The U.S and Russia have so many nuclear weapons that if used, either alone could destroy humanity. The Center for Defense Information said, “It is folly, verging on madness, to perpetuate the Cold War nuclear confrontation at levels that threaten the survival of human kind.” (1)
How do we explain such a crazy situation? Consider the following. When thinking about nuclear weapons matters, it is much easier and less hideous to think about them in terms of numbers rather than the consequences of their use. As a result, consequence of use is generally ignored. In the arms reduction talks, the talks are in term of having equal numbers even if we can’t use them all.
One way around the stalled nuclear arms reduction talks is to think about the relationship between the number of nuclear weapons and consequences of use. The following provides a guide for such thinking. The more nuclear weapons the greater the self-destruction.
One Nuclear Bomb – One average size U.S. strategic nuclear warhead has an explosive power equal to 25,000 trucks each carrying 10 tons of dynamite. One average size Russian strategic nuclear warhead has an explosive power equal to 40,000 trucks each carrying 10 tons of dynamite. In order to give an idea of how destructive these warheads can be, compare them with the destruction created by the truck bombs that were exploded by terrorists in the NY World Trade Center and in Oklahoma City. Each terrorists truck bomb had about 10 tons of dynamite.(2)
Twenty Nuclear Bombs – If 20 nuclear bombs, less than one percent of the nuclear weapons that the US and Russia each have set for hair trigger release, were used it would be enough to destroy each other. If one nuclear bomb hit Washington, D.C. it could vaporize Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and the Pentagon. If another nuclear bomb hit New York City it could vaporize the United Nations headquarters, communication centers for NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and the New York Stock Exchange. And that is only two of the twenty. Nuclear explosions would also leave the areas highly radioactive and unusable for years. Where the radioactive fallout from the mushroom clouds would land in the world would depend upon the direction of the wind and rain conditions at the time of the explosion.
General Lee Butler USAF commanded the US Strategic Air Command until it was folded into the U.S. Strategic Command, which he then commanded until he retired. General Butler said, “That twenty nuclear weapons would suffice to destroy the twelve largest Russian cities with a total population of twenty-five million people – one-sixth of the entire Russian population and therefore that arsenals in the hundreds, much less in the thousands, can serve no meaningful strategic objective. From this prospective the START process is completely bankrupt. The START II ceiling of 3000 to 3500 operational warheads to be achieved by the year 2007 is wholly out of touch with reality.” (3)
General Butler said,”It is imperative to recognize that all numbers of nuclear weapons above zero are completely arbitrary; that against an urban target one weapon represents an unacceptable horror.” (4)
Four Hundred Nuclear Bombs – If 400 nuclear bombs, less than ten percent of the nuclear weapons the U.S. and Russia have set for hair trigger release, were used they could destroy everyone on earth. The late Dr. Carl Sagan and his associates, in their extensive studies of nuclear weapons use, found that a nuclear explosive force equal to 100 million tons of dynamite (100 megatons) could produce enough smoke and fine dust to create a Nuclear Winter over the world leaving few survivors. (5)
A nuclear bomb blast can produce heat intensities of 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Centigrade at ground zero. This could start giant flash fires leaving large cities and surrounding area burning with no one to fight them. The firing of 400 nuclear explosions can lift an enormous quantity of fine soil particles into the atmosphere – more than 100,000 tons of fine dust for every megaton exploded in a surface burst. If there were any survivors they would have to contend with radioactive fallout carbon monoxide, cyanides, dioxins, furans, and increased ozone burnout. (6)
Actions That Can Be Taken
General Butler USAF (Ret. 1994) said the world can immediately and inexpensively improve security by taking nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert. (7) This action should also provide a better atmosphere for reaching agreements in the arms reduction talks.
There are very important positive forces at work for peace. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for the past five years has been chairing the Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation. The Commission has grown into a bilateral government conglomerate, with officials at many levels working on problems of energy, health, agriculture, investment, space and the environment. (8)
The way the U.S. and Russia are planning on working together during the transition to the year 2000 to guard against any false alerts that might be triggered by Y2K in the warning system, is also very encouraging. (9) Let us hope they can continue to work together after the first of the year until there are no more nuclear weapons.
“There is no doubt that, if the people of the world were more fully aware of the inherent danger of nuclear weapons and the consequences of their use, they would reject them.” This conclusion appeared in the 1996 report of the Canberra Commisson on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, a group of the world’s nuclear weapon experts. (10)
The creation of a Consequence Study Center within the U.N., in which many countries share in the studies, could help everybody become more fully aware of the consequences of nuclear weapon use and better understand the need to rid the world of them.
Notes and References
1. Smith, Daniel; Stobhl, Rachel; and Carroll, Eugene E, “Jump-START: A way Ahead in Nuclear Arms Reduction,” The Defense Monitor, Vol. XXVIII, No. 5, 1999. Washiington, D.C.
2. Babst, Dean V. “Preventing An Accidental Armagedon,” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Sept. 1999.
3. Butler, Lee. Talk at the University of Pittsburgh, May 13, 1999, p.12.
5. Sagan, Carl. The Nuclear Winter, Council for a Livable World Education Fund, Boston, MA, 1983.
7. Schell, Jonathan, “The Gift Of Time,” The Nation, 2/9, 1998, p.56.
8. Lippman, Thomas W. “Gore Carves Unique Post With U.S.-Russia Collaboration,” Washington Post, Washington, D.C., March 14, 1998.
9. Burns, Robert. “Russia, U.S. set Y2K missile vigil,” The Contra Costa Times, Sept. 11, 1999.
10. Green, Robert D. “Zero Nuclear Weapons,” Middle Power Initiative, Cambridge. Mass., 1998, p. 8.
*Dean Babst is a retired government research scientist and Coordinator of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Accidental Nuclear War Studies Program. In the development of this article, appreciation is extended for the helpful suggestions of David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Bob Aldridge who heads the Pacific Life Research Center, and Andy Baltzo, the Founder of the Mt. Diablo (California) Peace Center.