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A beginner's guide to nuclear war

Apr. 25, 2017
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It has taken less than 100 days for the U.S. President’s erratic behavior to bleed into his relationships with the heads of the world’s other nuclear powers. Although most of us were born long after the airstrike drills in schools and constant paranoia of falling under nuclear attack, we are now seeing the re-emergence of nuclear war as a distinct possibility. But there’s one question nobody quite knows how to answer: how did we get here?   

With America under dubious leadership authority and engaging in a complicated relationship with nuclear supergiant Russia, the American people are beginning to re-examine what nuclear weapons are and how much damage they can do. This starts with rebuilding our understanding of how, exactly, these destructive devices work. When a nuclear bomb goes off, there is a massive explosion caused by a nuclear fission reaction within the weapon. Unlike nuclear fusion, which describes the process of fusing atoms together, the term “nuclear fission” refers to the unbonding of sub-atomic particles (protons, neutrons and electrons)--in other words, the atoms in the bomb are torn apart, which causes a massive disruption and thus an explosion.

On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped the first ever nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and six days later dropped a second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki. The effects were devastating; An estimated 150,000 people were injured or killed in Hiroshima and an additional 75,000 in Nagasaki. The cities were obliterated, human beings were essentially incinerated in a fraction of a second. Many survivors walked a great distance away from the detonation zone before collapsing and dying, and those who did not die immediately following the blast suffered vomiting, diarrhea and other complications before adding to the death toll in the following weeks. Because of the nature of nuclear weapons, the effects of radiation left behind by the bombs led to the proliferation of cancerous tumors that plagued survivors for the rest of their lives; birth defects and mental retardation in subsequent generations of Japanese people; and the total destruction of Japan’s infrastructure. Thousands of photographers documented the damage and preserved the images so that future generations could see for themselves the inhumanity of nuclear war.   

Fast-forward to 2017: it is estimated that there are a total of 14,900 nuclear warheads in existence, the majority of which are in the possession of Russia and the United States. A little less than 10,000 of these weapons are stockpiled, while just under 4,000 warheads are deployed and considered ready to use at a moment’s notice. Retired or deployed warheads account for most of this inventory, which means the weapons have either already been test-fired or dismantled. The dismantling and disposal of nuclear weapons is a tedious, delicate and thus highly-scrutinized process that must be conducted in a laboratory setting. Certain parts will be taken to different facilities like the Pantex Plant to be disassembled.

The United States, Russia and the United Kingdom are actively working towards reducing their “stockpiled” or active warheads, but the process has been gradually slowing in recent years. The nuclear threat posed by North Korea is comparatively minor, seeing as they only have produced enough nuclear fission material for between ten and twenty warheads. Both France and China have close to 300 warheads, while the U.K. has a little over 200. Pakistan, India and Israel also hold nuclear power but are not quite as heavily armed as the nuclear superpowers Russia and the United States.

For years, the greatest threat to the safety of the planet was thought to stem from regional disputes in places like the Middle East, North East and South Asia. But Trump’s erratic behavior has given rise to a much scarier thought: the possibility that the U.S. itself could either carelessly or intentionally provoke a nuclear war. Trump’s attitude towards nuclear warfare oscillates on a seemingly daily basis between fascination and carelessness--either of which could lead to consequences too terrifying to contemplate. A deliberate attack (whether carried out by the U.S. or by a slighted rival) would cause catastrophic consequences across the planet, affecting everything about life as we know it. 

Unfortunately, the current nuclear landscape appears to be precarious at best. 

Obviously, plunging into nuclear war is not a decision that should be made hastily or with limited consideration. But with dubious authority figures like Trump in power--men whose decisions are consistently poorly considered and brashly executed--a nuclear threat is omnipresent across the globalised world. Trump’s alarmingly friendly relationship with Putin has devolved into more of a “frenemy” dynamic (which is equally alarming in its own way), and amid rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea it’s hard to tell who’s baiting whom. But if things continue to escalate, it isn’t going to matter who “started it”: in the event of nuclear war, everyone loses. The likelihood of surviving a nuclear attack is limited, as shown by the aftermath of the American attacks on Japan. We can only hope that careful consideration is undertaken when our leaders decide the fate of our country, our planet and our survival as a species.