What if nukes hit Salt Lake City? Expert, students weigh in on threat of nuclear war

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You’re walking down the street in a large city and you suddenly hear sirens. You check your phone to find out what is going on. Is it an earthquake? A tornado? 

A government notification appears on your screen and you see the warning that a nuclear warhead is headed toward you.

This is often the scenario you hear about when talking about a nuclear-armed conflict involving the U.S. But is it realistic?

Artificial image of a potential nuclear explosion. (Pixabay.com)

Rebecca Dudley, a political science professor at BYU who teaches U.S. foreign policy and talks about nuclear war in her class, weighed in on the possibility of nuclear war.

“While nuclear weapons have been a piece of war for decades no one wants nuclear war to occur,” Dudley said.

She explained this is part of the reason why nuclear weapons are such a powerful deterrent on an international level.

“Obviously, there has been a raised level of concern in the past couple of years over the potential for Russia deploying a tactical nuke in Ukraine,” she said.

The National Atlantic Treaty Organization affirms the position that nuclear warheads are used as a deterrent, not as preparation for aggression.

“Should the fundamental security of any NATO Ally be threatened, NATO has the capabilities and the resolve to impose costs on the adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve,” according to the NATO website.

Despite the very low likelihood of a nuclear attack in the world, let alone in Utah, this is what it would look like if a foreign actor wanted to strike the Salt Lake area.

Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear weapons, created a simulator available here that shows what would happen when a nuke is detonated in Salt Lake City.

This image was generated by a nuclear blast simulator. It depicts the theoretical blast radius of a nuke tested by North Korea in 2013 if it were detonated in Salt Lake City. (nuclearsecrecy.com.)

The image above shows the blast of a relatively small ten-kiloton nuclear bomb explosion, the same size as a nuke tested by North Korea in 2013.

The green circle represents the area where casualties would likely be 100%. The next ring out includes all those who would receive third degree burns from the blast.

Finally, the outer gray area shows the radius of the blast, where windows would likely shatter and heavy casualties and injuries would be sure.

This image was generated by a nuclear blast simulator. It depicts the theoretical blast radius of the largest nuke tested by the USSR if it were detonated in Salt Lake City. (nuclearsecrecy.com.)

This image shows the blast of a relatively large 50,000 kiloton nuclear bomb explosion, the same as the largest nuclear warhead tested by the former Soviet Union.

Because of the nature of the nuke, third degree burns would reach from Ogden to Provo with devastating nuclear fallout and radiation. 

The whole city of Salt Lake would be vaporized instantly with radiation spreading for hundreds of miles depending on wind conditions.

Professor Dudley reemphasized the unlikeliness of a nuclear conflict but outlined the theoretical strategy behind nuclear strikes.

“If we are talking about targets based on population, Salt Lake is not even in the top 50 biggest populations. The larger concern would be the extent to which Hill Air Force Base might potentially be a target for other reasons. We can’t know for sure because these things are classified,” she said.

Much of theoretical nuclear strategy involves taking down your enemy’s nuclear arsenal to avoid taking a hit yourself, she said.

“We do know there is a nuclear storage depot close to Hill Air Force Base,” Dudley noted. 

Despite being a hot topic online, BYU students were not as convinced that nuclear conflict should be a primary concern of the U.S.

“I just think it feels that other things have more tangible effects going on that we are seeing in the news,” Madi Hawes, a sociology student, said.

Hawes said she thinks older generations may understand how the nuclear threat has decreased because of living through the Cold War and a post-Cold War world.

“I had professors who were alive during the Cold War who talked about what it was like in those times,” she said.

Skyler Lawson, a BYU finance student, expressed a similar sentiment. 

“I don’t feel like it is much of a threat. The countries that have nuclear weapons have too much to lose to use nuclear weapons,” he said.

Part of the reason why the internet is always buzzing with talks about a third world war is the popularity it garners, Lawson said.

“It’s a little bit of fearmongering. When people are scared they are more complacent. It also grabs eyeballs,” he said.

Those interested in reading about NATO’s response to a potential nuclear conflict can read more here.

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