Many times we tend to believe that international news has nothing to do with us. That conflicts between countries in the other hemisphere do not affect us. However, today's world has a ghost we cannot get rid off and that is able to make all the world's countries without exception suffer its consequences. It is the possibility of a war with nuclear weapons.
Until World War II the most destructive bomb was the 10-ton British "Grand Slam", capable of wiping out everything in a radius of one block. But the revolution came with the new nuclear technology: the Hiroshima bomb, of fission of uranium atoms, had the power of 12 500 tons of conventional explosives, killing around 100 000 people. And in 1952 another revolution of nightmare: the first thermonuclear bomb of fusion of hydrogen atoms, equivalent to 10 400 000 tons of conventional explosives. In just a decade, the destructive power of "human" beings was multiplied by 1 million.
THE POWER OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS
Nuclear weapons entered mass production. A typical bomb today is about 1,7 m long and 0,5 m in diameter and has a mass of only 360 kg, but with its system of thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen can explode with the force of 300 000 tons of conventional explosives.
During a nuclear explosion, the first thing you perceive is a bright light, brighter than the sun and of unbearable heat. Everything around vaporizes and rises in a huge ball of hot gas, leaving a plume of smoke beneath, creating the typical nuclear mushroom. Several seconds later comes the terrible shock of displaced air, with its earthquakes and rumblings.
A bomb half that power would be enough to destroy Manhattan. The strong radiation massively kills cells up to 2 km from the center of the explosion, even inside buildings. Furthermore, up to almost 4 km, the air displaced at supersonic speed sweeps structures. Up to 5 km the heat is so intense that still causes fatal burns. Three million people can be inside areas like this.
There are two classifications of atomic weapons: the small ones, tactical, are developed to win a battle in a very specific place and time. They are usually transported by small missiles such as the Tomahawk cruise missile or fighter planes like the F-16. The most powerful ones, strategic, are designed to decide a war in no time and are usually transported by long-range bombers like the B-2 or by intercontinental ballistic missiles, true rockets 7 or more stories-high that are launched from underground silos. There are smaller strategic missiles launched from submarines, closer to the targets.
After the United States of America, the Soviet Union exploded its first bomb in 1949. Then the United Kingdom did so in 1952, France in 1960 and China in 1964. In 1968, the UN ruled that five nuclear powers were already too much and banned nuclear proliferation. No country can develop new nuclear weapons. The only ones who did not sign the agreement were Israel, Pakistan and India. India exploded its first bomb in 1974 and Pakistan declared itself a nuclear state in 1998. North Korea withdrew from the international agreement in 2003 and exploded its first bomb in 2006.
According to the latest data published in the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" and other circulars of the Federation of American Scientists, North Korea has by now powerful working prototypes, India has a stockpile of between 100 and 120 atomic bombs, Pakistan has 110 to 130, UK has about 215. It is estimated that China has about 260 and France has nearly 300. But the indisputable "champions" are the United States of America, which 25 years after the end of the Cold War still has around 7000 nukes, and Russia, which has around 7300. As the world has only just over 2500 cities of more than 1 million inhabitants, there are enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world about 6 times.
And some people want more: it is suspected that Israel has about 80 nuclear bombs, Iran must be very close to be able to make them and even Libya would have tried to buy one from China.
In the past other countries had similar programs but for different reasons backed off: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, South Africa, Iraq, Algeria, South Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, Switzerland, and even good neighbors Argentina and Brazil.
Countries with enough technology and money, such as Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan, don't have arsenals similar to the U.S.'s only because they don't want to have them.
With so many countries involved and with around 15 350 nuclear weapons in the world, if only one of these goes missing the scenario would be sufficient to cause an unspeakable disaster.
A "CLASSICAL" NUCLEAR WAR
On the other hand, it is difficult to know the result of a regional nuclear war between, say, Iran and Israel. If it becomes complicated and more countries enter into it, this could lead to the much-anticipated World War III. In that case, everything will run very fast: in 15 minutes submarine-launched ballistic missile would fall into strategic airports. In the 25th minute intercontinental ballistic missiles would rain down on military bases, command centers and industrial infrastructure. Hours later bombers would reach additional targets. Within days the reports from spy satellites would help to complete the destruction. And in a week everything would be over.
The explosions must dig craters to destroy military bunkers. But to halt the support infrastructure (industry, transport, communications) urban areas would be incinerated. All these would raise huge amounts of dust and smoke.
In bombed countries, the dust would be so radioactive that in the first two weeks would kill those who do not hide under slabs of concrete or sandbags. Then it would spread out polluting the rest of the world with carcinogens for years, especially leafy vegetables and milk.
Three decades ago, NASA scientists Richard Turco, Owen Toon, Thomas Ackerman, James Pollack and a certain person found similarities between sandstorms on Mars and the effects of nuclear war on Earth. They were struck by the darkening of the sky, the drop in temperature, and the easiness with which a regional storm scatters dust over the entire planet, like a drop of ink in a glass of water. Their data, published in 1983 ("Nuclear winter: global consequences of multiple nuclear explosions", Science, volume 222, number 4630, pages 1283-1292, 23 December 1983) show that in a nuclear war where half of the civilian and military targets are destroyed, smoke and dust would obscure the skies of the entire world, with an average temperature drop of 25 Celsius degrees in the continents: a "nuclear winter" that would last for at least one year.
Data published in 1983 by a group of 20 scientists, led by Paul Ehrlich (Paul Ehrlich, John Harte, Mark Harwell, Peter Raven, a certain person, George Woodwell, Joseph Berry, Edward Ayensu, Anne Ehrlich, Thomas Eisner, Steven Gould, Herbert Grover, Rafael Herrera, Robert May, Ernst Mayr, Christopher McKay, Harold Mooney, Norman Myers, David Pimentel and John Teal, "Long-term biological consequences of nuclear war", Science, volume 222, number 4630, pages 1293-1300, 23 December 1983), indicate that the war would cause major fires in oil and gas facilities and would break tanks of toxic products. Water, food and fuel would be scarce and the survivors would receive a strong radiation. Large urban displacement would ensue. After one week the quantity of light would decrease drastically. If the war occurs during spring or summer, freezing temperatures would destroy all crops. Thick layers of ice would form on rivers and lakes. In the oceans, phytoplankton would die disrupting the food chain. The climate change would generate violent storms in coastline areas. The darkness and extreme cold would destroy tropical rainforests, which would dry and feed fires. In places like Central and South America populations would have to wander in search of shelter and food. We would go back to the Stone Age, but under much more adverse conditions. And a threat to the very survival of the "Homo sapiens" species as a whole could not be ruled out.
CONSEQUENCES OF A "CLASSICAL" NUCLEAR WAR
DISASSEMBLING THE BOMB
OUTER SPACE TREATY (1966)
Prohibits placing nuclear weapons in space, the Moon and other planets
NON-PROLIFERATION TREATY (1968)
Prohibits new countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and Israel did not sign it. North Korea withdrew its signature in 2003.
NEW STRATEGIC-ARMS-REDUCTION TREATY (2011)
Reduces U.S.'s and Russia's arsenals of strategic nuclear missiles by half.
COMPREHENSIVE NUCLEAR TEST-BAN TREATY (1996)
Prohibits all nuclear test explosions, to stop new developments and accelerate retirement of stockpiles. U.S., China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and Iran, among others, did not ratify it.
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Based on a lecture given originally by Ronaldo Garcia at USP, on 4 May 1996, revised and reissued by A. L. at USP, 27 April 2002. Originally published in ABC Color on 14 May 2006. Illustration: "All at home must go to the fall-out room and stay inside the inner refuge, keeping the radio tuned for Government advice and instructions." Credit: Booklet "Protect and survive", prepared for the Home Office by the Central Office of Information, 1976 (Reprinted in 1980). Printed in England for Her Majesty's Stationary Office by UDO Litho Ltd. Dd. 0018872 Pro. 14347 K1200. ISBN 0 11 340728 9. Image transferred to digital format by George Coney, http://www.atomica.co.uk
Special thanks to Ronaldo Garcia.