What if North Korea Nuked San Angelo?
SAN ANGELO, TX — Over the weekend, citizens in Hawaii were alarmed when a civil service alert from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sounded on most cell phones warning there was an imminent and likely nuclear attack on the islands. “Ballistic missile threat inbound. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill,” the cell phone warning read.
The alert was a mistake and the government employee who caused the panic by sending the message was reassigned, not fired, according to news reports. Yet, the incident highlights the stakes involved when dealing with nations like North Korea who have joined the club of nations with nuclear war capability.
Understanding the consequences of the spread of nuclear weapons throughout the world can be better understood by looking at how a nuclear blast will impact our community.
North Korea tested their Hwasong-15 solid fueled missile late last year. The range, over 8,000 miles, is long enough to reach most of the United States. The missile, designated as the KN22 by the U.S. intelligence community, can deliver a 1-ton warhead. Michael Elleman at the North Korean watch website, 38north.org, believes the new missile will require a few more test flights before it is deemed “combat ready.”
A 1-ton payload means the intercontinental ballistic missile is capable of delivering North Korea’s most powerful warhead, and coupled with the 8,000-mile range, makes it capable of hitting us. What would that look like?
Above: The estimated range of a North Korean Hwasong-15 ICBM if launched from north of Pyongyang, North Korea. (Dr. Alex Wellerstein's MissileMap)
The largest nuclear weapon the North Koreans have tested is estimated to be between 140 kilotons and 300 kilotons, 10 to 20 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II. Yields are estimated based upon satellite imagery and measuring the earthquake during the North Korean’s September 2017 test. The quake was a magnitude of 6.1. The North Koreans don’t announce how large their nuclear bombs are when testing them.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. RB-57 and U-2 aircraft based at Laughlin AFB flew through nuclear fallout to collect clues of how large Soviet and Chinese bomb tests were. North Korea’s bomb testing is conducted underground, though.
Physics historian Dr. Alex Wellerstein at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey, created a Google Maps mash-up to illustrate the predictive effects of a nuclear bomb blast. His objective isn’t ideological. Rather, he said, it is to give laymen of nuclear war a realistic idea of the actual destruction nuclear explosions will cause. “Some people think they destroy everything in the world all that once, some people think they are not very different from conventional bombs. The reality is somewhere in between: nuclear weapons can cause immense destruction and huge losses of life, but the effects are still comprehendible on a human scale,” he states about his “NukeMap” web application.
We put Wellerstein’s NukeMap and MissileMap to the task of showing what the outcome will be if North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong Un ordered an Hwasong-15 ICBM with a single 150-kiloton warhead strike on the center of San Angelo.
Above: The estimated blast radius of a North Korean nuclear missile if detonated as an "air burst" approximately 5,500 feet above the center of the city. (Dr. Alex Wellerstein's NukeMap)
Here is what we found. The Stripes Convenience Store on S. Bryant Blvd. across the South Concho River still stands. The Walmart on Sherwood Way survives. The Town of Wall is somewhat safe. But north San Angelo, including the Walmart in 29th St. is disintegrated. Half of Goodfellow AFB is immersed in thermal radiation harming many with third-degree burns. Angelo State University is gone.
In all, Wellerstein’s model estimates 25,540 of the 99,254 people in under the detonation and thermal radiation radius would be killed. In addition, his application estimates 36,960 would be injured.
As the United States and the United Nations grapple with the North Korean nuclear weapons program, it is often difficult to visualize the stakes involved. As the false alarm in Hawaii over this past weekend illustrates, it’s likely better to know what kind of threat we are dealing with before the klaxon sounds.
Human comprehension of nuclear war is further illustrated in this photo essay of Hiroshima: The Photos They Didn’t Want You to See (warning, graphic) or the video of the U.S. Army Air Force Strategic Bombing Survey team in August 1946.