First published Sept. 2017 on kiro7.com; a third ICBM was reported fired on Nov. 28. Read the most updated version here.
With North Korea testing missiles at an unprecedented rate, experts calculate the Seattle area could eventually be in range.
But is that a realistic worry for people on the West Coast? KIRO 7 News talked to scientists and government leaders, who explain below.
How did we get here?
Many West Coast residents feel unease with their homes being the closest in the United States to North Korea as tensions between the two countries build every week.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday again gave a doomsday warning to Kim Jong Un. And just last week, North Korea launched a missile that flew over the northern part of Japan.
2017 has been a rapid year of progress for North Korea, with its 22 missiles fired over 15 tests since February. That includes the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, launched over the summer.
North Korea, known for being a propaganda machine, has claimed that a missile could carry a nuclear warhead. Whether that could actually happen, physicists do not yet know.
What’s the real threat to the Seattle area, if there is one?
After two ICBM launches, analysts calculated everything west of Chicago could be in range.
“The distance from North Korea to Seattle is about 5,100 miles (8,200 km),” said David Wright, a physicist and co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“We don’t know how heavy North Korea’s nuclear warheads are, and the weight affects how far a missile can carry them. However, most experts believe North Korea’s longest range missile, the Hwasong-14, may be able to carry a nuclear warhead as far as Seattle or will be able to in the near future.”
Missiles are highly inaccurate. Wright told KIRO 7 News that Kim would likely shoot at a city physically bigger than Seattle in an attempt of hitting a population center.
But depending on the trajectory and variables such as time and weight of the warhead, a missile from North Korea could reach Seattle in about 30 minutes.
While terrifying, Wright explained it’s unlikely that Kim would fire at the United States randomly.
“Having the capability to hit a U.S. city is important to him since he wants that capability to deter an attack by the U.S., which he would launch in response to an attack,” he said.
Are emergency departments planning for this just in case?
King County Emergency Management agrees that it’s unlikely North Korea would fire at the Puget Sound. As far as disasters are concerned, earthquakes and flooding are more top of mind.
“It’s far less likely to be attacked with a nuke than something like a flood, earthquake or winter storm,” said King County Emergency Management spokeswoman Lynne Miller.
But that doesn’t mean considering a nuclear incident would be left in the dust.
“State, local, county has adopted an all-hazard approach, even FEMA has encouraged it gives more flexibility. Rather than remember 20 or 30 scenarios, it’s much easier to remember and prepare,” Miller said.
An all-hazard approach looks at situations from natural disasters to radiation and creates drills. Miller told KIRO 7 it allows agencies to take strategies and procedures from one disaster and apply it to another.
Drills for emergency scenarios – like earthquakes – are tested regularly, though the radiation drill has not been exercised recently. Miller explained as a public agency, it’s limited on funding and focuses on threats that emergency leaders feel we’re more vulnerable to.
“Anything that comes to our attention we address; we incorporate it into our planning,” Miller said. “We don’t ignore any threat. … We see the threat and we think and talk about it and talk about if plans are in place and what would be our response.”
Currently a Washington law prevents planning for a nuclear disaster at a state level, but that law does not prohibit county or city agencies from talking about what to do in anticipation for a nuclear attack. Scroll down to read how Miller says you can plan for your family.
But isn’t planning on a state level important?
Local emergency management departments have a heavy hand in preparing and aiding the public in a disaster, but much of the emergency planning on the state level involves the military.
Right now, military and state emergency management leaders have the authority to direct with an all-hazard approach in planning for a disaster, but they are limited when it comes to nuclear incidents.
The state law says that in the state’s all-hazard emergency plan, leaders cannot prepare for emergency evacuation or relocation of residents in anticipation of a nuclear attack.
Why? During the Cold War, Washington state had a clear plan and 686 fallout shelters. See a map of bunkers built in case of nuclear disaster here.
But in 1984, this law passed as a symbolic end with the Soviet Union. A Federal Way lawmaker believes it has to change.
“The threat to the Northwest is not imminent today, but it’s approaching the day in the not-too-distance future when it could be a threat to Seattle and Washington state,” Washington state Sen. Mark Miloscia told KIRO Radio. “Not today. Maybe three years out it is. There’s a threat. … We need to start planning right now.”
Miloscia filed a bill in the Washington state Senate to remove this prohibition on planning for a nuclear attack. The bill will be discussed by lawmakers in a Senate committee this January.
KIRO 7 News reached out to Gov. Jay Inslee’s Office, which plans to review the bill before the legislative session.
“More broadly, the state must be prepared to respond to a wide range hazards that include both natural and manmade disasters,” said Inslee’s deputy communications director, Tara Lee. “Washington state currently takes an all hazards approach in emergency management planning, preparedness and response so we can be ready for disasters and threats of all types.”
So what can you do?
If you’re about the potential of any disaster, the best thing you can do is have a plan for you and your family. Learn how to build a 7-day disaster emergency survival kit on a budget
“Whether it’s a storm or traffic or a catastrophe, we urge people to take steps now to prepare,” Miller said.
“It doesn’t have to be complicated or costly, it involves giving family and having a game plan. That’s how people’s lives are saved – is they plan ahead.”
In the event of a major catastrophe, people should be prepared with a plan that would last up to 10 days. From personal kits to checklists, emergency departments through Western Washington have provided resources on makeitthrough.org here.
More specifically to a nuclear incident, King County Emergency listed how people can prepare for radiation emergencies.
Here’s what the emergency department says to consider:
• Be prepared to evacuate with your emergency supplies kit or shelter in place in your home.
• Make a list of existing or potential shelters near your home, workplace, and school (basements or windowless areas in high-rise buildings, bus or light rail tunnels).
• Be observant and report suspicious activities to law enforcement.
• Be prepared for any type of terrorism event.
Some things to do if ever in a radiation emergency:
• During a radiation event, people should try to stay inside and close windows; turn off air conditioners and other ventilation systems.
• If you are warned of a radiation release inside, cover your nose and mouth and go outside immediately.
• If you are outside, seek immediate shelter indoors in the nearest undamaged building.
• To limit the amount of radiation you are exposed to, find thick shielding, distance yourself from the blast, and take time away from radiation. Read about specifics here.
• If you think you have been exposed to radiation, carefully take off the outer layer of your clothing and put it in a plastic bag; then take a warm shower to rinse off any radioactive materials.
If interested in reading more about radiation exposure, click here.