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Rethinking the Unthinkable: Recovering from a Nuclear Attack on a U.S. City

During the Cold War, the prospect of a nuclear attack on the U.S. was viewed in apocalyptic terms. In an all-out exchange with the Soviet Union—the only sort of nuclear war that most analysts generally considered plausible—thousands of weapons would have detonated across American territory, including over and near hundreds of cities and towns. The level of devastation would have been incalculable, and planning for recovery, to the extent it was even contemplated, operated on a timeline of years.

The ongoing crisis with North Korea, and the possibility that the Pyongyang regime possesses a handful of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching at least some parts of the U.S., presents a very different prospect: that of a nuclear strike against a single American city.

Anchorage is the major U.S. city probably most easily reached by a North Korean missile. A 25-kiloton nuclear weapon (relatively speaking a small bomb, with the explosive force of 25,000 tons of high explosive, 10 to 20 percent the estimated size of the device tested two weeks ago by North Korea) detonated over Anchorage would result in more than 15,000 deaths and 50,000 serious injuries, most of them incurred in an instant. A 150-kiloton warhead exploded over downtown Dallas could kill 100,000, and injure nearly a quarter-million—in a moment.

These numbers are appalling; the Dallas death toll would approximate the number of service members who have died in all of America’s wars since World War II combined. But much subsequent harm could be forestalled if the nation prepares for it.

The U.S. continues to warn of military action against North Korea, despite the near-certainty that no U.S. strikes could guarantee the elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. In retaliation for such attacks, North Korea has threatened in turn to strike the U.S. A similar dynamic could emerge from a cycle of provocation that spiraled uncontrolled into conflict between the two sides. Given this, it is prudent to consider the consequences of a small nuclear strike on the U.S., on the order of a single weapon on one city, and how the nation might better prepare to deal with this possibility.

The uncertainties surrounding this prospect are many. Does North Korea have any such weapons at all? How much of North America can they reach? How effective would the U.S. anti-ballistic missile defenses, designed to counter just such a threat, but shown in testing to be unreliable, prove? How accurate and reliable would North Korea’s own missiles and warheads be?

Cities have emergency preparedness plans, but they are scoped for natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes, or man-made ones like chemical spills, but that energy is dispersed over vast areas and across stretches of time ranging from many seconds to days. A nuclear bomb releases all of its vast destructive power at one point in space in a split second.

The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have examined the consequences of a terrorist nuclear attack, but these have focused on the ground-level explosion of a crude, improvised bomb. None are adequate to deal with an event like a nuclear attack of the kind and scale now in prospect. However, the victimized city would have the resources of the entire nation available to support it, if they could be mobilized in a timely and appropriate manner.

The first step would be to make planners at the local, state and federal levels aware of what the effects of such an attack would likely be. While there are volumes of accumulated knowledge regarding the effects of nuclear weapons, that knowledge has largely faded from the awareness of officials even within the Department of Defense, let alone the other, largely civilian, decision-makers responsible for urban disaster preparedness. This expertise needs to be made available to the right people, in ways that highlight the key decisions that will need to be made in the immediate aftermath of an attack.

As after any disaster, the armed forces can be counted on to bring enormous reserves of trained personnel and materiel into play, but doing so quickly and effectively after a nuclear attack will require having planned and prepared for problems very different from those encountered after hurricanes and earthquakes. These preparations could begin now.

The reality is that no plausible military action can eliminate North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and any diplomatic deal to do so appears a distant prospect at best. For the foreseeable future, the fact of the matter is that the U.S. must live with a North Korea able to threaten its territory with a nuclear attack. The nation currently faces a truly unprecedented threat, one that is poorly understood and for which it is inadequately prepared. America can and must do better.

David A. Shlapak is a senior defense researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND. He is co-author of the recent RAND report Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank.

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