Nuclear Perspective: What’s the Fallout in Your Neighborhood?

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Sure, it’s morbid, but there’s a fascination associated with figuring out just how many of your neighbors – along with you – would perish if a nuclear bomb went off down the street.

That’s the ghoulish tug of Nukemap, which comes complete with odometer-like spinning numbers charting those killed and wounded by any size atomic weapon you chose (from puny terrorist atomic bombs to superpower supremos) to detonate pretty much anywhere in the world.

Nukemap’s latest version – in 3D and with the body counts – has just gone, ahem, “live” at the Nuclear Secrecy blog, run by Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear-weapons historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md. (The casualty counts have been balky; that’s part of the challenge of developing thermonuclear software on a black-powder budget.)

It features real-time animation of a nuclear blast’s fireball and rising mushroom cloud (based on actual nuclear-test data), wind-dependent fallout mapping, and casualty estimates based on population density for nearly every corner of the world. All these data dovetail into Google Earth, giving those who want it an accurate footprint of the ensuing death and destruction (including fire stations, hospitals, religious structures and schools).

Wellerstein posted a barebones Nukemap online 18 months ago, and says he was surprised to see some 3 million people “detonate” 17 million nuclear weapons on it. “It is clear that the users appreciated the ability to `nuke their neighbors,’” he wrote shortly after it went online. “Many described using it as `fun,’ which is not a term usually associated with targeting nuclear weapons and evaluating their effects. Still others, even when calling it `fun,’ referred to it as `scary.’ This fun/scary coupling is perhaps a novel way to approach the imparting of otherwise dry data about nuclear weapons.”

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Suddenly, data once reserved to nuclear targeteers – the wizards of Armageddon, in author Fred Kaplan’s chilling words – are now available to anyone with an Internet connection.

It’s equal parts Curtis LeMay and Austin Powers to visit the site and:

— Select your target.

— Chose the bomb’s size

— Pick a good viewing location (From the ground? A nearby airplane? Low Earth orbit?)

— Click “Detonate”.

— Chose to view the mushroom cloud slowly expand, concentric circles of deadly effects, the fallout’s path, among other options.

Wellerstein views his project as an “educational tool.” While he says he’d like to the world’s 17,000 nuclear weapons reduced, he doesn’t argue for their abolition.

Instead, he notes that in nearly all of the historical photos and films of nuclear blasts – usually in the middle of a desert or an ocean – there is nothing in the frame to give a sense of perspective over just how big these explosions are.

As might be expected for someone whose Harvard dissertation is Knowledge and the Bomb: Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, 1939-2008, Wellerstein believes ignorance about the effects of nuclear weapons helps keep the public in the dark when debating their value.

“Most people today have a poor understanding of what happens when a nuclear weapon explodes. As a result, they have a hard time taking it serious as something that could actually happen,” he tells Battleland. “I’m hoping to make the bomb a bit more personal, especially for those people born after the Cold War.”

So go ahead. Make your day. Plug your Zip Code into the Choose Ground Zero box here. Then click Detonate.

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