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Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues

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"Small" Nuclear Blast Would Devastate Downtown D.C., FEMA Says

The north portico of the White House, shown in 1998. A 10-kiloton nuclear detonation three blocks from the White House would destroy the building as well as other prominent structures within one half of a mile, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has determined (AP Photo/Colin Winterbottom). The north portico of the White House, shown in 1998. A 10-kiloton nuclear detonation three blocks from the White House would destroy the building as well as other prominent structures within one half of a mile, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has determined (AP Photo/Colin Winterbottom).

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has concluded that a 10-kiloton nuclear blast three blocks north of the White House would wipe out the presidential complex as well as the U.S. Capitol, National Mall and other structures within one half of a mile, the Washington Post reported on Friday (see GSN, Oct. 7, 2011).

The potential for terrorists to acquire and use a nuclear weapon has been identified as a major threat facing the United States and its partners. World leaders are set to gather in South Korea next week to address the threat at the second Nuclear Security Summit (see GSN, March 14).

A relatively "small" nuclear explosion would eliminate most life and generate harsh radioactivity within that "severe damage zone," the newspaper quoted the November assessment as saying. The bomb would produce more limited physical effects -- such as insubstantial wounds and compromised windows -- in an area starting no less than three miles from the blast point, according to the document.

“The brilliant flash that can be seen for hundreds of miles can temporarily blind many of those who are outdoors even miles from a nuclear explosion. The explosion can turn several city blocks into rubble and may break glass over 10 miles away. Dust and debris may cloud the air for miles, and fallout that produces potentially lethal levels of radiation to those outdoors falls in the immediate area and up to 20 miles downwind,” the report states.

Radioactive contamination from the explosion would produce harmful effects in a significant number of people in Washington, Maryland and nearby sections of Virginia, the assessment adds.

The blast would "overwhelm" crisis personnel; blow through glass panes approached by interested onlookers; and prompt a regional exodus whose participants would receive harmful radiation.

“Unfortunately, our instincts can be our own worst enemy,” the report's authors wrote, advising individuals to remain within enclosed structures and to refrain from operating automobiles (Maggie Fazeli Fard, Washington Post, March 16).

The document advises individuals in the vicinity of a nuclear explosion to "duck and cover."

"After an unexplained dazzling flash of light, do not approach windows, and stay behind cover for at least a minute to prevent injuries from flying and falling debris, such as broken glass," the report recommends (U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency report, November 2011).

NTI Analysis

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    The UNSCR 1540 Resource Collection examines implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to implement measures aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring NBC weapons, related materials, and their means of delivery. It details implementation efforts in all of the regions and countries of the world to-date.

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    April 2, 2014

    NTI's overview of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and the work ahead for 2016.

Country Profile

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United States

This article provides an overview of the United States’ historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.

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