But let’s be honest: most individuals, even in a zone of moderate damage, is not going to survive. Few people live and work in almost windowless reinforced concrete buildings or near a concrete bunker. (Even people within the bank would should get to the vault to be within the safest place; people within the subway would profit most from the station, which may be very deep underground.) Most people live in timber frame houses or other less armored buildings.
This shouldn’t be interpreted as a method to ensure safety in a nuclear blast, says Dylan Spaulding, an earth scientist and nuclear expert on the Union of Concerned Scientists. Strong structures manufactured from metal-reinforced concrete and designed for seismic safety, he says, would withstand the pressures the team modeled, but those pressures could be enough to destroy most traditional timber-framed and non-reinforced brick homes.
And he points out that the shockwave is just a part of the story. While that is the most important source of danger in a non-nuclear explosion – reminiscent of the one which shook Beirut in 2020, which was attributable to a considerable amount of flammable ammonium nitrate stored in the town’s port – nuclear weapons also emit ionizing radiation and warmth, followed by radioactive fallout.
Exposure to radiation through the skin or inhalation can have many health effects, including skin burns, organ damage, and cancer. The range of radiation exposure can extend for tens of miles from the epicenter, so individuals who survive the blast could also be knocked down by the radiation later.
Drikakis’s example focused on so-called “strategic” nuclear weapons deployed on an ICBM, but there are also “tactical” nuclear bombs which can be dropped from an airplane onto the battlefield and explode on the bottom. Such explosions are different, but they will be just as deadly and destructive, potentially exposing more people to lethal doses of radiation, says Spaulding.
Russia and the United States even have so-called low-yield atomic bombs, which have a yield of 5 to 10 kilotons and are barely smaller than the 15 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima. They would still cause massive damage and cross a dangerous red line, possibly escalating the conflict to make use of more weapons.
Mankind’s most destructive weapon has only been utilized in war once, when the United States demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan with two atomic bombs at the top of World War II in 1945. Together, they killed over 100,000 Japanese civilians and wounded many more. And Spaulding points out that with the experiments conducted on Nevada test pageoffer among the only real evidence on the varieties of structures that may survive an atomic blast and the way well.
But last 12 months, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that nuclear weapons weren’t ruled out in his attack on Ukraine. While NATO leaders didn’t use such threatening rhetoric, the international organization did conducted nuclear exercises in October, simulating the dropping of B61 atomic bombs. US President Joe Biden Nuclear Posture Review that very same month, he abandoned the “no first use” policy he had previously supported. One can imagine the nuclear risk in other conflicts as well, for instance the likelihood North Korea using nuclear weapons against South Korea, or Pakistan and India using them against one another.
The world’s arsenals amount to about 12,700 warheads, in keeping with a list conducted by Federation of American Scientists. This is lower than their peak of around 70,000 at the top of the Cold War, because of arms reduction treaties. However, a few of these pacts have already been dissolved, and the risks have never disappeared, because the metaphor of the Doomsday Clock illustrates.
This is just not a game, says Drikakis. He says the chance of a devastating nuclear attack is all too real: “We must keep the peace by understanding the risks of not keeping the peace.”