In Brief
  • Nuclear weapons hold a destructive power that is unparalleled on our planet, and there are plenty of them around, waiting to be deployed.
  • Here's a scientific look at the best way to minimize the inevitable damage and risk faced by survivors.

Unparalleled Destructive Power

Whatever your political beliefs are, there is simply no denying that nuclear weapons hold a destructive power that is unparalleled on our planet. The scientific facts about nuclear devices are undisputed, so let’s explore them.

Currently, nine countries (that we know of) possess about 15,000 nuclear warheads. The U.S. and Russia possess the majority of them, and at least 1,800 of those are on a hair-trigger setting, meaning they are able to be launched at a moment’s notice. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-government organizations from 100 countries seeking to ban nuclear weapons:

“Nuclear weapons are the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate weapons ever created. Both in the scale of the devastation they cause, and in their uniquely persistent, spreading, genetically damaging radioactive fallout, they are unlike any other weapons. A single nuclear bomb detonated over a large city could kill millions of people. The use of tens or hundreds of nuclear bombs would disrupt the global climate, causing widespread famine.”

To get a sense of what nuclear bombs do, you can map out how a detonation would look in your city with Nukemap. This app was created by the American Institute of Physics historian of science, Dr. Alex Wellerstein, to help people understand the effects of nuclear weapons. I used it to drop a mid-sized bomb (that Russia currently has) on New York City and it caused 1,166,120 fatalities, 1,407,210 injuries (not including unavoidable long-term issues like cancer, birth defects), a 4.15 square km fireball, and a 296 square km range for third-degree burns, among other effects.

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Or rather, consider the two nuclear bombs that have been used at war. The Hiroshima bomb from 1945 was a uranium bomb with an explosive yield equal to 15,000 tons of TNT. By the end of 1945, it had killed an estimated 140,000 people, burned and toppled about 70 percent of all buildings in the city, and increased rates of chronic disease and cancer among the survivors. The Nagasaki bomb that was detonated three days later was a slightly larger plutonium bomb. It killed 74,000 people by the end of the year, many of them literally incinerated by ground temperatures that reached 4,000°C (7,232 °F). It leveled 6.7 square kilometers of the city and showered what was left with radioactive rain.

The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were left without any recourse, no emergency services to come to their aid. Most victims who weren’t killed instantly died in terrible pain in the days/weeks/months/years to come. Many of their children born with radiation-related defects suffered as well. Some people who went into the cities to render aid also died from the radiation. 90 percent of doctors and nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured, and, of the city’s 45 hospitals, only three were still functional in any way. 70 percent of the surviving victims of the blast needed major care, due to their severe burns and other injuries. In fact, there are not enough dedicated burn beds in the entire world to care for the survivors of just one nuclear bomb attack on any city.

After detonation, the incidence of leukemia, breast, lung, thyroid, and other cancers among survivors increased notably. Added radiation exposure risks continue throughout the survivors’ lives to this day. In short, a single bomb detonated over one city would kill millions—some quickly, and others slowly and painfully. There would be no way to render aid to victims, and no effective aid to render.

More than 3,400 scientists representing more than 80 nations are calling for the ban of all nuclear weapons in support of the United Nations’ efforts. As the use of chemical weapons has been stigmatized, their hope is that the use of nuclear weapons will also be stigmatized and completely forbidden throughout the world. The indiscriminate destructive power of both classes of weapons is amply known and demonstrated, making the comparison an apt one.

Via Wiki Commons
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, By Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. Stored in the National Archives

How to Not Die

Despite this push to ban nuclear weapons, there remain so many who want to use them, that it makes sense to plan how we might survive a nuclear blast. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher Michael Dillon published details on this subject in a 2014 study, and various NGOs and government agencies have also dealt with this topic. Business Insider has even discussed how to survive “tactical” nuclear weapons, those that are lower-yield, ostensibly for more targeted strikes.

The main goal in surviving a nuclear blast is to avoid fallout radiation. Fallout consists of radioactive debris that is sprinkled as ash and dust all over by prevailing winds. Ideally, you would hide until first responders could reach you. Some buildings provide better shelter from nuclear fallout than others, houses without basements or constructed with lightweight materials would obviously be poor choices. The best shelters are built, well, like bomb shelters, from concrete or thick brick without windows.

The Best Strategy to Survive a Nuclear Blast, According to Science

In a typical one-story house you’ll avoid only half of the radiation from fallout, which isn’t very helpful. In the sub-basement of a larger brick building, you may escape all but 1/200 of the fallout radiation. Whether it’s better to stay in a poor shelter or risk exposure looking for a better one depends on your distance from the blast, which determines when the fallout arrives. If you’re so close to a good shelter that you can see it when the bomb hits, you can risk it. But, if you think it might take 10 to 15 minutes or so to get there, stay where you are and wait—but only for an hour or so since the longer you stay in a poor shelter, the more radiation you’re exposed to.

So, while your odds of surviving a blast are pretty slim, you can at least be prepared. Hopefully, this won’t have to be a serious concern for any of us.