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Like a New York Hurricane: Evaluating Major CBRN Threats to New York and New Jersey

by Matt Collins

When New York Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, the early footage looked like something out of a disaster movie.

Flooded subways and parking decks. America's biggest city plunged into darkness as the power went out. And vast swathes of destruction cut across New York state and neighboring New Jersey.

SuperStorm Sandy flooded New York’s iconic subway system in a matter of minutes.

SuperStorm Sandy flooded New York’s iconic subway system in a matter of minutes.  (Image courtesy of Fast Company)

To say citizens were underprepared would be an understatement. Thankfully, decisive action on behalf of emergency services kept the situation from spiraling out of control. But for a few extremely tense days, the city known as the "Big Apple" (and the surrounding area) was on the verge of coming apart at the seams.

Of course, the next disaster could also be man-made. It could begin, for example, with the meltdown of one of the area's several nuclear reactors, a catastrophic derailment, or a failure in one of New York State's massive industrial facilities.

So today, we will evaluate each of the region's major CBRN threats—covering everything from the likelihood of disaster to the local areas that would be affected and the steps you can take to protect yourself.

Let's get started.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    New York & New Jersey's Demographics and Population Centers

  • 02

    Potential Nuclear Threats to New York and New Jersey

  • 03

    A Nuclear Attack in New York?

  • 04

    Heavy Industry in New York and New Jersey

  • 05

    The Nightmare New York Hurricane

  • 06

    New York & New Jersey Risk Assessment & Preparation

  • 07

    High Risk, High Reward

New York & New Jersey's Demographics and Population Centers

New York City is one of the world's most iconic metropolitan centers, with a reputation and a culture all its own. But New York state and New Jersey can also lay claim to their own rich history, diverse cultures, and vibrant cities.

New York, notably, is the fourth most populous state in the US, with an estimated population of over twenty million. And the state's demographics reflect its reputation as a cultural melting pot. That's thanks in no small part to New York City, whose population of roughly 8.5 million comprises nearly half of those living in the state (19.84 million).

New York’s population concentrated in a few major urban centers

New York’s population concentrated in a few major urban centers (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The sprawling city comprises five boroughs: Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. Each borough is like a city unto itself, with different populations, local cultures, and demographics.

By contrast, New Jersey is substantially less–but still densely–populated, and home to more than nine million residents. Indeed, it's one of the most densely populated states in the country, with thriving industry and next-door access to both New York City and Philadelphia.

New Jersey’s population crowds the border with New York

New Jersey’s population crowds the border with New York (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

On New Jersey's side of the border, cities like Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson are key urban centers with diverse populations. Newark, for instance, is known for its historical significance, cultural attractions, and role in the greater New York City metropolitan area.

All in all, the two states' populations are varied and eclectic, with a broad mix of urban and rural populations. And while serving as a central urban hub has benefited New York and New Jersey, it's not without its associated risks. The first would be living near the area's multiple nuclear power plants…

Potential Nuclear Threats to New York and New Jersey

Nuclear power is necessary to provide the tremendous amounts of electricity needed to power New York and New Jersey. But with nuclear power, you'll always have the risk of a reactor meltdown.

Nuclear power plants rely on a sustained chain reaction to provide electricity. If and when that chain reaction spirals out of control, it can become volatile—either melting through or exploding out of its containment vessel and spewing radioactive waste all over the surrounding area.

Most Americans. of course, already know the name "Three Mile Island" following that plant's partial meltdown.

Though that disaster occurred almost 200 miles from New York City, it was still too close for comfort. That's true, too, for the nuclear power plants in New York and New Jersey.

Buchanan, New York's Indian Point Energy Center, is home to three nuclear reactors. It's a vital source of electricity for the New York metropolitan area, and it's long been a source of concern due to its proximity to the city's dense urban population.

The plant itself began operation in 1962. It was overhauled in the 1970s to account for growing demand, with units two and three constructed to add overall production. But as the facility ages, the risk of a systems failure has become something authorities can no longer ignore.

Indian Point Energy Center

Indian Point Energy Center (Image courtesy of Valley Central)

In 2000, the discovery of boric acid corrosion in the plant's Unit 2 reactor vessel led to its shutdown for over two years. This corrosion raised questions about the aging infrastructure of nuclear power plants and their ability to handle long-term operations safely.

In 2005, the discovery of tritium-contaminated groundwater near Indian Point raised alarms about potential leaks from the facility. Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, can pose health risks if released into the environment. The discovery prompted increased scrutiny from regulatory agencies and the public.

The owner of Indian Point, Entergy Corporation, announced plans to close the plant. Indian Point Unit 2 was permanently shut down in 2020, and Unit 3 was eventually closed in 2021. Now, the facility is being dismantled and will soon be replaced with a natural gas processing center.

New Jersey's Oyster Creek Generating Station, meanwhile, is nearly as old as Indian Point. It became operational in 1969, with a single pressurized water reactor designed to generate electricity through controlled nuclear fission.

Oyster Creek was a pioneering facility, exemplifying the promise and challenges of nuclear power during its early years. The plant's successful operation was a testament to the potential of nuclear energy as a consistent and significant contributor to the electricity grid. It played a crucial role in demonstrating the viability of commercial nuclear power generation.

However, as the years passed, concerns about nuclear safety and environmental impacts emerged. The incident at Three Mile Island in 1979 raised awareness about the potential risks associated with nuclear power plants.

In response to the Three Mile Island incident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) implemented stricter safety regulations for nuclear power plants. The incident highlighted the importance of robust safety protocols to prevent and mitigate potential accidents, including reactor meltdowns.

Oyster Creek, one of the oldest operating nuclear power plants in the United States, certainly raises questions about the integrity of its aging infrastructure.

But arguably, the most significant disaster threat comes from New Jersey's PSEG Nuclear power plants.

PSEG Nuclear, a Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) division, operates three nuclear power plants in New Jersey: Hope Creek Generating Station, Salem Nuclear Power Plant, and Salem-Hope Creek spent fuel storage installation.

Hope Creek's pressurized water reactor generates an impressive 1,174 megawatts of electricity, contributing significantly to New Jersey's power grid.

Nestled alongside Hope Creek is the Salem Nuclear Power Plant, a dual-unit facility that boasts over 2,200 megawatts of combined generating capacity.

Finally, there's the onsite storage for spent nuclear fuel. This spent fuel is the very definition of toxic waste. It contains highly radioactive isotopes that can stay extremely hazardous for up to 24,000 years.

Without a permanent solution for storing or disposing of this waste, PSEG uses "dry cask" storage. As the name implies, spent fuel rods are stored in massive sealed containers (or casks) and stored in safe facilities while they await disposal.

Dry cask storage for spent nuclear fuel

Dry cask storage for spent nuclear fuel (Image courtesy of ScienceDirect)

Historically, dry cask storage has been a relatively safe option for storing spent nuclear fuel. And PSEG's facility is hardened to endure a New Jersey Hurricane or other disasters. But it still amounts to sealing nuclear waste into a box and storing it in a glorified warehouse.

Theoretically, these storage facilities will be safer than a nuclear power plant. Becauseunlike an active nuclear reactorthere's no ongoing chain reaction with spent fuel. But spent fuel comes with other significant risks as well. It's portable, for example, which means that if a terrorist group breached the facility's security, they'd have enough fuel to create thousands of dirty bombs.

But what about the risk of a nuclear attack on New York City?

A Nuclear Attack in New York?

In a terrorist nuclear attack on the United States, New York City would almost certainly be one of the first targets.

Not only is the city a massive population center, it's also symbolic of American capitalism. It is, after all, home to the United Nations building and many of America's most influential businesses. That makes New York City a high-value target and a powerful statement for the terrorists involved.

An attack on New York City would accomplish the core goal of any terrorist … namely, it would instill terror throughout the United States and make millions of Americans feel more vulnerable than ever before.

That's what we saw in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It was a relatively simple strategy on behalf of the terrorists, but by targeting critical facilities in New York and Washington, D.C., they practically turned America upside down overnight.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks wreaked havoc in New York City.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks wreaked havoc in New York City. (Image courtesy of CBS News)

If a nuclear device was detonated in New York City, it would erase timeless landmarks, forever scar America, and kill thousands (if not millions).

On the other hand, the New York Police Department is arguably one of the most elite urban police forces anywhere in the world. And federal agencies are likewise focused on threats to major metropolitan centers. Other cities might be softer targets, especially for smaller nuclear weapons, because of higher population density and lower risk of alerting the authorities.

Ultimately, the real threat for most New Yorkers comes from something much closer to home …

Heavy Industry in New York and New Jersey

New York and New Jersey are major industrial hubs, thanks to a combination of major urban centers, high-traffic seaports, and a central location within New England.

All this industry is linked by the New York, Susquehanna, and Western Railway, which operates 400 miles of railroad track within New York and New Jersey alone. These high-traffic rail lines serve the states' populations and industrial centers.

A freight train recently derailed in August of 2023. Fortunately, it was empty, but the derailment indicates a significant potential weakness in the state's infrastructure. This is a widespread problem all across America.

Thousands, if not millions, of roads, bridges and railways operate well past their service life and need serious repair. As such, a freight train derailment could devastate the surrounding community (as we saw in East Palestine, Ohio).

But what about the industrial facilities these trains are traveling to and from?

One of the most significant industrial facilities in the area is New Jersey's ExxonMobil Bayway Refinery.

Phillips 66’s massive Bayway refinery

Phillips 66’s massive Bayway refinery (Image courtesy of New Jersey Business Magazine)

The refinery was built in 1909 to produce kerosene and lubricating oils that were in high demand then. Strategically located in Linden, NJ, the refinery eventually diversified into gasoline production, petrochemical manufacturing and other operations. The refinery is set up to process more than 250,000 barrels of crude oil daily. But it's also equipped to produce everything from diesel to jet fuel and petrochemical feedstocks.

Notably, extensive petrochemical facilities typically pose the most significant risk of toxic spillage or deadly exposure. This is due to the massive variety of toxins and chemicals routinely used within facilities like these. If it's not properly locked down during a hurricaneor a train derails while transporting to and from Baywaythe results could be devastating.

New York State, meanwhile, is home to Corning Incorporated's facilities. Corning specializes in glass, ceramics, and optical fiber products. The company's headquarters is in Corning, with a significant regional manufacturing presence.

New York State is also home to Alcoa Massena's massive aluminum smelting and manufacturing facility located in Massena.

The Nightmare New York Hurricane

In late October 2012, America's East Coast braced itself for a meteorological behemoth—an unprecedented fusion of a hurricane and a nor'easter, which would later be known as Hurricane Sandy.

This monstrous storm, often referred to as "Superstorm Sandy," left an indelible mark on the region, reshaping landscapes, testing resilience, and underscoring the complex relationship between human civilization and the raw power of nature.

As Hurricane Sandy's path converged with a nor'easter and arctic air, meteorological conditions aligned to create a perfect storm of unparalleled scale. On October 29, 2012, this colossal system bore down on the densely populated Northeastern United States, impacting multiple states, including New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

Sandy's most immediate impact was felt along the coastlines. The storm surge, exacerbated by high tide, inundated coastal areas with unprecedented flooding.

In places like New Jersey's Barrier Island communities and parts of Staten Island, entire neighborhoods were swallowed by a surging sea, leaving behind destruction and debris.

Hurricane Sandy cut a swath of destruction across multiple states.

Hurricane Sandy cut a swath of destruction across multiple states (Image courtesy of The Weather Channel)

Within New York City, the hurricane's storm surge flooded subway tunnels and cut off access to public transportation. Stairs into subway tunnels were suddenly transformed into deep wells filled with murky saltwater.

Indeed, Sandy blazed a destruction trail that left millions without electricity or communication, sometimes in flooded homes or buildings, far beyond New York and New Jersey's coastlines. This plunged the ever-present glow of Manhattan's brilliant skyline into total darkness, with the entire metropolis grinding to a halt.

By the time the dust was settled, Hurricane Sandy had claimed 230 lives across multiple states. It caused $50 billion in damage to the state's infrastructure, shattering communities, displacing families, and wreaking catastrophe throughout New York and New Jersey.

New York & New Jersey Risk Assessment & Preparation

So… what's the likelihood that New York or New Jersey could see one of these disasters again soon?

Note that this article is the first in a special series where MIRA Safety assesses CBRN risks for different states and geographic areas. Having reviewed each significant threat factor, we'll now break them down based on classification and provide a severity rating (low, medium or high) for each.

  • Nuclear Disaster Risk: High. New York and New Jersey's nuclear reactors are likely as safe as any in the United States. However, the concentration of nuclear power plants near urban centers and the likelihood of New York City as a primary target for terrorist attacks are significant factors.

  • Chemical Disaster Risk: Medium. None of the area's individual facilities pose a massive risk. But on the whole, New York and New Jersey have a high concentration of chemical processing facilities combined with a recent derailment to make things even worse.

  • Biological Disaster Risk: High. New York City's massively concentrated population could be disastrous during a major global pandemic. The risk would be substantially lower for rural or suburban populations throughout New York State and New Jersey.

  • Natural Disaster Risk: Low. New York City isn't along any significant fault lines for earthquakes. It's not prone to tornadoes or tsunamis. Aside from the rare freak hurricane, the area has little to worry about from natural disasters, aside from New Jersey wildfires (which destroy 7,000 acres per year on average).

Based on this specific risk profile, we strongly recommend adding a Geiger-2 dosimeter to your arsenal if you're ever in or around New York and New Jersey.


Fallout and radioactive particulates could be carried hundreds of miles from the blast in a meltdown or nuclear attack. A personal dosimeter will allow you to detect "hot spots" and avoid areas of concentrated radiation. It will also allow you to test food, clothing, or other items for potential radioactivity.

Next, we recommend the Tactical Air-Purifying Respirator (TAPR). This is a tactical half-face respirator that just about anyone can carry in your car's purse, backpack, or trunk.

The TAPR in action

It's portable protection you can deploy in the event of an attack on the subway or wear daily in the event of a pandemic. The TAPR is a complete kit with two compact gas mask filters, an included head harness, and a hardshell case for easy storage. It's arguably the best urban-ready respirator out there.

Finally, for filters, we recommend the ParticleMax P3. They provide the highest particle filtration (P3) level, which protects the user from all biological threats and inhaled particulates. These filters also come 6 to a pack and can be reused during a pandemic or biological threat.

High Risk, High Reward

The risk of living through a nuclear, chemical, biological or natural disaster is small for any American. But they’re slightly higher for those who live in New York and New Jersey.

New York City’s iconic skyline

New York City’s iconic skyline (Image courtesy of Viator)

New York and New Jersey, after all, are known for their massive urban centers, their rich industrial infrastructure and their cheap nuclear power. But these same factors that make the area so popular also make it vulnerable to disasters and potential terrorist attacks.

As such, MIRA Safety highly recommends preparing for these types of disasters if you live in or around New York or New Jersey. That means keeping around at least one working respirator for every member of your family, a stockpile of compatible gas mask filters, and other useful PPE.