Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The effects of nuclear weapons

BFTF'd formative years were back in the 1980's, a decade marked by great music, the beginnings of the revival of the English national footy team, overstyled hair (on both sexes) and, more disturbingly, the ever present threat of nuclear war.

Those of a younger generation may not appreciate just how real this possibility was, but BFTF can vividly recall programmes such as Weekend World routinely discussing what would happen if the Soviets rolled into West Germany and there was a (so called "limited") nuclear war. For example, check out this interview with Margaret Thatcher (scroll down to Part 2) ,and a listing of another example here

There was the concept of the "4 minute warning" which was the time between Soviet missiles being detected - and the missiles delivering their nuclear payload to the UK.

Docu-dramas such as the US made "The Day After" and the UK film "Threads" brought home to people just how devastating a nuclear war would be - and how long lived would be its consequences.

And this is despite the fact that those films did not even begin to portray the full horror of the level of human death, misery and devastation that even a single nuclear weapon could cause.

Even today, a quarter of a century later, just thinking about Threads gives BFTF a bad feeling in the pit of the stomach.

And the threat of nuclear apolcalypse filtered through to popular culture, for example in music by Nena, Sting and The Jam - and also into films such as "War Games". See also this Wiki article.

Even if you escaped the direct effects of blast and radiation in a nuclear exchange, the following were sobering facts that you needed to face:

If you were a person who depended on medication to lead a healthy life then a nuclear war meant that your medication would disappear.

If you lived in a city then a nuclear war meant that food and water supplies would stop immediately.

Gas and electricity supplied would stop immediately - there would be no domestic heating.

Effects of Nuclear Weapons
A report by the organisation Medact describes how, for a relatively small 75kt (i.e. weapon with an explosive equivalent to 75,000 tonnes of TNT) the following would be the case:

50% of people within a 5.4kn radius would die or be injured from blast overpressure effects and that, at this distance:
"Walls of typical steel-frame buildings blown away [and] severe damage to dwelling houses...Full thickness skin burns are likely up to around 4km away from the blast. [These] only heal very slowly with scarring and, under normal conditions, are usually treated by skin grafting".

Radiation affect the body in three main ways.
i) Bone Marrow : Depressed production of white blood cells and platelets:
"Loss of white blood cells results in susceptibility to infections and the development of spontaneous haemorrhages. These effects may be fatal, usually at the end of the fourth week after exposure or the subject may gradually recover."

ii) Gasto-Intestinal : These effects occur at higher radiation levels, the report stating that:
"The main initial damage is to the cells lining the small intestine. This results in massive diarrhoea with loss of body fluids and the risk of septicaemia from bacteria that have gained access through the damaged lining. These symptoms occur earlier than in the bone-marrow form and, if the subject survives, are likely to be followed by the features of the bone-marrow form described above."

iii) Central Nervous System : This is affected at very high levels of radiation resulting in:
"convulsions, coma and death within a few hours. At somewhat lower doses, there is a gradual loss of mental and physical activity, followed by disorientation, coma and death in a few days."

A shocking testimony from Hiroshima
The report includes a description of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At Hiroshima, a priest, Father Kleinsorge, was asked to help some soldiers and it was later reported that:
'When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about 20 men and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state; their faces were wholly burned, their eye sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.' This was the result of having their faces upturned when the bomb exploded"

"Square Leg"
The report mentions the 1980 'Square Leg' NATO exercise, in which an attack of 5 One Megaton weapons on London was simulated. Medact comments that:
"Based upon the 1971 census, when the population of Greater London was 7.2 million (private householders only), blast effects alone would have resulted in 1.1 million immediate deaths and 2.4 - 2.9 million injured. If only 1% of the population were directly exposed to the effects of heat in the open there would have been approximately 28,000 partial-thickness and 5,000 full-thickness burns among those who had not been killed or injured by the effects of blast. If 25% had been exposed, the corresponding figures would have been 700,000 partial-thickness and 125,000 full-thickness burns."

It almost happened
It is worth remembering that a major nuclear exchange - which would have devastated much of human civilisation - very nearly happened on at least two occasions; once in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and - at a time of heightened tensions - in a 1983 false missile alarm in the Russian early warning system.
What Medact want to see.
Although their work is wide ranging, Medact was originally formed by a 1992 merger of Medical Association for the Prevention of War, and the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons. Given this history, it is not surprising that their view is that:

"As health professionals we are aware that the continued possession of nuclear weapons and the development of new nuclear weapons is not only dangerous but a huge waste of resources. At a time when our National Health Service is acutely short of funds, for Britain to embark on a programme to develop a new nuclear weapon system to replace Trident, with capital costs of up to £25 billion and running costs of perhaps £50 billion more, would divert massive resources and potentially create death and sickness on a massive scale, would be totally irresponsible.

It is essential to begin realistic negotiations between all the actual and potential nuclear weapon states to bring about nuclear disarmament, as they are under an obligation to achieve under Article 6 of the NPT. The objective should be a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which would ban the production, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons and require the destruction of existing stockpiles as do the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions for the respective weapons. A draft NWC drawn up by Costa Rica already exists as a United Nations document."

Further Information
Wikipedia article on effects of nuclear weapons
Medact articles on Nuclear Weapons
CND page on nuclear weapon effects
Hiroshima Remembered

Hiroshima, after the nuclear attack

Image Source
Hiroshima Aftermath