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Is nuclear war survivable?
Posted By J.R. Nyquist On 05/20/1999 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled
As I write about Russia’s nuclear war preparations, I get some
interesting mail in response. Some correspondents imagine I am totally
ignorant. They point out that nuclear war would cause “nuclear winter,”
and everyone would die. Since nobody wants to die, nobody would ever
start a nuclear war (and nobody would ever seriously prepare for one).
Other correspondents suggest I am ignorant of the world-destroying
effects of nuclear radiation.
I patiently reply to these correspondents that nuclear war would not
be the end of the world. I then point to studies showing that “nuclear
winter” has no scientific basis, that fallout from a nuclear war would
not kill all life on earth. Surprisingly, few of my correspondents are
convinced. They prefer apocalyptic myths created by pop scientists,
movie producers and journalists. If Dr. Carl Sagan once said “nuclear
winter” would follow a nuclear war, then it must be true. If radiation
wipes out mankind in a movie, then that’s what we can expect in real
But Carl Sagan was wrong about nuclear winter. And the movie “On the
Beach” misled American filmgoers about the effects of fallout. It is
time, once and for all, to lay these myths to rest. Nuclear war would
not bring about the end of the world, though it would be horribly
The truth is, many prominent physicists have condemned the nuclear
winter hypothesis. Nobel laureate Freeman Dyson once said of nuclear
winter research, “It’s an absolutely atrocious piece of science, but I
quite despair of setting the public record straight.”
Professor Michael McElroy, a Harvard physics professor, also
criticized the nuclear winter hypothesis. McElroy said that nuclear
winter researchers “stacked the deck” in their study, which was titled
“Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions”
Nuclear winter is the theory that the mass use of nuclear weapons
would create enough smoke and dust to blot out the sun, causing a
catastrophic drop in global temperatures. According to Carl Sagan, in
this situation the earth would freeze. No crops could be grown. Humanity
die of cold and starvation.
In truth, natural disasters have frequently produced smoke and dust
far greater than those expected from a nuclear war. In 1883 Krakatoa
exploded with a blast equivalent to 10,000 one-megaton bombs, a
detonation greater than the combined nuclear arsenals of planet earth.
The Krakatoa explosion had negligible weather effects. Even more
disastrous, going back many thousands of years, a meteor struck Quebec
with the force of 17.5 million one-megaton bombs, creating a crater 63
kilometers in diameter. But the world did not freeze. Life on earth was
Consider the views of Professor George Rathjens of MIT, a known
antinuclear activist, who said, “Nuclear winter is the worst example of
misrepresentation of science to the public in my memory.” Also consider
Professor Russell Seitz, at Harvard University’s Center for
Affairs, who says that the nuclear winter hypothesis has been
Two researchers, Starley Thompson and Stephen Schneider, debunked the
nuclear winter hypothesis in the summer 1986 issue of Foreign Affairs.
Thompson and Schneider stated: “the global apocalyptic conclusions of
the initial nuclear winter hypothesis can now be relegated to a
vanishingly low level of probability.”
OK, so nuclear winter isn’t going to happen. What about nuclear
fallout? Wouldn’t the radiation from a nuclear war contaminate the whole
earth, killing everyone?
The short answer is: absolutely not. Nuclear fallout is a problem,
but we should not exaggerate its effects. As it happens, there are two
types of fallout produced by nuclear detonations. These are: 1) delayed
fallout; and 2) short-term fallout.
According to researcher Peter V. Pry, “Delayed fallout will not,
contrary to popular belief, gradually kill billions of people everywhere
in the world.” Of course, delayed fallout would increase the number of
people dying of lymphatic cancer, leukemia, and cancer of the thyroid.
“However,” says Pry, “these deaths would probably be far fewer than
deaths now resulting from … smoking, or from automobile accidents.”
The real hazard in a nuclear war is the short-term fallout. This is a
type of fallout created when a nuclear weapon is detonated at ground
level. This type of fallout could kill millions of people, depending on
the targeting strategy of the attacking country. But short-term fallout
rapidly subsides to safe levels in 13 to 18 days. It is not permanent.
People who live outside of the affected areas will be fine. Those in
affected areas can survive if they have access to underground shelters.
In some areas, staying indoors may even suffice.
Contrary to popular misconception, there were no documented deaths
from short-term or delayed fallout at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
These blasts were low airbursts, which produced minimal fallout effects.
Today’s thermonuclear weapons are even “cleaner.” If used in airburst
mode, these weapons would produce few (if any) fallout casualties.
On their side, Russian military experts believe that the next world
war will be a nuclear missile war. They know that nuclear weapons cannot
cause the end of the world. According to the Russian military writer, A.
S. Milovidov, “There is profound error and harm in the disoriented
claims of bourgeois ideologues that there will be no victor in a
thermonuclear world war.” Milovidov explains that Western objections to
the mass use of nuclear weapons are based on “a subjective judgment. It
expresses mere protest against nuclear war.”
Another Russian theorist, Captain First Rank V. Kulakov, believes
that a mass nuclear strike may not be enough to defeat “a strong enemy,
with extensive territory enabling him to use space and time for the
organizations of active and passive defense. …”
Russian military theory regards nuclear war as highly destructive,
but nonetheless winnable. Russian generals do not exaggerate the effects
of mass destruction weapons. Although nuclear war would be unprecedented
in its death-dealing potential, Russian strategists believe that a
well-prepared system of tunnels and underground bunkers could save many
millions of lives. That is why Russia has built a comprehensive shelter
system for its urban populace.
On the American side as well, there have been studies which suggest
that nuclear war is survivable. The famous 1960 Rand Corporation study,
“On Thermonuclear War,” says, “Even if 100 metropolitan areas [in the
USA] are destroyed, there would be more wealth in this country than
there is in all of Russia today and more skills than were available to
that country in the forties. The United States is a very wealthy and
The Rand study states that even if half the U.S. population were
killed, “the survivors would not just lie down and die. Nor would they
necessarily suffer a disastrous social disorganization.”
Despite so many scholarly works and scientific studies, myths about
nuclear war persist. These myths serve to confuse and misinform the
American public. Because of these myths the United States government did
not bother to build fallout shelters for its people. Because of these
myths we do not take seriously the nuclear war preparations of Russia
Last February I was with the Russian military defector, Col.
Stanislav Lunev. We were about to go into a meeting with a group of
retired military and CIA officials. I told Col. Lunev that the people we
were about to meet did not believe nuclear weapons were usable.
“Why not?” he asked, surprised.
“Because they believe the little fishies and whales would all be
killed if there were a nuclear exchange,” I replied, sarcastically.
“So what?” replied Lunev. “The Russian general staff doesn’t care.”
The objective in war is victory. As every good general knows, there
are many paths to victory. One of these paths might be a thermonuclear
path. If this determination has been arrived at in Moscow and Beijing,
it could explain a great deal of what we’re seeing today. Hopefully, the
situation is not so serious. Nonetheless, we must be vigilant and we
must be better informed.
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