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Everything you need to know about nuclear weapons: an American immigrant scientist spoke about the risks and consequences of its use

"Ukrainian Truthspoke about the risks and consequences of using nuclear weapons with Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at Stevens Institute of Technology who studies the history of nuclear weapons.

Photo: Shutterstock

Threats by the Russian Federation to use nuclear weapons began on the 4th day of the war in Ukraine.

On February 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the containment forces to be put on special alert.

"Deterrence forces" - this is the so-called "nuclear troops". The strategic deterrence forces “are designed to deter aggression against the Russian Federation and its allies, as well as to defeat the aggressor (inflicting defeat on him), including in a war with the use of nuclear weapons.”

Then the threats of nuclear weapons subsided a little, but approximately a month later, on March 22, the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov said that Russia could use nuclear weapons if it saw a threat to the country's existence.

The "threat" was not long in coming. After the adoption of the 5th package of sanctions, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said that Western sanctions against the Russian Federation can be qualified as an act of international aggression.

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  • How high are the risks that Russia will decide to press the same button?
  • What do we know about the world's only use of nuclear weapons?
  • What is more destructive - the Chernobyl tragedy or modern nuclear weapons?
  • Does a nuclear bomb always mean "apocalypse" and can a crash be stopped?

Alex Wellerstein answered these questions in his interview.

Alex Wellerstein is the creator of NUKEMAP, an interactive map that allows you to simulate the explosion of a nuclear weapon in almost any area and take into account the height from which the bomb was dropped, the direction of the wind, etc.

- The only case of the use of nuclear weapons in the history of mankind is the bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Weapons known as "Kid" and "Fat Man". What are the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons for humanity and the affected territory? What human losses did Japan suffer then?

- Among the people living in these cities, depending on the available estimates, one third to one half of the inhabitants died. Almost everyone has experienced the effects of the attack. It was a terrible disaster. Besides, people didn't understand what had happened. They understood that it was a bombardment, but which one? People did not even understand what radiation is?

Hiroshima was more destroyed. It was a completely non-functioning city. But Nagasaki partly functioned. This is explained by geographical reasons: Nagasaki was divided into two parts by mountains, and only one part was destroyed.

With "traditional" bombing, it takes time to destroy a city, many have time to run away, take cover, but the speed of a nuclear bomb is incomparable to many other weapons. It destroys cities almost instantly.

But another fact is interesting: these cities were rebuilt. Now these are quite large metropolitan areas.

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According to some estimates, as a result of the explosions, 70 residents of Hiroshima and 60 residents of Nagasaki were instantly killed. From August to December 1945, the total number of deaths from wounds and diseases caused by radiation was about half a million people in the two cities.

How long did it take to rebuild these cities?

- Nagasaki was rebuilt faster because the city core was not destroyed. Much of the rebuilding of Hiroshima was undertaken by the Americans. They wanted to build ties with Japan, make her an ally in the fight against communism.

It probably took a decade. The people of Hiroshima are proud of how the city has been rebuilt. For them, it is a symbol of hope and why we must avoid war.

How did the use of nuclear weapons affect the course of World War II?

– In fact, this is still a very controversial issue. Very different events happened almost at the same time. Atomic bomb. Soviet invasion of Manchuria. Declaration of war on Japan.

All this accumulated and burst into a dramatic end to the war. But whether the nuclear bomb was the same pivotal event is still a matter of debate.

Many historians say that the atomic bomb was one of the factors. But the war did not necessarily end precisely because of the use of nuclear weapons. It is important to understand that the Japanese had already lost the war even before the use of the nuclear bomb.

- How can nuclear weapons affect the course of modern warfare?

“The most interesting thing about nuclear weapons in today's world is that we don't intend to use them. Definitely not in terms of attack. We use it as a threat. The presence of nuclear weapons and your persistent desire to use them affects the behavior of opponents.

Is Putin deterred by the presence of nuclear weapons in the US? How can we know for sure? How would he behave if the US did not have nuclear weapons?

He himself does not know, because we have it. Whether Putin's nuclear weapons kept him from invading Ukraine, we already know they didn't. Does that keep him from attacking Poland? Maybe. But we can see that nuclear weapons deter the US from acting.

America would be happy to do much more for Ukraine than it does now. But the fear that this will bring the world closer to the use of nuclear weapons is a deterrent.

In the United States, they discussed all the time how our weapons would affect the behavior of Russians in China. But we gave little thought to how the presence of nuclear weapons in Russia would affect us. For the first time, we felt that the nuclear weapons of another country limited us.

- Well, the Russians have already begun to threaten the use of weapons due to the imposition of sanctions. Allegedly, this is fraught with the existence of the country. Like, let's stop with sanctions, otherwise we will press the button. But lifting sanctions because of these threats is too much. This is a sign of weakness.

– Here the question of faith comes to the fore. Do I believe in your threats? Will you really do it? Is it a bluff? The West does not believe that Putin will use nuclear weapons because of the sanctions. It's not that red line.

The history of nuclear threats is very old. The Americans threatened with nuclear weapons back in the 50s. But these threats are not always effective.

You only assume that having a nuclear bomb will make the country do what you want. For example, in the 50s, the United States threatened China: “If you attack Taiwan, we will use nuclear weapons against you. So don't do it."

China said, “OK, we won't. But we will make our own nuclear weapons, because we do not want you to threaten us.” And this is not exactly a positive result of such threats.

If you threaten an enemy with a nuclear weapon, he won't back down. He becomes more alert. I don't see Putin's threats being effective. They make Americans more mad at the Russians than they already are.

- In your opinion, what could be the red line that will force Putin to press the button?

“The uncertainty of this is the biggest danger. They will spot some red lines, but we shouldn't believe them. How we do not believe that sanctions are a red line.

Putin definitely has red lines, but he himself may not know them. There is no document saying that in this case you can press the button. Such a danger could be the real risk of an invasion of Russia. They don't want to be invaded on their territory.

The real threat of assassination of Putin. If he understands that he has nothing to lose, he can do it. He can do nothing if he is killed, but if he believes that this is about to happen, he can overstep this limit.

But I wouldn't worry too much about these questions. Both the Russians and the Americans have a reasonably reliable nuclear system. We don't want to pull out our nuclear warheads.

Will there be a nuclear war if a NATO plane shoots down a Russian plane? Most probably not. But it will bring us closer to this danger. This is one of the reasons why we haven't introduced NoFlyZone yet: it's not necessarily a redline, but it pushes you closer to it. Where is she, you don't know.

What the US is trying to avoid is the imminent collapse of Russia. Which sounds terrible for Ukraine.

The Americans do not want a devastating defeat for Russia. We want a "slow defeat" like we did with Afghanistan. There is a certain bitter irony in this. After all, such a strategic approach entails serious humanitarian problems.

US interests overlap with those of Ukraine, but not perfectly. The best situation would be if the Russians themselves eliminated Putin. It is not certain that someone better will take his place. But it is clear that this person should not be in power.

– Among the optimistic opinions that sounded in Ukraine was that Russia did not maintain nuclear weapons in proper condition. Is there a chance that Russia's nuclear system is not combat-ready enough? Or is this too optimistic?

- These are too optimistic opinions. They spent a lot of money on their nuclear program. It is led by completely different people who carry out military operations in Ukraine. This is a different organization with a different level of professionalism and corruption.

Of course, there are problems there, but there are problems in the US nuclear system as well. A few years ago there was a scandal when it turned out that the people operating the rockets were taking drugs. There was a case when a group of nuns broke into a nuclear facility and painted graffiti on it, and the surveillance cameras were not working.

It will be safer to think that Russian weapons work and will work. But even if only 10% of their arsenal works, the consequences will be unacceptable.

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The story with the nuns happened in 2015, in the suburb of Oak Ridge, where components for nuclear weapons are located. The nuns painted the object with quotations from the Bible.

- The process of launching a nuclear bomb is multi-level. Is there a chance for the world to stop this at some level?

- If there is an opportunity to influence this event, then it is better that this happens before the decision is made. Then it may be too late.

What types of nuclear weapons are there? And what can you expect from him?

- If we talk about tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, then the main difference is where you aim. It's not always about the size of the weapon, although it does sometimes correlate.

Russia has a lot of tactical weapons. NATO has many tactical weapons. It differs in its explosive power. It may be less than what destroyed Hiroshima. 10 times less. Or maybe 10 times more powerful.

If you plan to use such a weapon, you need to think about the purpose, intensity, etc.

For the United States, the most important thing in this process is to minimize collateral damage. Our laws do not allow us to specifically target civilians. Yes, it doesn't always work. We have killed many civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And what about Russia? Perhaps, on paper, they supposedly should do the same. But their actions in Ukraine have clearly shown that they do not care.

If we talk about weapons in general, they are not as bulky as they were in the 50-60s of the XX century. Because they are trying to make weapons more accurate. Not many targets need high power weapons.

A bomb that will be 20 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima is enough to destroy a large city. If the aggressor doubts whether this is enough, then he can discard two.

- What saves us now is the air defense system. Are there mechanisms to safely bring down a nuclear missile?

- It is very difficult to shoot down ballistic or cruise missiles. We have an anti-ballistic air system that causes a lot of discomfort for Russia.

However, many systems are designed to repel an attack from Iran or North Korea. But this system is not strong enough to respond to the weapons that Russia can use.

Russia has been producing missiles for much longer than Iran or North Korea. There are ways to fool sensors and radars.

Cruise missiles can travel incredibly fast, at low altitudes, making it harder for radars to track the missile. Russia has hundreds of types of missiles. We're about a dozen interceptors. Of course, there are chances to shoot down such a missile. And quite high. But I wouldn't count on it too much.

- But if a missile is shot down, can it still denotate and harm the territory?

- If there is a choice between "shoot down a missile with a nuclear weapon" and "let it reach its target" - of course, it is better to shoot it down. Even if it leads to a certain risk of contamination. It still doesn't compare to the risk of contamination if it detonates.

- Nuclear weapons are also characterized by signs: how powerful they are, and how exactly they are delivered - by plane or by land. Please tell us more about these delivery methods.

I would divide this into three categories. What the planes deliver we call "gravity bomb" (gravity bomb or free fall bomb). The plane can be shot down. But the advantage of this type of delivery is that it allows you to be very precise. However, sometimes it can take several hours to get the bomb to the right place.

Next is the rocket. Its advantage is speed. To fly from one end of the world to the other, she will need approximately 30 minutes. Yes, satellites can track it, but if the missile is launched from a submarine, for example, it will be even faster, since it can be quite close.

Such a missile is hard to knock out - there will simply not be time to react. This is a very serious attack, the consequences of which are difficult to predict: the Americans will be much more concerned with launching a missile from a submarine than dropping a bomb from an aircraft. Because it is difficult to understand where the rocket is flying.

Well, the last option is what we deliver by land. To do this, they can use a person who will carry the bomb in a backpack and hide it. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that most tactical weapons in the US are short-range missiles.

They are very fast, they do not cover long distances - they are designed for approximately 160-320 km. They are relatively accurate and hard to shoot down.

- If we compare the use of modern nuclear weapons with the Chernobyl tragedy - which will be more destructive?

- Chernobyl is comparable to old nuclear bombs with a yield of many megatons. It has caused more problems than many modern nuclear weapons can cause.

For example, in 1954 there was a test of the American thermonuclear bomb Castle Bravo. It had a yield of 15 megatons and was 1000 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. And this created a similar scale of pollution, comparable to Chernobyl.

Modern weapons are less powerful. I can't say which is the largest bomb in Russia - I think approximately 2 megatons. The Chinese have a 5 megaton weapon, probably the largest in the world today. Yes, this will not entail such devastating consequences as in the case of Chernobyl. But they will be very destructive.

“And the Russians can use more than one missile. You can launch multiple missiles.

- Unfortunately yes.

- When the Russians say they will destroy Warsaw in 30 seconds, what kind of weapon do they mean?

- First of all, we are talking about short-range missiles. Warsaw is relatively close to Russia. So something fast is needed. But this weapon must be located very close.

- When we imagine a nuclear explosion, a nuclear war, it seems to us that this is the point in the existence of civilization. Complete apocalypse. But as we have already discussed, nuclear weapons are different. What scenarios of development of events in case of its application are most probable?

“It all depends on what choice people make. It could be something like the scenario in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or maybe not a single city will be destroyed.

You drop a bomb somewhere in the mountains, on a small base. It kills about 20 people. This is a dumb use of nuclear weapons, but we can imagine it. This may be an attempt to intimidate. However, this version of events scares me no less.

It is quite possible that even Putin's entourage thinks that the destruction of the city is too much, and they simply will not allow it. But if you use a nuclear bomb, even though it will result in a relatively small number of casualties, it can look very menacing. And that might force you to retreat.

You can launch a nuclear weapon over the sky of Kyiv so high that it won't kill anyone, but everyone will see that you are capable of it.

- That is, you are more worried about the likelihood of such a provocation? What will it make the world give back?

- Yes, but this is only one of the possible scenarios, within which a very dangerous game begins. And how will the US behave in this situation? Surrender Ukraine? I don't think. Rather, the situation will worsen.

It will be necessary to answer this and perhaps answer more powerfully: “Look, whatever you do, we will do it better.” This is a very dangerous game.

Do you know such a game "Chicken"? It's popular in the USA, never play it. This is something that only drunken young men will do.

Two cars are approaching one another, getting closer, and whoever breaks down first and turns to the side loses. But if both drivers go to the last, both will lose.

But there may be another scenario. A real nuclear war, which includes a bunch of countries: the USA, Russia, France, Great Britain. No, she won't kill everyone. But it will be a tragedy of incomparable proportions.

There will be countries that are not subject to nuclear attacks. There is no point in bombing Brazil or South Africa. But even these countries will live in a world with gigantic humanitarian problems and needs.

If Europe, the US and Russia are destroyed by nuclear attacks, what will happen to the food supply? This will lead to hunger. And I'm not talking about climate issues. They may not occur, but if they do, it will disrupt food supplies around the world. And I'm not talking about refugees.

You will have many survivors in a completely destroyed society. This will change the world for the worse. I wouldn't talk about extinction. Most likely, it will not be - people are very tough nuts. We can live in very bad conditions and have already lived.

Let's simulate a scenario. The attack happened. Perhaps no one destroyed “Warsaw in 30 seconds” and dropped a powerful bomb, but the city was attacked with nuclear weapons. What victims to expect within a week after the attack? How will this affect people, depending on the range of radiation?

- There are many conditions. How powerful is the bomb? Was it delivered by air or land? What crowd of people was at the epicenter of the explosion?

If you use a map and simulate the situation, you can take the following initial data: imagine that the Russians decided to attack Kyiv.

I don't see this as a likely scenario, but imagine. And, for example, this is a powerful, but not the most powerful weapon - about 100 kilotons. This is 5 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Although this is a relatively small strategic weapon by modern standards.

– Is it more likely to expect an attack from the air?

- Most likely, it will be an attack from the air. An air attack is done, first of all, in order to destroy as many buildings as possible, to have a large area of ​​\u135b\u550bdestruction. With such initial data, I repeat, these are approximate estimates, we can expect XNUMX thousand dead and XNUMX thousand wounded.

Approximately 1,7 million people experience the effect of the explosion. For example, at least the glass in their houses will be broken. Many will survive. The territory where there will be more victims is 3 kilometers from the epicenter of the explosion.

Further, the number of victims will decrease, but will still be high. Not everyone will die from radiation. Someone will die under the rubble. Part of the victims, who were strongly affected by radiation, will not die immediately, but approximately within a month.

10-15% of survivors will die of cancer at some point in their lives, precisely because of the effects of radiation on the body.

Radiation affects you in two ways. Ionizing radiation produces ions that extract electrons from atoms. It changes the chemical processes in the body. We are beings living by chemistry.

When normal chemical processes change, it kills our cells. If a critical number of cells die at once, it can cause organ failure, what we call acute radiation sickness. This is what killed the firefighters at Chernobyl.

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Another problem radiation creates is damage to our DNA. It can cause cancer. When radiation affects sperm and eggs, there is a risk of birth defects in unborn children. This is what the air strike was about.

“What if it’s a ground strike?”

- With a ground strike, the number of instant casualties will be slightly lower. But this kick is still very intense, but limited in size. Tentatively, we can talk about 75 thousand victims.

This may seem like the “best” option. But a ground strike will also lead to more pollution. We will get what is called fall out - radiation can be carried by the wind for hundreds of kilometers.

For example, according to the simulation for Kiev, if the wind blows in a westerly direction, the radiation will reach Zhytomyr, Yuryevka, Bila Tserkva.

In some areas, this will not be critical, you will not even need to go to cover. But if an explosion in Kyiv catches you in Brovary and you're stuck in your car for 3 hours, that's enough to make you sick. Not die, but get health problems.

If you're outside for 24 hours, it could very well kill. If you spend a day in a small house, you will get sick. If you wait out those 24 hours in hiding, you may be able to get by without health problems.

It all depends on where you are and what exactly you are doing. If you are Brovary and the wind is 24 km/h, then you have an hour to get to the shelter. But the affected area will require serious cleaning if you are going to live there and not get cancer.

How long does it take to clear and restore the area?

– It all depends on the size of the bomb and a number of other factors, but speaking roughly, it takes about a week to get rid of the “immediate” exposure.

But if we are talking about a more serious cleansing, then it will take a very long time. The radiation will be in the soil, plants and it is not always economically feasible to cut down all the trees. There are still places in Hiroshima where people are not recommended to visit. So we can talk about a decade. It's like in the case of Chernobyl.

– What can you say about fears of nuclear winter? Many scientists consider this nothing more than science fiction.

“I would call it the “nuclear winter hypothesis.” We only have a simulation of what a nuclear war might look like. But we don't know how it will actually be.

Under certain circumstances, we can assume that a nuclear winter will occur. But this is only an assumption. We can only do experiments to understand how this one could interact with the atmosphere. But, in my opinion, we simply do not have enough data to say anything.

Even if this nuclear war is limited in scope, it could affect the climate and disrupt global food supplies. According to other assumptions, this will only lead to short-term effects that will not differ much from ordinary weather events. The same or even greater effect on the climate can cause a volcanic eruption. But these are all hypotheses, and if we are lucky, we will never know if they are true or not.

And again, the world has been testing nuclear bombs. We know that the detonation of one bomb does not lead to any apocalyptic consequences. And how many explosions will it bring? ten? fifteen? 10? We do not know! We never did. We have never launched 15 nuclear bombs on cities, forests and other objects.

Tests were carried out in deserts, tundras, on islands. Where there are not many objects that can burn. Even if we take the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: in World War II, these cities were not built up like modern Kyiv. Are we all plastic now? What consequences will this have as a result of a nuclear explosion? We do not know!

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Nuclear winter is a hypothesis that as a result of a nuclear war, the climate on Earth will change globally. It is believed that as a result of the release of a large amount of smoke and soot into the stratosphere, large-scale fires during the explosion of 30-40% of nuclear bombs accumulated in the world, the temperature on the planet will drop to the Arctic everywhere due to a significant increase in the amount of reflected light.

– There is an interesting simulation from the Norwegian Nobel Institute. It says that at the epicenter of the explosion, the mortality rate is almost 98%. And everything around not only burns, but disappears.

– Yes, there are territories very close to the epicenter, which I call the “hopeless zone”. There's nothing you can do about it. If you find yourself there, that's it. This is the end.

There is a territory where you will 100% survive. Yes, windows can be broken in your house, but you will live. There is an area where survival may depend on your actions. Not 100%. But there are chances.

For example, if people go to shelter, then 30% will survive. I'm talking very roughly. People are very fatalistic about nuclear weapons: I can't do anything, I'll die. This is not entirely true. So maybe. But if there is a risk of a nuclear threat, and you suddenly see an incredibly bright flash, brighter than the sun, take cover as soon as possible. This will greatly increase your chances of survival.

– What can you say about this war and about the nuclear threat?

“What is happening is unacceptable. But I have the hope that this will allow many people to reconsider their attitude towards the war.

Americans generally have too much enthusiasm for war. But my students are now scared of the war in Ukraine.

They were not horrified by Syria, although they should be. There are a lot of Ukrainians here in New York. We go to Ukrainian restaurants, we make friends with Ukrainians. This war is taken on a personal level.

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