With all of the turbulence about North Korea and nuclear war, I’ve been getting some questions lately about what does nuclear war really mean. My simple answer is, NOT GOOD.
The first aspect is fairly normal for war if you want to call anything about war normal. Nuclear bombs are very destructive on a pound for pound basis. For a relatively small size, they destroy a relatively large area. While in Oklahoma City several years ago a truckload of fertilizer bomb destroyed a building and a few other surrounding buildings, a nuclear bomb of comparable size would flatten a rather large part of a city. However, this is a relatively small problem with respect to nuclear bombs.
The biggest problem with nuclear bombs is the radioactivity associated with them. Think in terms of the Japanese nuclear power plant, Fukushima, or the Ukraine power plant fire, Chernobyl. Both areas are still uninhabitable because of residual radiation. This radiation consists of high-energy particles given off by the elements in the bomb. These particles interact with our body cells’ reproduction processes causing an increase in mutations. The mutations are frequently bad, and we end up dying prematurely, radiation sickness, or if we survive longer, they frequently result in cancer. The radioactive decay is such that this residual radiation is around for quite some time. Also, the wind carries it over a large area, so the problem is not just restricted to the attack site.
The big question becomes for how long and how far is the radiation a problem. My thoughts years ago were that the US could explode all of our weapons right here and kill every living mammal on the planet. This sort of thinking was promulgated by the 1959 movie “On The Beach.” One of my Swiss physicist friends built a new house and was required by the government to build a bomb shelter in the basement. He decided to also build a wine cellar. The shelter was to the left the wine cellar to the right. He always said that in the advent of a nuclear war he would go right. In a discussion with one of my colleagues the other day, we had a similar discussion about the usefulness of a bomb shelter. While he doesn’t have a shelter, he told me he had done some calculations with respect to the decay of radioactive material in a bomb. His results indicated that after two weeks you could survive coming out of the shelter. Other articles I have recently read indicate that a nuclear war is survivable from a physics and biological viewpoint.
However, there are many other considerations outside the realm of science. For example, there would most likely be a serious destruction of infrastructure. How would survivors get food, safe water, etc.?
Based on the science as I understand it, a nuclear war is survivable, but its consequences are beyond my imagination. It is something I would definitely prefer to not see happen.