In the days before having just (!) climate change with which to concern ourselves, the threat of nuclear weapons loomed large. Although the threat is not extinguished by any means, it is diminished. For example, the United States and Russia each apparently have a tad under 5000 actively available nuclear weapons, and some unknown number in “strategic reserve”. There are apparently occasional patrols by nuclear-capable platforms, presumably and principally in “the silent service”. Apart from whatever strategic balance might be achieved by mutually assured destruction (a truly MAD plot), the basic problem with nuclear weapons is that they are just not terribly useful from a military perspective. Y’can’t really use them in conjunction with traditional forces, and they destroy what you are trying to protect. Former USAF generals reported just how silly having huge arsenals of nuclear weapons were: At one point one remarked that some of his targeting people were using these to take out single bridges, because they had been tasked with finding a target for each one.
My own personal calculations from the late 1980s, motivated by suspicions that lateral effects of even limited nuclear exchanges might be severe, were confirmed by an unplanned experiment, the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine. This nuclear disaster showed how the radiation from even the most limited exchange of nuclear weapons would affect essentially everyone, attacked, attackers, and bystanders alike. I was going to publish my calculations in an NRDC publication, but Chernobyl made that pointless. Below is an animation of the radioactive cloud’s spread, obtained from atmospheric samples, tracing Cesium-137:
That’s from the French government’s radiation protection agency. The graphic below was produced by computer simulation by Drs P. H. Gudiksen, T. F. Harvey, and R. Lange of the U.S. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory showing the same:
(Click on image to see a bigger version, and use your browser’s “back” button to return.)
At least one other group, Drs J. Pudykiewicz and W. Samayoa, using the computing facilities of Cray Research produced comparable simulations, two of which were published in 1988 and 1989 in the scientific journal, Tellus. (See Tellus, 1988, 40B, 241-259, and Tellus B 1989, 41B, 391-412.)
What newspeople and national politicians did not highlight was the connection between Chernobyl and the folly of maintaining nuclear stockpiles of any size. Sure, you can argue that a burning nuclear reactor is not the same as a nuclear detonation, but both have more severe aspects relative to the other, and less severe aspects. Remember, a “limited nuclear exchange” could involve up to several dozen detonations of varying sizes. Even a single detonation would have all kinds of consequences. (Would all all nuclear weapon states have the sophistication and reliable sensors to determine they were not being targeted if someone in the world was?)
One of the organizations which has always been at the forefront of monitoring what was happening with nuclear weapons in the world is The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In addition to monitoring the climate change crisis (*), of present interest, The Bulletin has kept track of nuclear negotiations, emerging threats, efforts to reduce arsenals, successes at that, and the ever-present stockpile of nuclear weapons, across all countries, estimated from strictly open source literature by a group of very knowledgeable and clever people. That Nuclear Notebook has been available at their site since 1987, and they would, from time to time, focus on a particular nuclear weapon state and publish a detailed briefing regarding the status of its weapons. The other feature of their publication is The Doomsday Clock. This is all the more important since nation states tend to keep their nuclear secrets very much in the dark.
Recently, The Bulletin produced an interactive version of their Nuclear Notebook. The Notebook is a very interesting publication. Compare, for example, the total number of nuclear weapons held by the United States (or Russia, for that matter), with China. They also produced a video introducing their online Notebook and recapping a little of The Notebook‘s history, linked below.
And The Bulletin properly puts the climate emergency up there as a global threat. I applaud them.
(*) That link, “Climate change: Irreversible but not unstoppable” by Dawn Stover is very much worth a read.