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Nuclear risksWhy we should start worrying about nuclear fallout

Published 5 September 2017

Since North Korea’s recent missile tests, and Sunday’s underground nuclear test, the possibility of nuclear warfare looms larger than it has in more than five decades. Nearly thirty years after the cold war ended, are we prepared to face such a challenge? How would large-scale nuclear attacks affect the world today? “During the cold war, the United States, the Soviet Union, and several European countries built networks of fallout shelters — but even at their peak, these would not have effectively protected the majority of citizens,” says one expert. Nor is radioactive fallout the only problem, because “the damage from mass fires triggered by nuclear bombs has been radically and persistently underestimated.”

Since North Korea’s recent missile tests, and Sunday’s underground nuclear test, the possibility of nuclear warfare looms larger than it has in more than five decades. Nearly thirty years after the cold war ended, are we prepared to face such a challenge? How would large-scale nuclear attacks affect the world today?

Gabrielle Hecht is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), professor of history, and the Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security at CISAC. Shestudies uranium mining and nuclear waste on a global scale. She tells FSI what radioactive contamination would look like today and what damage nuclear activities have already caused, unbeknownst to most of us.

Note: This is Part One of the FSI series on the consequences of nuclear war. The interview was conducted before Sunday, 3 September 2017, underground nuclear test by North Korea.

FSI:Today’s nuclear conversation largely focuses on war with North Korea and development of weapons in Iran. What are we not talking about that we should be?
Hecht:
The urgency of the moment — and speculation about what would happen in the event of nuclear war — shouldn’t derail us from understanding the challenges posed by seven decades of intensive nuclear development. These include long-term environmental and health damage caused by nuclear testing, uranium mining and other activities; the disposal of high and low-level radioactive waste; and the security dilemmas posed by illicit trade in nuclear and radioactive materials.

What would nuclear war look like for the average person?
Hecht:
This really depends on where the bombs go off, how big they are and how many go off. The closer people are to the epicenter, the more fallout they will experience. But weather patterns carry radioactive clouds unpredictably, and over very long distances: we know this empirically from decades of atmospheric testing and large nuclear power plant disasters. People can expect persistent contamination of groundwater and food sources. Over three decades after the Chernobyl accident, for example, mushrooms in Belarus are still too contaminated to eat safely. During the cold war, the United States, the Soviet Union, and several European countries built networks of fallout shelters — but even at their peak, these would not have effectively protected the majority of citizens. Nor is radioactive fallout the only problem — as CISAC’s Lynn Eden has shown, the damage from mass fires triggered by nuclear bombs has been radically and persistently