C Rulon: Nuclear War

By | April 16, 2011

By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College ([email protected])


Headlines in recent years have focused heavily on nuclear weapons in North Korea and Pakistan, plus Iran’s attempt to join the “nuclear club”. And most recently, horrendous nuclear meltdown problems in the earthquake-tsunami-damaged nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan have seriously elevated global concerns over radioactive fallout and contamination. Thus, the current relevance of this paper.

Nuclear death toll

In August, 1945, the United States exploded a sin­gle nuclear fission bomb over Hiro­shima and another over Nagasaki. Both cities were destroyed, 125,000 Japanese were kil­led outright, and within months another 100,000 had died from in­jur­ies and radioactive fallout. Yet, today, each of our Trident sub­marines has the firepower of about 200 Hiroshima bombs, or eight times the fire­power released in the entire six years of World War II! The total nuclear arsenals of the world (deployed weapons and reserves), is now estimated at around 23,000, or roughly 2000 times the total firepower used during World War II.[i] Thus, despite our considerable arms reductions over the last two decades, we still have the capacity to obliterate all human life many times over.


The meltdown of the nuclear fuel in the Chernobyl power plant in Russia in 1986 erupted in a radioactive cloud that spread out over most of Europe. Up to 18 tons of reactor core fuel was spewed into the atmosphere, releasing 50 times as much radio­active material into the air as was re­leased at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia was left with 27 ghost towns and cities too contaminated by radioactivity to be occupied in the foreseeable future and with 80,000 square miles that must be evacuated for thousands of years. The Chernobyl reactor core will remain dangerously radioactive for billions of years!

Yet, if just one Trident II submarine released its ars­enal of nuclear weapons, the radio­act­iv­ity re­leased into the atmosphere would be equi­valent to several thousand Chernobyl disasters. Fol­lowing even a “limited” nuclear war, the high levels of radioactivity from fallout would contami­nate most food and water supplies world­wide and would slowly and painfully kill over a billion or so people along with their farm animals and wild­life.

Toxic smog

All metal in a 3.5 mile radius from the blast center of a one megaton nuclear bomb would vaporize or melt. Out to 7 miles, all rubber and plastic would ignite and burn. Incineration of oil tanks and refineries, along with stor­age tanks of hazardous chemicals, rub­ber pro­ducts and anything else that can burn would produce toxic smog which could cover much of the Northern Hemi­­sphere. Extreme­ly acid rains and acid fogs would be com­mon. In addition, the heat from the nuclear blast would chemically unite the oxygen and nitrogen in our air to form oxides of nitrogen. Once in the stratosphere, the toxic smog plus the oxides of nitrogen would destroy much of the remaining ozone layer which absorbs most of the harmful ultraviolet light from the sun. As the ozone is destroyed, ani­mal life on land would go blind and skin cancers would skyrocket.


Most sanitation facilit­ies would be destroyed, people’s nat­u­ral resis­tance would be drastically lowered and antibiotics, plus most 20th century medi­cine would be largely unavailable. Thus, deadly in­fect­ions and global epidemics (plague, cholera, typhoid, dysentery, etc.) would return with a vengeance. Swarms of rapidly producing insects and rod­ents would damage remaining food supplies and spread disease.

The medical effects of a one megaton explo­sion on Los Angeles

If a single one-megaton nuclear war­head were drop­ped on Los Angeles, one to three million people would be killed outright and several million seriously injured.[ii] For comparison, The United States suffered a total of around one million casual­ties in our Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined. There is no identifiable event in human history in which millions of people were killed or seriously injured in one place in one moment.

Then there would be hundreds of thousands to millions of temporary “survivors” who, before dying horribly over the next several days to weeks, would have extensive third-degree burns and/or suffer crushing injuries of the chest, abdomen and limbs; skull fractures; spinal cord in­juries; multiple lacerations, hemorrhage, shock, blindness, ruptured lungs and acute radiation sickness. Many more would die over the next several months as a result of disease, radioactive damage, toxic smog and/or human violence. Longer-range problems would include raging epidemics spawned by millions of decomposing human corpses, lack of safe water and an explosive growth of insect vectors. There would be essentially no hospitals, ambulances, pain killers, safe water, medics, lab equipment, X-rays, blood, burn centers, or drugs available for any of the seriously injured.

A call to medical responsibility

When asked by the White House in 1981 to devise a plan for medical disaster planning following a nuclear war, representatives from two organiza­tions, Phy­si­cians for Social Responsibility and Internat­ional Phy­sicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, res­ponded that, as physicians, scientists, and concerned citizens, they were alarmed by an inter­national climate that increasingly presented nuclear war as a “rational” possibility. These professional organizations felt impelled to renew the following warning, based on medical and scientific analysis:[iii]

a. Nuclear war, even a “limited” one, would result in death, injury, and disease on a scale that has no precedent in the history of human existence.

b. Medical “disaster planning” for nuclear war is meaningless. There is no possible effective medical response. Most hospitals would be destroyed, most med­ical personnel dead or injured, most supplies un­available. Most “survivors” would die.

c. There is no effective civil defense. The blast, plus the thermal and radiation effects would kill even those in shelters and the fallout would reach those who had been evacuated.

d. Recovery from nuclear war would be essentially impossible. The economic, ecological, and social fab­ric on which human life depends would have been de­stroyed in much of the world.

Leaders of these organizations maintained that any physician who even assisted the U.S. Govern­ment in such “disaster planning” would be committing a pro­foundly unethical act, since their participation would create the illusion that meaningful survival would actually be possible. In 1985 the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Some final thoughts

All of the mega-tonnage in our nuclear arsenals would yield but a fraction of the power of the asteroid that triggered the global mass extinct­ion 65 mil­lion years ago. Yet, Earth recov­er­ed in 5-10 mil­lion years and went on evolving new species. Ice ages have covered most of Europe and North America, yet evolution con­tinued on. Bacteria will survive nuclear wars, as will mil­lions of insects. Also certain to survive will be blue-green algae, at one time the dominant form of life on this planet. They can sur­vive in boiling water, or the intense cold of liquid he­lium. They can survive in the salt water of the Dead Sea and the parched dryness of deserts. And they can survive high exposure to nuclear radiation. But humans cannot; we will be gone.

Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould reminded us over 20 years ago in his book, Wonderful Life, that if through our greed, stupidity, narrow reli­gious beliefs, indifference, or what­ever, we destroy our chance to survive as a viable soc­ial species (and even take most other species with us as in a nuclear war), the Earth will bleed, bandage up and continue on, evolving new life forms over the next tens of millions of years. But the human species with all of its bril­liant sci­entific discoveries, its music, art, “smart” wea­pons and thousands of different religious sects will be gone forever. Tens of millions of years from now there will be few traces left of the damage once caused by the naked ape that emerged from the trees to rule planet Earth only a few seconds ago in the infinity of space and time.

[i] http://www.icanw.org/history> Between the 1960s and 1980s, an intensive arms race took place between the United States and Soviet Union. In 1986 the arms race reached its peak. At that time the two superpowers together had over 70,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. The total explosive power of these weapons would have been enough to annihilate the world and almost all its living creatures approximately 25 times over.

[ii] A one megaton nuclear bomb has the explosive power of one million tons of TNT. Most warheads are smaller than one megaton, although bombs as large as 60 megatons have been tested.

[iii] http://archives-trim.un.org/webdrawer/rec/424483/view/Items-in-UN%20Centre%20for%20Disarmament%20-%20Assistant%20Secretary-General%20%28ASG%29,%20Jan%20Martenson.PDF

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