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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 by the United States 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 or religious fanatics that literally believe in the end of days as something desirable might get them, people are frantically working to find alternatives.
- 1 Effects of nuclear war
- 2 Types of nuclear war
- 3 War with nuclear by-products
- 4 Historical close calls
- 5 Legality of nuclear weapons
- 6 Nuclear war and pop culture
- 7 Nations with nuclear weapons
- 8 See also
- 9 External links
- 10 References
Effects of nuclear war
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 sand which would filter out sunlight and result in the death of most life on the planet. In fact, studies have shown that even a small regional nuclear war with 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons could have devastating effects on agriculture worldwide. 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 (operative term being "scientist", not strategists), 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. The common dread of what a nuclear strike might lead to was not strong enough to prevent the Kargil War, a short but vicious conventional war over part of Kashmir in 1999, but the mere possibility of a nuclear exchange was enough to motivate the U.S. to mediate a rapid end to the conflict. On the other hand, a global nuclear exchange almost happened by accident several times so far due to errors in computer systems and/or the humans operating them.
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 (and sometimes last) thing noticed after a nuclear detonation is called the "double flash" — an intense blast of light that's immediately followed 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 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.
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, and with (by today's standards) very small-yield bombs. Imagine if it were large scale.
In addition to all the nasty health and destruction effects, the gamma rays interacting with electrons in the upper atmosphere produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that can fry many types of electronics, especially the MOSFET-based chips that power virtually anything computerized.
Note that EMP is portrayed inaccurately in most media. It will not occur in space. It will not create a lasting haze that interferes with electronic equipment for weeks on end. It will not prevent the spark plugs in your car's engine from firing (unless your car's ignition timing is controlled by an embedded computer that gets fried by the pulse, of course). It will not blind the area to radio communications for 90 minutes, requiring the plucky hero to run the gauntlet of Soviet stormtroopers so that he can get his message to headquarters in time.
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.
“”Military experts are saying that a 100-megaton bomb such as Mr. Khrushchev talked about – one with a wallop equal to 100 million tons of TNT – would be too big to be efficient. That's nice.
|—New York Herald Tribune on the Tsar Bomba, 1961|
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 and fallout are 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.
War with nuclear by-products
- Main article: Depleted uranium
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-Ułam 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.
Historical close calls
Besides a number of technical errors that caused Americans or Russians to freak out until they got to the bottom of things, there were three major events in the Cold War that almost led to a large-scale nuclear conflict between the two:
- Cuban missile crisis- in October 1962, Nikita Khrushchev had nuclear missiles secretly set up in Cuba to deter the US from ever invading, or at least as a counter to the US's missiles in Turkey. US counterintelligence
illegallyphotographed the missiles, and JFK responded by announcing the discovery to the whole world and beginning a blockade of the island. For two weeks the conflict escalated while the whole world began preparing for the end. The end came much closer than people realize; the US fired warning shots at the Russians (and vice versa), including at one of the subs. Now the funny thing about warning shots with submarines is that they have no way of actually telling what is and is not an actual attack. This particular sub happened to be armed with nuclear torpedoes, and it actually came to a vote as to whether or not to use them. Fortunately, the vote was only 2 to 1 in favor (needed unanimous), and diplomacy won the day, the Russian missiles were pulled out of Cuba and the US's missiles quietly pulled out of Turkey, and Khrushchev got his guarantee of Cuba's safety in the most humiliating way possible. Oddly, this was a situation where both sides got exactly what they wanted yet both still lost horribly. The crisis alienated France from the US, as De Gaulle felt that if the Americans weren't going to help Cuba they wouldn't help France, and Russia was alienated from China, which saw the backing down as a weakness rather than a strategy to get what they wanted anyway.
- Yom Kippur War- after a UN cease-fire was violated by both Israel and their Egyptian and Syrian opponents, the Soviets and Americans threatened nuclear war until they got their respective allies to sit down and stop shooting. The crisis was largely overshadowed in America by Watergate and the ongoing energy crisis resulting from the war. Henry Kissinger may have saved the world this time. It also happened during a time when Richard Nixon was not exactly mentally stable.
- Able Archer 83- following Saint Reagan's rapid escalation of the Cold War in his first term, the Soviet leadership was convinced he was going to launch a first strike. In November 1983, a massive NATO military exercise was taken as a preparation for one. For the next ten days the Soviets sat on high alert. When the exercises ended and no strike had occurred, everyone calmed down.
Legality of nuclear weapons
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons prevents nuclear weapons states from transferring them to other states or helping them to make their own, whilst tacitly acknowledging that owning nuclear weapons isn't illegal per se. The treaty also imposes an obligation on nuclear weapon states to "pursue negotiations in good faith" on the destruction of remaining stockpiles, whilst also preserving the right of states to research and utilize nuclear energy for peaceful means. This last provision has led to several instances where states have been accused of developing a nuclear weapons program under the guise of civilian research, such as Iran and North Korea.
In 1996, the International Court of Justice was invited by the UN General Assembly to issue an Advisory Opinion on the question "Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?" In the Court's judgement, they found that there was no explicit or customary prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons, but that, generally, the use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to international humanitarian law (particularly the prohibition against using weapons that cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians). Further, there is a ban on the use of weapons which do excessive damage to the environment, which would obviously be the case with nuclear weapons. However, the Court also held that "in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake," the legal situation was less clear and it was impossible to say whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons in such a case would be legal. On the whole, nobody came out of this case pleased – nuclear weapons remain in a state of legal limbo, without any clearly defined parameters for their use except "only when your state's survival is at stake." (Which isn't terribly comprehensive.)
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 WarGames. 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 and Babylon 5), novels (On The Beach, Z for Zacariah, Farnham's Freehold and Metro 2033 also an establishing detail for Lord of the Flies and A Canticle for Leibowitz), and video games (Wasteland and the Fallout series). It also comes as no surprise that the specter of the atom looms in the background of some Japanese works, whether based on the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Barefoot Gen) or how doomsday devices and powerful weapons in their pop culture tend to be thinly-veiled nuclear weapons.
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 at some point in their history possessed 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 WWII and send a message to the Soviets. Current stockpile: about 4,800 usable warheads, 2,500 additional to be dismantled.
- Russia - developed in the Soviet Union to deter the West from doing the Unthinkable. Current stockpile: about 4,300 warheads, 3,700 additional to be dismantled. 
- United Kingdom - developed to deter the Soviet Union. Exclusively submarine-based, approx. 200 warheads (not all operational.) Although nominally an "independent" deterrent, in practice any decision by the Royal Navy to initiate nuclear war would be constrained by the 1958 US–UK Mutual Defence Agreement. In vernacular, the Brits would never push the buttons if the Yanks were against the idea.
- France - developed to deter the Soviet Union. Approx. 300 warheads. 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. Unlike the UK nuclear arsenal, the French deterrent is genuinely independent, and the Frogs could and would push the red button without checking whether the Amerloques or the Rosbifs were in favour.
- China - developed to deter the US, and later the Soviet Union.
- India - developed first to deter China and, later, Pakistan
- Israel - the only unconfirmed nuclear power. Israel pursues a policy of "nuclear ambiguity", always dancing around the question of whether or not it has nuclear weapons and maintaining that it will not be the first nation to "introduce" nukes to the Middle East, but most observers generally agree that they have them, and a number of leaked documents have all but confirmed it. If the Israelis do have nukes, then they built them to deter their Arab neighbors.
- Pakistan - built to deter India
- North Korea - built them to have something to wave around besides its
dickmalnourished troops and aging Soviet tech, has had five successful tests. One of these, in January 2016, was announced as a fusion weapon (H-Bomb, in the vernacular) but it did not appear to be a big enough bang for that to be true; both Russian and South Korean examinations estimated the kilotonnage as less than half that of the Hiroshima bomb. A September 2017 test was much more convincing, with a multi-hundred kiloton yield,
- 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. Ukraine thought they got a guarantee that Russia would respect its territorial integrity in exchange for them giving up nukes. Tough luck.
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, South Korea, Germany, 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).
- 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.
- The Ten Most Bizarre Ideas For Using Nuclear Weapons
- Enjoy your darkest nuke fantasies here.
- Goldsboro. Arkhipov. Petrov. Yeltsin. Carpe diem.
- 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 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.
- The question becomes: Cricket or this? Shared hatreds become suddenly minute.
- 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?
- If someone wants to see this in screen, the Sarah Connor's dream scene in Terminator 2: Judgement Day was praised for its realism portraying a nuclear blast
- 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.
- 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.
- We're looking at you, Infinity Ward.
- Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- Including white supremacist terrorists.
- more than you'd like to think
- Kennedy announces the Cuban blockade on television
- The full text of the treaty at the International Atomic Energy Agency
- Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, ICJ
- Mohammed Bedjaoui (then President of the World Court) appended a separate opinion in which he noted that "it would be very rash to accord, without any hesitation, a higher priority to the survival of a State than to the survival of humanity itself," while Judge Christopher Weeramantry, in a separate opinion, expressed disappointment that the Court did not find the threat or use of nuclear weapons illegal in all circumstances, which in his opinion creates one set of international rules for conventional weapons and another for nuclear weapons.
- No, Tom, everything that isn't North American isn't Communist.
- 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.
- A semi-biographical manga about what happened in Hiroshima and its impact on the survivors and Japan at large.
- CONELRAD website
- Top 10 Most Annoying Sounds, TIME
- Get it?
- After the countless ones built in the SimCity™ series
- See Wikipedia on Vela Incident