Nuclear Winter

In a study made by the World Health Organization, they found that a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia could kill one billion people outright. In addition, it could produce a Nuclear Winter that would probably kill an additional one billion people. It is possible that more than two billion people, one-third of all the humans on Earth would be destroyed almost immediately in the aftermath of a global thermonuclear war. The rest of humanity would be reduced to prolonged agony and barbarism. These findings are from a study chaired by Sune K. Bergstrom (the 1982 Nobel laureate in physiology and medicine) nearly 20 years ago. (1)

Subsequent studies have had similar findings. Professor Alan Robock says, “Everything from purely mathematical models to forest fire studies shows that even a small nuclear war would devastate the earth.” (2)

Rich Small’s work, financed by the Defense Nuclear Agency, suggests that burning cities would produce a particularly troublesome variety of smoke. The smoke of forest fires is bad enough. But the industrial targets of cities are likely to produce a rolling, black smoke, a denser shield against incoming sunlight. (3)

Nuclear explosions can produce heat intensities of 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Centigrade at ground zero. Nuclear explosions can also lift an enormous quantity of fine soil particles into the atmosphere, creating more than l00,000 tons of fine, dense, radioactive dust for every megaton exploded on the surface. (4) The late Dr. Carl Sagan said the super heating of vast quantities of atmospheric dust and soot will cover both hemispheres. (5) For those who survive a nuclear attack, it would mean living on a cold, dark, chaotic, radioactive planet.

A nuclear warhead is far more destructive than is generally realized. For example, just one average size U.S. strategic 250 Kt nuclear warhead has an explosive force equal to 250,000 tons of dynamite or 50,000 World War II type bombers each carrying 5 tons of bombs. The truck bombs that terrorists exploded at the New York World Trade Center and in Oklahoma City each had an explosive force equal to about 5 tons of dynamite. (6)

Accidental Nuclear War

The U.S. and Russia each have more than 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads set for hair-trigger release. If launched they could be delivered to targets around the world in 30 minutes. They would have an explosive force equal to l00,000 Hiroshima size bombs. (7) Russia and the U.S. have more than 90 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world. The more automated and shorter the decision process becomes the greater is the possibility of missiles being launched to false warnings.

The U.S. is trying to decide whether to build an anti-missile “star wars” defense or not. In order for an anti-ballistic missile to hit another missile traveling at incredible speed that can come from many different directions, it would be necessary to have a very complex computerized system.

President Reagan’s Defense Secretary, Casper Weinberger, said that since an anti-missile defense would require decisions within seconds, completely autonomous computer control is a foregone conclusion. There would be no time for screening out false alarms and a decision to launch would have to be automated—there would be no time for White House approval. (8)

A highly automated defense system that has no time for determining whether a warning is false or not is highly likely to launch to a false warning. There are always false warnings. For example, during 1981, 1982 and 1983 there were 186, 218 and 255 false alarms, respectively, in the U.S. strategic warning system. (9)

There have been at least three times in the last 20 years that the U.S. and Russia almost launched to false warnings. Fortunately there was enough time to determine that the warnings were false before decision time ran out.

In 1979, a U.S. training tape showing a massive attack was accidentally played.

In 1983, a Soviet satellite mistakenly signaled the launch of a U.S. missile.

In 1995, Russia almost launched its missiles because of a Norwegian rocket studying the northern lights. (l0)

If the U.S. builds an anti-missile defense it appears certain that missiles would be launched to false warnings because no time is available for determining whether a warning is false or not.

Preventive Action Needed

Plans to build an anti-missile defense need to be carefully researched as to how it could increase the danger of an accidental nuclear war. As the research progresses, the findings need to be widely discussed in the news media. The more widely and clearly the danger is made known the more concerned the public should be for agreements to greatly reduce and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons from the world.

As humanity’s safety becomes more and more dependent upon technology, the technological dangers need to be guarded against. Technical errors in one system may trigger errors in others. When researching missile defense dangers the following types of factors need to be included in the assessments, e.g. Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)), “Dead Hand” control of missiles, High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance (HERO). Russia’s blind spots in its satellite warning system also need to be included in this research.

The U.S. and Russia are in a position where either can destroy humanity in a flash and yet there appears to be little recognition of this peril hanging over the world. Only 71 out of 435 U.S. congressional representatives signed a motion calling for nuclear weapons to be taken off of hair-trigger alert. (11) The U.S. Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. (12)

Queen Noor al Hussein, of Jordan, said “The sheer folly of trying to defend a nation by destroying all life on the planet must be apparent to anyone capable of rational thought.” (13) There is a need to greatly increase public awareness of the danger in order to provide broad, long-term understanding and support for arms agreements ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

Reference and Notes

1. Sagan, Carl. The Nuclear Winter, Council for a Livable World Education Fund, Boston, MA, 1983.

2. Robock, Alan. “New models confirm nuclear winter,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, September l989, pp 32-35.

3. Blum, Deborah. “Scientists try to predict nuclear future from forest fires,” The Sacramento Bee, November 28, 1987.

4. Sagan, Op.Cit.

5. Ibid

6. Babst, Dean, Preventing An Accidental Armageddon,” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, February 2000,

7. Blair, Bruce. “Nuclear Dealerting: A Solution to Proliferation Problems,” The Defense Monitor, Volume XXXIX, No.3, 2000.

8. Strategic Defense and Anti-Satellite Weapons, hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 25, 1984, pp. 69-74.

9. Letter from Air Force Space Command headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, February 16, 1984.

10. Babst, Op.Cit.

11. The Sunflower, No. 31, Jan. 00, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Santa Barbara, Calif.

12. Gordon, Michael R. “Russia rejects call to amend ABM treaty,” Contra Costa Times, Oct. 2l, 1999.

13. Hussein, Queen Noor al. “The Responsibilities of World Citizenship,” Waging Peace Series, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Santa Barbara, Calif., Booklet No 40, July 2000.

*Dean Babst is a retired government research scientist and Coordinator of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Accidental Nuclear War Studies Program. The author acknowledges 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, who is Founder of the Mount Diable Peace Center in northern California.