“Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – Oppenheimer, from Hindu scripture1
Nuclear war is any conflict involving the use of any number of atomic/radioactive weaponry. It is generally agreed that “there is no such thing as a small nuclear war” due to the devastating effects of just a few nuclear weapons and the possibility of escalation.2
“Mutually assured destruction,” or MAD, is the idea that no two nations would ever deploy nuclear weapons against each other because to do so would guarantee their annihilation. This principle is fundamental to our understanding of nuclear warfare.3
However, there are a few scenarios that MAD cannot account for and that might result in a nuclear exchange:4
- False Alarm (nuclear weapons have been placed on hair-trigger alert multiple times, so a warhead can be mistakenly launched)
- Unauthorized Launch (hackers, spies, etc., could obtain launch codes)
- Accidental Nuclear War (an accident leads to an explosion of a weapon and possible subsequent retaliation)
- Communications failure/rogue launch (a rogue commander, cut off from central command, could launch warheads without express permission)
- Miscalculation (Deterrence fails and leaders miscalculate strategic goals of enemies)
- Nuclear Terrorism (a terrorist group acquires nuclear materials and detonates a nuclear explosive, which a country could mistakenly interpret as coming from another country and trigger nuclear escalation)
- Preemptive Strike (a nation strikes first to take out the enemy’s nuclear weapons because they believe they are about to be attacked first)
- Escalation of Conventional War (a country reacts to a perceived invasion with nuclear force)
- Irrational Leader (a relevant example of this would be North Korea deciding to launch nuclear weapons)
While effects may vary based on the class of weapon, the following generally occurs after a nuclear explosion:5
- For a one-megaton bomb, 80 times the size of the one exploded in Hiroshima, anyone within 13 miles would experience flash blindness on a cloudless day
- Considering a bomb of this size, people within 5 miles of the detonation would receive third-degree burns
- Radiation levels would also increase drastically, as nuclear fallout rains back down (peaking 48 hours later)
- Soot and smoke would be released into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and triggering a nuclear winter, which may result in global famine
- Nuclear weapon detonations also have many humanitarian and long-lasting impacts, including disproportionate harm to groups near testing sites, environmental impacts, and ionizing radiation6
Data from http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Weapons/Allbombs.html
The most logical solution to decrease the risk of nuclear war is to stop nuclear proliferation and dismantle existing nuclear warheads. However, this process is not easy and could lead to risks of rogue actors acquiring nuclear materials if not carried out correctly.
Solutions include: 7
- More efficient technology (shifting funds from developing more weapons towards increasing security on active weapons)
- No-First Use Treaties (where countries sign an agreement to never use nuclear weapons unless attacked first)
- Checks and Balances (decreasing the threat posed by irrational leaders or miscalculation by building time for deliberation into the launch process)
- De-alerting weapons (moving them off hair-trigger alert)
- Other Diplomacy and Treaties (principally arms reduction treaties like SALTI & II)
In the case of a nuclear bomb detonation, one should take the following actions and precautions:8
- Get inside and stay inside for at least 24 hours, as far away from the walls and roof as possible
- Remove clothing if you were outside after the blast and wash exposed parts
- Avoid contact with others and wear a mask
- Listen to radio and other media for information on how to act
2 Holmes, D. (2019). “There Is No Such Thing As a Small Nuclear War.” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, https://armscontrolcenter.org/there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-small-nuclear-war/.
3 The Decision Lab. “Mutually Assured Destruction.” https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/management/mutually-assured-destruction.
4 Krieger, D. (2010). “Nuclear Detonation: Fifteen Scenarios.” NAPF, https://www.wagingpeace.org/nuclear-detonation-fifteen-scenarios/.
5 MacDonald F. (2022). “Video: How Far Away Would You Need to Be to Survive a Nuclear Blast?” Science Alert,
6 ICRC (2020). “Humanitarian Impacts and Risks of Use of Nuclear Weapons.” International Committee of the Red Cross, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/humanitarian-impacts-and-risks-use-nuclear-weapons.
7 UCS. “Nuclear Weapons Solutions.” Union of Concerned Scientists, https://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/solutions.
8 Ready.gov (2022). “Nuclear Explosion.” https://www.ready.gov/nuclear-explosion.