REAL VS. REEL: Maybe Nukes Aren’t All That Destructive After All…

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Before we begin, I’d like to make it very very clear that none of us here at Republibot are mouth breathing doofuses who think Nuclear War would be fun and ‘mostly’ winnable (In a George C. Scott sense). Any way you slice it, Nuclear War comes up nuts, and it’s very very very bad for everyone involved. So for the benefit of any liberal types trolling this site, don’t go telling your friends that we’re advocating nuclear war because we’re not. We’re against it.

We’re also against mindlessly accepting any conclusion without examining the facts. Facts are interesting, and frequently surprising, and to paraphrase Philip K. Dick, they don’t go away when you stop looking at them, or because they’re politically inconvenient. So it seems a safe time, 19 years after the end of the Cold War, to re-examine the facts around Nuclear Weapons.

Now, in fact, Humanity *has* fought one Nuclear War already - World War II involved three atomic bombs, two used in anger. After the war, we were very proud of your brand new terror weapons, and deservedly so: they’re undeniably impressive. We even tried to find positive, constructive uses for them. Eventually, however, the other side got the bomb and we began to fear what it would be like to be on the Japanese end of a nuclear attack. It pretty much looked like it sucked.

Like people who’ve trained their guard dog a bit too well, we began to fear our own bombs, and in the counterculture of the 60s, this actually became a kind of phobic mania. “Nuclear Weapons” became synonymous with “The End of the World,” and a crappy, horrible, lingering death for those unlucky few who survived the first half hour. It got so bad that one merely had to invoke the magic words “Thermonuclear War” and people would turn the analytical parts of their brains off and accept any information you gave them as fact. This was still the case as late as 1983 when Carl Sagan was able to browbeat Congress in to accepting his wildly-fraudulent “Global Winter” paper.

To make matters worse, all sides lied extensively so it was hard to get a clear picture of things unless you were actually an engineer: The Left lied about the destructive potential of these weapons out of ignorance, and also to generate fear of them and thus increase opposition to them. The Military lied about them to keep Congressional support, obscure their capabilities, and engender fear in the enemy. Both governments involved lied about them to generate fear on the opposing side.

“Fear” being the commonality here.

Fear is a very useful in a cold war. If you can frighten your enemy enough, and then threaten to attack, there’s a very good chance they might surrender rather than face unquestioned annihilation. If you can convince them that resistance could lead to the end of life on earth, then the poor rubes might even believe it was their patriotic duty to surrender.

So fear is a great motivating tool, but it’s not good enough to base any kind of educated opinion on.

Our opinion of Nuclear Weapons in SF and the media roughly follows the course of the cold war. In 1940s/50s SF, Nukes are all over the place, cool and deadly, and thank God we’ve got ‘em! IN the ‘60s this mostly withered, and they begin to conspicuously disappear. The original Trek only makes one overt reference to Nuclear Weapons (Cobalt Bombs, actually). Most shows don’t even do that. By the 70s it was ubiquitous to substitute some hokey futuristic-sounding doubletalk technology for nuclear weapons. “Plasma Bombs” and “Fusors” and suchlike. By the ‘80s, they were even replacing references to Nukes in foreign shows with this kind of stuff. For instance, “Robotech” edited out all the very overt mentions of Nuclear Weapons (Used a *lot* in the show) and replaced them with the phrase “Reflex Weaponry.” They even took out mention of Nuclear Reactors, and replaced them with “Reflex Furnaces.”

So not only were we afraid of our guard dog, we weren’t even willing to say his name. (Yes, it’s a he. I mean, just look at an ICBM - it’s phallic as all hell)

Some of this continues even today. When the Galactica got hit with a nuke in the miniseries, a lot of people’s suspension of disbelief was overloaded “That would have been the end of the ship right there, nothing can survive a nuke.” When Nukes began to cautiously make their way back in to SF - I think Stargate was the first to do it - their destructive potential was wizardly: one nuke, regardless of size, can destroy anything, regardless of size. This is bad writing, but it’s also a holdover from the fear-soaked ignorance of the 70s, and the reactionary “Don’t name the horror and it’ll go away” phase in the ‘80s.

There was also a tendency to vastly exaggerate some of the numbers connected with nuclear weapons, while completely ignoring others. For instance, a very good friend of mine who really should know better stated that “The Atomic Bombs dropped on Japan killed millions of people.” They didn’t. I asked him where he got his information from, and eventually he allowed as how he just assumed that since Atomic Bombs can take out whole cities, and since Hiroshima and Nagasaki both have populations in the millions today, then they must have had populations in the millions back then, and ergo…millions must have died, right? There’s a tendency to backdate current numbers, and forget that populations were smaller more than half a century ago, particularly if we’re dealing with things that we’re afraid of.

For the record, the Hiroshima bomb (17 Kilotons) killed 70,000 people outright. Let’s be liberal and double that number to account for people who died from injuries sustained in the blast, or radiation sickness, who died in the next year: 140,000. The Nagasaki bomb (21 Kilotons) is harder to get accurate information on since the Japanese infrastructure was rapidly collapsing before it went off. Numbers range from 40,000 to about 80,000. Again, let’s be liberal and double it, just to be on the safe side: 180,000 people killed outright, or who died of blast-related causes by the end of 1946. That gives us a total of 320,000 people who died, at least half of them in grueling agony over the following weeks and months. Appalling, terrible, hellish, but certainly not millions. Just to put that in perspective, between a half a million and 800,000 people died in the battle of Kursk in 1943. 1.5 *million* people died in the battle of Stalingrad, also in ‘43. Just to paint the comparison with a bit finer point, the *conventional* bombing of Tokyo on March 10th, 1945, all by itself destroyed a quarter-*million* buildings and homes, and killed 100,000 people. And again, that was a conventional bombing, it wasn’t nuclear.

Reiterating: I’m not saying that nukes are all swell and good, or that we shouldn’t be horrified by the loss of life on such an industrial scale, but that has been the nature of war since the 1860s, unfortunately. “More meat for the grinder,” as General Grant called his own troops. About 72 million people died in World War II. Sad and evil as it was, these kinds of decisions were being made pretty continually by both sides in the conflict. Taken in the larger context, the bombs are not vastly more destructive than a really successful bombing campaign. What they were, however, was vastly more efficient.

I feel a bit dirty typing that. Even for me, it’s hard to be analytical about these kinds of things. But, of course that’s exactly why we *need* to be analytical. Reacting only with fear leads to making serious mistakes.

After the war, a whole bunch of mothballed and captured navy ships were chained up at a lagoon near the Bikini Atoll. They wanted to find out exactly how nukes would affect naval strategy, so they loaded up about 95 ships that were due to be decommissioned with full ammo and fuel, and anchored them - unmanned - in formation in the lagoon. The idea was to simulate a massive naval task force and/or a naval invasion.

A nuclear bomb - fourth one ever detonated - was air-burst in the middle of the naval formation. It was 23 Kilotons. Out of the massive target fleet, it only destroyed 5 ships! Granted, fourteen other ships were considered to be seriously damaged, and if this had been a real battle a few of those would have been effectively out of the fight, and would have had to be abandoned, but still it’s impressive that a bomb bigger than the one that took out Nakasaki couldn’t take out a whole bunch of ships clustered together.

Why? Well, obviously: ships are stronger than houses. Duh. They’re made out of steel and stuff.

A few days later a second bomb was set off. This one was underwater, in the middle of the target fleet, this one was also 23 Kilotons. This, of course, did vastly more damage than the air burst had, despite being the same size bomb. This picture sums it up nicely: http://www.eeweems.com/uss_arkansas/_imagery/baker_test_600.jpg that dark vertical line on the right side of the ‘stem’ of the mushroom cloud? That’s a 535 foot long American battleship, the USS Arkansas! Curiously, it shot tens of millions of gallons of water nearly a mile up in to the atmosphere, where it mostly froze! Observers on the island several miles away were pelted with 35-pound chunks of sea ice falling from the sky. There’s still radioactive coral strewn all over the island to this day, thrown there by the force of the undersea blast. So on the one hand, very impressive, intimidating, and powerful, unquestionably, and it seems rather ludicrous to talk about atomic weaponry being ‘not very powerful’ - I mean, obviously they are! Just look at it! But how effective was it?

Not very, surprisingly. Though vastly more damage was done to all the ships across the board, only ten ships we4re sunk this time out, and several of them weren’t sunk outright. The USS Saratoga suffered hull damage and sank five days later, a captured Japanese battleship - the only one to survive the war, actually - appeared ok at first, but unexpectedly capsized three days later, evidently a result of unnoticed damage below the waterline. A German cruiser also survived the initial blast, only to capsize a few days later. If these ships had crews, most likely they could have contained or even fixed much of the hull damage before it became fatal.

Of course the crews would have all died in a few weeks from radiation sickness, we are looking at a total loss of life here eventually. I’m not an idiot, I’m not saying it’s not appalling, but as weapons go, two nukes at point blank range only managed to take out less than 20% of the fleet - a fleet that was unnaturally densely packed. In an actual naval operation they would have been further apart. Let me put this another way to underscore my surprise:

More than 80% of the fleet survived *two* atomic blasts at point blank range!

“Ah,” I hear you saying, “But those were primitive atomic bombs. Nowadays we’ve got vastly more powerful Hydrogen bombs n’stuff.” Well, true: Modern bombs are much more powerful and sophisticated, but a kiloton is a kiloton whatever kind of bomb you happen to be using, the same as horsepower is the same unit of measurement regardless of whether you’re talking bout trains or cars or stagecoaches.

A few years later, Freeman Dyson got interested in exactly how destructive these kinds of things were close up. He suggested an experiment that was inexpensive, and could be appended to one of the already-ongoing Einewetak Island nuclear tests. The idea was simple: make some big titanium spheres about the size of medicine balls, coat ‘em with graphite, and hang ‘em from a rope suspended on either side of a nuke, about six feet away.

The bomb went off, the spheres were lost, and the overwhelming scientific reaction was “Well, duh!” A year later, however, while dredging the lagoon to make it easier for supply ships to get in and out, one of the spheres turned up. The graphite was burned off on one side, and it was flattened on the opposite side, which they eventually realized was damage sustained when the thing hit the water. It wasn’t even alarmingly radioactive because it had spent only a microsecond actually *near* the blast. From this, Dyson formulated the early basic concept of a Nuclear Pulse Rocket, a super-sexy technology that would have allowed us to explore, and possibly colonize the whole solar system by now had we developed it. Alas, it was shut down after it was proved feasible. (Why does NASA hate space so much? That’s a topic for another day)

The amazing thing about the Nuclear Pulse Rocket is that it’s a *Constructive* use of atomic bombs, the only one ever really devised!

But what about as weapons in space? Well, just like their use as weapons at sea, they’re surprisingly ineffective. The reason is that *most* of the destructive potential is caused by interaction with the atmosphere. The shock wave from the blast heads out at hypersonic speeds, compressing the atmosphere as it goes, and smashing buildings. Behind it is a virtual vacuum. When the force of the blast is spent, the vacuum sucks all that air back in again, causing a kind of reverse-shock wave. It’s this effect that actually causes the distinctive mushroom cloud - the shockwave compresses the cloud on the way back in. Thus buildings, people, what have you, have to survive not only the temperature and the radiation, but also two massive shockwaves and brief exposure to near vacuum. Not a lot of buildings can do that, and far fewer people.

However, in space there’s no air to commute the force of the blast, so you get no atmospheric effects whatsoever. A nuke could go off right next to Babylon 5, and it wouldn’t affect the station at all. Well, not through a shockwave. The radiation would definitely be a problem, but the blast itself was no big deal, assuming it’s not physically touching the station. Conversely, if the same bomb was INSIDE the station, B5 would be toast. There’s a lot of debate as to what would happen if the bomb was outside the station, but touching it. There’s no atmospheric damage, of course, but the hull itself would clearly be partially vaporized, the hull would convey much of the shock, and the interior atmospheric compression caused by this combination would do a world of hurt. How much is dependent upon the size and placement of the bomb, of course, and some stuff that we have no practical experience with. (To my knowledge, no one’s blown up a space station yet, much less a LaGrange colony). At the very least, however, everyone inside the thing is gonna’ be bleeding from the ears. At the worst, they won’t notice they’re bleeding from the ears. My hunch, though, is that it probably wouldn’t blow up the station, but it would almost certainly give it a permanent, possibly mortal wound.

So when the Galactica got hit? Could it survive? Sure, why not? The Galactica is a mile long, and has armor yards thick. Assuming it was a fairly small bomb in the 5 to 10 Kiloton range, it’s possible. If a cutting edge piece of 1927 technology can survive TWO nuclear blasts, I’m thinking’ a behemoth like the Galactica could. It does seem excessive to me that the Pegasus shook off six hits in one episode, but what do I know?

Details about the effectiveness of nukes in space are available here http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/conghand/nuclear.htm

What about cities? Well, hell yeah! Nukes’ll take out cities with aplomb. It’s what they were designed for, after all. There’s absolutely no getting around that. Here’s a blast impact calculator to graphically show you the various radii of total and partial destruction, http://www.carloslabs.com/node/16 For instance, if you set off the Hiroshima bomb right in the middle of the Washington Mall, everything across the river in Virginia is fine, and the destruction to the north stops just a little bit outside of DuPont Circle. If you use a 50 Megaton bomb in the same location - and 50 MT is the biggest one ever set off - then pretty much everying from Elicott City in Maryland down to La Plata, Virginia is totally destroyed. Here’s another calculator you can use, just for comparison’s purposes http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclear_weapon_effects/nuclearwpne...

I’m also intrigued by the fact that virtually everyone who fears Nuclear Weapons is totally ignorant of how many of the damn things have been set off. Ask most people, and they’ll say “Two, and they killed millions” (Sigh). Slightly more informed people assume a dozen or so - test bombs before and after the war. Factoring in the French and the Soviets, you know, fifty to a hundred tops, right? Certainly that’s what I assumed when I was younger.

Nope. Wrong. Dead wrong.

There have been approximately TWO THOUSAND nuclear detonations! The US alone has conducted more than a thousand, including 331 ‘above ground’ tests. The Soviets did more than 700 tests between 1950 and 1990. The uncharacteristically trigger-happy French have detonated more than 200 bombs, 50 “Above Ground,” all in Polynesia. England blew up 45 bombs, half in the Australian outback. China has done at least that many, half above-ground.

If Aliens discover the world, they’re going to see all those craters, all that radiation, all the destruction from those 2000 blasts, and they’re just going to assume we *had* a global thermonuclear war already. They’re probably going to be very confused about what Polynesia, Nevada, Siberia, and Australia did to piss us off so badly. The aliens would be wrong, but only technically: we’ve already detonated far more bombs than any respectable World War III would require, the only qualifying difference being that *We Weren’t Actually Fighting* at the time.

Amazing, no? And no one seems to know this.

The bottom line here is that Nuclear Weapons are pretty devastating and awful, however they are a known quantity, and an unbelievably big hell of a lot of them have been blown up without most of the world noticing. As a weapon of fear, paradoxically, they managed to prevent war, but, in fact, they’re not amazingly effective outside of a fairly narrow range of parameters and….well….I’m tired of typing now. You get the point, right? We’re grown up now, and Fear no longer becomes us. As Science Fiction fans, it behooves us to ask questions and not just follow the herd like the opposition does. Sometimes the answers will be disturbing, sometimes they’ll be reassuring, and sometimes - as in this case - they’ll simply be wildly different than you probably expected. But in the end it’s worth it because the devil you know is far less frightening than the devil you don’t know.

And it’s far more fun as a plot device, too!

EDIT: This story initially went up on June 27th, 2009, and was written about six weeks before that (We like to schedule ahead if at all possible). Now, on July 10th, it appears that IO9 agrees with us http://io9.com/5310474/why-an-urban-nuclear-explosion-is-not-hopeless (On this one subject, if nothing else) I would like to point out that we're not accusing them of plagiarism. I'm sure they've never even heard of us.

Tags: