By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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.