Tweeting that the United States must "greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability," then stating during a phone conversation "Let it be an arms race," President-elect Donald Trump has flippantly elevated the nuclear stakes ("Trump's comments on nuclear weapons rattle U.S. officials and foreign leaders," Dec. 23). If our president-elect is taken literally, then the world might be about to start a new nuclear arms race, thereby moving in the wrong direction on the "Doomsday Clock," the symbol used by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to represent how close the world is to catastrophe. As a physician and someone who grew up during the first arms race, I can't be silent as this insane possibility starts to take shape. Concerned physicians and scientists must remind the country of the facts associated with nuclear war. So here goes.
The 12.5 kiloton bomb that was exploded 580 meters over Hiroshima killed approximately 100,000 people (although estimates range widely). The U.S. Minuteman land-based ICBMs, of which we will have 400 after the New START treaty is implemented, carry 300 kiloton nuclear warheads. The Russians have at least 300 ICBMs that can carry 1,040 nuclear warheads ranging from 100 to 800 kilotons. There are also plenty of nuclear warheads carried by long range bombers and nuclear submarines on both sides. And there are other countries with nuclear arsenals including France, Great Britain, China, Pakistan, India, Israel and possibly North Korea.
What does a single fission nuclear bomb do when it explodes? It causes 1) an initial blast wave, 2) an electromagnetic pulse, 3) a thermal wave, 4) initial radiation, and 5) local and global radioactive fallout. The blast wave forces gas to travel at supersonic speeds (greater than 750 miles per hour) in a circle surrounding ground zero, destroying all buildings, trees and people in its wake for miles. Those people who don't get directly injured from the blast will be mortally wounded by flying debris. The electromagnetic pulse is a short duration radio wave that would damage electronic devices over an enormous area, possibly hundreds of miles, thereby disrupting all modern communication. The thermal wave occurs as the bomb heats to 10,000,000 degrees Kelvin and then rapidly cools. It will cause extensive severe (3rd degree) burns to people and animals for miles around, and depending on the location, the wave will have the potential to initiate enormous secondary fires. The light associated with the thermal blast will cause retinal burns in anyone looking directly at the blast. Initial radiation will cause death (in the case of a one megaton bomb) over an area of 13.6 square miles. Fallout radiation, the result of the fission products and the uranium and plutonium that doesn't get destroyed in the fission process, will be dispersed downwind of ground zero and will dramatically increase cancer rates and damage immune systems in survivors remote to the blast. In the case of multiple bombs causing multiple radiation events, the food supply around the world will be damaged or destroyed by this radiation, thereby adding starvation to the list of devastating secondary effects of a nuclear exchange.
How could the medical community respond to a nuclear war? In a nutshell, there is no possible response. There would be no hospitals remaining in the immediate area, no skilled physicians and nurses, and no medical supplies, even including morphine for the dying who would be suffering incredible pain from blast and burn injuries. There would be no transportation capability to move casualties. There would be severely limited food and water. Among survivors further away, there would be incredible risks for infectious disease spread by mosquitoes and other vectors.
If multiple nuclear bombs are used concurrently, then there is the possibility of a nuclear winter, with dramatic cooling of the planet, mass extinction of animal and plant species, and of course destruction of civilization and the world as we know it.
All of what is stated above are facts based on the principles of physics, chemistry and biology. There can be no argument about this. Although the severity might be different under different scenarios, one cannot deny the ultimate truth that nuclear war poses a grave and present threat to our planet.
Now comes the opinion. Tweeting about nuclear capability expansion and nonchalantly inviting a new arms race are incredibly irresponsible acts on the part of anybody, let alone the president elect. These statements are dangerous and absurd given the truth about the medical consequences of nuclear war. It also represents an almost schizophrenic posture when at the same time the president elect is making unprecedented overtures to the president of Russia, another rather unpredictable figure on the international stage. These behaviors set bad examples and have the potential to make the world much less safe with regard to calculated nuclear strikes, let alone the potential for an accidental start of a nuclear conflict, or a conflict initiated by other unstable leaders. These actions have to be called out immediately as incredibly reckless. The time is now to make sure that saner voices are heard lest we find ourselves walking as lemmings over the nuclear cliff.
Dr. Peter H. Gorman, Baltimore
The writer is an associate professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.