This Is Exactly How A Nuclear War Would Kill You

     

Matthew Kroenig has witnessed firsthand the growing fear that nuclear war is imminent.

A professor at Georgetown University, he’s taught an undergraduate course on nuclear weapons và world politics for the past decade. He always asks the same question on the last day: How many of his students think they’ll see nuclear weapons used in their lifetime?

For many years, no more than one student would raise their hand. That made sense, he told me, because in those days, “talking about nuclear war was lượt thích talking about dinosaurs — it’s just something from the past that won’t be something in our future.”

But the past couple of years have been different. When he asked that question again this spring, roughly 60 percent of his students raised their hands. What’s more, he agrees with them. “If I had to bet at least one nuclear weapon would be used in my lifetime,” says the 40-year-old Kroenig, “my bet would be yes.”

Kroenig & his students are not alone. A January 2018 World Economic diễn đàn survey of 1,000 leaders from government, business, & other industries identified nuclear war as a đứng top threat.

The widespread concern is understandable. Last year, it seemed a nuclear conflict between the US and North Korea was on the horizon. India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed enemies, could restart their decades-long squabble at any time. Và the US and Russia — the world’s foremost nuclear powers — have had warheads pointed at each other since the earliest days of the Cold War.

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President Donald Trump’s presence in the Oval Office has increased worries of a potential nuclear war. In January, a poll showed about 52 percent of Americans — many of them Democrats — worried that the president would launch a nuclear attack without reason.

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Then presidential candidate Donald Trump attending a rally against the Iran Agreement at the Capitol on September 9, 2015. chip Somodevilla/Getty Images So what is the risk of a nuclear war, really? After speaking with more than a dozen experts familiar with the horrors of nuclear conflict, the answer is that the chances are small — very small.

But that may not be too comforting, says Alexandra Bell, a nuclear expert at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “The chance is not zero because nuclear weapons exist,” she says. Và the damage would be incalculable; all it takes is just one strike to conceivably kill hundreds of thousands of people within minutes and perhaps millions more in the following days, weeks, and years.

What’s more, that first strike could trigger a series of events, leading to lớn a widespread famine caused by a rapidly cooling climate that could potentially kết thúc civilization as we know it.

Below, then, is a guide khổng lồ who has nuclear weapons, how they might be used, where they could drop in the future, what happens if they bởi vì — và if humanity could survive it.


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Hiroshima, Japan, after the dropping of the atom bomb, in August 1945. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Two countries have nearly all the world’s nuclear weapons

Nations typically want nuclear weapons for two reasons: self-defense — why would anyone attack a country that could respond with the world’s most destructive bombs? — & global prestige.

Not every government can afford them because nukes take billions of dollars to build, maintain, & launch properly. The proliferation process is also risky, MIT nuclear expert Vipin Narang told me, because seeking a nuke makes a country a potential target. A nuclear bomb-seeking country is typically vulnerable to lớn attack.

Today, only nine countries own the entirety of the roughly 14,500 nuclear weapons on Earth. That’s down from the peak of about 70,300 in 1986, according khổng lồ an estimate by Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Federation of American Scientists.

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Christina Animashaun/thuphikhongdung.vn Two countries tài khoản for the rise and fall in the global nuclear stockpile: Russia and the United States. They currently possess 93 percent of all nuclear weapons, with Moscow holding 6,850 and Washington another 6,450 (which is smaller than the 40,000 that Russia, then known as the Soviet Union, had in the 1980s and the roughly 30,000 the US had in the mid-1960s through mid-70s).

During the Cold War, each side built up its arsenal in a bid khổng lồ protect itself from the other. Having the ability lớn attack any major thành phố or strategic military position with a massive bomb, the thinking went, would make the cost of war so high that no one would want to fight.

But two developments in particular led khổng lồ the precipitous drop, Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, told me. First, Russia & the US signed a slew of treaties from the 1970s onward lớn reduce và cap parts of their nuclear programs. Second, both sides learned to hit targets with extreme precision. That negated the need for so many bombs khổng lồ obliterate a target.

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Christina Animashaun/thuphikhongdung.vn The US và Russia, though, still maintain thousands of nuclear weapons while the other seven countries — the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, & North Korea — have no more than a few hundred. Still, every country has more than enough weapons to lớn cause suffering on a scale never seen in human history.

Six easy steps lớn nuclear war

The question, then, is not just who might actually use the weapons they own, but how? It turns out it’s a lot easier khổng lồ launch than you might want to lớn believe.

The way leaders could launch their nuclear weapons vary.

For example, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could likely order one without any checks on his authority. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, would put the country’s forces on high alert if it detected an incoming nuclear-tipped missile, Russian forces expert Pavel Podvig told me.

The Russian military could respond in kind if troops noted a loss of communication with Putin & it confirmed nuclear detonations elsewhere in the country, Podvig added. While we can’t say for certain what Putin would do, it is definitely possible that he would order a nuclear strike first if he felt he needed to.

Still, he says Moscow would only respond to being attacked. “Only when we become convinced that there is an incoming attack on the territory of Russia, và that happens within seconds, only after that we would launch a retaliatory strike,” Putin said during a conference in Sochi on October 18.

And if Trump decided to lớn attack, say, North Korea with a nuclear bomb, it would be hard lớn stop him from doing so because he has complete authority over the launching process.

“The president can order a nuclear strike in about the time it takes khổng lồ write a tweet,” Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that works to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, told thuphikhongdung.vn’s Lindsay Maizland in August 2017.


Here’s how the American system works:

1) The president decides a nuclear strike is necessary

It’s unlikely that the United States would turn to lớn nuclear weapons as a first resort in a conflict. There are plenty of nonnuclear options available — such as launching airstrikes to try to lớn take out an adversary’s nuclear arsenal.

But the United States has consistently refused to adopt a “no first use” policy — a policy not lớn be the first one in a conflict khổng lồ use a nuclear weapon, và to use them only if the other side uses them first. That means Trump could theoretically decide to lớn launch a nuclear strike before an adversary’s nukes go off in America.

In the heat of battle, the US military might detect an incoming nuclear attack from North Korea & the president could decide khổng lồ respond with a similar strike.

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Either way, the president is the one who ultimately decides khổng lồ put the process of launching a nuclear strike in motion — but he still has a few steps khổng lồ complete.

2) A US military officer opens the “football”

Once the president has decided the situation requires a nuclear strike, the military officer who is always by the president’s side opens the “football.” The leather-clad case contains an outline of the nuclear options available to lớn the president — including possible targets, lượt thích military installations or cities, that the US’s roughly 800 nuclear weapons ready khổng lồ launch within minutes can hit — và instructions for contacting US military commanders và giving them orders lớn launch the missiles with warheads on them.

3) Trump talks with military & civilian advisers

The president is the sole decision-maker, but he would consult with civilian and military advisers before he issues the order to lớn launch a nuclear weapon.

A key person Trump must talk to lớn is the Pentagon’s deputy director of operations in charge of the National Military Command Center, or “war room,” the heart of the Defense Department that directs nuclear command and control.

The president can include whomever else he wants in the conversation. He would almost certainly consult Gen. John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, since Hyten is responsible for knowing what the US can hit with its nuclear weapons. But Trump would likely also include Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser John Bolton, & Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in that conversation as well.

The chat also doesn’t have khổng lồ be held in the trắng House’s Situation Room; it can happen anywhere over a secured phone line.

If any of the advisers felt such an attack would be illegal — like if Trump simply wanted to nuke Pyongyang despite no apparent threat — they could advise the president against going ahead with the strike.

Last November, Hyten publicly said he wouldn’t accept an illegal order from Trump lớn launch a nuclear attack. “He’ll tell me what to do, & if it’s illegal, guess what’s going lớn happen?” Hyten told an audience at the Halifax International Security forum last year. “I’m gonna say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’”

He continued by outlining what the military could consider an illegal order: if a nuclear attack isn’t proportional to lớn the actual threat, for instance, or if the attack would cause unnecessary suffering. However, what does & doesn’t constitute a “legal” order is still up for debate & was the focus of a congressional hearing last November.

Either way, if Hyten refused to follow the order, Trump could fire him & replace him with someone who would carry it out.

4) The president gives the official order to lớn strike

After the conversation, a senior officer in the “war room” has lớn formally verify that the command is coming from the president. The officers recite a code — “Bravo Charlie,” for example — & the president must then respond with a code printed on the “biscuit,” the card with the codes on it.

Then members of the “war room” communicate with the people who will initiate và launch the attack. Depending on the plan chosen by the president, the command will go to lớn US crews operating the submarines carrying nuclear missiles, warplanes that can drop nuclear bombs, or troops overseeing intercontinental ballistic missiles on land.

5) Launch crews prepare to attack

The launch crews receive the plan and prepare for attack. This involves unlocking various safes, entering a series of codes, & turning keys khổng lồ launch the missiles. Crews must “execute the order, not question it,” Cirincione told Maizland.

6) Missiles fly toward the enemy

It could take as little as five minutes for intercontinental ballistic missiles to lớn launch from the time the president officially orders a strike. Missiles launched from submarines take about 15 minutes.

And then the president waits to see if they hit their target.

The three main risks of nuclear war — & one wild card

Those that have nuclear weapons, many have argued, will never use them. The destruction & human devastation is so unimaginable that it’s hard khổng lồ believe a world leader will launch them again, they say. But no one can guarantee they won’t be used at least once more — and that possibility keeps most nuclear experts up at night.

They disagree wildly as to lớn what the next nuclear use might look like or how it might happen, but they almost unanimously cite the same three risks.

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1) US vs. North Korea war

The potential nuclear conflict between the United States và North Korea worries most experts — & likely most people on Earth.

That makes sense: Trump & Kim, the North Korean premier, spent most of 2017 threatening lớn bomb each other with nuclear weapons. Kim actually gained a missile capable enough of reaching the entirety of the United States, although questions remain about whether it could make it all the way with a warhead on top and detonate.