Camden: Calculating effect of nuclear bomb sets off reactions

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Jim Camden is a columnist with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Email: jimc@spokesman.com.

As a young reporter just a few months after joining The Spokesman-Review, I was called into the office of a top editor for an assignment. We want you to tell readers what it would be like if a nuclear bomb hit Spokane, he said. Not to suggest it will happen, but paint a picture of “what if.”

This was 1981. Ronald Reagan was about six months into his presidency, the nation was building up its nuclear arsenal and hands on the “Doomsday Clock” kept by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists were moving closer to midnight.

Fairchild Air Force Base’s B-52s and their crews pulled round-the-clock ground alert, which meant the big bombers waited on the flight line loaded with nuclear weapons. The base was considered for the Air Force’s newest nuclear upgrade, the air-launched cruise missile. Fairchild had been on the Soviet target list for decades and might be moving up.

Stories about nuclear buildup were common, but missing from the coverage was any significant explanation of what a nuclear blast could do.

As a veteran of duck-and-cover drills in grade school, I set out to nuke my new hometown on paper, intent not to screw up one of my first big assignments or make a mistake that my father, an aerospace engineer who spent his life designing military jets and missiles, would lecture me about.

The best way to estimate the destruction of a nuclear blast in 1981 was with a Bomb Damage Effect Computer developed by the RAND Corp. over the previous three decades, the experts said. I called RAND hoping to get stats. Rather than running the numbers, the press office said they’d just send me one.

I drew circles on a map of Spokane, and wrote down what would happen. The story, with a picture of a mushroom cloud rising over downtown buildings, ran on the front of a Sunday Perspective section the paper had at the time for commentary, analysis, editorials and letters to the editor. Some readers accused The Spokesman-Review of scaremongering to sell papers; others said they found it interesting and informative for the time we were living in.

I told the former that “scaremongering” wasn’t the intent and the economics of newspapers don’t work that way, and thanked the latter.

Fast-forward to this summer, with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un testing missiles and President Donald Trump offering to respond to any future threats with “fire and fury.” Because I rarely throw away interesting stuff from stories, I asked the editors if they wanted me to pull out the Bomb Damage Computer and write about what that might look like.

Interesting times

The calculations from 1981 had to be completely redone, because the North Korean bomb is thought to be no larger than 12.5 kilotons, making it about 400 times smaller than the ones calculated for a Soviet strike.

But because this is 2017, there is a program on the internet called NukeMap that makes some of the same calculations, which allowed me to check things the wheel seemed to be telling me, and add casualty estimates. Again, the details were grim, even leaving out some effects mentioned in the original story.

I was able to devote the top half of this story to discussion of what may be hype over the North Korean missile launches. Some people who know this kind of stuff — physicists and engineers — doubt those missiles can go as far as the Pentagon suggests, and wonder if they can re-enter the atmosphere without burning up.

That story was on the front page Aug. 30, the day after North Korea’s latest missile test. The color photo of a fireball and mushroom cloud over the Spokane landscape might’ve caught some readers’ attention.

Some readers who called or wrote in recent days accused The Spokesman-Review of scaremongering to sell papers or get clicks online; some have said they thought it interesting and informative for the time we’re living in.

So some things changed in 36 years; other things are about the same.