One of the most technically difficult aspects of the new NUKEMAP was the fallout generation code. I know that in practice it looks like just a bunch of not-too-complicated ellipses, but finding a fallout code that would provide what I considered to be necessary flexibility proved to be a very long search indeed. I had started working on it sometime in 2012, got frustrated, returned to it periodically, got frustrated again, and finally found the model I eventually used — Carl Miller’s Simplified Fallout Scaling System — only a few months ago.
The fallout model used is what is known as a “scaling” model. This is in contrast with what Miller terms a “mathematical” model, which is a much more complicated beast. A scaling model lets you input only a few simple parameters (e.g. warhead yield, fission fraction, and wind speed) and the output are the kinds of idealized contours seen in the NUKEMAP. This model, obviously, doesn’t quite look like the complexities of real life, but as a rough indication of the type of radioactive contamination expected, and over what kind of area, it has its uses. The mathematical model is the sort that requires much more complicated wind parameters (such as the various wind speeds and sheers at different altitudes) and tries to do something that looks more “realistic.”
The mathematical models are harder to get ahold of (the government has a few of them, but they don’t release them to non-government types like me) and require more computational power (so instead of running in less than a second, they require several minutes even on a modern machine). If I had one, I would probably try to implement it, but I don’t totally regret using the scaling model. In terms of communicating both the general technical point about fallout, and in the fact that this is an idealized model, it does very well. I would prefer people to look at a model and have no illusions that it is, indeed, just a model, as opposed to some kind of simulation whose slickness might engender false confidence.
Working on the fallout model, though, made me realize how little I really understood about nuclear fallout. I mean, my general understanding was still right, but I had a few subtle-but-important revelations that changed the way I thought about nuclear exchanges in general.
The most important one is that fallout is primary a product of surface bursts. That is, the chief determinant as to whether there is local fallout or not is whether the nuclear fireball touches the ground. Airbursts where the fireball doesn’t touch the ground don’t really produce fallout worth talking about — even if they are very large.
I read this in numerous fallout models and effects books and thought, can this be right? What’s the ground got to do with it? A whole lot, apparently. The nuclear fireball is full of highly-radioactive fission products. For airbursts, the cloud goes pretty much straight up and those particles are light enough and hot enough that they pretty much just hang out at the top of the cloud. By the time they start to cool and drag enough to “fall out” of the cloud, they have diffused themselves in the atmosphere and also decayed quite a bit.1 So they are basically not an issue for people on the ground — you end up with exposures in the tenths or hundreds of rads, which isn’t exactly nothing but is pretty low. This is more or less what they found at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — there were a few places where fallout had deposited, but it was extremely limited and very low radiation, as you’d expect with those two airbursts.
I thought this might be simplifying things a bit, so I looked up the fallout patterns for airbursts. And you know what? It seems to be correct. The radiation pattern you get from a “nominal” fission airburst looks more or less like this:
That’s not zero radiation, but as you can see it is very, very local, and relatively limited. The radiation deposited is about the same range as the acute effects of the bomb itself, as opposed to something that affects people miles downwind.2
What about very large nuclear weapons? The only obvious US test that fit the bill here was Redwing Cherokee, from 1956. This was the first thermonuclear airdrop by the USA, and it had a total yield of 3.8 megatons — nothing to sniff at, and a fairly high percentage of it (at least 50%) from fission. But, sure enough, appears to have been basically no fallout pattern as a result. A survey meter some 100 miles from ground-zero picked up a two-hour peak of .25 millirems per hour some 10 hours later — which is really nothing to worry about. The final report on the test series concluded that Cherokee produced “no fallout of military significance” (all the more impressive given how “dirty” many of the other tests in that series were). Again, not truly zero radiation, but pretty close to it, and all the more impressive given the megatonnage involved.3
The case of the surface burst is really quite different. When the fireball touches the ground, it ends up mixing the fission products with dirt and debris. (Or, in the case of testing in the Marshall Islands, coral.) The dirt and debris breaks into fine chunks, but it is heavy. These heavier particles fall out of the cloud very quickly, starting at about an hour after detonation and then continuing for the next 96 hours or so. And as they fall out, they are both attached to the nasty fission products and have other induced radioactivity as well. This is the fallout we’re used to from the big H-bomb tests in the Pacific (multi-megaton surface bursts on coral atolls was the worst possible combination possible for fallout) and even the smaller surface bursts in Nevada.
The other thing the new model helped me appreciate more is exactly how much the fission fraction matters. The fission fraction is the amount of the total yield that is derived from fission, as opposed to fusion. Fission is the only reaction that produces highly-radioactive byproducts. Fusion reactions produce neutrons, which are a definite short-term threat, but not so much a long-term concern. Obviously all “atomic” or fission bombs have a fission fraction of 100%, but for thermonuclear weapons it can vary quite a bit. I’ve talked about this in a recent post, so I won’t go into detail here, but just emphasize that it was unintuitive to me that the 50 Mt Tsar Bomba, had it been a surface burst, would have had much less fallout than the 15 Mt Castle Bravo shot, because the latter had some 67% of its energy derived from fission while the former had only 3%. Playing with the NUKEMAP makes this fairly clear:
The real relevance of all of this for understanding nuclear war is fairly important. Weapons that are designed to flatten cities, perhaps surprisingly, don’t really pose as much of a long-term fallout hazard. The reason for this is that the ideal burst height for such a weapon is usually set to maximize the 10 psi pressure radius, and that is always fairly high above the ground. (The maximum radius for a pressure wave is somewhat unintuitive because it relies on how the wave will be reflected on the ground. So it doesn’t produce a straightforward curve.) Bad for the people in the cities themselves, to be sure, but not such a problem for those downwind.
But weapons that are designed to destroy command bunkers, or missiles in silos, are the worst for the surrounding civilian populations. This is because such weapons are designed to penetrate the ground, and the fireballs necessarily come into contact with the dirt and debris. As a result, they kick up the worst sort of fallout that can stretch many hundreds of miles downwind.
So it’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of situation when it comes to nuclear targeting. If you try to do the humane thing by only targeting counterforce targets, you end up producing the worst sort of long-range, long-term radioactive hazard. The only way to avoid that is to target cities — which isn’t exactly humane either. (And, of course, the idealized terrorist nuclear weapon manages to combine the worst aspects of both: targeting civilians and kicking up a lot of fallout, for lack of a better delivery vehicle.)
And it is worth noting: fallout mitigation is one of those areas were Civil Defense is worth paying attention to. You can’t avoid all contamination by staying in a fallout shelter for a few days, but you can avoid the worst, most acute aspects of it. This is what the Department of Homeland Security has been trying to convince people of, regarding a possible terrorist nuclear weapon. They estimate that hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved in such an event, if people understood fallout better and acted upon it. But the level of actual compliance with such recommendations (stay put, don’t flee immediately) seems like it would be rather low to me.
In some sense, this made me feel even worse about fallout than I had before. Prior to playing around with the details, I’d assumed that fallout was just a regular result of such weapons. But now I see it more as underscoring the damnable irony of the bomb: that all of the choices it offers up to you are bad ones.
- Blasts low enough to form a stem do suck up some dirt into the cloud, but it happens later in the detonation when the fission products have cooled and condensed a bit, and so doesn’t matter as much. [↩]
- Underwater surface bursts, like Crossroads Baker, have their own characteristics, because the water seems to cause the fallout to come down almost immediately. So the distances are not too different from the airburst pattern here — that is, very local — but the contours are much, much more radioactive. [↩]
- Why didn’t they test more of these big bombs as airdrops, then? Because their priority was on the experimentation and instrumentation, not the fallout. Airbursts were more logistically tricky, in other words, and were harder to get data from. Chew on that one a bit… [↩]