A nuclear attack on any city would be a humanitarian catastrophe. Modern nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from any other weapons in history, and just one of them could potentially wipe out an entire metropolis. The heat and blast effects from a modern weapon would indiscriminately kill tens of thousands to millions of civilians depending on the city’s density and the explosive power of the warhead.
A Physicians for Social Responsibility study modeled the humanitarian impact of detonating 300 Russian nuclear weapons over U.S. cities. The study found 75 to 100 million people would die within thirty minutes.
The so-called national defense policies of the nine nations with nuclear weapons include the ever-present threat of using them to burn to death millions of civilians who live in other nations. But since no one can actually win a nuclear war, the entire idea of achieving “security” through nuclear weapons is a false narrative. That’s why three-quarters of the nations on Earth have called for totally eliminating them. The Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in 2014 and signed by 155 U.N. countries, puts it plainly: “The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination.”
These are among the effects we could expect if a nuclear war were to happen:
A typical modern nuclear weapon can easily reduce the entire downtown of a city to rubble. Hiroshima was flattened by an American bomb with a “yield” equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. Modern thermonuclear weapons are many times more powerful. Current American and Russian land-based missiles carry warheads ranging from 100 to 800 kilotons. That’s six to fifty-three times the size of the Hiroshima bomb.
If a modern weapon is detonated over a city, it will burn everything flammable in an area at least four miles across.
In Hiroshima, temperatures at ground zero were equivalent to the surface of the sun. If a modern weapon is detonated over a city, it will burn everything flammable in an area at least four miles across. The Hiroshima bomb immediately killed 70,000 people, mostly from burns. By the end of 1945, that death toll had doubled. “Each person who died had a name. Each person was loved by someone,” said survivor Setsuko Thurlow in a 2017 International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons address to the U.N. General Assembly after 122 countries had voted in favor of adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Physicians and relief agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross warn that in the event of a nuclear attack, doctors and other health professionals would not be able to deliver medical assistance to immediate survivors. In Hiroshima, the atomic bomb killed or injured 90 percent of doctors and nurses in the area and destroyed 80 percent of the hospitals. Since there can be no meaningful medical response to a nuclear attack on a city, prevention is the only cure.
“Fallout” refers to lethal radioactive materials lofted into the air by the nuclear blast that eventually settle back to earth, often far from the target. If a modern nuclear weapon is used against a military base or city, the fallout plume could extend hundreds of miles downwind.
Scientific climate modeling demonstrates that in a nuclear war, the burning cities could inject enough soot and smoke into the stratosphere to blot out the sun, dramatically disrupt the climate, ruin crop production, and put billions of people at risk of starvation.
No one can confidently predict how a nuclear war might end. If nuclear weapons are used again, it could easily escalate to involve the big arsenals—thousands of nuclear weapons. It’s hard to imagine how civilization would survive the resulting apocalypse. Here’s the thing to remember: If the missiles take flight, we’ll all become peace activists. But it will be too late.