It has been 77 years since the first and last uses of the atomic bomb in Japan, with the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated with two bombs. Yet every day we read more about the threat of nuclear war and the use of so-called “tactical” nuclear warheads, classed as being between 1 to 100 kilitons (that’s 1000 tonnes of explosive TNT).
For comparison and context, the US bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was 15 kilotons and it killed 214,000 people, both from exposure to the blast and the long term side effects of radiation. After the devastating consequences of nuclear warfare were exposed, the big nations began to rapidly develop their own nuclear weapons, but not for the purpose of offense but instead for defense.
Countries such as China, France and the United Kingdom turned nuclear in order to prevent other nuclear countries from using their weapons as they feared retaliation. The possibility of global devastation has prevented the use of this inhumane warfare for 77 years but now analysts are worried that Putin will be the first to cross over this increasingly blurry line.
As Putin’s war plans have gone askew he has signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory;
"And if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.`
But what would be the environmental consequences of a nuclear bomb being used in Ukraine?
- Immediate loss of life
The devastation from a nuclear bomb is immediate and catastrophic. The blast of Hiroshima wiped out over half of the city within minutes, the intense heat of the bomb reached several millions of degrees celsius and the heat travelled over 3km from the initial dropping, this heat led to flash burns which incinirated hundreds of thousands people.
Even today, if it a bomb was dropped there would be little or no way to help the people within a city such a Kyiv, which has vast population of 3m people today (who are spread over large city region).
All utilities such as power, water, gas, telecommunications would be cut off, with infrastructure obliterated with hospitals severely damaged. The first responders such as firefighters and doctors would be among the victims and injured making it impossible to provide aid to any survivors.
In Hiroshima 90% of the nurses who tried to help were killed or injured and 42 out of 45 hospitals were deemed non-functional. The immediate effects of nuclear weapons would be fatal for tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands, as large areas would become no-go areas and no-man's lands.
- Immediate landscape destruction
When an atomic bomb explodes it creates extreme wind above hurricane force which destroys any forestation, agriculture and industry in its path. The wind is followed by electromagnetic radiation which leads to the formation of a fireball, creating extreme heat which scorches everything within a 3km radius.
In Hiroshima intense firestorms continued to demolish the city for hours after the initial attack. If an atomic bomb was to be dropped in a dry and highly forested area the surrounding landscape would be turned to ash and wildfires could travel for miles, incinerating vital habitats and vegetation, which for an agricultural power house like Ukraine would be devastating.
- Long term ecological damage
Although the immediate impact of the detonation is devastating, it is the long term impact of the radioactive dust fallout and precipitation that is most devastating for the environment and society.
Black rain, wind and water currents carry the dust across a much larger radius than the initial explosion. This radioactive dust contaminates the ground, water and food supply chain for decades, making huge areas inhabitable.
The contamination of water is the most severe, in Hiroshima the surrounding water supply was exposed to radiation and the humans and wildlife who drank this water suffered serious health problems for many years. The contaminated water also traveled out into the ocean, spreading the radiation further than Japan.
The radioactive dust dispersed over time and led to contaminated soil in areas far outside of the 3km bomb radius. The radioactive soil became infertile meaning that crops that weren’t scorched still died and no more could be grown. As a result of the wildfires previously mentioned and the bomb itself, large quantities of soot and smoke were released into the atmosphere, if this were to happen on a larger scale the ozone layer would be destroyed and we would no longer be able to live on earth.
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 created a situation where nearly 125,000 square miles of land across the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were exposed to radiation.
These contaminates settled in groundwater systems across this vast region with radionuclides carried by groundwater resulting in the uptake to plants in the region and up the food chains into animals, and eventually, humans.
One of the largest exposure points of radiation was through agriculture contaminated by radioactive groundwater, and given the amount of wheat grown in Ukraine, it would have a devastating long-term impact on the food chain.
There was a 30 km exclusion zone due to the consumption of agricultural products contaminated with groundwater. The groundwater transportation of radioactive material carried over borders and Belarus was forced to make 250,000 hectares of previously usable farmland a state area, until officials deemed it safe.
Off-site radiological risk may be found in the form of flooding. Lake Karachay in Russia, 250 km from Chernobyl had fish 60 times more radioactive than the EU Standard. The water source feeding the lake provided drinking water for approximately 9 million Ukrainians, as well as provided agricultural irrigation and food for 23 million more.
- Long term health effects
Long after the detonation of a nuclear bomb the consequences are felt for years, from radiation exposure, with exposure leading to a susceptibility to leukemia with it first appearing in survivors two years after the attack and peaking 6-8 years after exposure.
There were more cases noted in those who were closest to the bomb. Other forms of cancer such as thyroid, lung and breast cancer also increased as the radiation mutates DNA which can be cancer causing.
Plus the half-life of radioactive isotopes as mentioned in the ground-water continues to affect the health of millions for 30+ years. Not just within the 3km blast area, but across huge swaths of land.
The consequences of nuclear weapons are long term and devastating on the environment. Just one “tactical” nuclear bomb would effectively devastate a country and a region. If Putin resorts to nuclear warfare the ecological impacts will be irreversible, this type of weaponry is the biggest threat to the earth's environment and should be avoided at all costs. Although Putin is willing to the use bomb, it is unlikely he will step that far as the consequences for the attacker will be just as deadly as those of the victims.