Key point: Hundreds of thousands of Americans would die.
The recent revelation that North Korea has intercontinental ballistic missiles put America on notice: within a few short years, or even months, the entire continental United States will be within range of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. While practical counterforce targets—such as bomber and missile bases—exist, there is also an argument to be made that Kim Jong-un would target major American cities to inflict maximum damage. One of those cities would almost certainly be San Francisco.
San Francisco is often considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city has a population of 864,816 within an area roughly seven by seven miles wide, and is the second largest population concentration in America after New York City. San Francisco is on a peninsula and is at the center of a larger metropolitan area, the San Francisco Bay Area, with a population of approximately seven million.
In a previous article covering an attack on Tokyo, we assumed a North Korean Pukkuksong-2 missile delivering a 20-kiloton warhead would be used—a more or less realistic estimate for an attack over the next twelve months. Given that the Hwasong-15 ICBM is not likely capable of delivering a warhead on San Francisco for up to two years, we’ll assume that North Korea has a few more years to miniaturize a more powerful device. For this scenario, we’ll assume the Hwasong-15 can deliver a 250-kiloton device, as powerful as the 2017 underground test.
Using the NUKEMAP, a web site designed to simulate the effects of nuclear weapons, we can estimate that a 250-kiloton warhead detonated over San Francisco could kill between 88,000 and 321,000 people in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. Such an attack would further injure another 182,000 to 206,000, and expose millions to radioactive contamination.