Something Scarier Than Student Loans: Nuclear Armageddon
“If we have them, why can’t we use them?” asked an incredulous Donald Trump recently on the subject of nuclear weapons.
As if on cue, his statement was rightfully denounced and derided, as has become tradition in the American news cycle. But he inadvertently brought up something surprisingly salient: why exactly not?
Nuclear weapons and their destructive capacity are, quite frankly, easily taken for granted by people of my generation, let alone aging boomers like Trump. I know I certainly did. The thought of nuclear annihilation is rather abstract, thus making it hard to truly grasp the danger.
It’s hard to blame our cohort, however. After all, the Millennial generation has been remarkably fortunate to grow up in a post-Cold War world. We’ve lived without the nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads and thus, have grown rather complacent. It is one thing to say nuclear weapons are bad and to learn about deterrence in class, but it is a whole other thing entirely to know exactly what they are capable of.
For example, have you ever wondered how much radioactive carnage is required to create a nuclear winter?
Not much. Roughly 100 bombs the size of Little Boy and Fat Man would do the trick for a “small” nuclear winter (Toon et al., 2007). The firestorms unleashed by the detonation of a century of Fat Men and Little Boys would inject enough soot into the stratosphere that they would create an anti-Greenhouse effect, cooling the surface of the Earth. Conservative estimates speculate that an exchange like that would largely reduce the effects of human-induced global warming for a minimum of three years. Perhaps it’s a bit macabre, but that’s one quick way to “solve” global warming.
However, this illustration is still rather abstract. For destructive context, the Fat Man atomic bomb had a yield of 21 kilotons (kt) of TNT or 88 terajoules (TJ) of energy. To put that into English, one terajoule is equal to one trillion joules. In comparison, a 100 Watt lightbulb uses 100 joules of energy per second. Thus, the detonation of Fat Man over Nagasaki in 1945 expelled enough energy to power 880 billion light bulbs for one second.
Compare that kind of power to the relatively modern Peacekeeper Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which can house up to 15 warheads per missile. One of the many warheads that could be equipped to that missile, the W87, has a yield of 300 kt or 1255.5 TJ. Thus, a single, half-full Peacekeeper ICBM has the yield of 100 Fat Men. The US is known to have fifty, fully-armed Peacekeepers. That’s a lot of light bulbs.
Today, there are an estimated 15,500 nuclear warheads in the world, 90% of which are held by the two Cold War-era powers.
The US alone has an estimated 7100 active nuclear warheads, albeit 2500 of which are set to be “decommissioned.” Not to be beat, Russia has 7800, with 2800 slated for dismantlement. Talk about a “missile gap.” The distant third in this nuclear arms race? France, with a puny 300 warheads.
Let that sink in for a moment: France has the capacity to potentially cause a petite nuclear winter… all by itself.
Now, if the US and Russia decided to settle their differences once and for all and detonated all of their arsenal, present models predict a resulting decrease of 7.5 degrees Celsius in average global temperature after it’s all said and done (Robock et al., 2007). Keep in mind that since 1880, average temperatures have risen only 1 degree Celsius.
Assuming the whole of the human race wouldn’t be wiped off the Earth from such an exchange, the survivors would be hard pressed to grow food, due to dramatically reduced temperatures and low sunlight from the ash in the atmosphere. Even a small nuclear winter could cause worldwide shortages of food, particularly in developing nations. Famine would lead to the deaths of untold numbers, as well as serve as the impetus for migration and further conflict. In short, if you start a nuclear winter, you’re going to have a bad time.
With these facts in mind, it would seem inconceivable that nuclear conflict would be ever rational. Of course, then there are men like Donald Trump. But he’s low-hanging fruit. How about Vladimir Putin? Barack Obama? Or even François Hollande? We take deterrence for granted and assume that rational leaders would never use nuclear weapons for fear of mutually-assured destruction. After all, in the words of Dr. Strangelove: “Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy... the FEAR to attack.”
But what happens when deterrence fails? It is, in the end, merely a psychological construct. To be honest, nobody truly knows. Barring a few false alarms that almost ended the world during the 20th century, there hasn’t been a nuclear attack since WWII. Regardless, in the heat of the moment, the President is seconds away from ordering a nuclear strike. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to presume that Putin and the other nuclear leaders have that capability as well.
Now, this reality should be enough to make anyone queasy about the thought of a man easily baited by a tweet having nuclear launch codes. But the truly sobering thought is that any of these leaders, whether they be Kim Jong Un, Narendra Modi or Theresa May, could ignite the world at any moment. Sure, the concept of deterrence would be enough to stop, say, India from obliterating Pakistan and vice versa.
But there are plenty of problems with this assumption. We assume leaders are rational, that there’s always second-strike capability, that there’s no false-positives (so-called “broken arrows”), and, most importantly, that Mutually Assured Destruction is a credible threat.
Of course, a discussion of the validity of MAD and deterrence merits its own article. In any event, the key to take from this is that nuclear weaponry is not to be taken for granted. It’s easy to accept the platitude that “nukes are bad.” It’s far harder to understand the scope of the danger they pose by their mere existence.
This understanding is essential going forward. As our generation matures and takes on positions of leadership in our country, we cannot forget the danger of nuclear weapons. The fact that men like Donald Trump can feel free talking about using tactical nuclear weapons is a horrifying prospect—back in the day, talk like that lost elections. As we’ve moved past the Cold War era and presently endure the era of terrorism and cyberwarfare, it has become easy to forget the very real existential threat that nuclear weapons pose.
Perhaps now is the time to learn to start worrying and fear the bomb.
TL;DR We take nuclear deterrence for granted and really shouldn’t.
The views presented in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Toon, O. B., R. P. Turco, A. Robock, C. Bardeen, L. Oman, and G. L. Stenchikov (2007), Atmospheric effects and societal consequences of regional scale nuclear conflicts and acts of individual nuclear terrorism, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 7, 1973–2002.
Robock, A., L. Oman, and G. L. Stenchikov (2007), Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences, J. Geophys. Res., 112.