I’m going to get a bit in depth this week and take a look at the effects of nuclear weapons. What does it say about us as a species that we created, or even conceived, such things?
More to the point, what would it actually be like to experience a nuclear attack? This a question that tickles the human interest in the macabre. On detonation, a nuclear weapon produces what is known as a “thermal pulse”, a wall of heat that travels out from ground zero at the speed of light, instantly setting fire to any flammable material within line of sight. Houses, trees, grass, rubbish in bins and human beings would burst into flames. Jonathan Schell, in his fascinating book “the Fate of the Earth”, cites that after the detonation of a twenty megaton weapon (with the equivalent power of 20 million tons of TNT) “people caught in the open twenty three miles from ground zero would be burnt to death”. In concentric circles further away from the point of detonation, people would receive burns that would later prove fatal, and many miles further out would be blinded if they happened to be looking in the wrong direction.
After the thermal pulse comes the blast wave. This is the air displaced by the energy of the detonation, pushed away at hundreds of miles an hour, much faster than a hurricane. Buildings made of anything less substantial than re-enforced concrete don’t stand a chance. Anyone who managed to evade the thermal pulse in the open would be picked up and bodily hurled with lethal force. Those who had taken shelter indoors would either be crushed as their houses crumpled like paper cups, or in more sturdy structures be eviscerated as windows erupted into razor sharp fragments. Cars, buses and train carriages would fly hundreds of metres. Although the blast would extinguish the initial fires started by the thermal pulse, others would reignite in its wake as ruptured gas mains spilled out into every street and petrol tanks under garages burst open.
Next is the firestorm. When enough material within a certain area is on fire, the volume of inrushing air feeding the fire becomes so great that it enters a positive feedback cycle, only putting itself out when all flammable matter has been exhausted. Those who had survived the thermal pulse and blast wave would have to escape quickly or be sucked into the firestorm, as again winds reached hundreds of miles an hour, but this time in the opposite direction.
Finally comes the fallout. Fallout is any material, generally buildings and earth, which is vapourized and sucked up by the initial explosion and thus made extremely radioactive. It then falls back to earth with the prevailing winds and can render wherever it lands uninhabitable for weeks, hence the need for “fallout shelters”. So, anyone who had somehow survived the previous three effects and sought refuge downwind of the blast would be subjected to potentially lethal radiation. It must also be remembered that even if the area you are in did not receive a direct hit, depending on the winds fallout can travel many hundreds of miles, so that in a large scale attack there would be very few places unaffected. Thus there can be no outside help, because every city is just as burnt, blasted and irradiated as any other.
There are many, many less immediate effects of nuclear weapons, the most important of which are the social effects. All the comforts of modern life would evaporate. There would be no electricity, no gas, no running water, no working toilets, no rubbish collection, no petrol left in the pumps. There was mass panic buying in the UK recently at the threat of petrol shortages. Imagine the scenario of millions of terrified, hungry people trying to take to roads to find some modicum of safety. Petrol would become worth its weight in gold, and people would easily kill for it.
Food supplies would be drastically cut, as modern farming depends on petrol driven machinery and artificial fertilizers. Regaining even a subsistence level of farming would be difficult, as traditional non-mechanised methods have essentially been forgotten. What few doctors survived the attack would find their hospitals in ruins, their supplies buried in the rubble, each one overwhelmed by hundreds of horrendously wounded patients. It’s very unlikely that any new supplies would reach them. They would soon find themselves trying to treat people without clean bandages, antibiotics or drugs. Not only this, but millions of human and animal corpses would lie rotting in the streets and fields, spreading disease amongst a catastrophically weakened population.
Whilst all of this was going on, the ecosystem itself would very probably be dying, as what trees and plants weren’t irradiated would be denied sunlight by the billions of tons of smoke and soot filling the atmosphere. Day would become twilight, and ash from millions of incinerated trees would settle on everything like snow. Respiratory ailments could become endemic for years afterwards. So, as Schell points out, both manmade and natural systems would breakdown irrevocably.
As President Jimmy Carter put it in his farewell speech, “the survivors, if any, would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide”. Not only might we kill civilization, but our race and our planet as well. Pretty bleak stuff really, isn’t it?