What’s the Threat of Nuclear War Right Now?

Kuta: What’s the status of nuclear weapons around the world?
Toon: In 1986, there were 70,000 nuclear weapons on the planet—it was totally out of control. Right now, there are about 13,000 on the planet. That build-down started when former President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, agreed to eliminate a lot of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe because the scientific community told them that if they used all these weapons, they were going to destroy most of the population on the planet. 

Now, the U.S. and Russia are limited by treaty to have about 2,000 nuclear weapons each that are ready to fire; they have another 2,000 weapons each that are in storage or reserve that can be brought out in an emergency. The U.S. and Russia have 90% of the weapons; but Britain and France have 200 each; China has about 200; India and Pakistan have 150 each; Israel has around 100 and North Korea has some unknown number. 

Kuta: How powerful are today’s nuclear weapons?
Toon: If you take the smallest nuclear weapon on an American submarine, the zone of death around ground zero is about 3 miles in radius, so drop just one of those in the middle of Denver and it would eliminate a large fraction of the city. An American submarine carries about 96 nuclear warheads, and they’re each about 10 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb that killed 100,000 people in 1945. That means an American submarine could potentially kill 100 million people if it launched all of its bombs toward cities. And the Russians could do the same.

Kuta: What would happen if a country decides to use nuclear weapons?
Toon: If there was a war between India and Pakistan, which are not very big nuclear weapons countries, and they used half of their arsenals, it would kill somewhere between 50 and 150 million people from the direct explosions in cities. But we think about 1 to 3 billion people would die globally because the smoke from the burning cities would get into the stratosphere and block sunlight. Ground temperatures would fall to Ice Age conditions within weeks and destroy agriculture. People would starve to death because they couldn’t grow food. 

With a nuclear war between the U.S., Europe and Russia, it would get even colder because there would be even more smoke. In grain-growing areas like Ukraine and Iowa, temperatures would fall below freezing for two years. Not only can you not grow anything, but you don’t have transportation—the refineries are going to be destroyed, and power lines are all going to go down.

There’s only enough food in a city for about six days, and there is only enough grain in global storage to feed the world’s population for about 60 days. So, this is a threat to the global population, even if you’re nowhere near where the explosions occurred. 

Kuta: What long-term concerns do you have?
: Unfortunately, Russia and the U.S. have been in an arms race. In future decades, we could have a big problem with how short the warning time of an attack could be. Right now, the president has this 30-minute window to defend against missiles, but Russia is building weapons to shorten the warning time.

If the warning time is just minutes—there won’t be time to wake up the U.S. president to have him or her decide to launch our missiles, so what are you going to do? Will we have to have artificial intelligence (AI) decide if we’re being attacked and whether we should respond? We will be forced into a situation in which, instead of having the president decide, we’re going to have some machine decide? 

Kuta: What’s your message to people who are worried about nuclear war right now?
: People shouldn’t dwell on this. We have enough problems with unending COVID and other social issues. But they should realize there are many nuclear weapons out there, and we need to do something so we don’t have threats of nuclear war in the future.

New treaties could prevent the use of AI from controlling nuclear weapons and stop the development of new types of nuclear weapons delivery systems that shorten the warning time. Removing land-based missiles in the U.S. could eliminate a target painted on America that we otherwise have to defend by attacking Russia with nuclear weapons if we think, with no time to be sure, that they are attacking us. 

Sarah Kuta is a writer and editor. The article was originally published on the University of Colorado, Boulder website.