Nuclear weapons affect our environment in several ways. Obviously, a nuclear war would be devastating, as well as the consequences of a large-scale nuclear power plant accident. But we also need to note the environmental damage caused by the full nuclear fuel chain, from uranium mining to waste management – including management of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.
Climate effects of a nuclear war
A nuclear war would cause climate changes to the extent that we refer to it as “nuclear winter”. Nuclear winter is caused by the enormous amount of soot and ash produced when cities and forests are set on fire by multiple nuclear explosions. The resulting fires create massive amounts of soot and ashes that spread as heavy black clouds over the continents. The sun heats these soot clouds and make them rise up into the stratosphere, where the soot is spread around the whole globe and can affect climate globally for up to 8-10 years. It will be cold and dark.
In the mid-continents, temperatures can drop more than 10 degrees C (50 degrees F), while the sinking temperatures will be less significant by the coasts and above the oceans. When everything goes dark and cold, and when less rain falls, farming and agriculture will be significantly affected. Farmers will have smaller harvests, resulting in a worldwide famine.
Furthermore, food scarcity may lead to armed conflicts over the limited resources available – causing even more death and injuries. It will also be difficult for the survivors of a nuclear war to find safe drinking water, which will lead to severe epidemics and pandemics.
Only a fraction of today’s nuclear arsenals need to be used to trigger a nuclear winter. The number of cities on fire determines the level of nuclear winter. Nuclear missiles are to a large extent expected to hit military facilities and industries, which are often placed close to major cities.
Even a limited, regional nuclear war, e.g. a war where nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan are used against cities, could affect the climate globally and cause a global famine with hundreds of millions of victims.
Climate effects of a limited, regional use of nuclear weapons
In the 1980’s the term nuclear winter was common in the security debate. The term referred to the darkness and the reduced temperature that would result from a major nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. Already then, knowledge was widespread about the massive fires caused by a large scale nuclear war that would create sunlight-blocking soot in the atmosphere and thereby cause darkness, cooling, poor harvests and global famine.
According to Alan Robock, climate research has progressed immensely during the last decades, partly due to an increased climate debate. As have the technical possibilities to do detailed computer simulations of complicated climatological processes. Experiences of the climate effects of major forest fires and volcanic eruptions have also brought important knowledge.
The data presented by Robock is based on simulations of a scenario involving two states with large urban centres, which during a limited time detonate a total of 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices in urban areas. The scenario corresponds to what could happen in an armed conflict between India and Pakistan. It is, however, interesting to note that these two states possess less than 0,1 percent of the world’s total nuclear arsenals.
After a nuclear explosion, a large portion of the soot particles will transfer to the stratosphere where they will affect climate on earth for a long time. The occurrence of soot in the stratosphere limits the sunrays – and thereby the light and warmth – that reaches earth. The result is a large reduction in temperature: during the first years about –1,25°C and after ten years –0,5°C. The effects on the earth’s climate will remain for more than a decade. The largest temperature drops would occur over land, with several degrees’ drop in North America and Eurasia.
This is what the same picture could look like if taken after a large-scale nuclear war. Thick clouds of smoke and soot would cover all of the Northern Hemisphere, bringing darkness and cold. The lack of sunlight and a significant temperature drop would lead to poor harvests and lack of food. A global famine would be the result. A large part of the larger land living mammals would die, while insects and animals living in water would have better chances of survival.
It cannot be predicted if people anywhere will survive the nuclear winter, but at least human civilisation could be annihilated.The first picture shows the earth as seen from space. This picture, that you probably recognise, was taken during a clear day in May 1969 from the spacecraft Apollo 10, heading towards the moon. In the middle of the picture you can see the California Bay and Mexico. Above the earth, a layer of clouds covers most of the US. These clouds produce all the precipitation needed for that year’s agriculture.
Agricultural issues and starvation
Farming and agriculture would be affected by a change in many climatological factors: precipitation, temperature and sunlight. In a report on the climate effects of regional nuclear war, author Alan Robock estimates that the agricultural season, i.e. the number of days free from frost in one year, would decrease by ten in Sweden and other northern states during the first year following a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan.
The worst part of the scenario is that the bad harvest is described as a global phenomenon. The number of days free from frost during the first year following a nuclear war vary between 10 and 30 (with a Siberian top note of a 100 days lost).
A 10-30 days shortening of the agricultural season due to a temperature drop would result in a drastic cut of the production rate and reduced availability of food worldwide. The world’s total grain supply as of August 2007 is estimated at 322 million tons. With an annual consumption of 2098 million tons, this equals 49 days need of grain in store. Almost 11 percent (220 million tons) of the world’s grain production is subject to international trade, making the supply politically sensitive. 800 million human beings worldwide have access to a lower daily energy intake than they need. A drastic decrease in agricultural produce would risk making the situation even harder for those already living below their energy needs.
It is also important to note that starvation to the extent described above would increase the risk of riots, civil wars and escalation of ongoing conflicts over scarce resources, inevitably leading to more death. A nuclear war, even a limited use of nuclear weapons between for example India and Pakistan, would lead to far more devastating consequences than the immediate effects of the nuclear explosion itself.
Thinning of the ozone layer
Even a limited nuclear war, as shown by recent research, could have catastrophic consequences for the ozone layer, which protects all life on earth from the sun’s harmful UV-rays. It is said that 100 Hiroshima sized bombs detonated in an urban environment would make the ozone layer about 20 percent thinner around the globe. The northern latitudes would be most severely affected, with an up to 70 percent increase of the ozone layer during the first five years following a nuclear war. The tropical areas would be least affected.
All the smoke rising into the stratosphere absorbs sun rays and makes the air incredibly hot. This makes the ozone layer grow thinner. When the ozone layer attenuates, more harmful UV-rays from the sun reach earth, harming both human beings and vegetation. Increased UV-radiation can result in skin cancer, eye problems and other health problems for humans. It also affects the ecosystem in waters, harming fish, shellfish, amphibians and plankton.
Water related problems
A nuclear war would also mean that large parts of water systems in the affected areas would be destroyed. All open water sources would be contaminated by radioactive fallout, making it potentially lethal to drink. After the Chernobyl disaster it became clear that not only water sources and ground water in the immediate surroundings of the disaster zone were affected. Radioactive Cesium from the Chernobyl fallout could still be identified in the oceans in Northern Europe ten years after the accident. Radioactive particles in the water risk contaminating fish and shellfish in these areas.
Those surviving a nuclear attack must be aware of the fact that radioactive particles cannot be boiled or purified by chemical methods. The safest action would be to find drinking water from preferrably covered wells as far away from the epicenter as possible. Yet, the author of the book Nuclear Survival Skills, Cresson H. Kearny, claims that more people would be killed by water borne diseases than by water contaminated by radioactive fallout.
A nuclear war will also make it harder for people to take care of their hygiene. The water will be polluted, people will live in close quarters and it will be hard to find effective waste management systems. Insects and micro organisms with strong resistance to radioactivity will increase in numbers. Bad hygiene and many insects will lead to a rise in contagious disease – many of which are water borne.
Environmental effects of nuclear weapons production
The production of nuclear weapons has not only created an immediate threat to humanity in the shape of the risk of nuclear war, but also contributed to a protracted threat to human beings and the environment in the shape of nuclear waste products. Between 1945 and 1970, the cooling water from nuclear reactors was routinely released into the Columbia River in the US. Also the Savannah River is contaminated by radioactive waste. It will cost an estimated 300 billion dollars up to 2070 to “clean up” the nuclear waste.
In Russia, the situation is even more distressing. Nuclear submarines, some still armed with nuclear warheads, are rusting away in the fjords of Murmansk. Elsewhere, rivers have been polluted and open reservoirs and lakes have been used to hold large quantities of liquid radioactive materials. In 1957, a waste storage tank (not unlike those at Hanford, USA) at the Chelyabinsk nuclear weapons site in Russia exploded and a radioactive cloud dispersed over more than 200 square kilometers of an agricultural region containing numerous rivers and lakes
Nearly all the trees within the most radioactive zone were damaged or killed. Radioactive waste has been routinely dumped into Lake Karachay, recognized as the world’s most radioactive body of water, also at Chelyabinsk. The highest reading there, recorded near a discharge pipe, was approximately 6 grays per hour, enough radioactivity to give an adult human being a lethal dose in less than one hour.
The environmental damage resulting from nuclear technology is not limited to the two largest nuclear weapons states. All nuclear weapons and nuclear energy producing nations have caused some level of environmental contamination, both in their own countries and abroad – such as, nuclear testing in the South Pacific, Australia, Nevada, Kazakhstan, China, India and Pakistan; water and airborne discharges from reprocessing plants in the UK and France; and uranium mining in Namibia, Canada, former East Germany and Australia.
Moreover, the ongoing production of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power continues to create nuclear waste. Any long-term approach to ‘clean-up’ must be tied to a halt in the production of nuclear weapons, weapons usable materials and nuclear power.
The burial of radioactive materials is presently being touted as the ‘solution’ to radioactive waste ‘disposal’. WIPP in New Mexico, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Gorleben in Germany, proposed sites in the UK, Russia, Australia and elsewhere are among the places where nuclear engineers claim to have ‘solved’ the nuclear waste problem. However, at present, there are no established disposal routes for long-lived radioactive materials. The burial of these materials must not be confused with their safe containment and isolation from the environment.
Pictures from Dr. Alan Robock
Last update: February 4, 2015