 in 10 chance that such an attack (if it occurred) would occur in Manhattan, that if it did happen in Manhattan each individual would have less than a 1 in 200 chance of incurring serious harm (let’s say for the sake of argument that the most likely number is something like 1 in 400), that such an attack might be planned twice in the next 10 years, and that the chance of success for such an attack might be 1 in 10. These give us odds that a single, predetermined person in Manhattan would suffer serious physical harm from a dirty bomb at about 1 in 6,600. This number is also on the order of the chance of eventually dying from a car accident.
8. How much should we fear nuclear terrorist attacks if we live in Manhattan?
From the simplistic analysis carried out above, the answer seems to be that Manhattan residents (who plan on staying in Manhattan for just ten more years) shouldn’t fear nuclear terrorism all that much more than a randomly selected American should fear the possibility of dying of a car accident at some point in their life. One thing that may be worth pointing out is that even if a nuclear weapon did kill us, there is some chance (dependent on the characteristics of that weapon) that it would do so fairly instantaneously, meaning that we would be dead before having much opportunity to suffer or even notice, which seems a lot less horrible than a slow death by radiation poisoning. On the flip side though, if a nuclear weapon was detonated and did not kill or injure us, the psychological effects of such a disaster could still be great, potentially causing the death and injury of those people we know, and likely inducing panic.
While nothing is known for certain and this analysis is certainly flawed in a handful of ways, the chance of a nuclear terrorist threat does not seem high enough to warrant moving out of Manhattan if you derive significant value from living there. Moreover, if you have already decided that you are going to live in Manhattan, what is the use of worrying about death from nuclear weapons at all? It isn’t as though worrying is likely to make you safer in a significant way. There are many things that have the potential to kill us each day, and we tend to simply not think about them, so why should this be different? Sure, it seems scarier in some ways than car accidents, which feel more familiar, but car accidents (and tumors and strokes) can be just as horrible as death by nuclear bombs or dirty bombs. Living in fear will almost certainly reduce your quality of life without making you substantially safer, so the best thing is probably to learn to be okay with the fact that we will never be totally safe (from nukes or cars or the huge number of other things that might hurt us), and this is just a part of life.
If thoughts about nuclear weapons are something that you find you are upsetting yourself with frequently, you might try writing down answers to the following questions:
a) If I don’t worry about hundreds of other potential sources of death, then why should I worry about this one source, especially since it is quite unlikely to occur?
b) What advantages and disadvantages are there to my worrying about nuclear bombs (especially taking into account the fact that there is nothing I can do to prevent such an attack)?
c) Since death is inevitable, and often painful and unpleasant, is dying from nukes really such an especially horrible way to go?
d) What is a more productive use of our time, worrying about nuclear bombs or researching and implementing ways to mitigate preventable sources of death? (keeping in mind that most of us could eat healthier, exercise more, wear our seat belts more scrupulously, get more regular checkups, and do many other things that would likely extend our lives).