Not since the end of the Cold War has there been such a well-matched pair of nutcases in charge of countries possessing nuclear weapons. So far, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have contented themselves with flinging digital abuse, rather than missiles, at one another. For Trump, Kim is “Little Rocket Man”; for Kim, his opponent is a “mentally deranged dotard”. It’s difficult to disagree with either statement. For the world’s safety the obvious solution to their petulant quarrel is to place the two of them in a locked room and see who emerges victorious. At the moment I am more worried that their posturing will end in many innocent people dying horribly. And however ready we think we might be for a nuclear skirmish, we really aren’t.
Governments everywhere have, of course, contingency arrangements in place just in case the Bomb drops. Most government-sourced literature and films have the difficulty of trying to persuade people that they can survive a nuclear attack, and pick up where they left off. Though of course they couldn’t – life would never be the same again.
In the UK in the 1970s and ’80s there were various risible efforts made to promote the idea that surviving a nuclear attack was both possible and worthwhile – see this video for example. In 1980 – which means you have to be the worse side of 30 to have any memory of this – the UK’s Central Office of Information, sadly closed in 2011, published a small, 30-page pamphlet called Protect and Survive. The front cover states: “This booklet tells you how to make your home and family as safe as possible under nuclear attack”. With apt timing, the Imperial War Museum in London reprinted it earlier this year. Reading it made me feel quite nostalgic.
Chapter 3 informs that an attack warning will be signalled by “the sirens” which will “sound a rising and falling note”. Are there any sirens near you? Never mind – the sirens will also be “broadcast on the radio”. It continues: “when there is a danger from fall-out you will hear three loud bangs or three whistles in quick succession.” Not quite sure who will be doing the banging or whistling down my street…just about everybody who has any sense will be banged up tight inside their fall-out room.
Not quite sure who will be doing the banging or whistling down my street
The radio seems to have been in 1980 regarded as the main – or perhaps the most reliable, in the case of a nuclear attack – means of mass communication. Protect and Survive makes it very clear that if you forget everything else, make sure you have a radio with you to get news and updates. If, after five days, you have heard no new instructions by radio, “you should temporarily bury the body as soon as it is safe to go out [when might that be?] and mark the spot”. And then what?
To get a thorough understanding of the physical effects of a nuclear blast – 660 pages, available here – you have to turn to the declassified US government book from 1977, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. From an essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in October this year it is clear that any major US city just isn’t ready to cope with the consequences of even a small nuclear device being exploded. “For those who must think about planning for the aftermath, one of the starkest facts about a nuclear bomb attack is that on top of killing people on a vast scale, it will thoroughly destroy the capacity to respond…Realistically, no matter the level of preparedness, detonating a nuclear bomb in an American city would cause immediate and enormous loss of life, vast destruction, and trillions of dollars in damage. It would cripple the US economy and dramatically impact other nations’ financial stability, for years if not decades,” it says.
Hence President Trump’s twitchy war of words with Kim Jong-un. North Korea has built and tested nuclear devices: it has a missile (the Hwasong-14) that’s easily within range of the US; the only question seems to be whether this missile is capable of carrying a nuclear payload. If it isn’t yet, it certainly will be soon. If Trump wants to carry on his verbal warfare against North Korea, he has a limited time before that warfare could go nuclear. Except that, although both Trump and Kim are buffoons, we must hope that neither wants to see their country reduced to silica.
Although both Trump and Kim are buffoons, we must hope that neither wants to see their country reduced to silica
We haven’t seen since 1986 how much damage radiation fall-out can do. That year, the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl went into meltdown, with two deaths from the explosion – but an unknown number of premature deaths from cancer as a result of the radiation fall-out.
Chernobyl is in Ukraine but the fall-out was spread far and wide by the wind. Almost 7,000 children in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have developed thyroid cancer, which is very rare in children. When Chernobyl exploded 31 years ago among the various radioactive materials released into the atmosphere was Caesium 137. The half life of Caesium 137 is 30 years. It takes 30 years for the radioactivity of the isotope to fall to half its original value. Then another 30 to fall to half again, and so on. Fall-out doesn’t just drop onto people; it goes into the soil and poisons vegetation, as newly reported evidence from the Czech Republic shows.
So what’s the chances of Donald Trump taking military action against a North Korea that will soon be capable of launching nuclear weapons against the US?
When a 13 kiloton atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 there were perhaps as many 100,000 swift deaths. Many more, over many years, followed, as a result of the cancers created among the survivors. Those with the worst exposure, who received a radiation dose of 4 sieverts, the equivalent of having 500 CAT scans at once, the chance of contracting leukemia was as much as 40 times higher than normal.
So what’s the chances of Donald Trump taking military action against a North Korea that will soon be capable of launching nuclear weapons against the US? He’ll have to make up his mind very soon – we probably have only two or three years before he can act without incurring an unacceptable risk of nuclear retaliation against the US mainland. One thing is sure – he won’t want to go down in history as the President who let “Little Rocket Man” get away with it, whatever that means.
Now: back to stockpiling food for my inner refuge.