“The Destruction of Humanity by Nuclear Weapons is a Science Fiction Scenario”

How do you react to the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday 1st?er August That we’ve never been closer to nuclear war since the height of the Cold War?

Indeed since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the global geopolitical situation has been so uncertain that it cannot be predicted. However, regarding the nuclear danger, I believe that the heads of state of the nuclear powers are responsible enough to do nothing. Nuclear weapons are often part of deterrence forces and are not intended to be used offensively. They make it possible to create mutual fear between the combatants. This is especially the case in France. And at the global level, this too seems to be accepted by all. For example, Vladimir Putin announced on Monday that he has no intention of using nuclear weapons. We must be aware that no one wins a nuclear war. The people will suffer as well as the powerful.

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Aren’t we in denial about the dangers of nuclear conflagration? Why is threat always experienced as abstract?

I do not believe at all that we are in denial about the dangers of nuclear conflagration. On the contrary, it seems to me that we are all very aware of the nuclear risks. Moreover, the media deal with it very regularly, especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. It is the only risk for which so many treaties, conventions, independent bodies (international and national), laws and regulations have been created since the end of World War II. For everyone, nuclear disasters (both bombs and accidents at nuclear power plants) are unforgettable. Nevertheless, we trust organizations such as the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) or the ASN (Nuclear Safety Agency) and the regulatory framework with which countries and nuclear operators must comply. And I believe we are right.

In comparison, are chemical and biological weapons less dangerous and better controlled? Not sure and I think they are much stronger. On another note, natural hazards are also extremely deadly. Earthquakes, floods, tsunamis have claimed many lives in human history. However, we are not denying it. We know they exist, they can affect us. We organize ourselves by applying prevention and population protection strategies. In France, two-thirds of municipalities face at least one natural hazard.

Finally, let’s not forget the risks associated with pandemics. At last count, Covid has already killed more than 6 million people, far more than the deaths caused by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

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Nuclear War: “All it takes is one accident…”

But isn’t living with a nuclear arsenal over your head living with a growing threat?

Living with any weapon is a risk and can lead to a fatal escalation. Since the beginning of humanity, people have not stopped making weapons mainly for two purposes: to protect themselves and to conquer territory and wealth.

As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, their production and use are regulated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970 and is today ratified by 191 countries (including the United States and Russia) and is responsible for implementation by the IAEA. Four countries have not signed it: India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan.

Regarding chemical and biological weapons, there are two conventions: one for the prohibition of chemical weapons (CIAC) and one for the prohibition of biological weapons (CIAB). The first came into effect in 1997 and the second in 1975 But these two conventions still lack bodies responsible for verifying the implementation of the texts, such as the IAEA

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Some envision nuclear war as the destruction of humanity. But could not a “graduate” nuclear war? “Surgical” nuclear attack?

Military tactics may be based on the use of weak nuclear weapons whose damage may be limited to cities. Some countries have developed such weapons as, for example, “Theatrical Nuclear Weapons” [forces nucléaires conçues pour des missions militaires localisées] Operational nuclear weapons developed by the United States or developed by Russia. However, such tactics can quickly lead to escalation of nuclear attacks and hence a catastrophic escape. But when we talk about the destruction of humanity, we are referring to the use of the entire nuclear arsenal of the world. They are like the script of a sci-fi movie.

What are the very concrete effects of a nuclear weapon explosion?

The first effect of a nuclear weapon detonation is similar to that of a conventional weapon: it is a combination of the detonation and the temperature rise above 7000 degrees Celsius (followed by firestorms, massive fires) called fireballs. The explosion then creates a shock wave that will destroy structures a distance proportional to the force of the bomb. For example, a 1 kiloton bomb produces a fireball with a diameter of approximately 60 meters and damages over approximately 2 kilometers.

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The effects of radioactivity are the effects of extremely high doses of ionizing radiation, immediately fatal to people present at the impact site and who would not have died from the heat and explosion of the explosion. It is direct radiation. Long-term health problems are likely for those who were not in the vicinity of the blast site (depending on the radius of action of the bomb). So there are two elements that are not of the same nature as a conventional weapon: one, during the explosion with strong radioactivity due to short-lived radionuclides and the other later, when the radioactivity spreads and falls to the ground with long-lived and less harmful radionuclides.

But it should be noted that the initial damage is the same as a conventional bomb. On the other hand, over longer time scales, the consequences of exclusion zones (areas contaminated by radioactive contamination) and nuclear accidents or explosions can be significant.

Is nuclear danger really threatening us?

In 2018, American geographer Jared Diamond, known for his book titled “The Fall”, announced that among the major threats to humanity, in his opinion, nuclear war came before climate change. what do you think

I don’t agree with that. Global warming will be far more destructive than war, regardless of the weapon used. If we don’t do something at the global level, if we don’t rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and especially CO2 across the planet, not only people, but also plants and biodiversity will be wiped out. We need to start today to achieve carbon neutrality as quickly as possible, and at a global level. All industrialized countries, of which France is one, must set an example by finding solutions adapted to all countries.

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Just to set the tone: Between 1945 and 1980, there were more than 500 atmospheric nuclear tests worldwide, almost all of which were located in the Northern Hemisphere. A nuclear test is the detonation of an atomic bomb for experimental purposes. As a result, we are all born under the fallout of radioactive nuclei released during nuclear testing. It did not destroy life.

Emmanuel Galichet, Organic Express

Emmanuel Galichet is a Doctor of Nuclear Physics and a Cnam Teacher-Researcher in Nuclear Science and Technology. Today, he is responsible for nuclear science and technology education at Cnam.

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