of course is not
available in storage nor could it be collected from volunteers in a few
The injured who reached hospitals would have to be assayed for
radioactivity, for the safety of the staff, which would cause a serious
bottle-neck and delay in most hospitals.
The result of this huge overload of cases is that most of the injured
would die, even though prompt treatment might have saved them.
Relatively few would even get reached by rescue teams before they were
moribund or dead; the majority would probably die in hours or days
without any analgesic, and without food, water, or any assistance.
A ONE-MEGATON BOMB DETONATED AT GROUND LEVEL
If the bomb exploded at ground level instead of high above the city, the
main difference would be an enormous crater four hundred metres across
and seventy metres deep. All the dirt, rock, or masonry excavated would
be made into radioactive dust and small debris. The larger particles
would quickly descend in the immediate vicinity, and the finer particles
and dust would descend in minutes or hours, mainly downwind from the
site of the explosion.
The radiation dose to people exposed to this fallout would depend upon
many factors, and would be enough to be lethal to anyone in the open or
in a frame house for several hundred kilometres downwind. A simple
basement "fallout shelter" would afford good protection. It would be
necessary to spend a week or more in a fall-out shelter, and it would be
impossible to judge when it would be safe to leave without a radiation
survey meter or advice from public health authorities.
The area of blast damage would be smaller by perhaps a half, compared
with an air-burst, though an earthquake effect would add to structural
damage to buildings. The number of immediate deaths might be about half
of those from an air-burst, but unless survivors could find protection
from fall-out there would be many deaths from radiation sickness days or
weeks after the bomb.
A TEN-KILOTON BOMB DETONATED AT GROUND LEVEL
If a bomb in the 10- to 20-kiloton range (the likeliest terrorist bomb)
were to be exploded near ground level or in a ship in the harbour, the
areas of blast, heat, and burn damage would be much smaller, perhaps
reaching out to only one-tenth of the distances estimated for the
one-megaton air-burst. The numbers of immediately killed and severely
injured people would be counted in thousands, not hundreds of thousands.
Exploded on land, the bomb would vaporize all people and buildings in
the immediate vicinity, and make a crater that might be as much as one
hundred metres in diameter. If in the harbour, there would be a crater
in the harbour floor and a tidal wave. The outstanding feature would be
a radioactive downpour because much of the water in the harbour would be
made radioactive and thrown high into the air as fine and coarse spray.
The explosion at ground level of this type of bomb would probably not
cause a firestorm, so rescue operations for the injured might have some
degree of success.
In either case, radioactive fallout would be serious, and might make the
city, and an area of countryside stretching tens of kilometres downwind,
uninhabitable for weeks or years. There would be a number of deaths
from radiation sickness, for which there is really no effective medical
treatment. The total amount of radioactivity might be comparable with
the Chernobyl disaster, more or less depending on many circumstances.
THE ENHANCED RADIATION WEAPON OR "NEUTRON BOMB"
This is a small 'hydrogen bomb' in the 1- to 10-kiloton range without
the outer casing of depleted uranium, which in an ordinary hydrogen bomb
stops the neutrons that are formed and converts them into additional
explosive power. The result is a spray of neutrons that is lethal for a
distance of a few hundred metres. These neutrons, unlike the X-rays
from the explosion, penetrate a considerable thickness of concrete or
steel protection, like defence posts or the sides of a tank. They are
designed for 'battle-field' use, not for use against cities. It is
commonly said that neutron bombs spare buildings, but we believe this is
a misconception. The blast effect would be reduced by half, and would
still be enormous.
HOW COULD THIS SORT OF "ONE-BOMB" SCENARIO DEVELOP?
It is worth considering what circumstances might result in one or just a
few nuclear bombs exploding, as opposed to a major nuclear war.
We hope, but we cannot be sure, that a nuclear attack by one of the
"great powers" against a smaller country (which has been threatened
several times since 1945) would never be carried out for any reason
There have been serious risks of war involving smaller military powers
with nuclear weapons, such as India, Pakistan, and Israel. Clear or
veiled threats of nuclear attack have been made by these countries, and
might be again. Such use would most probably be directed at cities, and
the bombs delivered by aircraft or relatively short-range rocket. It
might be air-burst or ground-burst, with bombs in the ten- to
one-hundred kiloton range.
Accidental or unauthorized launch of an intercontinental missile or a
submarine-launched missile from one of the big nuclear arsenals might
destroy a city with a bomb in the range of 100 kilotons to 1 megaton.
A terrorist type of attack is perhaps the most likely risk, and might be
done by criminals for blackmail or ransom, or might be directed by an
unidentified hostile government against a country too powerful for a
declaration of war to be considered. It is possible that a 'hydrogen
bomb' might be acquired from one of the superpower arsenals, and
delivered by ship to the harbour of a port. More likely is a bomb in
the ten-kiloton range exploded at ground level in a city, or in a ship.
An accident to a nuclear weapon, such as dropping it down a silo or from
an aircraft, would not cause a full-scale nuclear explosion, but could
scatter kilograms of plutonium by detonation of the high-explosive
charge. To cause a nuclear explosion, the charge has to be detonated
absolutely simultaneously all round the nuclear core, which is done by
special electric circuits. Accidental detonation by a shock would not
do this, but one wonders whether an electrical fault or a lightning
stroke could ever do it.
The above description was set in the context of a North American city.
As proliferation of nuclear weapons continues, there is a greater risk
that a tropical city may be attacked.
In such circumstances, the deaths and injuries from firestorms and flash
burns would be higher than in the North American context, because many
of the dwellings would be of light construction, and a higher proportion
of the population would be likely to be in the open at the time of the
The distances quoted from ground zero are derived from a number of
secondary sources, which do not all agree. Basically the numbers are
derived from United States government measurements made during the years
before 1963, when test nuclear explosions were permitted in the
It does not really matter if some of these distances are not accurate.
Similarly, even if the estimates of deaths and injuries are considerably
over-stated, the consequences of exploding a nuclear bomb and giving
rise to a disaster even approaching this magnitude - anywhere on earth
- remain completely unacceptable.
The only way to abolish this risk is to get rid of all the nuclear bombs
in the world.