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“”Nuclear war. It's a motherfucker. If they push that button, your ass has got to go.
Nuclear war is the ultimate unthinkable.
Technically, a nuclear war would be any war in which nuclear weapons are used. This could range from a single, small weapon (like a bunker buster or the ones dropped on Japan in World War II) all the way up to a full-blown Armageddon between nuclear powers.
The nuclear powers have put a lot of effort into preventing the latter from ever occurring, engaging in various forms of deterrence. Until recently, it was assumed that Mutual Assured Destruction would be the best way to prevent states from attacking each other with nuclear weapons, since it would be suicide. However, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the fear that undeterrable wackos might get them, people are frantically working to find alternatives.
 Effects of nuclear war
Some attempts have been made to evaluate the likely effects of a full nuclear exchange. Some have speculated that enough nuclear bombs going off at once would create a "nuclear winter" by blanketing the earth in long-lasting airborne dust which would filter out sunlight and result in the death of most life on the planet. Even if this was not the result, the extreme increase in radiation would not only cause many health hazards and genetic abnormalities, but it would also contaminate the soil so that any crops that were produced could not be safely eaten. This would be similar to what happened in central Ukraine and southern Belarus after the Chernobyl disaster.
Many hawks have tried to downplay the possible effects of nuclear war, many even believing that a nuclear war is winnable (thus the massive amounts of spending on the Strategic Defense Initiative in the Reagan administration, as well as its successor National Missile Defense, both considered abject failures by outside observers). Scientists, as a general rule, tend to disagree.
The most effective technique to use in a nuclear war is quite simple: not to have one. India and Pakistan are two nations that, on the brink of war, decided to acquire nuclear weapons. In response to the other one acquiring, and testing, nuclear weapons they began to increase diplomatic relations to the point where disputes between the countries are now settled over a game of cricket which has the effect of not destroying the region – and the added bonus that you can break at 3:30 for tea.
None of this is to say the immediate effects of a nuclear blast are a picnic. Whatever argument can be had over the long-term effects of nuclear attack, the short-term effects are documented in excruciating detail from first-hand experience, both at test sites and actual use during WWII.
 Immediate effects of nuclear war
The first thing noticed after a nuclear detonation is called the "double flash" -- an intense blast of light that's obscured part of the way through by the debris generated by the explosion. This flash covers a far wider section of the electromagnetic spectrum than visible light, sending out intense gamma radiation as well as immense amounts of heat. In a ground burst, the surface will be vitrified into a type of glass called trinitite, with irradiated rock and soil kicked up into the air as fallout; in an air burst, the fallout will not be as intense, but virtually everything directly under the explosion will be vaporized immediately, with a few structures left partially standing, and objects in the area will sometimes cast permanent shadows as the intense energy bleaches walls and ground behind them. The intense heat carries quite a distance, flash-cooking any organic matter that isn't outright incinerated and causing severe burns an all flesh struck by the thermal pulse to all people within range of the heat blast (Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors reported seeing people whose eyes were literally melted by the flash, and quite a few people developed burns in the same pattern as the fabric of their clothing), while the winds caused by the blast flatten anything unreinforced for kilometers around. Even outside the main area of destruction, the flash sets fires to flammable structures that would otherwise be relatively undamaged. In addition, the gamma rays interacting with electrons in the atmosphere produce an electromagnetic pulse that can fry many types of electronics, especially the MOSFET-based chips that power virtually anything computerized.
It's not enough to survive the initial blast. The gamma rays emitted by the detonation have already done their damage, and radiation sickness can set in -- hair loss, nausea, spontaneous bleeding, loss of white blood cells and collapse of the immune system, and sometimes just sudden death. Damage to sex cells may result in permanent infertility. However, if you survive the first month, your prospects are mostly good: less than 1% of total victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki died from late effects, such as radiation-induced cancer.
In the end, cleanup and rebuilding in Hiroshima and Nagasaki took several decades, and this was in a relatively functional country with an occupation force working hard on rebuilding it. Imagine if it were large scale.
 Types of nuclear war
In the 1960's there were considered to be two types of nuclear war: counterforce and countervalue. In reality a nuclear war would tend to be a mixture of the two but it is interesting to look at them separately.
In a counterforce nuclear exchange the objective would be to destroy the opponent's ground-based nuclear weapons. In order to do this one needs really massive penetrating nuclear weapons which would explode at ground level (or ideally below) and dig down to destroy hardened bunkers and buried weapons. This type of explosion would produce massive amounts of nuclear contamination as the ground near the explosion would be heavily irradiated before being blown into the atmosphere. On the other hand, the immediate death toll would be lower as nuclear installations are frequently located away from population centers. A counterforce attack is the classic "first strike" scenario, in which one side attempts to disarm the other, leaving them at the mercy of the attacker.
In this case the strike is against the opponent's cities and the objective is to destroy their will to resist. If there's anyone left with a will of any kind, anyway. The US attacks on Japan were clearly countervalue. Countervalue strikes are airbursts some miles above a city, as this has the effect of increasing the blast radius. Although casualties are very high, the residual radiation is less than that from a counterforce strike. This scenario is the ultimate step on the escalation ladder, in which a nuclear war could very easily end civilization itself.
During the Cold War, both superpowers considered a counterforce strike a much more serious threat than an outright attack on civilian targets, and spent enormous amounts of money on developing nuclear capabilities that would survive it and constitute a reliable "second strike" deterrent. This is evidenced by the massive redundancy in warheads and delivery systems both sides built up during the sixties, as well as attempts to make them more survivable by storing missiles in hardened bunkers or moving them to submarines. On the other hand, few serious attempts were made to defend civilian targets until the mid-eighties saw a renewed interest in missile defense programs (c.f. the SDI). An important reason for this discrepancy is signaling your intentions to the would-be opponent: having a secure second-strike capability is indicative of a defensive stance, as an insecure capability wouldn't be of much use except for an aggressive first strike. Conversely, securing civilian targets can actually make you appear aggressive, because a side that doesn't have to worry about retaliation could strike with impunity.
 Nuclear war and pop culture
The threat of nuclear war and the fear of its aftermath has become a fertile topic in popular culture, particularly during the 50s and 60s and then later in the early 80s as the tensions of the Cold War waxed and waned. Many movies depict attempts to prevent it, such as Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and War Games. Humorist/musician Tom Lehrer featured the threat of nuclear war in some of his songs, including "We Will All Go Together When We Go," "The Wild West is Where I Want To Be," and "So Long Mom," later inspiring Weird Al Yankovic's "Christmas At Ground Zero"; more serious songs on the subject include Nena's "99 Luftballons" (a song produced in both German and English about an accidental war) and Timbuk3's "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades." Cold War spy fiction became a very popular genre of both books and movies, with authors such as Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, John LeCarré, and many others building lucrative careers on both the human drama of covert ops and the overhanging threat of total war.
The aftereffects of nuclear war have also been popular topics for fiction, in movies (Threads, The Day After, Damnation Alley, the Terminator trilogy), television (Jericho, Woops!, several episodes of the multiple incarnations of The Twilight Zone, and as historical background in some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5), novels (On The Beach, Z for Zacariah and Farnham's Freehold; also an establishing detail for Lord of the Flies), and even video games (Wasteland and the Fallout series). During the Cold War, many propaganda films were created as well, generally of the sort considered most appropriate for Mystery Science Theater 3000, and aspects of the civil defense infrastructure became part of the national consciousness in many countries (most notably, in the United States, CONELRAD and its successor, the Emergency Broadcast System).
 Nations with nuclear weapons
The following nations have developed nuclear weapons:
- United States - developed first in an arms race with Nazi Germany (whose nuclear program was ultimately unsuccessful), then used in 1945 against Japan to end World War II
- Russia - developed in the Soviet Union to deter the US
- The United Kingdom - developed to deter the Soviet Union
- France - developed to deter the Soviet Union. France is also a world leader in peaceful use of nuclear power, deriving something like 80% of its electrical needs from nuclear generation (slightly less than that in installed capacity but the nuclear reactors tend to work the hardest). They are going to build the first nuclear fusion reactor to sustain greater than break-even in the world (or at least the prototype) as well.
- China - developed to deter the Soviet Union
- India - developed first to deter China and, later, Pakistan.
- Israel - built to deter its Arab neighbors
- Pakistan - built to deter India
- North Korea - built them to deter the US (and likely threaten South Korea and Japan), have had one successful test after their first test was a fizzle.
- South Africa - developed to deter an entire continent that was unhappy about that whole apartheid thing. Dismantled its nuclear programme at the end of apartheid. May have been involved, along with Israel, in the 1979 Vela Incident, where one of a pair of American detector satellites noticed a bright flash over the South Atlantic. Somehow a malfunctioning satellite was probably involved, but since there was no actual satellite video in those days, it's not clear which one.
- Both Ukraine and Kazakhstan along with some other post-Soviet states once had nukes, as a holdover from the USSR, but gave them up.
It should be noted that almost every time a nation develops nuclear weapons, another nation also feels forced to. This is what makes proliferation so hard to stop. It doesn't particularly help that a number of countries, including Canada and Japan, possess the technology to create nuclear weapons quite quickly (but, so far, have chosen not to - in Japan's case, it's because they know what it feels like to be on the receiving end).
 War with nuclear by-products
 Depleted uranium
- Main article: Depleted uranium
 Dirty bombs
A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive that is set up to spread radioactive material of some kind (such as waste from a reactor) when detonated. Thus, the bomb does far less damage than a nuclear weapon and even the conventional explosive doesn't need to be particularly big. These devices are theorized to be popular among potential terrorists, to scare the bejeebus out of us. However, like several of the "chemical, biological, and nuclear" exploits that terrorists are supposed to want to use, such material and devices would be very dangerous to make and handle, and do far less damage than typically understood. Unfortunately, there might be plenty of terrorists willing to risk what they see as martyrdom to get such a bomb built, delivered, and detonated. The goal of most terrorism isn't simply body counts, but the political and psychological effects, and people are frightened of dirty bombs, far more so than objectively more destructive alternatives - bad science fiction having reinforced this idea that radiation causes you to mutate doesn't help. The detonation of a dirty bomb would therefore be unlikely to cause real damage or radioactive effects that were immediately deadly, but the fear brought about by them more than make up for this.
One dirty bomb design that has never been put into practice does use a nuclear weapon as its delivery system. This is the cobalt bomb. You replace the usual uranium tamper around the Teller-Ulam secondary with a tamper made of non-radioactive cobalt-59. When the secondary detonates, the released neutrons react with the cobalt, turning it into radioactive cobalt-60, and the explosion flings it away for many miles around. The end result is the same as a conventional dirty bomb, except on a massive scale. No bombs of this type were ever built.
Note that 'cobalt bomb' can also refer to gamma sources containing cobalt-60, used in radiotherapy of cancer and radiosurgery.
 See also
- FAQ on radioactivity and nuclear technology
- Anti-nuclear movement: They once wanted to stop nuclear war, but this is no longer the main focus.
- Doomsday clock
- Nuclear disarmament
- For advice on what to do in case of nuclear war
- Look at Nevada.
- Enjoy your darkest nuke fantasies here.
- ↑ In fact, the realist school of international relations has specifically called for greater proliferation, to reduce the number of wars in the world. Specifically, John Mearsheimer, a leading neorealist, wants to give nuclear weapons to Germany and Japan. Others wish to give nuclear weapons to Taiwan to discourage China.
- ↑ The latter is (at least) still negotiating, which you can't say for the former. While the spoiled child's missile capacity currently looks like this, you don't need an ICBM to let off a nuke.
- ↑ SDI was originally the baby of Dr. Edward Teller, whose reputation among the nuclear scientists of the US was based primarily on his two-faced political machinations rather than his scientific work. Ostracized by his scientific colleagues for getting J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance revoked on trumped-up charges of spying, Teller found favor with conservative hawks and enough clout to get his pet projects done without being subject to public scrutiny. The end result: billions of dollars spent on a Teslaesque and possibly non-functional X-ray laser, followed by years of work on barely functional interceptor systems that only ever worked in rigged tests. Teller would go to his grave a hero of hawkish politicians and a pariah among scientists.
- ↑ Two general classes of structures will survive the blast. The first are those that are extremely heavy (built of thick, dense stone) or deliberately reinforced against lateral stresses (the first type may also provide protection against direct radiation and the thermal pulse). The second are those that are physically close to the hypocentre of the explosion, where the blast forces are close to vertical and have only a small horizontal component. In these buildings (such as Hiroshima's Atomic Dome), vertical compression members (load-bearing walls) may sustain the nearly-vertical blast pressures, but horizontal members will fail.
- ↑ The iconic image, NSFL?
- ↑ Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistors -- essentially a type of transistor that uses an unimaginably thin layer of quartz-like insulator as a signal gate. The layer in question is very sensitive, among other things, to static electricity, which can cause the layer to burn through, turning the transistor essentially into a short circuit. This is why anything with MOSFET-based chips is usually packaged in some kind of conductive plastic foam or bag.
- ↑ The Day After actually showed people hunting down tube-based ham radio equipment because all the transistorized stuff had been cooked.
- ↑ There were 428 excess deaths in a cohort that includes roughly 50% of the survivors, which mans there were roughly 1000 late radiation-related deaths, while the number of immediate deaths from both bombings was between 150,000 and 220,000.
- ↑ Both the Department of Defense and FEMA "insisted on changes" in the script of The Day After, in exchange for their support. No kidding. It's safe to assume that this has also happened to some degree with the other movies.
- ↑ After the countless ones built in the SimCity™ series
- ↑ India Pakistan problems prior to later tests.
- ↑ It is widely assumed that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, but has never officially acknowledged this.
- ↑ See Wikipedia on Vela Incident
- ↑ NRC: Backgrounder on Dirty Bombs
- ↑ Including white supremacist terrorists.