Most people are very confused about nuclear war because all the information we pick up about it comes from science fiction, fantasy and dystopian culture. Being a child of the nuclear age, I can't help asking myself what's the real risk?
Nuclear bombs are powerful weapons
The data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki tell us that the real risk is immediate and proximate. Nuclear weapons are bombs of immense power. Anyone caught up in the blast radius is at major risk from the blast, the heat, and the electromagnetic (radioactive) pulse. This is all obvious.
If I survived the bombs, could I survive in the resultant nuclear wasteland and fallout?
People frequently write about a nuclear wasteland making life impossible after bombs have dropped. For example:
- "Horribly compelling: Bruce Conner's nuclear test film still holds us in rapture". Pay particular attention to the comments following the article.
- In the 1957 novel "On the Beach", by Nevil Shute, the characters are told they will die when radiation fallout from the atomic war reaches Australia. Reading that novel prompted Helen Caldicott into a lifetime of anti-nuclear activism!
- In the TV series Battlestar Galactica (2004 / 2009), our human fugitives eventually find earth but it is a radioactive wasteland where they can't survive due to widespread atomic war a thousand years ago. This is fantasy, not science fiction.
What about birth defects?
Don't worry. There's some small danger to pregnant women exposed to the electromagnetic pulse, but no danger to anyone exposed only to fallout. Read: Birth defects among the children of atomic-bomb survivors (1948-1954). Far more harm has been experienced from worrying over this. 200,000 women were persuaded to have abortions after the Chernobyl accident. We're now pretty certain that exposure to the Chernobyl radiation fallout would not have led to even a single birth defect.
Again, radiation sickness is only a threat to those exposed to the electromagnetic pulse at the time of an explosion. Such people will be close to the centre of a bomb explosion and be exposed to large amounts of radioactivity (exposure: 1000 mSv or more). It will be a small minority of people. Far more bomb casualties are blast or fire victims. Radiation sickness can lead to death but some subjects do recover. It's caused by massive tissue damage and cell die off.
A larger number of people exposed to a high A-bomb electromagnetic pulse may develop cancer. (exposure: 100 mSv or more).
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki evidence shows the great majority of nuclear bomb victims died due to injuries inflicted by the blast, or fires.
In the 1970s, some scientists guessed that a large scale nuclear war would lead to fires most everywhere, burning for days on end, sending a plume of dust into the atmosphere. This dust would affect the climate for many months causing global cooling and a nuclear winter. Atomic bomb survivors would be hard pressed to feed themselves after the atomic war. These scenarios are basically models which assume the worse in every case. Other scientists have completely dismissed the nuclear winter scenarios. See: Cresson H. Kearny; Home Office dismissed nuclear winter threat as scaremongering, files show
Provided a bomb didn't drop right on you, and that you weren't in the immediate area of the blast and radiation pulse, you're unlikely to suffer radiation harm. The real threats after an atomic war will be crime, social breakdown, disease and malnutrition. Exactly what we find in the aftermath of conventional war. Even if you're close to an explosion centre, provided you don't die from blast or fire, you're still far more likely to live on, to survive, than you are to die.
- The Dangers from Nuclear Weapons: Myths and Facts
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Long Term Health Effects
- online book: Radiation and health, by Thormod Henriksen and Biophysics group at UiO, 1997
- online book: The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, compiled and edited by Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, 1977
- book: Nuclear War Survival Skills (2012 Edition), by Cresson H. Kearny
- book: Radiation and Reason, Wade Allison, 2009
- book: Radiation Hormesis, by T. D. Luckey, 1991
- video: BBC Horizon Nuclear Nightmares 2006 (has good discussion on LNT)
- Birth defects among the children of atomic-bomb survivors (1948-1954)
- Home Office dismissed nuclear winter threat as scaremongering, files show