Save the Earth from Nuclear War

Here's a comprehensive examination of the likely effects of nuclear war, and what can be done to save the earth and its inhabitants from them.

| November/December 1984

  • save the earth from nuclear war - 1 megaton overpressure map
    Pressure and heat would directly or indirectly produce most of the casualties if a one-megaton bomb were detonated in the air over a typical U.S. city. 12 psi or greater (up to 2 1/2 miles): All but the most heavily reinforced concrete buildings are destroyed; 100% fatalities. 12 psi to 5 psi (2 1/2 to 4 1/2 miles): Frame and brick buildings are destroyed; combustible materials ignite spontaneously; 100% fatalities. 5 psi to 2 psi (4 1/2 to 9 miles): Some combustible materials ignite spontaneously; extensive damage to buildings; third-degree burns out to about 7 miles; greater than 50% casualties. 2 psi to 1 psi (9 miles to 13 miles): Some persons are injured by flying debris; loss of eyesight; burn and radiation injuries; immediate fatalities less than 25%.
  • save the earth from nuclear war - missile vs. Hiroshima bomb
    The destructive capacity of today's nuclear missiles dwarf that of the Hiroshima bomb.
  • save the earth from nuclear war - burning earth
    Everyone who wants to save the Earth has a part to play in preventing nuclear war.
    Illustration by Fotolia/Leo Blanchette

  • save the earth from nuclear war - 1 megaton overpressure map
  • save the earth from nuclear war - missile vs. Hiroshima bomb
  • save the earth from nuclear war - burning earth

The facts are these. One: Nuclear war would be the most devastating holocaust the world has ever known. It's even possible that an atomic Armageddon would eliminate life on this planet. Two: The chances for nuclear war, whether accidental or deliberate, are currently increasing because the two superpowers are starting to move from a deterrence capability to a first-strike stance; that is, from weapons that are most effective as defensive guardians of one's own nation to those that, by design, would be most — or, in some cases, only — effective if used to initiate a global war.

On the other hand, although all of us often feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of this massive threat, only all of us can deter it. So we've provided an analysis of what is needed to save the earth from nuclear war, and what individuals can do to help.

We will begin at the end by discussing the atomic holocaust itself. Ignoring the possible consequences of such a conflict just because they aren't pleasurable to think about is a sure way to increase the chances that we will have to face them.

Part I: The Consequences of Nuclear War

Nearly all the nuclear weapons in strategic arsenals are fission-fusion-fission devices, capable of vastly greater explosive power than either of the two weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A fissionable plutonium device fuses deuterium and tritium (these isotopes of hydrogen give such a weapon the name hydrogen bomb), which in turn causes a shell of uranium to fission. With this methodology, weapons with power equal to that of more than 20,000,000 tons (20 megatons) of TNT have been exploded. For comparison, the first fission explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, yielded about 20,000 tons (20 kilotons) of TNT equivalent. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were about 13 and 22 kilotons, respectively.

Most of the strategic weapons poised for use by the two superpowers are not the tremendously powerful multi-megaton devices, though. The arsenals consist largely of bombs that would yield between 200 kilotons and one megaton in explosive potential, though a few of the antiquated very large bombs are still deployed. Improved accuracy has made the huge weapons generally unnecessary for striking protected targets, and a blanket attack with several small weapons is expected to be more effective against urban or industrial areas than a single very large bomb would be. In fact, eight 40-kiloton bombs, equal to 320,000 tons of TNT, would wipe out as much area as would a single 1-megaton weapon that's the equivalent of 1,000,000 tons.



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