Sean Anthony Pulsifer
Mrs. Karen Yeager
Advanced Composition 12
3 December 1999
Nuclear Weapons: Scars on the Earth
Nuclear weapons have a long-lasting and devastating effect on the world for many years after an initial explosion. Fallout from United States atmospheric testing from 1945 to 1963 killed an estimated 70,000 to 800,000 people worldwide. People who have worked in the early nuclear weapons programs have been exposed to significant amounts of radiation (Schwartz 395).
When a nuclear weapon goes off, there are four basic types of explosions: air bursts, surface blast, subsurface burst, and high altitude burst.
An air burst occurs when a weapon is detonated at a height so the fireball does not reach the surface of the earth (Effects Nuclear Explosions). When the shock wave hits the ground, the first wave will “bounce” off to create a second wave. When the blast is higher off the ground, the initial shock wave will be weaker, but will effect a larger area (5.0 Effects Nuclear Weapons). By varying the altitude of the explosion, one can change the blast effects, thermal effects, and radiation effects. Although initially radiation will be a hazard, but the fallout hazard will be almost zero.
A surface burst occurs when a bomb is detonated on or slightly above the earth. Under these conditions, the fireball will encounter the earth. As opposed to air bursts, fallout can be a hazard (Effects Nuclear Explosions). In a surface blast, the shock wave will travel better through the ground (5.0 Effects Nuclear Weapons).
A subsurface burst occurs when the bomb goes off underneath the land or under the water (Effects Nuclear Explosions).In a subsurface water explosion, water would be what a person would see. In addition, the shock wave a person would see will be carrying up to 5% of the total energy. Waves formed from the blast would be upwards of ten meters high and travel for hundreds of miles. If were to crash into a harbor or estuaries, it would cause massive destruction (Pittock 13). Usually a crater will be the result. A result of a subsurface blast will be very heavy local fallout radiation (Effects Nuclear Explosions). A subsurface bomb will also cut thermal radiation to zero (5.0 Effects Nuclear Weapons).
A high altitude burst occurs when the blast is over 30 kilometers high. The fireball from a high altitude burst will be large and travel much faster. The radiation from the blast could travel for hundreds of miles, therefore contaminating a large area. A blast like this could create an intense electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which will destroy anything electronic (Effects Nuclear Explosions).
The blast wave is formed from very high temperatures and moves away from the center of the ground-zero. While expanding, the peaks pressure decreases, and the propagation goes down from the supersonic speed. Most of the destruction from a nuclear blast is from the blast effects. The range of the blast will determine the explosive yield of the weapon (5.0 Effects Nuclear Weapons).
There are many sources for nuclear radiation such as initial radiation, residual radiation, and fallout.
About 5% of all of the energy from a nuclear explosion are in the form of initial radiation. Intensity from the blast will go down very rapidly with distance from the blast, because of the large area fallout will travel.
Residual radiation comes in three forms: fission products, unfissioned nuclear material, and neutron-induced activity. There are more than 300 fission products. Most of these have very short half-lives. However, some of them have half-lives that can be month or years. Unfissioned nuclear material would be some uranium or plutonium that does not undergo fission and are dispersed from the explosion. Neutron-induced activity happens when nuclei are exposed to a major change of neutron radiation, thus making them radioactive. A small area around ground-zero would be the most likely candidate for neutron-induced activity.
Perhaps one of the most deadly effects of a nuclear blast would be fallout. Fallout comes in three major forms: Worldwide fallout, local fallout, and meteorological effects. Worldwide fallout occurs after a nuclear blast and small particles are drawn up into the atmosphere and will travel by atmospheric winds and settle on the earth. There is a long-term danger of worldwide fallout because of the isotopes strontium-90 and cesium-137, which have a very long half-life. These will enter the body from food that has been contaminated with these two radioactive isotopes. In a surface blast, large amounts of debris will be vaporized by the intense heat of the fireball and be sucked up into the radioactive cloud. By doing this, the material will become radioactive and fall back to the earth as local fallout. When a person stays in a contaminated area, they will be affected by radiation. Meteorological effects will effect fallout, most likely local fallout. Some factors from meteorological effects that could accelerate local fallout would be snow and rain (Effects Nuclear Explosions).
The fireball is the ball of gas created when a nuclear device is detonated. The blast heats the surrounding area to a super-high temperature. As soon as the reaction takes place, the energy is concentrated in the fuels. Thermal or blackbody radiation is emitted by every piece of matter. The first “pieces’ of energy to escape the explosion are gamma rays. These gamma rays travel at the speed of light, therefore ionizing the air and making “smog” around ground-zero several meters deep. As the fireball cools, the temperature cools and transporting energy drops.
Injuries from the blast can be very deadly. Thermal injury occurs when the skin goes through an intense heating causing injuries “flash burns.” When a person gets a first-degree flash burn, no tissue destruction occurs. Getting a first degree flash burn is just like having mild sunburn. Second degree flash burns will cause damage to the dermal tissue. Third degree flash burns kill tissue all through the skin. If a person has third degree flash burns over 25% of his or her body, he or she will go into shock in minutes. Fourth and fifth degree flash burns are possible. These will destroy tissue, muscle, and connective tissue. In Hiroshima most of the people near ground-zero received forth and fifth degree burns.
Eye injury occurs when the cornea surface goes through a heating process. This can happen when a person glances reflexively to the bright light a nuclear blast makes (5.0 Effects Nuclear Weapons). The initial flash of light causes flashblindness from the explosion. Retinal scarring is a permanent burn from concentrated thermal energy. The size of a fireball, the yield of the bomb, and the distance from the explosion will determine the degree of the burn. However, retinal burns are rare because the fireball has to be in the person’s direct field of vision (Biological Effects Explosion).
At the vaporization point, everything is destroyed. The overpressure is 25 psi (pounds per square inch), wind velocity is 320 miles per hour, and 98% of the people will die. At the total destruction point, all above ground buildings are destroyed. The overpressure is 17 psi, wind velocity is 290 miles per hour, and 90% of the people will die. Severe blast damage will cause factories and other large buildings to collapse. The overpressure is 9 psi and the wind velocity at 260 miles per hour. At this distance, 65%of people will die and 35% will be injured. Severe heat damage will cause all flammable things to burn. The overpressure will be 6 psi and the wind velocity is 140 miles per hour. About 50% the people will die and 45 % will be injured. Severe fire & wind damage will cause houses to be severely damaged. The overpressure is 3 psi and the wind velocity is 98 miles per hour. About 15% of the people will die and 50% will be injured at this distance (Note Radiation Damage).
A human can typically take up to 5000 rems (roentgen equivalent man) of radiation at one time, although this causes permanent damage (5.0 Effects Nuclear Weapons). As opposed to some other insects that that can take varying amounts of radiation. A butterfly can take 100 rems. A firefly will take up to 300 rems. The common earthworm will withstand up to 600 rems. The toad will die at 800 rems. However, the champion of handling radiation is the cockroach; he can take up to 1500 rems (Langer 32).
As for humans, 100 rems will cause no obvious sickness, although changes in blood cells will start at 25 rems. At 80 rems males have a 50% chance of temporary sterility. From 100-200, rems mild symptoms will occur. Some typical effects are vomiting and nausea. At 200-400 rems significant mortality sets in. Nausea is universal at 300 rems, and some symptoms at this level include:50% chance of hair loss, malaise, and hemorrhage of the mouth. White blood cell count will decrease causing susceptibility to infectious disease, which becomes a very serious issue. At 400-600rems mortality rates take a sharp increase. At 600-1000 rems, surviving depends on how fast a person can get medical attention. Bone marrow transfusions are necessary, because the bone marrow has been completely destroyed. At 1000-5000 rems, death is certain within 2-10 days. Exposure above 5000 rems will disrupt the metabolic system causing a coma. The victim will die within 48 hours. The normal dosage of rems for humans is .18 rems per year (5.0 Effects Nuclear Weapons).
A worst case scenario of a nuclear exchange would be a nuclear winter. A nuclear winter occurs when a bomb goes off, causing dust to fly up and block out the sun light. The worst case of nuclear winter would be a Case 9. This would occur when three-quarters of each superpowers weapons are shot off instantaneously, although this is unlike to happen. The results of this would be horrific. In a 10,000 MT (mega-ton) case, the air temperature world wide would be lowered to about -53oF for several months (Child 64,68).
One of the main effects of nuclear war on the biosphere would be fire. The fires can be classified into three groups lower, upper, and underground. The lower group would consist of moss, grass, forest litter, and fallen branches. These types of fires would be the most widespread. The upper group is made up of trees, and the grass cover of the soil. In an underground fire, most of what is being burned is the tree roots (Svirezhev 33).
Fires can also be started indirectly, by means of blast damage. This would be caused by damage caused to gas line, water heaters, and furnaces. However, a significant amount of material must burn for a long period before it would be self-sustaining (Harris 36).
After a nuclear war, food supplies would be at a low level Crops would be weaker against fighting diseases, and the temperature change from a possible “nuclear winter” would kill of some of the crops. As the years would go on, crops would be exploited, causing them to shorten their long-term productivity (Harwell 476-477)
Post-war effects would have little effect on the arctic ecosystem because they are used to the cold weather. Plants would most likely go into a dormant state brought upon by the cold weather. This would cause most herbivores to perish because there would simply be not enough food. In fact, some animals could become extinct.
The forest ecosystem would be hit the hardest. This ecosystem would have to deal with fire, cold, drought, radiation, and locally high concentration of highly toxic gases. If the attack were to be in the winter, most trees would be in their dormant stage and might be able to withstand these conditions. In the southern regions, trees would not be ready for the sudden onslaught of the cold weather. Approximately one to three quarters of the plants would die from the cold weather.
In a tropical ecosystem, the effects would be devastating. The temperatures are relatively constant. Precipitation would be reduced from 25%-100% and light levels could be down to just 10%. One other effect would be increased likelihood of increased hurricane activity.
Ozone depletions from the ultraviolet-radiation would reach as high as 20%-30% in a short amount of time. UV-B rays can be absorbed by DNA, thereby damaging them beyond repair. Among humans, increased UV-B exposure would lead to skin diseases, eye diseases, and changes in the immune system (Dotto 94-96, 105-106).
As of just a few years ago, the United States has been spending over two billion dollars on nuclear weapon projects and programs (Schwartz 588). However, is this nation making the right choice by spending a tremendous amount of money on these programs? The writer of this paper would like to close with a quote: “There is no safe level of radiation exposure. So the question is not: What is a safe level? The question is: How great is the Risk”? Karl Z. Morgan
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