A nuclear explosion at the Port of Long Beach would have catastrophic consequences for the United States, killing 60,000 people immediately, exposing 150,000 more to hazardous radiation and causing 10 times the economic loss resulting from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, according to a long-awaited study released Tuesday.
Two years in the making, the detailed analysis by the Rand Corp.’s Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy paints a terrifying picture not only of the possibility of such an attack but of its immediate and long-term effects on Southern California, the nation and the global economy.
“It would be bad enough if a terrorist organization were ever able to get a nuclear device inside the boundaries of the United States,” said Michael A. Wermuth, director of Rand’s homeland security research. “But this report shows that an attack of this scale can have far-reaching implications beyond the actual point of the attack itself.”
The study examined the effects of terrorists concealing a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb in a shipping container and having the weapon explode shortly after it was unloaded onto a pier at the Port of Long Beach.
Within the first 72 hours, according to the study, the blast would “devastate a vast portion of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.”
In addition to the human casualties, the report says, the blast and subsequent fires might destroy the infrastructure and all ships in the Port of Long Beach and adjoining Port of Los Angeles, which combined comprise the nation’s busiest port of entry and handle about one-third of the nation’s imports.
If the attack led to the closure of all U.S. ports as a security measure, the report says, the ripple effect would be global since the value of imports and exports from American ports represents about 7.5% of world trade activity.
Additionally, the study says, 2 million to 3 million people might need to relocate because the nuclear fallout would contaminate a wide swath of the region. And the destruction of port area refineries, responsible for a third of the gas west of the Rockies, could create critical shortages of gasoline.
“It would take years to recover economically” from such an attack, Wermuth said. “It would take any number of years before some of the area close to ground zero could be rebuilt, and some of it would not be habitable for 20 years.”
The report is the latest to address concerns about the vulnerability of the nation’s ports nearly five years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Wermuth emphasized, however, that the study was not meant to predict that such an attack was likely.
Rather, he said, it was to analyze the potential consequences of a terrorist event “so all the various entities, both government and private, can see how dependent the broader economy is on a geographically specific part of the economy.”
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) echoed Wermuth’s comments about the scenario.
“The report does not estimate the likelihood of such an attack,” said Harman, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the Committee on Homeland Security.
But it does underscore “the need to radically improve security at our ports,” Harman said, calling the ports “a gaping hole in American security for years.”