On August 6th and 9th in 1945, the United States detonated nuclear bombs in Japan’s cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. An estimated 355,000 people lost their lives in the attacks. While it remains the only use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict, the world – and everyone on it – has become aware of a new form of danger since then.

Now that many of the world’s governments hold arsenals of nuclear weapons, the risk of nuclear warfare is evermore present, although not imminent. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 has the world come closer to nuclear war than with the current conflict of the Ukraine-Russia war during which President Vladimir Putin has made veiled but pointed threats implying that he could resort to the use of nuclear weapons.

Experts have opinionated that these inferences are empty threats and Russia is unlikely to initiate a nuclear war. The reasoning is simple; Russia stands to lose more than it could possibly gain. Furthermore, Russia has not been seen mobilizing for a strike.

Regardless, the threat of a nuclear war remains to be a very real one, and governments worldwide are taking it seriously.

It’s easy to wonder what a nuclear war would look like on U.S. soil. There are 6 cities across the United States that are deemed likely destinations for nuclear attack and we’ll dig into which they are and why next.

What is NukeMap?

Given that this article is merely hypothetical, there are tools that can be used to estimate the damage of a nuclear war on the U.S.. We will be using NukeMap, an interactive tool that simulates the result of a nuclear detonation. With this online tool, you can detonate a hypothetical nuclear bomb in varying sizes over nearly any city in the world to estimate damage and fatalities.

Some Notes on NukeMap

  • NukeMap is not a precise map of what would happen in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. It should therefore NOT be treated as such. By design, nuclear attacks are difficult to model. This tool, however, provides the potential estimation of what a nuclear bomb could look like.
  • For obvious reasons, NukeMap has some clear limitations. An example is how it doesn’t account for prevailing weather conditions which can massively influence mushroom cloud altitude as well as the fallout.
  • To accurately estimate how many people inhabit a US region in a given day, NukeMap borrows data from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, an affiliate of the US Department of Energy.

Understanding NukeMap Keys

This model of what a 15-kiloton nuclear blast would look like, according to a NukeMap simulation, demonstrates how the impact from the fireball triggers the spread of radiation, the radius of air blast, and the furthest ring of thermal radiation.

The map colors indicate the following:

Yellow: This is called the “fireball”, known to cover approximately 590-foot radius. A nuclear bomb emits a giant orange fireball loaded with hot air and weapon debris about one-millionth of a second after it explodes. Anything — humans, objects, buildings — inside this radius will almost always be disintegrated.

Green: The first ring beyond the fireball area is known as the ”radiation zone.” It spans an approximate three-quarter mile radius. This zone is where the nuclear fallout would touch the ground. It is very close to the blast, with clouds of dust made from sand-like radioactive particles. Exposure to nuclear fallout can result in radiation poisoning which can damage the cells of the body and prove fatal. The mortality rate of nuclear fallout typically ranges between 50% to 90%.

Blue-gray: The second ring beyond the fireball represents the “air blast” radiating just over 1 mile in radius from the fireball impact zone. When a nuclear explosion occurs, an air blast is powerful enough to level buildings leading to widespread injuries. Those in this ring of destruction will likely be injured and substantial fatalities are expected.

Orange: The furthest ring from the fireball is where thermal radiation happens. Anyone caught within this radius would likely suffer third-degree burns, severe scarring, or disablement.

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Six Most “At-Risk” U.S. Cities

The chances of a nuclear war happening is slim to none, but in the event that it ever happens and there is a nuclear strike, there are some things you can do. Both FEMA and Red Cross advise you to get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned.

The six most likely US cities considered to be at risk are some of the largest and most populated in the country. They play host to some of the most important infrastructures in the country, including government facilities. energy plants, financial hubs, and wireless transmission systems. They include:

  • New York
  • Chicago
  • Houston
  • Los Angeles
  • San Francisco
  • Washington, DC

In 2017, North Korea tested nuclear warheads of 150 kt, and the A-bomb over Hiroshima was only 15 kt. Due to long-standing speculation of dozens – and up to 100 – missing nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, some believe nuclear attacks would be with these so-called “suitcase” bombs with an explosive charge of 1kt, so we’ll base the model data on that bomb size.

New York

Due to the vast population in New York City, a 1-kiloton nuclear bomb could lead to as many as 46,100 deaths. This is the highest figure of any six cities on this list. The resulting injuries would be greater than 3 times the fatalities. A nuclear detonation in New York City would leave an estimated 200,000 people with different degrees of injuries.

Were a bomb this size to hit lower Manhattan’s Financial District, most parts of the city would still be “safe” with the impact missing Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, and Hoboken, NJ.If there were a bomb the size of that which hit Hiroshima, 15 kt, the damage would be exponentially worse with radiation extending across the water, into New Jersey and Long Island and having a potential fatality count of 343,010 with a combined injury and death tally of over 700,000.

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In Chicago, the figure would be significantly less than that in New York City. A 1-kiloton nuclear bomb could kill about 17,420 residents. Around 110,000 people would be left with some degree of injury.

By contrast, a 15 kt bomb strike increases fatality projections topping 216,000 and injuries totaling over 205,000.


Houston numbers drastically differ from the major metropolises of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. If a nuclear bomb were to hit downtown Houston, 90,000 people could lose their lives, though in the aftermath of such a devastating bombing attack, 31,000 Houston residents would end up with injuries. According to these NukeMap projections, the city of Houston would have the lowest number of injured victims on this list.

Should a 15-kiloton nuclear bomb, for example, be dropped near downtown Houston, the Johnson Space Center, and Space Center Houston would likely not suffer any damage due to the layout of the city. The fatality and injury projections however increase to 150,000 when combined.

Los Angeles

With nearly 19 million reported residents, in the greater Los Angeles area, it is no-doubt a sprawling US city that features many important structures and affluent neighborhoods. The damage and impact in a city such as this make it a likely target. The city’s massive sprawl makes a 1 kt bomb much less impactful since populations are less dense than that in other cities such as NYC. Some of LA’s neighborhoods which are densely populated would see great destruction.

A strategically dropped 15-kiloton nuclear bomb could kill over 105,000 people In Los Angeles injuring over 170,000 more.

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San Francisco

Due to the proximity of residents and the city's landscape, projections for San Francisco remain low. Though death and injury will impact any neighborhood or suburb, this city has the least combined casualties than the others.

If a fireball hit San Francisco's Mission District, it would not affect the Golden Gate Bridge. Two of the city's important landmarks—the Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf—would remain standing.

Washington, DC

In Washington, DC, the capital of the country, the consequences of a nuclear war will be dire. This is especially true because it hosts one of the most important buildings in the world, the White House. Beyond lives lost and injuries, the destruction to our nation’s capital buildings and political infrastructure would be massive, creating a social standstill like we’ve never known. While a 1kt detonation could kill around 900, injuring 18,000, a 15-kiloton nuclear detonation could kill upwards of 75,000 people and injuring over 161,000

Any nuclear explosion over the National Mall would most likely shield the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Airport from thermal radiation. Unfortunately, the air blast could be lethal enough to destroy the White House and the Washington Monument.


The potential risk and damage of a nuclear attack on the United States' most populous cities is a terrifying and catastrophic scenario that we must acknowledge, even if the chance of a nuclear war is highly unlikely.

Because the consequences of such an event would be devastating, causing widespread destruction, loss of life, and long-term environmental contamination, it is crucial for us to understand the gravity of this threat and take appropriate steps to ensure our safety and preparedness.