what you need to know in the nuclear age


The concept of risk may be thought of as the product of probability times consequences:


There are different types of nuclear-related risks, each having its own probabilities and consequences. The probability of massive nuclear war in the near future may be very small, but the consequences would be so overwhelming that the risk is high nonetheless. The probability that one or more terrorist groups will acquire and use a nuclear weapon or weapons is much higher, but since terrorists are unlikely to obtain very many weapons the consequences will be less (except for those who are near them when they are detonated). Obviously the probabilities of these risks are increased by political tension and instability, and decreased when peace and tranquility predominate. Therefore the first order of business for anyone who would like to reduce their personal exposure to these risks ought to be the political support of leadership that will promote peace in the world instead of strife, and the removal of poor leadership that increases these risks. Unfortunately that may be impractical or impossible in real life, where the best any individual can usually do is minimize their own and their family's risk by reducing the probability that they will become victims and by taking steps to reduce the consequences if the worst does happen near them.

We cannot define nuclear risks with mathematical precision because their probabilities are uncertain and their consequences can vary with the circumstances. We may sometimes frame nuclear risks in terms of threats to our society and even to civilization but for most of us the immediate concern is more personal. This is the range of known nuclear risks:

  • Nuclear War

    The worst case scenario is a full-scale intercontinental exchange with massive overkill through the use of significant numbers of the thousands of strategic weapons in the arsenals of both the United States and Russia; less damage would be expected from the use of smaller stocks of weapons by China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and possibly other countries. Many of these strategic weapons would be thermonuclear (fusion weapons) with megaton yields and devastating to wide areas, with significant radioactive fallout especially if they are detonated at the earth's surface. The most limited case would be the use of smaller yield tactical fission weapons in battlefield situations, where fewer people would be killed and the spread of radioactivity would be less. Consequences could therefore vary from severe worldwide radioactive contamination to relatively limited areas of contamination.

    It's important to realize that a nuclear war anywhere in the world, even if the U.S. is not one of the belligerents responsible (say between India and Pakistan) could easily produce enough radioactive fallout to have severe effects upon the United States population. See for detail about this.

    Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.

  • Nuclear Accidents

    There have been a number of nuclear accidents throughout the years, among the more notable being nuclear weapons accidentally dropped from airplanes (none has detonated nuclearly because their safety mechanisms have worked but the conventional explosive has dispersed bomb material and contaminated hundreds of acres) to the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown and the far worse reactor explosion and fire at Chernobyl. Lately we have the reactor disasters in Japan following an earthquake. These are the kinds of accidents that make the newspapers but there are numerous smaller events or events intentionally kept secret that one rarely hears of. Small releases of radioactivity from operating reactors are common and radioisotopes are used in so many laboratories in this country and around the world that there are likely to be dozens if not hundreds of very minor contamination events on a daily basis. The author (Simanonok) has worked with small amounts of radioactive materials in research laboratories and was once responsible for the accidental contamination of a centrifuge with radioiodine while an undergraduate at Florida State University; the minor contamination was cleaned up and nobody even thought of calling the newspapers. These kinds of things happen all the time; sometimes patients are treated with radioactive materials in hospitals and then they are released to go walk around in public for example. Minor releases and accidents like these are accepted as part of the cost of doing business with radionuclides and as long as the quantities released are low, damage is considered to be zero or negligible. The point is that there are many ways that one can be exposed to radiation or radioactive materials without ever being aware of it; only occasionally do problems arise, but the instances you should be concerned about are the bigger ones which release significant quantities of radioactive materials.

  • Nuclear Terrorism

    Terrorists would most likely use low-yield fission weapons that could be easily hidden in transport to their targets in cargo containers. They would probably be used in high population areas (New York City, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles are the three most likely target cities) so the consequences of even a small nuclear weapon in terrorist hands would be intentionally maximized to kill the most people.

    Feasibility of Terrorist Use of Nuclear Weapons

    Suitcase bombs

    It is possible to create a nuclear bomb small enough to be transported by one person using small amounts of nuclear material such as enriched uranium. Russia allegedly has an arsenal of suitcase-size nuclear bombs that could deliver a one-kiloton explosion capable of killing 100,000 people, and Russia's security and accountability for its weaponry is notoriously lax. As many as 84 such bombs were reported missing from Russia's arsenal in 1997, although it is unclear whether they have been stolen, dismantled, or lost in poorly documented storage. It is conceivable that a suitcase-size bomb could be brought into the U.S. hidden inside containerized imported cargo.

    Attaché case bombs

    Even smaller and lighter weight atomic bombs the size of an attaché case were built by the United States in the 1970s, and it is possible that they have also been produced in Russia. Bombs of this size, of course, would be even easier to smuggle into the country.

    Many believe that Osama bin Laden or other terrorists may already have nuclear bombs:

    Concerns about nuclear terrorism also include the use of "dirty bombs" which do not involve nuclear reactions.

    Radiological dispersal devices ("DIRTY BOMBS")

    A radiological dispersal device (RDD) consists of conventional explosives packaged with nuclear materials. Upon detonation the device spews deadly radioactive particles into the atmosphere.

    The explosives used could be plastic explosive, dynamite, TNT, or a grenade, rocket, or other munitions. The nuclear materials would most likely be nuclear waste by-products (e.g., from nuclear reactors). Some RDDs may include a substance such as napalm or industrial glue to ensure that radioactive particles will not easily be washed away after the incident.

    Dirty bombs are multi-hazard weapons. In addition to radiation exposure, they may inflict thermal and explosive hazards as well as mechanical hazards from shrapnel (e.g., nails) included in the munitions or resulting from building collapse.

    Radiological dispersal devices are sometimes referred to as Improvised Nuclear Devices (INDs).



    In some ways, dirty bombs are thought to be better potential weapons of terrorism than nuclear bombs because they can be developed cheaply, simply, and quickly. And whereas the use of nuclear bombs is considered abhorrent to the civilized world, there are some who feel that dirty bombs would carry slightly less of a stigma (or at least that radical terrorist organizations would make such a distinction).

    Radioactive materials are relatively easy to obtain, and a dirty bomb can be constructed with a very small amount. There reportedly are more than 10,000 possible sources of radioactive material around the world for a terrorist to steal some in well-guarded military facilities but others (e.g., hospital radiotherapy rooms and college physics laboratories) essentially wide open.

    Nuclear reactors produce toxic plutonium in the form of spent fuel rods. In the United States alone, radioactive waste is located at more than 70 commercial nuclear power sites in 31 States. In general, radioactive waste is not as well guarded as actual nuclear weapons. Tons of waste are transported long distances (including between continents) with fairly lax security. Security for nuclear materials is especially poor in Russia.

  • Nuclear Waste

    There are many millions of tons of nuclear waste around the world, resulting primarily from the production of nuclear fuel and operation of nuclear reactors and the production of nuclear material for weapons. There is a complex nuclear fuel cycle beginning with mining, then milling, then refining and fabrication before nuclear fuels are even put into reactors, and great quantities of waste are produced at each step along the way. There are small mountains of uranium "tailings" leftover at many sites around the world which release radioactive radon gas and contaminate the groundwater, and will for many centuries. These kinds of radioactive contamination are again considered part of the cost of doing business with nuclear materials, although the costs are not usually borne by those who benefit monetarily from the mining and production of nuclear fuels but by children and adults who get leukemia or other radiation-induced cancers from long-term exposure to the leftovers. Most of the nuclear waste that's produced is not of sufficient radioactive intensity to cause immediate harm and a lot of it is well-contained so that few people will ever be exposed to it. The biggest concern is high-level waste, usually reactor waste, which might be dispersed in a terrorist event or transportation accident. This could be a life-threatening situation in some cases; it's been said that if a single fuel rod were removed from an operating nuclear reactor and placed by the side of a road, a motorcyclist driving by it at 60 miles per hour would receive a fatal dose of radiation from it. That's an extreme and unrealistic scenario that simply serves to illustrate how "hot" reactor fuel can be, but used reactor fuel is typically allowed to "cool" for a number of years (allowing the short-lived radionuclides to decay) so that it can be handled and transported more safely. But it can remain quite "hot" for a long time if it contains significant quantities of Plutonium-239, which has a half life of almost 25,000 years. The general rule of thumb is that it takes ten half lives for a significant quantity of radioactive material to decay to the point at which it is safe, so what this means is that the plutonium generated today will remain dangerous for almost a quarter of a million (250,000) years. Think about what that means for a moment. If the ancient Egyptians, say King Tut, had produced plutonium for reactors around 1330 BC, the plutonium waste would still be extremely dangerous today, and it would have to remain securely contained and isolated from the environment not only since 1330 BC but for a very long time into the future. Even the most durable structures in history, the Pyramids at Giza, are crumbling today. We do not produce any structures that come close to their durability, yet even the Pyramids would not be adequate for the task of containing plutonium waste. What this means is that generations upon generations upon generations of our descendants will have to deal with the dangerous legacy of the plutonium waste we are creating today. They will curse and revile us and our culture that could be so stupid as to create the mammoth quantities of waste we already have, and leave it for all the following generations to deal with. We are going to be remembered throughout history as the most irresponsible and selfish people that can be imagined. If we are fortunate our distant descendants may consider that we were mere animals, devoid of true consciousness and therefore unable to recognize the consequences of our actions, and they may forgive us on that basis. But I doubt it.




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