Nuclear explosions can cause deadly effects—blinding light, intense heat (thermal radiation), initial nuclear radiation, blast, fires started by the heat pulse, and secondary fires caused by the destruction. They also produce radioactive particles called fallout that can be carried by wind for hundreds of miles.
Terrorist use of a radiological dispersion device (RDD)—often called "dirty nuke" or "dirty bomb"—is considered far more likely than use of a nuclear device. These radiological weapons are a combination of conventional explosives and radioactive material designed to scatter dangerous and sub-lethal amounts of radioactive material over a general area. Such radiological weapons appeal to terrorists because they require very little technical knowledge to build and deploy compared to that of a nuclear device.
Also, these radioactive materials, used widely in medicine, agriculture, industry and research, are much more readily available and easy to obtain compared to weapons grade uranium or plutonium. Terrorist use of a nuclear device would probably be limited to a single smaller "suitcase" weapon. The strength of such a weapon would be in the range of the bombs used during World War II. The nature of the effects would be the same as a weapon delivered by an intercontinental missile, but the area and severity of the effects would be significantly more limited. There is no way of knowing how much warning time there would be before an attack by a terrorist using a nuclear or radiological weapon.
A surprise attack remains a possibility. The danger of a massive strategic nuclear attack on the United States involving many weapons receded with the end of the Cold War. However, some terrorists have been supported by nations that have nuclear weapons programs. If there were threat of an attack from a hostile nation, people living near potential targets could be advised to evacuate or they could decide on their own to evacuate to an area not considered a likely target. Protection from radioactive fallout would require taking shelter in an underground area, or in the middle of a large building.
In general, potential targets include:
- Strategic missile sites and military bases.
- Centers of government such as Washington, D.C., and state capitals.
- Important transportation and communication centers.
- Manufacturing, industrial, technology and financial centers.
- Petroleum refineries, electrical power plants and chemical plants.
- Major ports and airfields.
Taking shelter during a nuclear attack is absolutely necessary. There are two kinds of shelters—blast and fallout. Blast shelters offer some protection against blast pressure, initial radiation, heat and fire, but even a blast shelter could not withstand a direct hit from a nuclear detonation. Fallout shelters do not need to be specially constructed for that purpose. They can be any protected space, provided that the walls and roof are thick and dense enough to absorb the radiation given off by fallout particles. The three protective factors of a fallout shelter are shielding, distance and time.
- Shielding. The more heavy, dense materials—thick walls, concrete, bricks, books and earth—between you and the fallout particles, the better.
- Distance. The more distance between you and the fallout particles, the better. An underground area, such as a home or office building basement, offers more protection than the first floor of a building. A floor near the middle of a high-rise may be better, depending on what is nearby at that level on which significant fallout particles would collect. Flat roofs collect fallout particles so the top floor is not a good choice, nor is a floor adjacent to a neighboring flat roof.
- Time. Fallout radiation loses its intensity fairly rapidly. In time, you will be able to leave the fallout shelter. Radioactive fallout poses the greatest threat to people during the first two weeks, by which time it has declined to about 1% of its initial radiation level.
Remember that any protection, however temporary, is better than none at all, and the more shielding, distance and time you can take advantage of, the better. Most electronic equipment within 1,000 miles of a high-altitude nuclear detonation could be damaged by EMP.
In addition to other effects, a nuclear weapon detonated in or above the earth's atmosphere can create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a high-density electrical field. EMP acts like a stroke of lightning but is stronger, faster and briefer. EMP can seriously damage electronic devices connected to power sources or antennas. This includes communication systems, computers, electrical appliances, and automobile or aircraft ignition systems. The damage could range from a minor interruption to actual burnout of components. Most electronic equipment within 1,000 miles of a high-altitude nuclear detonation could be affected. Battery powered radios with short antennas generally would not be affected. Although EMP is unlikely to harm most people, it could harm those with pacemakers or other implanted electronic devices.
There is always a risk of a terrorist threat. Each threat condition assigns a level of alert appropriate to the increasing risk of terrorist attacks:
- Low Condition (Green). This condition is declared when there is a low risk of terrorist attacks.
- Guarded Condition (Blue). This condition is declared when there is a general risk of terrorist
- High Condition (Orange). A High Condition is declared when there is a high risk of terrorist attacks.
- Severe Condition (Red). A Severe Condition reflects a severe risk of terrorist attacks. Under most circumstances, the protective measures for a Severe Condition are not intended to be sustained for substantial periods of time.