Nuclear Detonation    
General Observations


    There are over 100 "suitcase bombs" missing from  
the former Soviet Union nuclear inventory.

The former head of Soviet National Security, Alexander Lebed testified to that fact before congress. He stated that the devices measure approximately 24" x 16" x 8" and can be set off by an individual in less than 30 minutes, producing a 1 kilo ton yield. Suitcase nuclear weapons weigh around 45kg or 90 lbs, and depending on the purity and type of the nuclear material, can cause a blast of anywhere between 1 and 50 kilotons. Legitimate governments that have these devices normally keep the yield below 25 kilotons.

Such a device, set off in New York Harbor, would produce a 15 to 20 foot wave that would destroy New York City. Other sources have confirmed that the number of suitcase bombs missing from the Soviet inventory is correct. 

Now, how do we detect such a device coming into the U.S.? Weapons grade plutonium, 94% Pu-239 produces a 414 KeV gamma ray, detectable and identifiable by gamma spectroscopy. It also contains approximately 6% Pu-240 that undergoes spontaneous fission, producing neutrons that can be detected by neutron detectors. It also contains Am-241 that produces 60 KeV gamma rays, again detectable by gamma spectroscopy. The significant quantity of weapons grade Pu is about 8 kilograms. The physical size of 8 Kgm of Pu 239 is about the size of a baseball. (Try to find that in a sea/land container.) 

Weapons grade uranium is approximately 93% U-235, producing a 186 KeV gamma ray detectable by gamma spectroscopy and 7% U-238, producing a 1001 KeV gamma ray from it's daughter Pa-234m, also detectable by gamma spectroscopy. The significant quantity is about 25 Kgm, a sphere about 7" in diameter. (Again, try to find that in a sea/land container.) 

The radiological signature of any of the gamma emitters could easily be shielded by a few inches of lead or tungsten. Four or five inches of steel would effectively reduce the radiations to background. Think about putting it inside the cylinders of an engine in a car being imported! 

So where could this material enter the U.S.? It could come in as Sea Cargo. The U.S. Customs has stated that only 2% of Sea Cargo is inspected. It could come in as Air Cargo. FedEx, UPS and USPS are not inspected! It could come across at border crossings. Only a few of the border inspectors are equipped with alarming dosimeters and even fewer are trained in how to use them. A nuclear device or special nuclear material could come in with luggage from commercial aviation, general aviation, cruse ships or by private car. Or, perhaps, by fishing boat or private yacht. As you can see, there are many ways for an enemy to get a device into the U.S. (There's more to this story of our porous borders that can't/shouldn't be shared publicly, but bottom line is, it's actually much worse and easier penetrated than stated here.) Incidentally, there are not enough instruments currently available for purchase to equip all of the ports of entry and it will take at least 2 more years to manufacture such instruments. They are also expensive, ranging in price from a killobuck or so for an alarming dosimeter to detect special nuclear material to more than $100,000 for a single installation to survey a sea/land container. 


Backpack Weapons

Originally made by the Soviets in the early 60’s. The backpack nuclear system consists of "three coffee-can size aluminum canisters, which must be connected before detonation. The weapon was formally in the custody of the Ninth Directorate of the KGB, close to Soviet leadership. The Directorate having custody of the weapon is similar to a nuclear device being in the custody of the Secret Service."

According to info provided to the CIA, three aluminum canisters are placed in a green canvas case with pockets on the outside. All three must be connected to make a single unit for it to explode. The detonator is about 6 inches long and carried in a "knife like sheath". Depending on the efficiency of the explosion, it has a 3 to 5 kiloton yield and powdered during storage by a battery line connected to the canisters.

Reports state that the system is very small, and it is not necessary to carry it in units…meaning that one person can carry and use this weapon.

Peter Probst, a former Department of Energy intelligence official of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict stated that if " bin Laden were going nuclear, a backpack weapon is the way to go."

The backpack nuclear weapon and suitcase nukes are not the same….


Historical Data

The only cases of significant fallout exposure (as of 1964) to individuals (other than globally ) was in the Marshall Islands after a U.S. test. The short term effects were skin "burns." As of 1964, no long term effects were known, although a slight excess cancer rate would be expected based on modern knowledge.  


Almost all radioactivity in fallout - even in a ground burst - comes from the fission products themselves or transmutation of parts of the weapon. Thus air bursts and ground bursts produce approximately the same amount of radioactive products. However, ground bursts cause much more of the radioactive debris to be deposited within a fallout pattern, rather than distributed (and accordingly diluted and decayed) across the entire planet.  


In Hiroshima, there was a 50% survival rate .12 miles (200 meters) from ground zero. The bomb went off at 1850 feet above ground zero with a yield of about 20kt. Concrete structures at ground zero survived.

It should be noted that there was no significant fallout in the vicinity of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings with an approximate 20 kiloton air burst.  All radiation injuries were a result of immediate (first 1 minute) radiation.  


In Hiroshima, there was only one known case of burst eardrums among the survivors.


Estimate Nuclear Blast Effects

This program will calculate blast effects for nuclear weapons of arbitrary yield, based on the scaling laws printed in Carey Sublette's Nuclear Weapons FAQ.
These scaling laws are mathematical approximations.

Input Weapon Yield

Yield (kilotons)

Calculated Values

Thermal radiation radius (2nd & 3rd degree burns)
Widespread destruction - Air blast radius 
Near total fatalities - Air blast radius
Ionizing radiation radius (500 rem)
Fireball duration
Fireball radius (minimum)
Fireball radius (airburst)
Fireball radius (ground-contact airburst)

More Technical Information 

Blast Effects

HiroshimaThe blast effect is primarily determined by the "overpressure" - given in English units in PSI.  This effect at any distance is proportional to the cube root of the weapons yield. Thus a 20 megaton bomb, which is large by today's standards, will affect only 10 times the radius of a 20 kiloton bomb - which was the yield at Hiroshima.


A human being can withstand up to about 35PSI of peak overpressure from a nuclear blast (1% fatality rate). Your mileage may vary. Thus a human will almost always survive the blast overpressure at approximately the following distances (slant range) from a blast according to the following table:

Distance From Blast to Survive Blast Wave


Distance (mi)

Distance (km)


20 kT



Hiroshima and Nagasaki

600 kT



Typical Strategic US Nuke

20 MT



Very Big Bomb

The blast wave can, however, pick people up and throw them. For a 165 pound standing person to be thrown at 20 feet per second, the following table shows the distance from the blast:

Distance From Blast to be Thrown at 20 fps


Distance (mi)

Distance (km)











Max Wind at Distance from Blast


1 mi
1.6 km

3 mi
4.8 km

10 mi
16 km

30 mi
48 km


200 mph
89 mps

47 mph
21 mps

5 mph
2 mps



1000 mph
447 mps

210 mph
94 mps

51 mph
23 mps

5 mph
2 mps


off scale

1200 mph
536 mps

195 mph
87 mps

47 mph
21 mps


 Property Damage

The greatest danger from the blast wave comes from destruction of structures and the conversion of objects into missiles. The following tables gives the destruction distance from various yields for a few kinds of structures:  


Window Breakage


Distance (mi)

Distance (km)










Wood-frame Building Destruction


Distance (mi)

Distance (km)










Partially Destroyed Frame House

Multi-story Brick


Distance (mi)

Distance (km)










Multi-story Reinforced Concrete Offices


Distance (mi)

Distance (km)













A ground burst produces a crater. The following table shows crater sizes:

Crater Sizes





















How Much Radiation Is Too Much?

This is the biggest question that we receive and it's probably the most important. The following is compiled from FM 3-7. NBC Field Handbook, 1994. FM 8-9. NATO Handbook on the Medical Aspects of NBC Defensive Operations, 1996. FM 8-10-7. Health Services Support in a Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Environment, 1996. It is instructive in outlining the levels of radiation and their health effects.

Expected health effects for an adult assuming the cumulative total radiation exposure was all received within a week's time. For children, the effects can be expected at half these dose levels.


30 to 70 R From 6-12 hours: none to slight incidence of transient headache and nausea; vomiting in up to 5 percent of personnel in upper part of dose range. Mild lymphocyte depression within 24 hours. Full recovery expected. (Fetus damage possible from 50R and above.)
70 to 150 R From 2-20 hours: transient mild nausea and vomiting in 5 to 30 percent of personnel. Potential for delayed traumatic and surgical wound healing, minimal clinical effect. Moderate drop in lymphocyte, platelet, and granulocyte counts. Increased susceptibility to opportunistic pathogens. Full recovery expected.
150 to 300 R From 2 hours to three days: transient to moderate nausea and vomiting in 20 to 70 percent; mild to moderate fatigability and weakness in 25 to 60 percent of personnel. At 3 to 5 weeks: medical care required for 10 to 50%. At high end of range, death may occur to maximum 10%. Anticipated medical problems include infection, bleeding, and fever. Wounding or burns will geometrically increase morbidity and mortality.
300 to 530 R From 2 hours to three days: transient to moderate nausea and vomiting in 50 to 90 percent; mild to moderate fatigability in 50 to 90 percent of personnel. At 2 to 5 weeks: medical care required for 10 to 80%. At low end of range, less than 10% deaths; at high end, death may occur for more than 50%. Anticipated medical problems include frequent diarrheal stools, anorexia, increased fluid loss, ulceration. Increased infection susceptibility during immunocompromised time-frame. Moderate to severe loss of lymphocytes. Hair loss after 14 days.
530 to 830 R From 2 hours to two days: moderate to severe nausea and vomiting in 80 to 100 percent of personnel; From 2 hours to six weeks: moderate to severe fatigability and weakness in 90 to 100 percent of personnel. At 10 days to 5 weeks: medical care required for 50 to 100%. At low end of range, death may occur for more than 50% at six weeks. At high end, death may occur for 99% of personnel. Anticipated medical problems include developing pathogenic and opportunistic infections, bleeding, fever, loss of appetite, GI ulcerations, bloody diarrhea, severe fluid and electrolyte shifts, capillary leak, hypotension. Combined with any significant physical trauma, survival rates will approach zero.
830 R Plus From 30 minutes to 2 days: severe nausea, vomiting, fatigability, weakness, dizziness, and disorientation; moderate to severe fluid imbalance and headache. Bone marrow total depletion within days. CNS symptoms are predominant at higher radiation levels. Few, if any, survivors even with aggressive and immediate medical attention.

The effects from the above radiation dose levels assume that the total dose was received over a short period of time of a week or less.

The response to radiation varies widely amongst people and the longer the time frame over which a specific dose is accumulated the better your body can respond to, and recover from, the radiation damage. In other words, a normally fatal (to 50% of a group exposed to it) cumulative dose of 530 R, if received all within a week, would create few noticeable ill health effects at all if it was received and spread out over a years time at the rate of about 10 R per week. Think of the difference in acquiring a suntan gradually over a years time at a rate of about an half hour per day compared to packing that years worth of sun exposure (182 hours) all into one solid non-stop week, night and day, for 24/7. The health effect difference is obviously very dramatic.

Information Courtesy:

Estimated Range from Flash-to-Bang Time

Range to ground zero can be estimated by counting
 seconds from the very beginning of the flash to the
 arrival of the blast wave or sound of the explosion.


Range to Ground Zero (Miles)
:05 1.1
:10 2.2
:15 3.5
:20 4.5
:25 5.5
:30 6.7
:45 9.9
1:00 13.7
1:15 16.8
1:30 19.9
1:45 23.0
2:00 26.7
2:15 29.8
2:30 32.9
3:00 39.8
4:00 52.8
5:00 65.9
10:00 130
15:00 200
30:00 400

Estimated Yield of nuclear explosion from illumination time
 (in kilotons and megatons)

Illumination Time (seconds) Yield
Less than 1 1 to 2 KT
1 2.5KT
2 10KT
3 22KT
4 40KT
5 60KT
6 90KT
7 125KT
8 160KT
9 200KT
10 250KT
12 325KT
14 475KT
16 700KT
20 1MT
24 1.5MT
27 2MT
40 5MT
55 10MT
75 20MT


Nuclear Detonation Fallout

Click here
to download or run a DOS program that calculates blast and radiation zones downwind of a nuclear detonation based on information entered by the user.
(You will see the following prompt if utilizing MS Internet Explorer 6.)

Click here to download or run this program

Click on the Open Button to run the program from this site.

Click on the Save Button to save the file to your computer.)

Program courtesy Steve Quayle -


Radiation Physics Reference

Units and Specific Radioactivites

Becquerel( Bq

1 Disintegration/Sec

3.7 10 10 Ci

Curie ( ci)

3.7 10 10 Disintegrations/Sec



.01 J/kg

Radiation Exposure

Sievert ( sv)

100 REM

Human Radiation Exposure


17 ci/g

Half Life: 24000 Years

Depleted Uranium

3.6 10 -7 ci/g


Natural Uranium

7 10 -7 ci/g

contains .7% U235

Enriched Uranium

7 10 -7 ci/g



Historic Radiation Releases


7,300,000 Curies



1,400,000 Curies


Hanford (I-131 only)

740,000 Curies


Three Mile Island

15 Curies



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Albuquerque, NM
Las Vegas, NV
Buffalo, NY
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Akron, OH
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Cleveland, OH
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Toledo, OH
Oklahoma City, OK
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Portland, OR
Philadelphia, PA
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Memphis, TN
Nashville, TN
Amarillo, TX
Arlington, TX
Austin, TX
Corpus Christi, TX
Dallas, TX
El Paso, TX
Fort Worth, TX
Garland, TX
Houston, TX
Irving, TX
Lubbock, TX
San Antonio, TX
Salt Lake City, UT
Arlington, VA
Chesapeake, VA
Newport News, VA
Norfolk, VA
Richmond, VA
Virginia Beach, VA
Seattle, WA
Spokane, WA
Tacoma, WA
Madison, WI
Milwaukee, WI

Source: Preparing the U.S. Army for Homeland Security: "120 Cities Fact Sheet," 1999b