By Nickolas Roth
Over the past two weeks, the national media has focused a great deal on the extreme weather on the east coast. During this time, I have been thinking a lot about the extreme weather in the DC metro area and, specifically, the crazy storm that knocked out my power for five days. Given that I allegedly reside in a first world country, I’ve been focused on how Pepco ought to be better prepared in the event of another severe weather event.
Turns out I wasn’t considering all the possible options.
Apparently some more proactive, and possibly crazy, folks have been looking at more, shall we say, kinetic prevention strategies. I recently discovered that there are ongoing discussions in some circles regarding the utility of using nuclear weapons to mitigate the effects of hurricanes and tropical storms.
Before reading any further, it is worth noting that I am not a climate expert. My understanding of weather is largely based on my first impressions when I look outside. However, the federally funded Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory—part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—are climate experts and devote an entire web page to debunking the merits of using nuclear weapons against hurricanes. According to NOAA, “during each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms.”
Most importantly, the use of an atomic bomb in a hurricane is dangerous because it would cause radioactive fallout to “quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems.”
In addition to being dangerous, it is also futile because nuclear weapons, as powerful as they are, would not generate enough energy to affect a hurricane. The heat release from a hurricane is “equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. NOAA states, “to change a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane you would have to add about a half ton of air for each square meter inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion (500,000,000) tons for a 20 km radius eye. It’s difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around.”
To put it another way, the cumulative energy of a hurricane is equivalent to ~1000 megatons of TNT. By comparison, the largest nuclear weapon ever built was only ~50 megatons. Constructed by Russia and detonated on October 30, 1961, this colossal bomb generated a fireball approximately 13,000 feet high and shattered windows hundreds of miles away. Although a nuclear weapon of this size is capable of killing millions of people, it still pales in comparison to Mother Nature.
Throughout the nuclear age the United States has explored the possibility of using nuclear weapons for non-military purposes. From 1958 through 1975, the Plowshare Program tested nuclear weapons for a variety of industrial purposes, though the program was cancelled for both financial and environmental reasons, as well as questions about feasibility. More recently, there was some debate about the possibility of using a nuclear weapon to stop the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana.
Clearly the use of a nuke against a hurricane would raise some thorny questions. For example, how would the rest of the world know the United States was only detonating a weapon(s) because of a hurricane? Could other countries detonate their nuclear weapons for testing purposes, but say that they were only being used to combat hurricanes? Also, as a practical matter, what storms should the United States attack?
For those of you already in the “this is a really bad idea” camp, take solace in the fact that the United States is a signatory to the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty, which bans using a nuclear weapon 150 kilotons or greater on something like a hurricane. If you are concerned a country might use a smaller nuclear weapon on a hurricane, this is one more reason the Senate should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans countries from conducting peaceful nuclear explosions of any size.
The moral of this story, then, is that boards, nails, and sandbags are likely to be more useful against hurricanes than nukes. As for dealing with Pepco, I say all options should remain on the table.