How much damage can a suitcase nuke do?

Posted by Mason on April 7, 2023


It's 2020, and you're sitting at home watching the news. The anchor reports that a terrorist group has detonated a suitcase nuke in downtown Los Angeles. You might wonder: How much damage could this do? How many people would die? What would happen next? A lot of questions, but fortunately we have some answers. Here's everything you need to know about suitcase nukes...

What is a suitcase nuke?

You may have heard the term "suitcase nuke" before. This is a terrifying idea: a nuclear bomb small enough to fit in a suitcase, which could be used by terrorists. A few decades ago, it was thought that suitcase nukes were possible; now most people believe they're purely hypothetical. However, we'll take a look here at what would happen if such a weapon were dropped on your city and how much damage it could do.

The name comes from the fact that these are small enough to fit into suitcases—not exactly something you want to carry around on your daily commute!

How powerful are suitcase nukes?

A suitcase nuke is a type of nuclear weapon that can be carried by a single person.

They are much smaller than traditional bombs, but they're still very powerful and can cause a lot of damage if detonated in the right place.

These weapons were developed during the Cold War to give countries with small militaries an edge over larger ones, like China and Russia.

How many suitcase nukes are missing?

The number of missing suitcase nukes is a subject of intense speculation, with estimates ranging from "a few" to "more than one." Though the exact number remains classified, it's clear that many more than one have gone missing.

What’s less clear is why. In an interview with NPR, former British Army Brigadier Ben Barry said that he believes the majority were lost during military exercises or in transit between bases—things like falling out of trucks or getting left on trains by accident. But some experts think these devices were stolen by rogue states or terrorist groups looking for leverage against their enemies. This theory seems unlikely since no government has ever admitted to possessing them, let alone intentionally giving them away (or selling them).

Could a terrorist group use a suitcase nuke to destroy a city?

A terrorist group would face a number of obstacles in trying to detonate a suitcase nuke. First, they'd have to obtain the weapon itself. These aren't cheap—they cost at least $20 million and there's no guarantee that you'll get what you paid for. Then they'd need to transport the device, which is hard enough when it's in pieces but becomes nearly impossible when it needs to be assembled on-site.

Finally, there's the difficulty of detonating it without setting off its various fail-safes and safeguards (some of which are designed with input from nuclear scientists). If terrorists managed all this and somehow managed not only to set off their bomb but also destroy an entire city in one shot—well then congratulations! You've achieved what no terrorist group has ever been able to do before: knock out an entire city with one atomic explosion!

Suitcase nukes are terrifying, but it'd be very difficult for a terrorist group to detonate one.

If you were to ask your average person to describe a nuclear weapon, they might say something like “a nuclear bomb that can be carried in a suitcase.” This isn't quite right. A suitcase nuke is an actual achievement—nobody has ever seen or detonated one in real life. But it's not as simple as stuffing some radioactive material into an ordinary suitcase and pressing the button: if you want to build one, there's a lot of work involved.

It takes a tremendous amount of skill and resources just to make the fissile material necessary for a nuclear explosion. It also requires access to dangerous materials such as uranium and plutonium (the stuff used in other bombs). Anyone who wants to create such an explosive device would likely have trouble getting their hands on these materials; these substances are very tightly regulated by governments around the world, so smuggling them across international borders would be nearly impossible without being detected by authorities first.

Even if all these obstacles could somehow be overcome—and assuming you still had enough time left on your countdown clock before detonation—there are still two additional challenges facing anyone looking at deploying an improvised backpack nuke: finding somewhere safe enough from other people where you could blow yourself up safely; and getting away after setting off the device so that nobody else gets hurt by its blast radius (which extends outward from ground zero approximately 20 feet).


The United States has long been concerned with the possibility of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, but the idea of suitcase nukes seems to be more of a fantasy than a real threat. Although we've seen fictional representations of suitcase nukes in movies like The Sum Of All Fears, there is no evidence that any terrorist groups currently have access to these weapons. That being said, it's not outside the realm of possibility for a rogue state like North Korea or Iran to develop such technology in the future. For now though? We can rest easy knowing that our cities are safe from destruction by nuclear bombs carried around in suitcases!

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