Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Scientists Game the Unthinkable: “What Happens If Terrorists Nuke Washington D.C.?” (WATCH Video)

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At 11:15 on a Monday morning in May, an ordinary looking delivery van rolls into the intersection of 16th and K streets NW in downtown Washington, D.C., just a few blocks north of the White House. Inside, suicide bombers trip a switch.


Instantly, most of a city block vanishes in a nuclear fireball two-thirds the size of the one that engulfed Hiroshima, Japan, writes Mitchell Waldrop in today's Science. Powered by 5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium that terrorists had hijacked weeks earlier, the blast smashes buildings for at least a kilometer in every direction and leaves hundreds of thousands of people dead or dying in the ruins. An electromagnetic pulse fries cellphones within 5 kilometers, and the power grid across much of the city goes dark. Winds shear the bomb's mushroom cloud into a plume of radioactive fallout that drifts eastward into the Maryland suburbs. Roads quickly become jammed with people on the move—some trying to flee the area, but many more looking for missing family members or seeking medical help.

 

It's all make-believe, of course—but with deadly serious purpose. Known as National Planning Scenario 1 (NPS1), that nuclear attack story line originated in the 1950s as a kind of war game, a safe way for national security officials and emergency managers to test their response plans before having to face the real thing.

 

Sixty years later, officials are still reckoning with the consequences of a nuclear catastrophe in regular NPS1 exercises. Only now, instead of following fixed story lines and predictions assembled ahead of time, they are using computers to play what-if with an entire artificial society: an advanced type of computer simulation called an agent-based model.

Today's version of the NPS1 model includes a digital simulation of every building in the area affected by the bomb, as well as every road, power line, hospital, and even cell tower. The model includes weather data to simulate the fallout plume. And the scenario is peopled with some 730,000 agents—a synthetic population statistically identical to the real population of the affected area in factors such as age, sex, and occupation. Each agent is an autonomous subroutine that responds in reasonably human ways to other agents and the evolving disaster by switching among multiple modes of behavior—for example, panic, flight, and efforts to find family members.

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