Anti-nuclear working group

The Effects of nuclear weapons

Nuclear Weapons
Information

 Physical effects
 Health effects
 Environmental effects
 Social effects
 Psychological effects

Physical effects


"It was a blinding flash, everything around me turned sheer-white. The ring of light, like a halo around the moon shone and spread like a rainbow. The next moment, a big column of flame reached up to the sky and detonated like a volcanic explosion in the air. It was a sight no words can describe."
(Quote from a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb.)

A nuclear weapon is not just a big bomb. It does not have the same make up as a terrorist bomb or heavy artillery fire seen on the news from any global conflict. It's very difficult to write, let alone read, what these weapons can do to people. But it's vital that we understand the differences.
With a conventional weapon, most of the damage is done by the sheer force of the explosion. In contrast, much of the power of nuclear weapons comes from thermal (heat) and ionising (nuclear) radiation, caused by the splitting or joining together of atoms. The effects of a nuclear weapon increase in relation to its explosive power. Also, a blast some distance above the earth would create different effects than one exploded at (or below) ground level.
To take one example, if a 20 kiloton nuclear bomb (about twice as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) was exploded on a city, the heat and blast generated would vaporise all people and buildings in the immediate area, and make a crater that might be as much as 100 metres in diameter. The wind created by the blast could be several hundred km/hr. The destruction of buildings would increase death and injury due to flying glass and other debris.

The release of ionising radiation is a phenomenon unique to nuclear explosions and causes additional casualties alongside those caused by blast and thermal effects. There would be a number of deaths from radiation sickness, for which there is really no effective medical treatment.

Large amounts of earth, water and other debris in the area surrounding the explosion would be sucked up to form a "mushroom cloud" of radioactive debris. When this material returned to earth, as fallout, the effects could be spread even further, and might make the city (and an area of countryside stretching tens of kilometres downwind) uninhabitable for many weeks or even years.

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Health effects

"In the dim light of a hospital room, seven years old Jimmy was remembering the day on which he was told he had leukaemia. He remembered his mother's tears, his father's bewildered anger, the alien feeling of the hospital's environment. His mind replayed the nausea and the diarrhoea caused by radiation therapy and chemotherapy, his hair falling out and kids laughing at him... Jimmy died gently, utterly exhausted having lost so much blood. His tissue had broken down completely, and he was bleeding from every body opening . His bed looked like a battlefield."

"On August 9, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped over the city of Nagasaki, Kasuko Yamashina was working at a distance of two kilometers from ground zero. He tried to get home after the dropping of the bomb, but the fire was too fierce for him to approach the district, so that night he had to sleep under a bridge alone. His house was located at a place situated about 350 metres from ground zero. As soon as the fire went down, he reached the house finding out that his parents were burned by the heat of 4,000 degrees and lay scorched black and carbonised. He couldn't find his brother and his sister, and all that he could see were burned bricks and dead bodies.
On the August 15, the war was over, but by that day Kasuko body had changed. He had black bleeding from the gums, and he wasn't able to walk becouse of fierce shivers caused by high fever.
Under that condition he left Nagasaki to enter a hospital in his home town.
On 19th September, the headquarters of General Mac Arthur set up a press code, ordering him and the other victims never to speak about the atomic bombs.
They announced that all the persons who should die of radiation efects, would die by December 1945. Those who would live at that time, would have been spared by radiation.The situation of radiation injuries was unknown at that time, even in Japan. Only in 1957, the Supporting Law of Atomic Victims was passed, and Kasuko was legally admitted as a Hibakusha, but he had to conceal his being in order to survive.
In 1963 he had a high fever, his body changed stiff and black. It took him three years to get back his original skin colour, and, during the nights, Kasuko was extremely scared, he heard the voices of the dead..."

Jimmy and Kasuko's stories are two of the hundreds of thousands similar stories related to the nuclear age.
Radiation released from each step in the nuclear weapons production cycle cause cancer, congenital defects, mental retardation, immune destruction, cancer, stillbirths and other health problems.
Similar syndromes have been observed among the workers exposed to radiation in nuclear power plants in Japan, or in down-winders living in the irradiated zones near Hanford, and in the Chernobyl children, as well as the areas close to the nuclear test sites.

In 1984 the United Nations Human Rights Committe noted that "it's evident that the designing, testing, manifacture, possession and deployment of nuclear weapons are among the greatest threats to the right to life which confront mankind today" and concluded that "the production, testing, possession, deployment and use of nuclear weapon shold be prohibited and recognized as crimes against humanity."
In human terms the cost has been astronomical. Rosalie Bertel has estimated that "the global victims of the radiation pollution related to nuclear weapon production, testing, use and waste conservatively number 13 million."

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Enviromental effects

The production of nuclear weapons has polluted vast amounts of soil and water at hundreds of nuclear weapons facilities all over the world. Many of the substances released, including plutonium, uranium, strontium, cesium, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and cyanide, are carcinogenic and/or mutagenic and remain hazardous for thousands, some for hundreds of thousands, of years. Contaminants from nuclear weapons production and testing have often travelled far down wind and down stream. Production facilities for nuclear weapons are heavily polluted, for example in the United States there are over 4500 contaminated Department of Energy sites.

The manufacture and testing of weapons involves the leakage of nuclear material. Of all the activities concerning nuclear weapons, testing has been the most destructive of the environment. Even placing tests underground does not avoid atmospheric pollution. Radioactivity released from atmospheric nuclear testing - including plutonium, strontium, cesium, carbon-14, and radioactive iodine - has been widely dispersed throughout the world. Underground tests have contaminated soil and groundwater. Many square miles in Russia, Belarus and the US have been rendered unusable by contamination of the soil. Also the Irish sea and the Arctic Ocean have been poisoned.

In Russia nuclear submarines, some still armed with nuclear warheads, are rusting away in the fjords of Murmansk. Elsewhere, rivers have been polluted and open reservoirs and lakes have been used to hold large quantities of liquid radioactive materials. In 1957, a waste storage tank at the Chelyabinsk nuclear weapons site in Russia exploded and a radioactive cloud dispersed over more than 200 square kilometres of an agricultural region containing numerous rivers and lakes. Nearly all the trees within the most radioactive zone were damaged or killed. Radioactive waste has been routinely dumped into Lake Karachay, recognized as the world's most radioactive body of water, also at Chelyabinsk.

The environmental damage resulting from nuclear technology is not limited to the two largest nuclear weapons states, the United states and Russia. All nuclear weapons and nuclear energy producing nations have caused some level of environmental contamination, both in their own countries and abroad - such as, nuclear testing in the South Pacific, Nevada, Kazakhstan, China, India and Pakistan; water and airborne discharges from reprocessing plants in the UK and France; and uranium mining in Namibia, Canada, former East Germany and Australia.

Moreover, the ongoing production of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power continues to create nuclear waste. The mining of uranium causes radioactive pollution of the atmosphere and also otherwise damages the environment. Further pollution occurs during the transport and processing of the uranium. Production of nuclear weapons involves the generation of large quantities of waste material and contamination of surrounding areas. Clean-up of contaminated sites, disposition of excess fissile material and dismantling of nuclear weapons also contaminates the environment. New technologies will need to be developed in order to retrieve radioactive materials which have been released into the environment either through accident or by design. Nuclear warfare would result in the wholesale destruction of the environment.

The burial of radioactive materials is presently being promoted as the solution to radioactive waste disposal. However, at present, there are no known disposal routes for long-lived radioactive materials. The burial of these materials must not be confused with their safe containment and isolation from the environment. Whether the storage containers, the store itself, or the surrounding rocks will offer enough protection to stop radioactivity from escaping in the long term is impossible to predict. One of the most likely mechanisms of pollution in connection with waste disposal in rock is the contamination of groundwater. Underground waters may come into contact with radioactive elements that have leached out from the waste and contaminate the drinking water of both local and distant communities.

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Social effects

To understand the effects of a nuclear war it is important to distinguish it from conventional war or a natural disaster. In particular, all the factors that would make it possible to cope with a normal emergency situation would be lacking: limited damage, a relatively small number of casualties, surviving political or social leadership, a desire to perform common emergency work rather than look after ones own family, large reservoirs of external, easily mobilized skilled workers, material resources, and organizational skills.
The massive and simultaneous destruction of economic and human resources would result in an inability to provide immediate and sufficient human and material aid to damaged areas. There will be no time to adapt and to innovate as nations did in World War II. More importantly, the lack of outside aid would create a sense of individual and common isolation. Aid symbolizes a reconnection with a larger, normal world. This connection helps provide the impetus for rebuilding the damaged society, creating a sense of vitality and ability to dispel the continuing perception of isolation. It also has an important function for binding together society, restating a common thread of hope and shared aspirations.

Economic destruction, loss of political leadership (especially at the local level), and the need to mobilize resources for relief and recovery would present extraordinary demands on weakened political institutions. In the interest of implementing survival programs, legal norms and practices would have to be suspended for prolonged periods in many areas. The character of political institutions and authority would almost certainly change, especially if hostilities or the threat of hostilities persisted. Both old and new political structures would be likely to suffer from greatly reduced credibility. Decentralization of political power and more authoritarian methods of political, social, and economic control would be probable responses to post-attack conditions.

However, even before any outbreak of nuclear war, the presence of nuclear weapons has an enormous potential to distort social and economic priorities. Each of the nuclear weapons states has spent billions of dollars on constructing, maintaining and protecting its nuclear weapons. It is not necessary to point out that this money could have been better spent on providing health care, education or other public services.
The development of nuclear weapons also makes it necessary to create an unaccountable "nuclear elite", made up of scientists, military and civil servants, who work largely in secret to control the development, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons. This makes the presence of nuclear weapons incompatible with a democratic society.
It is possible to link an increased importance of the military, and a general increase in militarism, to a growth of xenophobia, racial and religious intolerance, as well as male chauvinism.

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Psychological Effects

From a psychological point of view, limited nuclear war probably is the worst of all worlds.
The imagery of nuclear war, the widespread casualties, and the intense fear of radioactivity would lead to the "nuclear war survivor syndrome". This powerful sense of personal vulnerability, helplessness, guilt, isolation and fear, was seen to varying degrees in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. The powerful psychological effects of the fear of radioactivity, and the "loss of trust" were described in studies of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. The spread of radioactive fallout would create the image of nuclear threat and vulnerability across wide areas.

The very short period required to carry out highly destructive nuclear attacks would intensify the emotional impact, particularly those reactions associated with denial of the true extent of the damage or fostering flight from damaged areas.
Robert J. Lifton, in his study of Hiroshima survivors, described the psychological effect as "a sudden and absolute shift from normal existence to an overwhelming encounter with death." The reaction, as reported by a witness to the disaster, Father Siemes: "Among the passers-by, there are many who are uninjured. In a purposeless, insensate manner, distraught by the magnitude of the disaster, most of them rush by and none conceives the thought of organizing help on his own initiative. They are concerned only with the welfare of their own families." In some cases even families were abandoned. The result of this experience was a deep fear of returning to the cities to rebuild the any form of normal life that may be possible after a nuclear attack.
Families would be broken up by death, severe injury, disease, evacuation, or military and labour conscription. The young, elderly, and handicapped would suffer disproportionately since they depend most on society's material and institutional resources. For example, the young and elderly showed significant increases in accidental death attributed to neglect in Great Britain in World War II. The loss of material and institutional resources in urban-industrial attacks would make survival in the post-attack period difficult for individuals and groups alike, compounding the psychological stresses of the attack itself. Satisfying even the simplest survival requirements (food, shelter, and clothing) would become major tasks.

The entire post-war generation has lived under a cloud of fear - sometimes described as the 'shadow of the mushroom cloud', which pervades all thoughts about the human future. This fear, which has hung like a blanket of doom over the thoughts of children in particular, is an evil in itself and will last so long as nuclear weapons remain. The younger generation needs to grow up in a climate of hope, not one of despair that at some point in their life, there is a possibility of their life being snuffed out in an instant, or their health destroyed, along with all they cherish, in a war in which their country may not even take part.

A nuclear strategy requires a genocidal mentality. There are important parallels between nuclear strategies and the Nazi policies that led to the gas chambers. This 'genocidal mentality' consists of dissociative processes of the mind such as 'psychic numbing' and the 'language of non-feeling' and together with distancing, ideological ethics and a passion for problem-solving have the effects of allowing people to remain sane whilst carrying out insane policies.
Governments also have to psychologically prepare their populations for the idea that such insane and evil strategies are rational and necessary. This requires demonising the enemy. During the Cold War for example, the Russians were demonised in order to try to make it acceptable that in some circumstances it would be justifiable to kill millions of them within minutes, in retaliation for something their government may or may not have done.

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