Expert comment – Have we forgotten what nuclear weapons really are?
Our partners 11th August 2017
As the Cold War fades into history, fewer and fewer people remember what life was like lived under the ever-present threat of nuclear warfare. Indeed, even during the Cold War years, the reality of nuclear weapons was downplayed.
Atmospheric testing was banned in 1963, driving tests underground – out of sight and out of mind – and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty brought an end to almost all nuclear weapons testing.
As a result, most people have no real understanding of what these weapons are, or what they can do, and very few have actually witnessed an above-ground detonation. There is a risk that we, including our leaders, politicians and decision makers, have a view excessively sanitised by computer games and films.
The sobering reality is that nuclear weapons have a strong claim to be the most destructive devices ever invented. They have existed for more than 70 years and, in that time, have evolved from the large, heavy, relatively inefficient devices that brought World War II to an end, to relatively compact, highly efficient, sophisticated designs with an explosive yield hundreds, or even thousands, of times those of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons.
What we know
There is limited information in the public domain, though the sobering book ‘Effects of Nuclear Weapons’ is still available. The reality is that even a ‘small’ weapon would be massively destructive.
The immediate effects of a single detonation in a populated area would be a massive challenge to the emergency services of even the wealthiest nation state. Such an attack would kill tens of thousands and injure similar numbers.
Meanwhile, the physical destruction of infrastructure and huge numbers of casualties with severe injuries, burns and radiation-induced symptoms would overwhelm the resources of even the wealthiest nation state – the entire USA has less than 2,000 beds for treating severe burn injuries.
In the case of a surface explosion, fallout – radioactive contamination – would spread in dust and smoke, and settle downwind of the detonation site. In the immediate aftermath, radiation doses could be lethal, although weapons fallout is mostly quite short-lived and radiation exposures would fall over some days. In the longer term, the attack sites could be rebuilt – both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving cities today.
There may be other, less predictable effects too. Nuclear detonations are accompanied by the phenomenon of ‘Electromagnetic pulse’ (EMP), which can destroy or damage electrical and electronic equipment over considerable distances. The potential effects of EMP on a modern, connected, digital society are not clear.
While the American nuclear arsenal is quite well known, the North Korean one is less so. To make an effective, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the missile has to be able to lift the warhead and deliver it accurately to the target, while the warhead has to be small enough to fit on to the missile and robust enough to survive flight and re-entry.
This requires some serious warhead engineering. The Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki was 3.3 m long and 1.5 m in diameter, with a weight of 4.7 tonnes. In contrast, a modern US missile warhead weighs less than 200 kg.
North Korea certainly has a viable nuclear weapon and a missile with sufficient range to deliver a device. What is not presently clear is whether they can combine the two effectively.
However, the consequences of using even a small or misfiring device could be terrible. We are literally playing with fire, on an almost incomprehensible scale, and we need to remember that – quickly.
Words – Professor Francis Livens
Image – James Vaughan