Worldwide Effects of Nuclear War

Radioactive Fallout

Both the local and worldwide fallout hazards of nuclear explosions depend on a variety of interacting factors: weapon design, explosive force, altitude and latitude of detonation, time of year, and local weather conditions.

All present nuclear weapon designs require the splitting of heavy elements like uranium and plutonium. The energy released in this fission process is many millions of times greater, pound for pound, than the most energetic chemical reactions. The smaller nuclear weapon, in the low-kiloton range, may rely solely on the energy released by the fission process, as did the first bombs which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The larger yield nuclear weapons derive a substantial part of their explosive force from the fusion of heavy forms of hydrogen--deuterium and tritium. Since there is virtually no limitation on the volume of fusion materials in a weapon, and the materials are less costly than fissionable materials, the fusion, "thermonuclear," or "hydrogen" bomb brought a radical increase in the explosive power of weapons. However, the fission process is still necessary to achieve the high temperatures and pressures needed to trigger the hydrogen fusion reactions. Thus, all nuclear detonations produce radioactive fragments of heavy elements fission, with the larger bursts producing an additional radiation component from the fusion process.

The nuclear fragments of heavy-element fission which are of greatest concern are those radioactive atoms (also called radionuclides) which decay by emitting energetic electrons or gamma particles. (See "Radioactivity" note.) An important characteristic here is the rate of decay. This is measured in terms of "half-life"--the time required for one-half of the original substance to decay--which ranges from days to thousands of years for the bomb-produced radionuclides of principal interest. (See "Nuclear Half-Life" note.) Another factor which is critical in determining the hazard of radionuclides is the chemistry of the atoms. This determines whether they will be taken up by the body through respiration or the food cycle and incorporated into tissue. If this occurs, the risk of biological damage from the destructive ionizing radiation (see "Radioactivity" note) is multiplied.

Probably the most serious threat is cesium-137, a gamma emitter with a half-life of 30 years. It is a major source of radiation in nuclear fallout, and since it parallels potassium chemistry, it is readily taken into the blood of animals and men and may be incorporated into tissue. Other hazards are strontium-90, an electron emitter with a half-life of 28 years, and iodine-131 with a half-life of only 8 days. Strontium-90 follows calcium chemistry, so that it is readily incorporated into the bones and teeth, particularly of young children who have received milk from cows consuming contaminated forage. Iodine-131 is a similar threat to infants and children because of its concentration in the thyroid gland. In addition, there is plutonium-239, frequently used in nuclear explosives. A bone-seeker like strontium-90, it may also become lodged in the lungs, where its intense local radiation can cause cancer or other damage.

Plutonium-239 decays through emission of an alpha particle (helium nucleus) and has a half-life of 24,000 years. To the extent that hydrogen fusion contributes to the explosive force of a weapon, two other radionuclides will be released: tritium (hydrogen-3), an electron emitter with a half-life of 12 years, and carbon-14, an electron emitter with a half-life of 5,730 years. Both are taken up through the food cycle and readily incorporated in organic matter.

Three types of radiation damage may occur: bodily damage (mainly leukemia and cancers of the thyroid, lung, breast, bone, and gastrointestinal tract); genetic damage (birth defects and constitutional and degenerative diseases due to gonodal damage suffered by parents); and development and growth damage (primarily growth and mental retardation of unborn infants and young children). Since heavy radiation doses of about 20 roentgen or more (see "Radioactivity" note) are necessary to produce developmental defects, these effects would probably be confined to areas of heavy local fallout in the nuclear combatant nations and would not become a global problem.

A. Local Fallout

Most of the radiation hazard from nuclear bursts comes from short-lived radionuclides external to the body; these are generally confined to the locality downwind of the weapon burst point. This radiation hazard comes from radioactive fission fragments with half-lives of seconds to a few months, and from soil and other materials in the vicinity of the burst made radioactive by the intense neutron flux of the fission and fusion reactions.

It has been estimated that a weapon with a fission yield of 1 million tons TNT equivalent power (1 megaton) exploded at ground level in a 15 miles-per-hour wind would produce fallout in an ellipse extending hundreds of miles downwind from the burst point. At a distance of 20-25 miles downwind, a lethal radiation dose (600 rads) would be accumulated by a person who did not find shelter within 25 minutes after the time the fallout began. At a distance of 40-45 miles, a person would have at most 3 hours after the fallout began to find shelter. Considerably smaller radiation doses will make people seriously ill. Thus, the survival prospects of persons immediately downwind of the burst point would be slim unless they could be sheltered or evacuated.

It has been estimated that an attack on U.S. population centers by 100 weapons of one-megaton fission yield would kill up to 20 percent of the population immediately through blast, heat, ground shock and instant radiation effects (neutrons and gamma rays); an attack with 1,000 such weapons would destroy immediately almost half the U.S. population. These figures do not include additional deaths from fires, lack of medical attention, starvation, or the lethal fallout showering to the ground downwind of the burst points of the weapons.

Most of the bomb-produced radionuclides decay rapidly. Even so, beyond the blast radius of the exploding weapons there would be areas ("hot spots") the survivors could not enter because of radioactive contamination from long-lived radioactive isotopes like strontium-90 or cesium-137, which can be concentrated through the food chain and incorporated into the body. The damage caused would be internal, with the injurious effects appearing over many years. For the survivors of a nuclear war, this lingering radiation hazard could represent a grave threat for as long as 1 to 5 years after the attack.

B. Worldwide Effects of Fallout

Much of our knowledge of the production and distribution of radionuclides has been derived from the period of intensive nuclear testing in the atmosphere during the 1950's and early 1960's. It is estimated that more than 500 megatons of nuclear yield were detonated in the atmosphere between 1945 and 1971, about half of this yield being produced by a fission reaction. The peak occurred in 1961-62, when a total of 340 megatons were detonated in the atmosphere by the United States and Soviet Union. The limited nuclear test ban treaty of 1963 ended atmospheric testing for the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union, but two major non-signatories, France and China, continued nuclear testing at the rate of about 5 megatons annually. (France now conducts its nuclear tests underground.)

A U.N. scientific committee has estimated that the cumulative per capita dose to the world's population up to the year 2000 as a result of atmospheric testing through 1970 (cutoff date of the study) will be the equivalent of 2 years' exposure to natural background radiation on the earth's surface. For the bulk of the world's population, internal and external radiation doses of natural origin amount to less than one-tenth rad annually. Thus nuclear testing to date does not appear to pose a severe radiation threat in global terms. But a nuclear war releasing 10 or 100 times the total yield of all previous weapons tests could pose a far greater worldwide threat. The biological effects of all forms of ionizing radiation have been calculated within broad ranges by the National Academy of Sciences. Based on these calculations, fallout from the 500-plus megatons of nuclear testing through 1970 will produce between 2 and 25 cases of genetic disease per million live births in the next generation.

This means that between 3 and 50 persons per billion births in the post-testing generation will have genetic damage for each megaton of nuclear yield exploded. With similar uncertainty, it is possible to estimate that the induction of cancers would range from 75 to 300 cases per megaton for each billion people in the post-test generation.

If we apply these very rough yardsticks to a large-scale nuclear war in which 10,000 megatons of nuclear force are detonated, the effects on a world population of 5 billion appear enormous. Allowing for uncertainties about the dynamics of a possible nuclear war, radiation-induced cancers and genetic damage together over 30 years are estimated to range from 1.5 to 30 million for the world population as a whole. This would mean one additional case for every 100 to 3,000 people or about 1/2 percent to 15 percent of the estimated peacetime cancer death rate in developed countries. As will be seen, moreover, there could be other, less well understood effects which would drastically increase suffering and death.

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