How Many Nukes Would It Take To Totally Screw Humanity?

How many nuclear bombs does a nation need before humanity and the planet is really, well and truly, screwed? Maksimilian/Shutterstock

The Cold War has long cooled off, but now Earth finds itself in a yet another era of escalating tensions and men sitting in front of red buttons.

In light of this, new research published in the journal Safety took a pragmatic look at the optimum number of nuclear warheads a nation should have in their arsenal. Attempting to find the tipping point, by their calculations, that number is 100. This quantity ensures all the political benefits of having nuclear weapons, however, any more than this and it could prove catastrophic, even for the nation that initiates an attack.

In short, if any nation has over 100 nukes, they should be prepared for their aggression to come back and kick them in the ass.

"With 100 nuclear weapons, you still get nuclear deterrence, but avoid the probable blowback from nuclear autumn that kills your own people," Joshua Pearce, a professor at Michigan Technological University, said in a statement.

"Defense expenditures post-9/11 show we care about protecting Americans. [However], if we use 1,000 nuclear warheads against an enemy and no one retaliates, we will see about 50 times more Americans die than did on 9/11 due to the after-effects of our own weapons."

Given the current number of nuclear-armed nations, if this proposal was followed the total number of nukes in the world would drop to 900 or fewer. Although, it looks like we’re a very long way off that.

For context, there are around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Nearly 14,000 are in the possession of the US and Russia alone. The remaining few are split between the seven other nuclear nations: the UK (215 warheads), France (300), China (270), India (120), Pakistan (120), Israel (80), and North Korea (<10).

So, why "just" 100 nuclear missiles?

They argue that deploying over this number nuclear weapons would trigger a chain of events resulting in catastrophe for the world, even to the country that fired the missiles. A scenario in which a nation uses over 100 nukes would easily result in a nuclear autumn and likely result in a nuclear winter, where the global temperature would drop because of soot from nuclear blasts blocking the sunlight from reaching Earth's surface.

It would also increase ultraviolet radiation to dangerous levels and create far less rain. This would go on to obliterate agricultural production and food shortages would quickly take hold.  

"I don't think rationing would go overly smoothly – a lot more people would die in violence internally than what we estimated based on lack of calories," added Pearce.

Things only get worse from here on in. Food shortages are a sure fire way to promote violence, internal rebellions, and international wars. 

The US Castle Bravo Test – the most powerful device ever detonated – on Bikini Atoll, March 1, 1954

All in all, the research highlights the insanity of nuclear war. Along with arguing for massive arsenal reduction, the researchers on the project also push for other policy recommendations in the hopes of warding off this grim fate. 

"It is not rational to spend billions of dollars maintaining a nuclear arsenal that would destabilize your country if they were ever used," Pearce says.

"Other countries are far worse off. Even if they fired off relatively few nuclear weapons and were not hit by any of them and did not suffer retaliation, North Korea or Israel would be committing national suicide."

And in case you were wondering, of course, there isn't actually a nuclear red button. This is what it would actually look like.

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