Dispelling Stupid Myths About Nuclear War

In response to discussion in the comments section on my recent post on nuclear war, Dave said:

Really, I mean, honestly, no one is surviving a nuclear war.

This is absolute nonsense. To quote the very first paragraph of Nuclear War Survival Skills, a civil defense manual based on in-depth research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory:

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.

Here’s another good quote:

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. The reader should realize that to do essential work after a massive nuclear attack, many survivors must be willing to receive much larger radiation doses than are normally permissible. Otherwise, too many workers would stay inside shelter too much of the time, and work that would be vital to national recovery could not be done. For example, if the great majority of truckers were so fearful of receiving even non-incapacitating radiation doses that they would refuse to transport food, additional millions would die from starvation alone.

The whole first chapter of the book is filled with refutations of popular myths about nuclear war. When you know the science, these myths seem extremely stupid. Yet millions of people believe them.

Here is one possible fallout distribution pattern, from FEMA:

Notice that the distribution would go to the east, because the prevailing winds come from the west. That spells good news for people out west. We also notice that there are wide swaths in the map that would just be empty of fallout, including maybe 95% of the area of the western United States.

Continents are big, big places. We may or may not yet have weapons that can threaten life across their entire areas, but probably not. (We may get them soon, though.)

For more information on nuclear war, Notre Dame has an Open Courseware page with lectures from Professor Grant Matthews.

Comments

  1. Yeah, I always cringe when I hear folks say we have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over and other statements in that vein. On the other hand, you’re neglecting the secondary effects of a major nuclear exchange such as catastrophic cooling and damage to the ozone layer. Recent studies have actually estimated these effect to be worse than thought during the Cold War.

    • Steve

      Just wait until the Jizz Bomb is developed, or someone introduces Malt Liquor with over 20% alcohol.

  2. Your point is well taken, but the larger issue is one of civilizational recovery. An all-out nuclear exchange would likely set humanity far back enough such that a return to pre-existing political and economic levels would be unlikely. Using Bostrom’s taxonomy for existential risks, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that nuclear war would set humanity down the ‘crunch’ path.

  3. This is an interesting post, but things have also changed since the Cold War, which is when the NWSS was published. Also, you don’t mention where the actual strikes occurred on the FEMA fallout projection. Would it look different if the targets were L.A. and San Francisco? Can we trust FEMA projections anyway? I get your point here, the threat nuclear war has been exaggerated, but I would argue that it is not reasonable to expect the general public to have the fact strait considering the culture that surrounds nuclear war and the magnitude of the threat on even a realistic scale. Culturally, this myth is extremely important.

  4. Matt Brown

    Valid points Michael. Still while I don’t agree with the original poster they may not be too far off the target. While it’s true that nuclear weapons in and of themselves won’t kill everyone on earth, the secondary effects of their use (disruption of food, power and water distribution among others) have the potential to kill many more. Will this kill everyone? Probably not, but it could damage human civilization to the point of no recovery (as per Bostrom.)

  5. Thanks everyone for your intelligent comments.

    George, I think full-on recovery would indeed be possible within a generation or so, and a reasonable standard of living (by 19th century standards) could be achieved for many in under a decade. I’ve read some books about people who would be more or less fine through events like nuclear war. (Because they have fortified farms in isolated areas with year-round rain, and barrels of “beans, bullets, and band-aids”.) That’s resilience you can admire. In keeping with futurist John Robb’s notion of “resilient communities”, I would like to see our entire society transition to a more resilient state, which could help us rebound more effectively from any number of disasters.

    All of this is a stepping stone to the idea of absolute security and lifespans of thousands of years or greater.

    • Dereck

      I don’t think human civilization could hold up after a nucular fallout. Because of radiatio, more people would die from radiation sickness then the bombes themselfs.

  6. Dave

    I’m not sure it’s quite “absolute nonsense” Michael. I agree that the secondary effects will probably be a more profound survival risks than the initial risk of just being hit directly with a bomb.

    If a sufficient amount of the world is bombed, the nuclear winter will make it profoundly difficult for survivors to produce food. I think that small patches of prepared people may survive, but it will be difficult for them to reproduce sustainably.

    Honestly, the biggest threat in a post-nuclear society will be demoralization. I think it would be very hard for people to motivate themselves to survive in any civilized manner in a post-nuclear world. Remember, whereas people struggling to survive 5000 years ago didn’t know any better in some sense, people today would know what they are missing and what society will inevitably do to itself.

    Homo sapiens may not go extinct, but humanity certainly will.

  7. Uh, a 2007 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research predicted the period of zero food production from a full nuclear exchange would last for many years. You’re going need a whole bunch of beans to survive for that long. And that, I should note, was with a global arsenal already reduced by two-thirds from its height during the Cold War.

    As such, I think you’re being overly optimistic. Everyone living on the planet would be affected by the cooling and ozone depletion effects of nuclear war. Ice-age temperatures would persist for a decade or more after the initial exchange. I wouldn’t count on many human beings living through that level of environmental disruption. If the fireballs and fallout don’t get you, the cold, hunger, and ultraviolet light probably will.

    Thus, while considerable resilience may be theoretically possible with current technology, present society isn’t at all structured to endure global nuclear war. Compared with the ideal, we live quite precariously.

  8. panda

    Considering how some have argued that AGI, even if low in probability, is so shattering that it’s worth preparing for, wouldn’t the same logic apply to a low-probability nuclear extinction?

  9. Tom McCabe

    “Uh, a 2007 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research predicted the period of zero food production from a full nuclear exchange would last for many years.”

    That is utterly absurd, and not at all what the paper says (I have read it). To achieve literally zero food production, you would have to cool the planet 25 C or more, since there are large areas of the tropics which currently remain quite warm year-round. What the paper *does* say is that we would return to Ice Age-level conditions for a period of roughly five years, meaning that agriculture would become impossible or difficult across large portions of Canada, the US and Western Europe. However, these areas contain less than one-sixth of the Earth’s population. Hence, while such a scenario would of course be immensely destructive (probably killing a majority of the First World population), it would not result in anything close to human extinction.

    “You’re going need a whole bunch of beans to survive for that long.”

    Not really. 1 kg of dry food a day * 5 years * 365 days = 1.8 metric tons, an amount you can buy on an ordinary person’s budget and fit in the back of a reasonably-sized pickup truck.

    “Thus, while considerable resilience may be theoretically possible with current technology, present society isn’t at all structured to endure global nuclear war. Compared with the ideal, we live quite precariously.”

    Agreed completely.

  10. Ben

    Kind of a dick move to single out a participant in your comments section as ‘stupid’ in a post on the main page. I would think a conversation of the issues is possible without the smug superiority.

  11. Perhaps you read a different paper, Tom. I’ll quote from page 10:

    Harwell and Hutchinson [1986] clearly described the impacts of nuclear winter. They assumed that there would be no food production around the world for one year and concluded that most of the people on the planet would run out of food and starve to death by then. Our results show this period of no food production needs to be extended by many years, making the impacts of nuclear winter even worse than previously thought.

    I don’t know that the predicted level of cooling actually supports this rather extreme claim, but the authors make that claim as you can see.

    Combined with other dangers such as increased ultraviolet light, modern research legitimately raises human extinction as conceivable outcome of nuclear war under current conditions. While perhaps a few government officials and survival fanatics have the requisite shelter and nonperishable food stores, nobody I know has access to such things. The majority of humanity, at least, would be doomed.

    Michael, while I believe you’re correct in asserting the theoretical survivability of global nuclear conflict, the science on this issue has simply advanced since the 1980s. Kearny’s dismissal of plummeting temperatures makes his forecast far too rosy. Your notion of returning to a reasonable standard of living within a decade seems downright preposterous without a massive resilience project that presently doesn’t exist.

  12. Tom McCabe

    “Perhaps you read a different paper, Tom. I’ll quote from page 10:”

    You are right, I apologize. I did not bother to read it very closely, and assumed that they had just quoted someone else without agreeing with them, since that claim doesn’t mesh with their model at all. However, I still maintain that it is an utterly absurd claim, and that while the paper’s climate model is some evidence for what would happen, that claim is completely unsupported. Robert Zubrin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Case_for_Mars) has shown that it would be entirely feasible to grow large amounts of food *on Mars*, despite the three-orders-of-magnitude thinner atmosphere, temperatures a hundred degrees below those of Earth, gravity more than half as weak as Earth’s, completely different soil, etc., etc., etc. No plausible nuclear winter would make Earth as inhospitable as Mars currently is.

  13. The thing is, the aftermath of nuclear war makes major engineering projects a little bit more difficult. If we had the infrastructure up before hand, sure. But if an exchange of missiles happened tomorrow, who would have the resources and knowledge to get food production in gear under the incredibly adverse circumstances? I’m not sure anyone would. I assume the mightiest of the bosses have backup plans of some sort in place, but I doubt they anticipate feeding what’s left of the species. As far as I can tell, we’re mostly unprepared for this level of disaster.

  14. the main projections of disruptive effects of nuclear war – assume that there will be massive fires that put 150 million tons of soot into the stratosphere and have it stay there for many years. I have looked at the papers of nuclear winter in some detail. They assume that every city burns the way Hiroshima did. I even emailed and had some exchanges with robock and toon. They claim – no, no we did not assume Hiroshima we used the ignition radius of a blast. Yet I see statements in their papers that clearly state Hiroshima was the assumption. Why does it matter ? hiroshima was particularly vulnerable to fire. It had 27 days since its last rainfall. The residents had a lot of charcoal burners for making breakfast. They were built up in a way that set it up for a firestorm. City Firestorms are not easy to get. Nagasaki did not have a firestorm. Having some more hills in the city and not having the enough density in buildings. North American cities are far less dense and the nuclear winter people show that UK and USA would have far less soot production even in their models because of lower population density. their models are very crude and they know that their needs to be actual fire modeling of cities. Their model only takes population density and the hiroshima assumption into account. They claim that building construction is not that important and that it is all of the flammable stuff that people have (papers, clothes etc…) that is the main thing for fuel loading. I disagree. I think the fire mitigation steps that are put out by fire departments and other city fire planning matters. the steps taken after the Oakland fire to reduce the usage of flammable shingles matters for reducing fire spread. If there were serious efforts to reduce fire in cities and buildings then the threat of nuclear atmospheric and agricultural impact would be completely eliminated (if it ever existed the levels claimed and even in the reduced levels based on modern fire reduction steps)

  15. Jez Weston

    Your chances of surviving an all-out nuclear war depend mostly on where you live. The US may be big and mostly free of targets, but I grew up in the UK.

    I wasn’t living anywhere special, just a commuter town near London, but within fifteen miles there was an RAF base, a USAF cruise missile base, and two bridges over the Thames river. For bonus points, we also had a nuclear weapons storage base upwind, and any unused warheads there could have been destroyed and added to the fallout. Each had multiple nukes assigned to it, and the Soviets had shit targeting accuracy, so they compensated by just having big bombs.

    Even ignoring the chance of a firestorm across the south of the entire nation, there were predictions that deaths from blast and fall-out could be 90%.

    And then the real killer starts – the damage to agriculture. If transport infrastructure is broken and oil isn’t flowing across the globe without hinderance, then fuel and fertiliser can’t be moved to farmers, and the food they grow can’t be moved across the oceans.

    On the shelf here I’ve a copy of “Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War: Volume II Ecological and Agricultural Effects”, from 1985. It’s written by the International Council of Scientific Unions. It was the result of input from 300 scientits and it was the most thorough study done to that date.

    It has food supply predictions for the year after, depending upon nation. Here’s some examples, for the case where no nuclear winter occurs:
    India – Can only feed 50-80% of their population, even if no-one bombs them. That could be 500 million people starving.
    Japan – A major importer of energy and fertiliser. Without those, can only feed 10-30% of pre-War population. Possibly over a 100 million people starving.
    UK – Food production halved, but WTF, we’re probably all dead anyway.
    USA – Currently a major food exporter, but agriculture very dependent upon oil. Food production might fall by 50%.

    So we’re looking at over two billion people who will starve come winter. That’s not ideal. And if a nuclear winter does kick off, then food production decreases further. Much further. What that meant for the history of civilisation is hard to think about.

    Obviously, we’ve less bombs floating around now. 1985 was the last gasp of the Cold War, with huge arsenals on both sides (allegedly 25,000 US nukes, 45,000 Soviet nukes). The above analysis assumed that only 12,000 warheads were used, so it could have been much worse. Now we’re heading for 3000 total, yes, you’re right. It’s not the end of the world. But still, a result that is better than two billion people starving to death is still not exactly a sunny day in the park.

    “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

    • Steve

      And the worst horror of all: The rise rise of the Mutant Chavs, vying with irradiated and disfigured Scousers and Lager Louts for the right to feast on the charred remains of the populace. At least UK Islam would be wiped out. Might actually be worth that.

  16. JohnHunt

    If you do the math looking at the number of tactical and strategic nukes at the height of the Cold War, look up the death rate per radii (e.g. LD50), calculate the land surface of the Earth, it becomes clear that the statements that Russia and the US were able to “blow up the world” X times over was never anywhere close to reality. When pointed out, people immediately start going fir alternate theories to try and support the hypothesis (e.g. fallout, nuclear winter, social disruption, etc). But any way you look at it, nukes never were a completely existential threat. Self-replicating technology or accelerating AI poses a much greater threat to humanity. I think this bears emphasizing.

    However, loosing 50% +/- of the developed world’s population is wholly unacceptable and so none of us is saying that nuclear war is no big deal. It’s a huge deal and any efforts towards eliminating their use is much appreciated.

    Honestly, I’m awfully jaded by repetitive overestimates of catastrophe by sone scientists. I’m old enough to remember that the population bomb was supposed to mean we would all have a square yard to live on. 50% of all highschool students were to be HIV+ by 2000. Animal life might never recover from the Exxon Valdez, Kuwait oil fires would permantly foul the Persian Gulf, temperatures in 2010 were not to be stable but going way up.

    So, near extinction over the entire surface of the Earth due to a large nuclear exchange? Maybe, but just because some scientist says so doesn’t necessarily mean so.

  17. When I hear people talking about blowing up the world, I take them literally. That magnifies the absurdity considerably. It would take a massive effort for the species to fragment a big asteroid. We have nowhere near the power to scatter Earth’s mass.

    However, John, I think you’re being excessively skeptical about the modern science on nuclear winter. The claim of no food production can perhaps be written off as sensationalism, but the model predicts a period of unheard of cooling across the planet.

  18. I have had back and forth emails with the authors Robock and Toon about nuclear winter. I think they underestimate the amount of fire that will occur by using Hiroshima’s fire damage as their basis. They scale Hiroshima based on population and population density. Nagasaki had 5 times less fire damage. Same size bomb. But no firestorm. Modern cities have less combustibility than hiroshima did in term of vulnerability to firestorms. If more steps were taken to improve buildings and reduce fire risk then the destructive radius of nuclear bombs would be greatly reduced, the effect would be as stark as the difference in damage from earthquake in Haiti versus Chile or cities in Japan or the USA. If there is 100 to 1000 times less fire then the threshold for any nuclear winter would require that many more bombs. I also am not that impressed with the later atmospheric work but no debate will settle that as shown by the climate change debates. The fire issue I can go to historical records of what happened and to studies of conventional firebombing and forest fires, oil fires, etc…

  19. kinkajou

    an entire posting replying to a troll’s comment? sheesh this blog is really going downhill … think i’ll take a break until michael turns 30 & hopefully matures a bit.

  20. Arie

    “Remember, whereas people struggling to survive 5000 years ago didn’t know any better in some sense, people today would know what they are missing and what society will inevitably do to itself.”

    That’s what i thought when watching this film “The Road”. The protagonist’s wife commits suicide because to her life is completely hopeless after the catastrophe. The husband and son struggle on without knowing why, so they image they are the “carriers of the fire” to give their life some meaning.

    Hunter-gatherers lived practically on instinct, they were raised for that kind of life. 21st century humans would have huge pyschological issues coping with such an existence, no matter how prepared they are.

  21. Dave

    @Arie:

    ‘That’s what i thought when watching this film “The Road”.’

    I thought exactly the same thing when I read the book – I think that’s what inspired my thought in the first place.

    @kinkajou:

    Who’s the bigger troll, the troll or the troll who follows him?

  22. Kind of a dick move to single out a participant in your comments section as ’stupid’ in a post on the main page. I would think a conversation of the issues is possible without the smug superiority.

    The point is to harshly rebuke myths that could lead to panic and unnecessary death and suffering in the instance of a real nuclear war. If people take a fatalistic approach then they will not be able to bounce back from any disaster and will probably drag innocent third parties down with them. Quoting chapter 3 of NWSS:

    The more one knows about the strange and fearful dangers from nuclear weapons and about the strengths and weakness’ of human beings when confronted with the dangers of war, the better chance one has of surviving. Terror, a self-destructive emotion, is almost always the result of unexpected danger. Some people would think the end of the world was upon them if they happened to be in an area downwind from surface bursts of nuclear weapons that sucked millions of tons of pulverized earth into the air. They might give up all hope if they did not understand what they saw. People are more likely to endure and survive if they learn in advance that such huge dust clouds, particularly if combined with smoke from great fires, may turn day into night as have some volcanic eruptions and the largest forest fires.

    People also should expect thunder to crash in strange clouds, and the earth to shake. The sky may be lit with the flickering purples and greens of “artificial auroras” caused by nuclear explosions, especially those that are miles above the earth.

    It’s better for people to adopt a non-fatalistic view as soon as possible so that if an incident does happen, unnecessary panic can be avoided.

    Also, what Tom said. Is anyone visualizing the equatorial forest belts being destroyed by nuclear winter? That’s not going to happen. These regions have tremendous amounts of food and have historically contained large populations.

    Sorry for my “dick move” but I want to single out a type of thinking that I think is not only incorrect but threatening to collective survival after nuclear war.

    The Road has no scientific basis. This is just another instance where generalizing from fictional evidence leads to worse thinking.

  23. Dave

    I think giving people false hope is more detrimental than being fatalistic. Playing down the devastating nature of nuclear war doesn’t seem to have much practical purpose.

  24. Michael, have you at least read the modern literature on the climatic effects of full nuclear war? Models predict a cooling of two to twelve degrees Celsius across equatorial region. Combined with the reduced precipitation, that’s going to play havoc on both natural and cultivated vegetation.

  25. Recent archaeological and geological work in India seems to support claims, suggesting the environmental impact ofthe Lake Tuba volcanic super-eruption was much less than previously imagined. Firstly, had there been a sudden deforestation event caused by the cooling and drying of the atmosphere, topsoil no longer anchored by trees would be expected to wash down into valleys, where it would quickly accumulate.

    “We are not saying that it wasn’t difficult for humans after Toba,” says Mike Petraglia at the University of Oxford, who has led the investigations. “We are just saying that we don’t think it was a catastrophic change.”

    Hominin life appeared to continue in the same vein immediately after the eruption, with hundreds more stone tools in the layers immediately above the ash fall. The team uncovered a similar story 1000 kilometres further north of Jwalapuram, in the Middle Son river valley. “We see very little change in tool technology across the Toba ash. They may have had to relocate for a short period of time, but within a generation or so they were back where they were before, making the same kinds of stone tools,” says Chris Clarkson, a stone-tool specialist from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who worked at the digs in India.

    This provides evidence that Hans Graf is right about supervolcano climate models and that temps fell one degree and not ten degrees. this also means that the same climate models which are used for nuclear winter by Robock and toon are overstated.

    So the amount of fire is overestimated and thus the amount of soot produced is overestimated. And likely the effects of any amount of soot is overstated.

    Avoid or reduce the fire, avoid the soot, avoid the climate change.

  26. I don’t think volcanoes relate so neatly to nuclear weapons, Brian. From the article on your cite, it looks as if Graf favors lower emissions from the eruption than other analysts. How does that imply Robock and Toon got the soot production from nuclear war wrong?

  27. Thomas

    Killing 50% of the population would be a huge disaster, but it seems it would still only take us back to the population levels of the 1960s (3bn humans).

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  70. Richard

    Let’s all agree that nuclear war would kill a bunch of people. I’m more concerned about the nuclear material discharged into the environment from nuclear power plants. We have 437+ nuclear power plants along with the associated nuclear waste. What happens to those when nuclear war breaks out? I know I would not go to work that day. Many of those plants would be directly damaged or destroyed by a nuclear blast and discharge massive amount of nuclear waste into the ground water supply. Many others would probably end up melting down even if they are immediately shut down. The problem with that nuclear waste from a nuclear power plant is that it just doesn’t go away anytime soon.

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  77. ?????????, ??????

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