What would happen to Washington, DC if attacked by a nuclear bomb?

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As two regional wars now rage with no clear ending, the world is closer than it has been in decades to the specter of nuclear conflict. And with it, the potential for billions to perish at the touch of a trigger. Such scenarios are nothing new, but for a new generation raised amid ongoing nuclear disarmament efforts, the reality of nuclear war is as misunderstood as it is catastrophic. Author Annie Jacobsen, a Pulitzer Prize-finalist, reveals the stark truths about the power and potential of a nuclear attack in her new book “Nuclear War: A Scenario,” released this week by Dutton. Armed specifically declassified documents and deep and unprecedented access to major military players — from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to nuclear-weapons designer Richard L. Garwin — Jacobsen describes a fictional nuclear attack on the Pentagon. with rich and alarming precision. The resulting writing is both terrifying and thrilling — a lens into a future every politician should endeavor to prevent.

Annie Jacobsen

Hell on Earth. Washington, DC,  Possibly Sometime in the Near Future

A 1-megaton thermonuclear weapon detonation begins with a flash of light and heat so tremendous it is impossible for the human mind to comprehend. One hundred and eighty million degrees Fahrenheit is four or five times hotter than the temperature at the center of the sun.

In the first fraction of a millisecond after the bomb strikes the Pentagon, there is light. Soft X-ray light with a very short wavelength. The light superheats the surrounding air to millions of degrees, creating a massive fire-ball that expands at millions of miles per hour. Within seconds, this fireball increases to a diameter of a little more than a mile, its light and heat so intense that concrete surfaces explode, metal objects melt or evaporate, stone shatters, humans instantaneously convert into combusting carbon. The five-story, five-sided structure and everything inside its 6.5 million square feet of office space explodes into superheated dust; all 27,000 Pentagon employees perishing instantly.

Not a single thing in the fireball remains. Nothing. Ground zero is zeroed.

A nuclear attack on the Pentagon would see little left standing among nearby iconic Washington, DC, landmarks. NY Post

Traveling at the speed of light, the radiating heat from the fireball ignites everything flammable several miles out in every direction. Curtains, paper, books, wood fences, people’s clothing, dry leaves explode into flames and become kindling for a great firestorm that begins to consume a 100-or-more-square-mile area that was home to some 6 million people.

Northwest of the Pentagon, all 639 acres of Arlington National Cemetery — including the visitors paying respects on this early spring afternoon, the groundskeepers mowing the lawn and the white-gloved members of the Old Guard keeping watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns — are instantly transformed into combusting and charred human figurines Those incinerated are spared the unprecedented horror that begins to be inflicted on the 1 to 2 million more gravely injured people not yet dead in this first nuclear strike.

If hit by a nuclear weapon, the Pentagon would see its entire structure — and its 27,000 workers — completely disintegrate amid horrific heat in an instant. AP

Across the Potomac River, the marble walls and columns of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials super-heat, burst apart, and disintegrate. The steel and stone bridges and highways connecting the surrounding environs heave and collapse. To the south, the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City is obliterated. Ceiling joists, two-by-fours, escalators, chandeliers, rugs, furniture, mannequins, dogs, squirrels, people burst into flames and burn. 

Three seconds pass. There’s a baseball game going on at Nationals Park. The clothes on a majority of the 35,000 visitors catch on fire. Those who don’t quickly burn to death suffer intense third-degree burns, their bodies stripped of the outer layer of skin. Third-degree burns require immediate specialized care to prevent death. Here inside the park there might be a few thousand people who somehow survive initially, people now desperately in need of a bed at a burn treatment center. But all of them are almost certainly now destroyed. 

Arlington National Cemetery would be immediately destroyed with nothing left of its 639-acres in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington, DC. REUTERS

Within seconds, thermal radiation from this nuclear bomb attack on the Pentagon has deeply burned the skin on roughly 1 million more people, 90% of whom will die. Defense scientists and academics alike have spent decades doing this math. Most won’t make it more than a few steps from where they happen to be standing when the bomb detonates. They become what civil defense experts referred to in the 1950s, when these gruesome calculations first came to be, as “Dead When Found.” Humans created the nuclear weapon in the 20th century to save the world from evil, and now, in the 21st century, the nuclear weapon is about to burn it all down.

The science behind the bomb is profound. Embedded in the thermonuclear flash of light are two pulses of thermal radiation. The first pulse lasts a fraction of a second, after which comes the second pulse, which lasts several seconds and causes human skin to ignite and burn. The intense heat that follows creates a high-pressure wave that moves out from its center point like a tsunami, a giant wall of highly compressed air traveling faster than the speed of sound. It mows people down, hurls others into the air, bursts lungs and eardrums, sucks bodies up and spits them out. 

Replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World Ward II. Today’s nuclear missiles are vastly more powerful. Corbis via Getty Images

As the nuclear fireball grows, this shock front delivers catastrophic destruction, pushing out like a bulldozer and moving three miles farther ahead. The air behind the blast wave accelerates, creating several-hundred-mile-per-hour winds. It destroys everything in its immediate path, instantly changing the physical shapes of engineered structures including office buildings, apartment complexes, monuments and museums — they disintegrate and become dust. That which is not crushed by blast is torn apart by whipping wind. Buildings collapse, bridges fall, cranes topple over. Objects as small as computers and cement blocks, and as large as 18-wheeler trucks and double-decker tour buses, become airborne like tennis balls.

A graphic detailing how a nuclear weapon works. Wikipedia

The nuclear fireball rises up like a hot-air balloon. Up from the earth it floats, at a rate of 250 to 350 feet per second. Thirty-five seconds pass. The formation of the iconic mushroom cloud begins, its massive cap and stem, made up of incinerated people and civilization’s debris, transmutes from a red, to an brownish-orange hue. Next comes the deadly reverse suction effect, with objects — cars, people, light poles, street signs, parking meters, steel carrier beams — getting sucked back into the center of the burning inferno and consumed by flame.

Sixty seconds pass. The cap stretches out some 30 miles. Radioactive particles rain down on the Earth and its people as deadly fallout. More than a million are dead or dying. Less than two minutes have passed. Now the inferno begins, different from the initial fireball; it is a mega-fire beyond measure. Gas lines explode one after the next, spewing steady streams of fire. Tanks containing flammable materials burst open. Chemical factories explode. Pilot lights on water heaters and furnaces act like torch lighters, setting anything not already burning alight. Collapsed buildings become like giant ovens. People, everywhere, burn alive.

A nuclear attack on the Pentagon would see nearby landmarks like Jefferson Memorial to be completely obliterated in a matter of moments. Getty Images

Open gaps in floors and roofs behave like chimneys. Carbon dioxide from the firestorms sinks down and settles into the metro’s subway tunnels, asphyxiating riders in their seats. People seeking shelter in basements and other spaces below ground vomit, convulse, become comatose, and die. Anyone aboveground who is looking directly at the blast — in some cases as far as 13 miles away — becomes blinded.

The ruins of Nagasaki in the wake of the US attack in 1945; some 40,000 locals are estimated to have died in the bombing. Far more would perish today. Getty Images

Seven and a half miles out from ground zero (in the 5 psi zone), cars and buses crash into one another. Asphalt streets turn to liquid from the intense heat, trapping survivors as if caught in molten lava. Hurricane-force winds fuel hundreds of fires into thousands of fires, into millions of them. Hot burning ash and flaming wind-borne debris ignite new fires, and one after another they conflate. All of Washington, DC, becomes one complex firestorm. A mega-inferno. Soon to become a mesocyclone of fire. Eight, maybe nine minutes pass.

It takes as little as 10 minutes for a nuclear weapon launched from a submarine to strike any city in the United States. ClassicStock

Ten miles out from ground zero, survivors shuffle in shock like the almost dead. Unsure of what just happened, desperate to escape. Tens of thousands of people here have ruptured lungs. Crows, sparrows, and pigeons flying over-head catch on fire and drop from the sky as if it is raining birds. 

The localized electromagnetic pulse of the bomb obliterates all radio, internet, and TV. There’s no electricity. No phone service. No 911. Cars with electric ignition systems in a several-mile ring outside the blast zone cannot restart. Water stations can’t pump water. Saturated with lethal levels of radiation, the entire area is a no-go zone for first responders. Not for days will rare survivors realize help was never on the way. Those who somehow manage to escape death by the initial blast, shock wave, and firestorm suddenly comprehend an insidious truth about nuclear war. That they’re entirely on their own. 

Horrific burn victims from the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945. Getty Images

How, and why, do US defense scientists know such hideous things, and with exacting precision? How does the US government know so many nuclear effects–related facts, while the general public remains blind? The answer is as grotesque as the questions themselves because, for all these years, since the end of World War II, the US government has been preparing for, and rehearsing plans for, a General Nuclear War. A nuclear World War III that is guaranteed to leave, at minimum, 2 billion dead.

Author Annie Jacobsen.

Photo: Hilary Jones Annie Jacobsen

Adapted from “Nuclear War: A Scenario,” by Anne M. Jacobsen. Copyright © 2024 by Anne Jacobsen Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Excerpted by permission.

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