This January, in the midst of growing global tensions largely resulting from the war in Ukraine, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock — which symbolizes how close they believe humankind is to destroying itself — to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest the symbolic device has been to worldwide catastrophe. (click here to see the position of the Doomsday Clock over the years.) According to a survey published in 2022, more than three-quarters of Americans think a biological, chemical, or nuclear will likely occur somewhere on Earth in the next year.
Should a nuclear attack target the United States, leading to the worst-case scenario: total nuclear war, not many places would be safe. But because an enemy of the United States is likely to first target strategic military installations, many of which are near large urban centers, remote areas would likely be safer.
Stephen Schwartz, author of “Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940,” identified 15 such targets. The targets, mapped by Business Insider, include command centers, ICBM bases, communication stations, and air force and submarine bases. In addition, Dr. Irwin Redlener, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, identified six economic centers most likely to be attacked.
To find the worst places to be if there’s a nuclear attack on America, 24/7 Wall St. constructed an index consisting of several measures to rank major U.S. cities likely to be targets based on both Schwartz’s and Redlener’s lists. The measures in the index include population density; city preparedness for emergency; economic significance; city preparedness plans; distance to the strategic military target; proximity to nuclear power plants; and ease of evacuation based on commute time as a proxy to congestion and the percentage of a city area that is water. We also added projected fatalities and injuries assuming a 1 megaton bomb, using Nukemap.
It is important to note that the first priority in case of a nuclear explosion is not to evacuate but to “get inside, stay inside, stay tuned,” according to Ready.gov. FEMA’s plan reiterates the message and asks to stay inside an “adequate shelter in basements or the center of larger, dense buildings” for at least 12-24 hours if possible. It adds, “Stay tuned for public announcements about hazard areas and evacuations.” (Here is what to do before, during, and after a nuclear attack.)
To be sure, the nation’s capital has both a strategic and civilian value, and is therefore one of the most likely targets. Many of the cities on the list may not be the first cities that come to mind as worst to be in case of a nuclear attack, but given the high likelihood they would be hit, at least partially, they make the list. Of course, many more economic centers could be targeted, including Boston, Miami, Atlanta, San Jose, Dallas, and Philadelphia to name a few. (An attack on a nuclear plant would also cause devastation. These two events are the world’s worst nuclear accidents.)
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