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For release 14 January 2004
For more information contact
William Burr, (202) 994-7032

New Evidence on Nuclear Weapons Effects Shows That U.S. Nuclear War Plans Underestimated Destructiveness of Nuclear Arsenal By Ignoring Firestorms

Go to the Electronic Briefing Book

Washington, D.C. - A nuclear weapon at the "small" end of historic strategic arsenals that exploded over the Pentagon would create a mass fire that would engulf the Washington, D.C. area as far as Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, and Alexandria. According to a study published this month, the detonation would not only unleash the well-known blast effects and hurricane force winds that would crush the Pentagon and knock over nearby buildings, but the bomb would also generate a "hurricane of fire" that would destroy almost everything within 40 to 65 square miles. A firestorm is a predictable effect of a nuclear detonation in an urban area, but since the 1940s, U.S. war planners have disregarded the problem of mass fire by focusing attention on blast effects only.

A new book and the cover story of the current issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Stanford University scholar Lynn Eden detail the scenario of the nuclear devastation of the Washington, D.C. area. Exploring why the military disregarded nuclear firestorms, Eden argues that the resulting underestimation of the destructiveness of nuclear weapons made top officials poorly informed about weapons effects and contributed to unnecessarily high levels of nuclear forces. The organizational failure to understand weapons effects, Eden argues, could have produced a nuclear catastrophe; similar organizational failures produced the Titanic disaster and the poor fireproofing of the World Trade Center.

Today the National Security Archive publishes on its web site an electronic briefing book exploring the problem of "overkill" and weapons effects in U.S. nuclear war plans together with an animated computer graphic of the fire effects on Washington, D.C. Documents from the 1950s and early 1960s provide evidence of the powerful influence of the blast damage approach among civilian and military nuclear weapons experts. Other documents show that some officials recognized that mass fires were routine effects of high-yield nuclear weapons, but target planners continued to emphasize blast damage.

  • A 1957 State Department briefing characterized nuclear blast as the "primary destruction agent."
  • After getting briefings on nuclear war plans in 1960, top officials were concerned that nuclear strikes would produce "undesirable overkill" because the plans did not consider fire effects. According to CNO Admiral Arleigh Burke: "it is certain that there will be many firestorms and damage by neutrons beyond the area of blast damage."
  • A few months later, the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff overrode those concerns when it declared that fires are not a "special characteristic of nuclear explosions. They may or may not occur."
  • Physicist Harold Brode, under contract for the Defense Nuclear Agency, revisited the mass fire problem when he wrote in 1983 that a nuclear detonation "ensures a very large number of ignitions and the rapid development of a large area fire" and that "fire damage can be predicted with useful consistency." Brode developed a method to predict damage from nuclear firestorms but the Pentagon rejected this approach in the early 1990s. Eden's new book, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge and Nuclear Weapons Devastation explains why.

Go to the Electronic Briefing Book

 

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