So… Nuclear war… Is that a thing that I should be worried about? What kind of threat does a rogue nation like North Korea really pose to the future of our planet? What are these weapons capable of? What do they do? How much of a shove would it take to get us into World War 3?
I’m hearing a lot of bluster and misinformation these days, so I felt the need to sit down and put together a succinct and understandable primer to the situation we find ourselves in.
So what is a nuke?
Well, there are two major kinds of nuclear weapons, fission and fusion.
Fission bombs were the original monstrosities that the US developed during World War 2 and subsequently dropped on Japan. Most, if not all, fission bombs work by using conventional explosives to instantly compress the nuclear fuel so that it reaches critical mass, the point when atoms start breaking. Certain isotopes of plutonium and uranium will predictably begin splitting into smaller atoms when they are bombarded by neutrons like this. When they break in half, they also release an enormous amount of energy and send more neutrons out which split their neighboring atoms and start a chain reaction, and then in the blink of an eye, center city disappears in a shockwave of fire and radioactive material.
To show you how ridiculously powerful this reaction is, here is a picture of Harold Agnew holding the entire payload of plutonium that leveled Nagasaki and killed 70,000 people.
Look at how happy he is, carrying that 14 pound box of death. 14 pounds! Of those 14 pounds, only 2 pounds actually underwent nuclear fission before the whole thing blew apart. Of those 2 pounds of plutonium, only 1/30 of an ounce of that provided the explosive power equal to 21,000 tons of TNT.
The woman who discovered this incredible power, an Austrian Jew named Lise Meitner refused to join the Manhattan Project despite what was happening to her people because she couldn’t imagine that a world where people could unleash the fires of Hell could stand for very long. That’s why her research partner Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize for chemistry and not her. Because she recoiled at the horrors of nuclear war and her partner helped to make it a reality.
For a brief time, the US was the only country with this kind of technology, and the world wondered what this new world would be like.
It only took the Russians 4 years to develop their own fission bombs.
And at this moment, humanity became mortal.
The power to level cities with a bowling ball should have been enough, but it’s never been enough for humans. We need more. More power. More control. More death.
So we got to work developing a bomb so powerful that it would make these nightmare weapons look like cap guns.
Welcome to the other type of nuclear weapon.
The fusion bomb. The hydrogen bomb. The thermonuclear bomb.
Whatever you want to call it, this bomb is so ridiculously powerful that it actually uses a fission bomb as a STARTER! The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki are basically just a fuse for this bomb. What it does is that it uses a conventional fission bomb to compress hydrogen atoms into helium in a process called nuclear fusion. The energy from the fusion event also sends even MORE neutrons back out and causes more of the original fission material to split. So there’s three stages. Split some plutonium/uranium, bond some hydrogen, and then split more plutonium/uranium. Now if that second stage seems familiar, that’s because that is literally what the Sun is. Nuclear fusion is what powers every star. So this bomb effectively rips apart an atom, uses that energy to create a star, and then uses the star to split more atoms.
During World War 1, pilots in airplanes were literally throwing sticks of TNT from their planes. By 1945, we had dropped a bomb that was the equivalent of 22,000 tons of TNT. By 1961, Russia had tested an H-bomb nicknamed “the Tsar Bomb” that was the equivalent of 50,000,000 tons of TNT and it had the capacity to double that, but the Russians worried about international uproar.
To give a comparison, the Nagasaki bomb would take out half of Manhattan, instantly killing half a million, leaving another half a million gravely wounded, and send radiation drifting out to the surrounding boroughs. That’s a nightmare scenario. The Tsar bomb, however, would completely level the entire city of New York as well as Newark and the surrounding suburbs. It would send thermal radiation strong enough to melt your skin as far as Princeton and send deadly nuclear fallout as far north as Massachusetts. And it was only detonated at half its strength!
(see for yourself what impact nuclear weapons would have on your own home city here http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/)
So who has these doomsday devices?
Well that’s a little tricky, as no one really wants to show their hand, and there are potentially dozens of unknown nuclear devices that went missing in the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1990, the USSR had 40,000 nuclear weapons, so it would be pretty easy to lose a few!
According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the current numbers look like this. (note: every country on this list has thermonuclear weapons except Pakistan and potentially India)
|COUNTRY||NUCLEAR PROGRAMME||SIZE OF ARSENAL
|United States||The first country to develop nuclear weapons and the only country to have used them in war. It spends more on its nuclear arsenal than all other countries combined.||6,800 warheads|
|Russia||The second country to develop nuclear weapons. It has the largest arsenal of any country and is investing heavily in the modernization of its warheads and delivery systems.||7,000 warheads|
|United Kingdom||It maintains a fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines in Scotland, each carrying 16 Trident missiles. Its parliament voted in 2016 to overhaul its nuclear forces.||215 warheads|
|France||Most of its nuclear warheads are deployed on submarines equipped with M45 and M51 missiles. One boat is on patrol at all times. Some warheads are also deliverable by aircraft.||300 warheads|
|China||It has a much smaller arsenal than the US and Russia. Its warheads are deliverable by air, land and sea. It appears to be increasing the size of its arsenal at a slow pace.||270 warheads|
|India||It developed nuclear weapons in breach of non-proliferation commitments. It is increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal and enhancing its delivery capabilities.||110–120 warheads|
|Pakistan||It is making substantial improvements to its nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure. It has increased the size of its nuclear arsenal in recent years.||120-130 warheads|
|Israel||It has a policy of ambiguity in relation to its nuclear arsenal, neither confirming nor denying its existence. As a result, there is little public information or debate about it.||80 warheads|
|North Korea||It has a fledgling nuclear weapons programme. Its arsenal probably comprises fewer than 10 warheads. It is not clear whether it has the capability to deliver them.||<10 warheads|
What, specifically should I be worried about?
In his memoir, An American Life, Ronald Reagan wrote this, “As president, I carried to wallet, no money, no driver’s license, no keys in my pockets – only secret codes that were capable of bringing about the annihilation of much of the world as we knew it”. He continued, saying, “The decision to launch the weapons was mine alone to make. We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis. The Russians sometimes kept submarines off our East Coast with nuclear missiles that could turn the White House into a pile of radioactive rubble within six or eight minutes. Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to release Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?”
Because the response to a nuclear attack has to happen within minutes, there is no chain of command when it comes to launching our arsenal. The president and the president alone has the authority to use nuclear force. It was believed early on that if the bomb was given to the military, then they would use it. That’s what militaries do. They use their weapons. A civilian, however, would be more cautious and diplomatic, only using them under extreme circumstances.
However, if the US has reason to believe that a nuclear attack is underway, its policies are that it must respond immediately or it may potentially lose the ability to respond after the nukes explode. That means the president must decide if a nuke is coming, where it came from, and where to aim the counter-strike within the time it takes to microwave a cup of mac and cheese. The potential mistakes in this system are horrifying. We’re not just talking about cities and countries anymore. We’re talking about all of humanity.
Remember that there are 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, and a direct attack from one of these nations against another would likely cause instant, overwhelming retaliation by the country that was attacked and all of its allies. So if North Korea bombed South Korea, expect the US to retaliate, and in the midst of that, China and/or Russia would probably retaliate against the US, leading European nations to retaliate against Russia and China. This is not a multi-month attack. We’re talking about minutes here, and while there would be millions of people dead within an hour, the real danger would come later as cities burn.
Most estimates agree that if 100 cities were on fire due to nuclear attack, enough soot and debris would be sent up to the stratosphere that we would block the sun and completely change our climate. The resulting “nuclear winter” would end life on Earth as we know it. Sure, the bugs and penguins would probably survive, but we wouldn’t. No matter how enlightened we think we are, a half a dozen paranoid men could end humanity.
So when I hear people talking about “nuking North Korea” like it’s an easy solution, I want to scream. Anyone who sees these weapons as a solution to anything does not understand them, and anyone who uses the threat of nuclear war as a bargaining chip is playing a game of russian roulette with your head in front of the barrel. My head. My son’s head. The collective heads of everyone I’ve ever know. No one wins in an all out nuclear war. The old ways of war and diplomacy don’t work anymore. We need a new paradigm. Meanwhile, the person who now carries the nuclear codes, the person who literally holds the fate of all humanity in his hands, publically talks like this…
We’re not playing war games with guns and bombs anymore. The winner of World War 3 will not be whoever had the best technology or the smartest generals. The winner of World War 3 will be the cockroaches. That’s not fear-mongering or hyperbole. If humanity as a species even survives a nuclear war, that will be a best-case-scenario. More likely than not, these weapons will be our undoing.
Albert Einstein once said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe”.
This is not a game. This is not a geopolitical game of chess anymore. It’s a hostage crisis in which nine people hold 7.6 billion people at gunpoint. Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ram Nath Kovind, Mamnoon Hussain, and Benjamin Netanyahu get to collectively decide if you are alive tomorrow. That sort of power is too great for any human hands. We cannot hold the Sun and wield its power without destroying ourselves.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons currently has 53 countries signed on, but since none of them have nuclear weapons, it doesn’t matter. All nine countries that do have them don’t want to let go for fear that their enemies will keep theirs and wipe them out.
So here we are. Enough firepower to destroy the world a thousand times with a leader who, according to recent reports, wants to increase our arsenal ten-fold, and in the same breath telling North Korea and Iran that they are not allowed to have them. Using our weapons to stop them will surely be global suicide, but getting rid of our stockpile would encourage new countries to develop them.
We stand on a precipice with no easy answers and that’s the point. There is no easy answer here. The narrative that we are being fed is that we must act from a position of strength and power to make an example of North Korea. We are told that the only answer is simple. Nuke em! Bomb em! Wipe em off the map! Resist the lie. Learn your history. Know what is at stake.
In 1981, Harvard law professor Roger Fisher, director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, published this thought experiment in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:
There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.
My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.
When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”
And that’s the point. Until we see their lives as equal to our lives, our species cannot survive. This is our great moral test. Hundreds of thousands of years of spiritual and moral development and this is our final exam. Will we graduate? God, I hope so.
If you want to learn more about the history of the nuclear age, I suggest that you listen to Dan Carlin’s 6-hour podcast that takes you down every imaginable avenue in riveting detail.