Nuclear weapons are unambiguously the most destructive weapons on the planet. Pound for pound, they are the most lethal weapons ever created, capable of killing millions. Millions live in fear that these weapons will be used again, with all the potential consequences. However, the destructive power of these weapons has been vastly exaggerated, albeit for good reasons.
Public fear of nuclear weapons being used in anger, whether by terrorists or nuclear-armed nations, has risen once again in recent years. This is in no small part thanks to the current political climate between states such as the US and Russia and the various nuclear tests conducted by North Korea.
But whenever we talk about nuclear weapons, it’s easy to get carried away with doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic language. As the historian Spencer Weart once argued: “You say ‘nuclear bomb’ and everybody immediately thinks of the end of the world.” Yet the means necessary to produce a nuclear bomb, let alone set one off, remain incredibly complex – and while the damage that would be done if someone did in fact detonate one might be very serious indeed, the chances that it would mean “the end of the world” are vanishingly small.
In his 2013 book Command and Control, the author Eric Schlosser tried to scare us into perpetual fear of nuclear weapons by recounting stories of near misses and accidents involving nuclear weapons. One such event, the 1980 Damascus incident, saw a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile explode at its remote Arkansas launch facility after a maintenance crew accidentally ruptured its fuel tank. Although the warhead involved in the incident didn’t detonate, Schlosser claims that “if it had, much of Arkansas would be gone”.
But that’s not quite the case. The nine-megaton thermonuclear warhead on the Titan II missile had a blast radius of 10km, or an area of about 315km². The state of Arkansas spreads over 133,733km², meaning the weapon would have caused destruction across 0.2% of the state. That would naturally have been a terrible outcome, but certainly not the catastrophe that Schlosser evokes.
Claims exaggerating the effects of nuclear weapons have become commonplace, especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. In the early War on Terror years, Richard Lugar, a former US senator and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that terrorists armed with nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to the Western way of life. What he failed to explain is how.
It is by no means certain that a single nuclear detonation (or even several) would do away with our current way of life. Indeed, we’re still here despite having nuked our own planet more than 2,000 times – a tally expressed beautifully in this video by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto).