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Nuclear War - It's Not the End of the World

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It's no myth that the dangers of nuclear war have been greatly exaggerated in the minds of most people today. A nuclear war would be truly horrific, but far from the end of all life on Earth as is often believed. Even many preppers still believe that a nuclear war is too deadly to even be worth prepping for. Which is a tragedy all of its own, since these are the very people who could otherwise do the most to help the human race survive and recover from a nuclear war.

The first thing to realise is how wrong much of the information that's most often quoted is. It's just plain wrong. And so often quoted by people who really should know better. Fortunately not all of it is wrong. Just most of what gets to the public's mind through the mainstream media. When you start to look a bit deeper, you find things aren't as bad as they may first seem:

An all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States would be the worst catastrophe in history, a tragedy so huge it is difficult to comprehend. Even so, it would be far from the end of human life on earth. The dangers from nuclear weapons have been distorted and exaggerated, for varied reasons. These exaggerations have become demoralizing myths, believed by millions of Americans.

Within two weeks after an attack the occupants of most shelters could safely stop using them, or could work outside the shelters for an increasing number of hours each day. Exceptions would be in areas of extremely heavy fallout such as might occur downwind from important targets attacked with many weapons, especially missile sites and very large cities. To know when to come out safely, occupants either would need a reliable fallout meter to measure the changing radiation dangers, or must receive information based on measurements made nearby with a reliable instrument.

Fortunately, the human body can repair most radiation damage if the daily radiation doses are not too large. As will be explained in Appendix B, a person who is healthy and has not been exposed in the past two weeks to a total radiation dose of more than 100 R can receive a dose of 6 R each day for at least two months without being incapacitated. Only a very small fraction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki citizens who survived radiation doses some of which were nearly fatal have suffered serious delayed effects.

Cresson H. Kearny, Nuclear War Survival Skills

Note that if you're far enough away from anywhere that bombs are detonated (like a few hundred kilometres, or less depending on conditions such as wind direction) then you're unlikely to need a shelter at all.

If you can get your head around the idea that modern civilisation is in its last days, and that all large cities and most suburbs are not going to be viable options for long-term survival in any case (irrespective of whether or not there is a nuclear war), you're most of the way there already in terms of the right mindset. Once you learn the facts about nuclear war, it just becomes one more thing to prep for and not the worst thing imaginable that's so bad that there's no point doing anything about it.

But Can't Nuclear Weapons Kill Everone a Million Times Over?

Perhaps the biggest wrong idea that's still quoted all the time is the idea that there are enough nuclear weapons to kill everyone in the world ten million (or whatever their particular version of the number is) times over.

This is just simply not true.

They get away with saying things like that by what's known as tailoring the facts to fit the story. A long time ago I read in a book about quitting smoking that there's enough nicotine in just one cigarette to kill you. Do you believe that? There are examples of people all around us who have survived smoking for years. There's also decades of research and data based on analysis of real smokers and real cigarettes. For nuclear war it's a lot more difficult to come across data — because we haven't had a nuclear war before, and only two bombs have ever been used in wartime.

A quick internet study brings up some interesting facts about nicotine. The first quotes I saw said that a cigarette contains about 10 milligrams of nicotine. However these are fairly mild cigarettes, stronger ones are 16 or 20 or 24 or in some cases even more. This was more true a few decades ago (when the quit smoking book was published) and people smoked stronger cigarettes. My father smoked a brand called Viscount that's no longer sold, and which was one of the strongest cigarettes available. The Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria tested them and found that, "with 40 mg", Viscount had the highest tar content of any cigarette measured.

The officially accepted oral "LD50" (that is, the dose high enough to kill half of the subjects) for nicotine in humans is around 40-60 mg. So with one 20 mg cigarette, we're not that far off. My father's Viscounts must have been close to, or at, the low end of that range.

Fortunately for smokers, burning the cigarette and then breathing in the nicotine-containing smoke reduces the absorbed dose significantly compared to ingesting it orally. Dad did die from cancer — but he smoked two packs of twenty Viscount cigarettes a day (i.e. forty smokes a day) for many years — not just one cigarette.

If there's enough nicotine in just one of these to kill you, how come all the smokers aren't dead yet?

Now consider that if you injected the nicotine intravenously, it's concentrated about five times more compared to ingesting it orally. Which would bring the LD50 down to 8-12 mg and make the claim that one cigarette has enough nicotone in it to kill you appear to be fully true.

I also noticed there were reports of injecting people with 5 mg of nicotine intravenously and the people only got "minor adverse effects" like coughing and nausea. Along with this were comments to the effect that the actual LD50 is higher than that which is commonly published.

This is very much like what's done with statistics on the deadliness of nuclear weapons.

Comparisons are made based on if you could concentrate all the radiation (or all the fallout particles, etc.) and insert them directly into someone's body. Or put all the people right next to the detonations. Etc.

The important point here is that none of this bears any resemblance to how the toxic fission products would really be distributed in an actual nuclear war.

The big difference is of course that with smoking we can see people all around us who've smoked tens of thousands of cigarettes over several decades, and many of them haven't been killed by smoking yet. Nuclear war is a big unknown to us in terms of practical life experience, so it's much easier to believe the "one cigarette will kill you" type of reasoning.

There's a Lot Less Warheads Than Before

Another reason that the deadliness of nuclear war is overrated in most people's minds is that a lot of the rhetoric came out of the cold war days, especially the mid 1980s when nuclear war was in the media a lot, and on people's minds a lot. But the number of weapons in the world now has been vastly reduced, due to arms limitation treaties.

The USA and Russia's nuclear stockpiles. An all-out nuclear war during the cold war years would have been a lot worse than today.

Note also that the number of active (that is, ready to be used) nuclear warheads in total in the world is even less than this - around 4000 as of 2016 according to Wikipedia.

Historical Data, Rather Than Hypothetical Projections

There have aleady been about 520 above ground nuclear weapon detonations in nuclear tests, in total, performed deliberately and (at least somewhat) scientifically by the military forces of the world's countries combined. With a total overall yield of 545 megatons (of TNT equivalent). If we took a high estimate of the yield of the average modern nuclear warhead of 545 kilotons (it's probably lower than that), then 1000 modern weapon detonations would equal in megatons the total we've already detonated just in nuclear weapons tests.

Considering there are about 4000 active nuclear warheads, this would give an estimate of an all-out nuclear war as releasing about four times the total amount of radiation and other toxic byproducts than we have already released into the atmosphere in nuclear tests. And I don't think we have killed 1/4 of all of life on Earth with those tests. Or even 1/4 of all human life.

If you look even deeper into the historic records, you can find all kinds of examples of people surviving up-close nuclear detonations. Of military aircraft (with manned pilots and scientists, not drones) being ordered to fly right through the middle of mushroom clouds so they could measure the radiation levels. Some of these guys (they would have been all, or almost all, male) died and many lived on for decades. Of soldiers running towards real nuclear explosions on a simulated battlefield. Again, some of these guys died young, and some lived for decades and are still alive now.

This test, codenamed "Baker" and detonated on 24 July 1946, was part of a test series called Operation Crossroads. The location is Bikini Atoll Lagoon in the Marshall Islands. A relaxing day at the beach is a good way to "catch some rays". A later study claimed that the life expectancy of participants in Operation Crossroads was reduced by an average of three months. Cigarette smokers can expect that smoking will shorten their life expectancy by about 7-10 years.

An estimated 14% of people within 1 kilometre of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima survived the bomb. (Note that for most modern bombs this radius would be higher, meaning you would want to be further away than that.) A woman in a bank 260 metres away survived. One person in a basement just 170 metres from ground zero survived.

And they were people who were right up close to the detonation sites.

Obviously people far away (such as our grandparents, parents, or ourselves if we were alive in the 1950s) did not all die, nor even noticed the effects of these ~520 full-scale nuclear explosions, which totalled to perhaps about 1/4 of the yield that an all-out nuclear war would release.

Categories Threats,Nuclear
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