Nuclear War Could Be Devastating for the U.S., Even If No One Shoots Back

We estimated that, if 100 nuclear weapons hit China’s most populous cities, initial blasts would kill more than 30 million people. This would kill a higher fraction of the population than even severe pandemics, destroy China’s economy and would almost certainly destabilize its political system.

It would be even worse for any smaller country –- providing plenty of deterrence to prevent any other nation from attacking.

Next, we looked at the impacts on the nuclear aggressor. We optimistically assumed no accidents; all nuclear weapons hitting their targets, whether that was 100, 1,000 or 7,000; and no retaliation of any kind.

We built a model of the burnable material in cities: how much would burn in a nuclear attack, how much of that would turn into smoke, how much of that smoke would make it into the upper atmosphere. Then, we used the result of climate and crop simulations to predict the impact on food supply. Finally, we coupled this with food storage to predict how many people would starve.

Our results showed no Americans would die in the scenario of the U.S. using 100 weapons. The U.S. is blessed with a large amount of agricultural land compared to the population, so the country is resilient to industrial loss and mild nuclear autumn if Americans cooperate and share resources.

If Americans used 1,000 nuclear warheads against an enemy and no one retaliated, the U.S. would see about 140,000 Americans die, due to the burning of cities in other countries, causing environmental catastrophe at home from lower food production.

If the U.S. attempts to expand our stockpile as recently proposed and then used 7,000 nuclear weapons, even if everything went perfectly our way, at minimum 5 million Americans would starve.

This analysis severely underestimates the number of dead Americans, since we assume severe rationing, which is the best way to keep the most people alive when there is this level of food shortage without alternative food.

Current Arsenals
Compared to other nations, if the U.S. used its entire current nuclear arsenal, it is the best case for surviving nuclear autumn – losses to industry and a 10 percent food shortfall. Other countries are far worse off.

If a country with fewer weapons, like North Korea or Israel, fired off relatively few nuclear weapons and triggered nuclear autumn and were not hit by any in return or suffer retaliation, they would be harming themselves. Our model shows that they would lose 60 percent and 80 percent of their populations, respectively.

China would expect to lose 70 percent of its population in a nuclear autumn, even if they were the ones lobbing the missiles.

Overall, we found that limiting America’s arsenal to 100 nuclear weapons still provides nuclear deterrence, but avoids the worst of the probable effects of a nuclear autumn. It is clear by cutting down on nuclear weapons, the U.S. actually would save money making the safe decision.

Joshua M. Pearce is Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Electrical and Computer Engineering, Michigan Technological University. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.