Features

Big bang theory


Donald Trump increasingly looks like the wolf in the story of the three little pigs - he can huff and he can puff but he can't blow down the house of North Korea's Kim Jong-un - a little pig who might soon have nukes within range of the US. Are we ready for a nuclear war?

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

This room is introduced in Chapter 2. Assuming you are one of the lucky people to have survived the blast, the suggestion is that you retreat to your “Fall-out room”, which you have thoughtfully chosen on the lowest possible floor, with the fewest windows. You will also have lined it on the outside with whatever you have available, to make the walls thicker and thus less easily penetrated by radiation dust. Inside this room you will also have constructed an “inner refuge”, around which you have placed sandbags or – failing that – piled up books and clothing. In this inner refuge you may have to spend 14 days, according to Protect and Survive. Two weeks. You’ll need sufficient drinking water, food, clothing, crockery, torches, toiletries (including toilet paper), a first aid kit, fire extinguisher and much else besides. Which won’t leave much room in the “inner refuge”. If for some reason you have a death inside your “inner refuge” the advice  is to put the body in another room “and cover it as securely as possible”.

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

If I were Trump I would be much more worried about the possibility of a kitchen nuclear bomb, concocted by terrorists. According to one source “in the last quarter century, there have been some 20 seizures of stolen, weapons-usable nuclear material, and at least two terrorist groups have made significant efforts to acquire nuclear bombs” and “it is far easier to make a crude, unsafe, unreliable nuclear explosive that might fit in the back of a truck than it is to make a safe, reliable weapon of known yield that can be delivered by missile or combat aircraft.” A very small quantity of highly enriched uranium or plutonium parked in the back of a van on a city street could release 10 kilotons of explosion, equivalent to 10,000 tons of conventional explosives. Within the radius of one mile, most buildings would collapse; gas lines would explode; fires would break out; an electromagnetic surge would knock-out communications over a wide area; and then there’s the radiation fall-out over a period of days.

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? 

A favourite meat in the Czech Republic is wild boar. According to Reuters “a cold and snowy winter is forcing [the wild boar] to feed on false truffles, an underground mushroom common in the Sumava mountain region shared by Czechs, Austrians, Germans.”  Of 614 wild boars that were tested for Caesium 137 before being served up in goulash, 47% were above the limit deemed safe. You could probably gorge on wild boar-Caesium 137 infused meat for quite a while before any real damage was done – but no-one wants to test that hypothesis.

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.