Essex column: The rekindling of doomsday concerns
Leona Blas, my third-grade teacher, was a Cold Warrior who thought it was important to scare the bejeebers out of us by talking about nuclear war.
We lived 100 miles from Offutt Air Force Base just south of Omaha, which was Strategic Air Command headquarters from 1948-1992.
SAC would be a prime nuclear target, and Mrs. Blas several times talked about the potential impact on our town should bombs fall. On the bright side, sort of, she said we were far enough away to be spared the fireball and concussive waves of the explosion, but would be endangered by radioactive fallout.
Fallout shelter signs dotted our little town, as they did buildings across America. We would go hide there in an attack, deeply unsure of what would be left if and when we emerged. I developed a fear of dying in a shelter, and created a habit of looking at the yellow and black shelter signs twice whenever I saw one, thinking it would be bad luck to see one just once, as if I would not get to see it a second time if I ever had to go in.
I was 9. The adults around me also were fearful, being just 20 years removed from a war of world conquest that killed 60 million people. Only four years before, the Americans and Soviets had a stare-down over missiles being shipped to Cuba, a crisis popularly thought to be as close to nuclear war as we’ve ever come.
A couple of my high school classmates grew up on farms that hosted Minuteman missile silos. Air Force personnel came and went while my friends did their chores, sworn to secrecy about their land being both a quiver and a bull’s-eye in superpower geopolitics.
When part of my political science studies in college involved learning about mutually assured destruction and the strategic nuclear triad (land-based missiles, long-range bombers and submarine-launched missiles), I realized that Mrs. Blas was wrong — those missile silos right outside town would have been targets, too, and we probably wouldn’t have had time to make it to a fallout shelter.
I’m grateful that my son, born in 1987, didn’t have to grow up with these fears. Arms limitations agreements struck by Republican presidents — Nixon, Reagan and Bush I — and the collapse of the Soviet empire made nuclear war less likely.
In 1991, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, which was started in 1947 “to respond and offer solutions to the Pandora’s box of modern science,” was set at 17 minutes before midnight, the furthest it’s been from striking 12.
In the generation since, nuclear risk has grown. Pakistan, long a nuclear power, is lousy with terrorists. North Korea’s small nuclear arsenal is overseen by a vain and bellicose dictator. Islamic terrorists are willing to kill indiscriminately by any means, and the wealth of poorly secured nuclear material spread around the globe makes too real the potential of extremists developing a weapon that, even if crude, could do incredible damage.
The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board this year moved the minute hand of the nuclear clock to two and a half minutes before midnight — the closest it’s been since hydrogen bombs were developed in 1953.
“In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways,” the scientists said. “As if to prove that words matter and fake news is dangerous, Pakistan’s foreign minister issued a blustery statement, a tweet actually, flexing Pakistan’s nuclear muscle — in response to a fabricated ‘news’ story about Israel.”
This moment, then, is worthy of a reminder of what we live with — nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons known to be held by nine countries, 93 percent in U.S. and Russian arsenals. Ironically, if a suitcase bomb delivered by terrorists is our greatest current nuclear threat, the superpowers’ stockpiles are useless to stop it or retaliate. Similarly, responding in kind to a nuclear attack by North Korea unavoidably puts millions of civilians in China, South Korea and Japan at risk.
We have only a small dataset, thankfully, from which to estimate the destruction of modern nuclear war beyond such a terror attack.
In Hiroshima, a 16-kiloton blast destroyed everything for a mile from the detonation. Fires from heat radiation started as far as 3 miles away; an estimated 90,000-120,000 people died in the first two months after the bombing; cancers increased for years afterward.
The weapons deployed today are much more powerful than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A 1 megaton warhead, like those on the tips of Minutemen missiles once outside my hometown but hardly the most powerful in existence, is 65 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
In 1979, Congress’s Office of Technology published “The Effects of Nuclear War,” which outlined different scenarios from “limited” to all-out.
“The impact of even a ‘small’ or ‘limited’ nuclear attack would be enormous,” the report said. “The number of deaths might be as high as 20 million. Moreover, the uncertainties are such that no government could predict with any confidence what the results of a limited attack or counterattack would be even if there was no further escalation.”
Should anyone wonder, this is why we can’t use our nuclear weapons.
Randy Essex is publisher and editor of the Post Independent.
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