After the end of the Cold War some 30 years ago, public debate and understanding of the enormous scale of impact of nuclear war fell to very low levels. This has changed with recent nuclear weapons tests and missile firings by North Korea. In this article I explain why the threat of nuclear war may now be higher than it has ever been and why we should all be aware of the latest scientific studies of the impacts of nuclear weapons.
Two nuclear war scenarios
There are approximately 14,900 nuclear weapons ready to fire or in stockpiles. 13,800 are deployed by the USA and Russia, while the remaining 1,100 are deployed by China, the UK, France, India, Pakistan and Israel. North Korea may have a handful of weapons. Based a range of published or leaked nuclear war plans and statements by political leaders, there are two key types of nuclear war to consider.
The first is a global nuclear war involving the US and Russia. In this scenario at least 1800 large warheads, or more likely over 3000, would be fired at nuclear weapon launch sites, command centres, ports, major industry, power stations and major centres of population. This is a large number of warheads and most cities, particularly state or regional capitals, would be struck by several nuclear weapons.
The other main scenario is a ‘regional conflict’, for example between India and Pakistan. In this case at least 100 smaller nuclear weapons would be used out of stockpiles of around 200 weapons striking mainly large densely populated super cities such as Delhi and Karachi. A North Korea – US scenario could be similar but with fewer but larger warheads being used.
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Everyone understands that any such conflict would cause unprecedented levels of deaths and suffering, but what is not well understood is just how vulnerable modern society is. On top of this, the most up to date scientific studies predict serious and long lasting global climate impacts leading to widespread crop failure and famine.
The increased risk of nuclear war
Since the Cold War, both the US and Russia have kept 1800 warheads ready to launch within minutes as soon as a potential nuclear attack is detected. This nuclear hair trigger is intended to prevent a nuclear first strike by ensuring that weapons will be launched before they are themselves destroyed. But this policy has brought the world very close to a nuclear war several times in past years when equipment faults and innocent signals were thought to be nuclear attacks in progress and launches were only countermanded at the last minute. Now, nuclear commanders warn this risk is even higher due to continued cyber-attacks. Many argue that weapons should not be kept ready to fire at short notice as a nuclear response would always be possible.
The vulnerability of society to nuclear attack
The use of a nuclear warhead causes a series of severe impacts: Intense nuclear radiation and a blinding flash of light much brighter than the sun; a fierce fireball lasting several seconds; an intense blast wave; minutes or hours later, large-scale deposition of radioactive particles as fallout.
Survivors of the bombs dropped over Japan at the end of World War 2 speak of a bright sunlit day plunged into darkness as black oily rain fell. Dead figures, charred black still standing. Burned and terminally injured survivors, their skin hanging off; eyes and other internal organs hanging out of their bodies. Cars and vehicles tossed like toys, strong structures reduced to piles of rubble. Huge fires.
Use of a nuclear weapon today would be much worse for two reasons: a typical modern nuclear weapon is now 8 to 80 times larger; modern society is much more reliant on vulnerable information technology and long distance supply routes for food and fuel.
Modern society is heavily reliant on electricity to power central heating pumps, to provide water, information via TV, the internet and mobile phones. Nuclear strike will mean no water supply, no heating or lighting, no information, no mobile phone signal.
Only a few days’ food supply exists in regional distribution depots. The supply network would fail for multiple reasons: road blockages, communications breakdown, collapse of the banking system, destruction of ports.
International aid organisations and health bodies all agree that the tens of thousands of casualties from just one nuclear bomb would overwhelm all attempts to help the injured. As a result, there would be no hope of treatment for severe injuries including burns, broken bones, deep cuts from flying debris.
To add to the multiple impacts, most locations in Western Europe are ringed by nuclear targets such as power stations or cities, so whatever the weather or wind condition, radioactive fallout is likely. You may receive a lethal dose inside a few hours but may not experience any symptoms until days possibly up to a week later. Radiation sickness causes vomiting, diarrhoea and internal bleeding. Children and the elderly are more vulnerable and more likely to suffer or die.
With the intense levels of damage, huge fires would spread across all major towns and other targets, burning them out in huge fires lasting days to weeks. We now understand that these huge fires would cause long lasting climatic impacts at a global level.
A nuclear winter
Intense city-wide fires loft extensive high-altitude smoke clouds similar to a large volcanic eruption. These clouds block sunlight causing cooling. The latest climate models predict that the use of a few tens to a hundred of the smaller nuclear weapons in the regional India-Pakistan scenario would cause severe frosts, reduced growing seasons, drought and famine lasting up to ten years across the entire northern hemisphere. A 1,800 US - Russian warhead scenario would cause a long-lasting cold period with a peak average global cooling of 4°C, whilst a larger scale nuclear war with over 3000 warheads would cause average cooling of 8°C. This is greater than the average cooling of 5°C experienced during the last ice age, so this would be a severe nuclear winter lasting a decade.
Whilst an average cooling of only a few degrees may not sound very serious, the crucial impact is much longer periods of frost in winter and severe drought. There would be dramatically reduced growing seasons or even the impossibility of growing any crop as planned. Farming also relies upon supplies of fuel for mechanised planting and harvesting.
Realistically, after a large scale nuclear war, one must picture small groups of brutalised, traumatised people, violently thrown back into a pre-industrial age. Assuming that some people somewhere furthest from the bombs could initially survive this global catastrophe, any ‘recovery’ would surely be measured in hundreds of years. It has to be regarded a shocking indictment of our modern civilisation that current stockpiles of nuclear weapons are sufficient to cause such a global catastrophe.
The only conclusion that can be drawn from these findings is that any use of nuclear weapons would be a global disaster and cause unacceptable suffering. Nuclear weapons do not keep us safe but under a constant threat of disaster. We now know we have avoided this only by sheer luck in several nuclear close-calls. In 2017, this understanding led 122 countries at the United Nations, to support a treaty to ban nuclear weapons in the same fashion as chemical and biological weapons and to press the nuclear-armed states to negotiate major reductions in weapons. We need to get rid of nuclear weapons before they get rid of us.
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