Nuclear War Risk Evidence

Detonation of one nuke leads to a global nuclear exchange

Elen Nickmeyer, April 2, 2022,, West, Russia mull nuclear steps in a ‘more dangerous’ world

WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its veiled threats of using nuclear arms have policymakers, past and present, thinking the unthinkable: How should the West respond to a Russian battlefield explosion of a nuclear bomb? The default U.S. policy answer, say some architects of the post-Cold War nuclear order, is with discipline and restraint. That could entail stepping up sanctions and isolation for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Rose Gottemoeller, deputy secretary-general of NATO from 2016 to 2019. But no one can count on calm minds to prevail in such a moment, and real life seldom goes to plan. World leaders would be angry, affronted, fearful. Miscommunication and confusion could be rife. Hackers could add to the chaos. Demands would be great for tough retaliation — the kind that can be done with nuclear-loaded missiles capable of moving faster than the speed of sound. ADVERTISEMENT When military and civilian officials and experts have war-gamed Russian-U.S. nuclear tensions in the past, the tabletop exercises sometimes end with nuclear missiles arcing across continents and oceans, striking the capitals of Europe and North America, killing millions within hours, said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group. “And, you know, soon enough, you’ve just had a global thermonuclear war,” Oliker said. It’s a scenario officials hope to avoid, even if Russia targets Ukraine with a nuclear bomb. Gottemoeller, a chief U.S. nuclear negotiator with Russia for the Obama administration, said that the outlines that President Joe Biden has provided so far of his nuclear policy stick with those of past administrations in using atomic weapons only in “extreme circumstances.” “And a single Russian nuclear use demonstration strike, or — as horrific as it would be — a nuclear use in Ukraine, I do not think would rise to that level” of demanding a U.S. nuclear response, said Gottemoeller, now a lecturer at Stanford University. For former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who over nearly a quarter-century in Congress helped shape global nuclear policy, the option of Western nuclear use has to remain on the table. “That’s what the doctrine of mutual assured destruction has been about for a long, long time,” said Nunn, now strategic adviser to the Nuclear Threat Initiative security organization, which he co-founded. “If President Putin were to use nuclear weapons, or any other country uses nuclear weapons first, not in response to a nuclear attack, not in response to an existential threat to their own country … that leader should assume that they are putting the world in the high risk of a nuclear war, and nuclear exchange,” Nunn said. For U.S. officials and world leaders, discussions of how to respond to a limited nuclear attack are no longer theoretical. In the first hours and days of Russia’s invasion, Putin referenced Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He warned Western countries to stay out of the conflict, saying he was putting his nuclear forces on heightened alert. Any country that interfered with Russia’s invasion would face consequences “such as you have never seen, in your entire history,” Putin declared. How to respond to any use by Russia of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons was among the issues discussed by Biden and other Western leaders when they met in Europe in late March. Three NATO members — the United States, Britain and France — have nuclear weapons. One overarching concern is that by casting some nuclear weapons as tactical weapons to be used in battle, Russia could break the nearly eight-decade global taboo against using a nuclear weapon against another country. Even comparatively small tactical nuclear weapons approach the strength of the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II. Gottemoeller and Nunn praise Biden’s restraint in the face of Putin’s implicit nuclear warnings at the outset of the war. Biden made no known move to raise the U.S. nuclear alert status. The U.S. also postponed a routine Minuteman III test launch last month to avoid escalating tensions. But in the short term and long, the world appears more at risk of a nuclear conflict as a result of Putin’s bungled invasion and nuclear threats, according to arms control experts and negotiators. The weaknesses that Russia’s invasion exposed in its conventional military forces may leave Putin feeling even more compelled in the future to threaten nuclear use as his best weapon against the far-stronger United States and NATO. While Gottemoeller argued that Ukraine’s surrendering of its Soviet nuclear arsenal in 1994 opened the door for three decades of international integration and growth, she said some governments may take a different lesson from nuclear Russia’s invasion of non-nuclear Ukraine — that they need nuclear bombs as a matter of survival. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute, said the nuclear danger is going up. “And we can tell which pathways would cause that risk to go up further. And certainly direct conflict with Russia from forces based in NATO countries is one pathway to a nuclear war,” Lewis said. Gottemoeller took heart in Putin grumbling publicly late last month about “cancel culture.” That suggested he was vulnerable to world condemnation over his Ukraine invasion, and worse to come if he broke the post-World War II taboo on nuclear attack, she said. Detonating a nuclear bomb in a country Putin sought dominion over, one next to his own, wouldn’t be rational, Nunn said. But he said neither was Putin’s announcement of heightened nuclear alert,. As a young congressional aide during the Cuban missile crisis, Nunn witnessed U.S. officers and pilots in Europe standing by for orders to launch nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union. The danger today isn’t yet as great as in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles on Cuba raised the threat of nuclear war with the U.S., he said. But the risk of intentional nuclear escalation now is high enough to make a cease-fire in Ukraine crucial, Nunn said. The modern threat of cyberattacks adds to the risk of a mistaken launch. And it’s not clear how vulnerable U.S. and, especially, Russian systems are to such hacking attempts, he said. Putin “has been very reckless in his saber rattling with nuclear weapons,” Nunn said. “And that I think has made everything more dangerous, including a blunder.”

Nuclear use escalates to human extinction

Ira Helfand, 3-17, 22, CNN, The unimaginable nightmare that haunts the world,

If the Kremlin feels itself losing a conventional war, will it resort to the nuclear option as Putin has explicitly threatened? Tactical or “battlefield,” nuclear weapons are far smaller than the enormous warheads intended to destroy cities — but the smallest of them still has the force of up to 300 tons or 0.3 kilotons of TNT. Such a bomb creates a fireball 300 feet across. The flames and explosion could destroy residential buildings and cause life-threatening burns to anyone within about 1,000 feet and deliver a lethal dose of radiation to anyone within about 2,000 feet. Yet as bad as that sounds, in some ways, the worst thing about such a small bomb is its very smallness. It provides a terrible temptation to a military under pressure to go nuclear “just a little.” We cannot be certain what would happen next if Putin decided to take this smaller nuclear option. But war games in which a tactical nuclear weapon is used have usually progressed to full-scale nuclear war. Once that threshold is crossed, neither side tends to know how to stop. A nuclear war between Russia and NATO allies would be an unimaginable tragedy. A single 100-kiloton (100,000-ton) bomb detonated over Washington, for example, would likely kill 170,000 people and injure hundreds of thousands. A similar bomb detonated over Moscow would likely kill 250,000 and injure more than a million. In both cities, the medical care system would be destroyed outright and what few emergency medical resources remained would be totally overwhelmed. But in a large-scale war, it would not be a single bomb over a single city. Rather it would be many bombs over many cities. A 2003 report showed that if just 300 of the roughly 1,500 weapons deployed in the Russian strategic arsenal exploded over US cities, 75 to 100 million people would die in the first day. But they might be the lucky ones: The vast majority of those who survived the initial attack would also die over the coming months from radiation sickness, infectious diseases, famine and exposure.In the wake of such a massive nuclear attack, the entire economic infrastructure would be destroyed: the electric grid, the Internet, food and water supply systems, the health care system — it would all be gone. Temperatures would be terribly cold, as a large-scale nuclear war would have also put 150 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere, triggering a “nuclear winter,” global famine and likely the end of civilization as we understand it.

No real checks on Putin’s decision to use nuclear weapons

Uri Friedman is the managing editor at the Atlantic Council and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He was previously a staff writer and the Global editor at The Atlantic, and the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, March 15, 2022, The Atlantic, Putin’s Nuclear Threats Are a Wake-Up Call for the World,

We don’t know a lot about how exactly the authority to launch nuclear weapons works in Russia. This opacity is deliberate. All nuclear command-and-control systems, including America’s, have a “first rule of Fight Club”-like aspect to them: You don’t talk much about them, to keep your enemies guessing. But Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear forces (who, even armed with all his knowledge, speaks about some of his assessments in terms of guesswork), has concluded that the Russian president can probably order the use of nuclear weapons on his own, even if the country’s policies aren’t necessarily designed that way. The Russian system, which dates back to the 1970s and was crafted with Soviet-era collective, centralized decision making in mind, calls for the defense minister and the chief of the military’s general staff to be looped in on any orders by the country’s leader to use nuclear weapons, giving them an opportunity to influence the decision. (Experts think each of these figures possesses a Cheget, Russia’s rough equivalent of the American “nuclear football,” though whether all three briefcases are needed to transmit a nuclear-launch order is unclear.) If, as some speculate he might in the course of the conflict in Ukraine, Putin were to reach for his tactical nuclear weapons—a lower-yield, shorter-range variety that can be deployed on the battlefield—he would need to remove them from storage and prepare them for use in a relatively protracted process that would ostensibly involve more consultations. But given the degree to which Putin has recently concentrated power, it appears that no actor in the Russian system would actually be able to veto a presidential decision to use nuclear weapons. Podvig told me that any Russian plan to employ nuclear weapons would likely have to first be developed by military officials, who would thus “have a chance to offer their opinion [and] raise objections.” Nevertheless, he added, “ultimately they are there to carry out orders, not to dispute them.” Were Russia to come under attack, its system calls for solid confirmation of such an offensive to initiate retaliatory nuclear strikes, he explained, “but when it comes to a deliberate [Russian] first strike [with nuclear weapons], most safeguards could be circumvented.”

Millions dead within minutes of a Russia-US nuclear war

ICAN Campaign, September 18, 2019,, New Study on US-Russia nuclear war: 91.5 million casualties in first few hours

34.1 million people could die, and another 57.4 million could be injured, within the first few hours of the start of a nuclear war between Russia and the United States triggered by one low-yield nuclear weapon, according to a new simulation by researcher’s at Princeton‘s Science and Global Security programme. But that’s not all. The overall death toll would be even higher due to long-term consequences of a nuclear war, including radioactive fallout and global cooling of the Earth’s atmosphere, researchers add. Even a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could put one billion people at risk of starvation and another 1.3 billion at risk of severe food insecurity due to global cooling, according to a 2013 study by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The Princeton simulation, ironically entitled “Plan A,” comes as the United States works to develop brand new low-yield nuclear weapons, despite the opposition of leading Democratic members of Congress, and demonstrates that even lower-yield nuclear weapons can have devastating consequences. The researchers used independent assessments of current U.S. and Russian nuclear force postures, including the number of warheads deployed and their yields, war plans and targets to create the simulation. Equally alarming as the casualty toll of this nuclear war simulation is the growing probability that it becomes a reality. “The risk of nuclear war has increased dramatically in the past two years as the United States and Russia have abandoned long-standing nuclear arms control treaties, started to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons and expanded the circumstances in which they might use nuclear weapons,” wrote the Princeton researchers on the project website. “‘Plan A’ shows that there is no sane plan once a nuclear weapon is launched,” said Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Policy and Research Coordinator at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. “A better plan is to reject nightmare nuclear scenarios and support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”