NUCLEAR WEAPONSWhat Would Happen If a Nuclear Bomb Was Used in Ukraine?

By Clare Roth

Published 14 November 2022

Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and meltdowns at the Chernobyl and Fukushima power plants clearly affected people’s health. But experts say it’s hard to predict the fallout from a nuclear war today.

When we think about the war in Ukraine and the nuclear threat that it poses, we often think of two scenarios: an accident at a Ukrainian nuclear plant or the fallout from nuclear weapons.

In the first article of this series, we looked at accidents at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, and at Ukraine’s Chernobyl power plant in 1986, analzying the impact those accidents had on the surrounding populations. And we compared those accidents and to what might happen in the event of fallout from an accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has been central to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

In this second article, we will look into the short and long-term health effects that the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on surrounding populations in 1945.

Experts use the study of those bombings at the end of World War II to understand what might happen if a nuclear weapon were detonated today.

Nuclear Fallout Depends on the Type of Weapon
Nuclear fallout is hard to predict because it is highly dependent on how and where a weapon is used.

Weapons that detonate at high altitudes produce different effects than weapons that detonate on or in the ground, said Dylan Spaulding, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

In the latter case, that’s when you have to worry about fallout, because you are basically radioactively activating Earth,” said Spaulding. “Whereas an airburst doesn’t necessarily have the same fallout worries.”

Spaulding said that different weapons can be detonated for different strategic reasons.

The detonation of a weapon in the air can kill many people at once, with less of a long-term impact on radiation in the surrounding population and environment.

The detonation of a weapon near the surface of the Earth could both kill many people at once and taint the environment and food supply for years.

This can be illustrated by the US bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of WWII and the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine. The attacks killed between 60-80,000 people in Nagasaki and between 70-135,000 people in Hiroshima in the months that followed.

The bombings released about 40 times less radiation into the environment than the 1986 Chernobyl accident, but killed hundreds of thousands more people in the immediate aftermath.

Today, people can safely live in Nagasaki and Hiroshima without fear of lingering radiation, but the Chernobyl exclusion zone remains radioactive and uninhabitable.