ON Monday, it was 73 years to the day since an American B-29 bomber sailed across the clear blue skies of Japan to drop its deadly payload over the port city of Hiroshima.
It was the first combat use of a nuclear weapon the world had ever seen, and it resulted in the death of over 140,000 people and a global recalibration of the rules of war.
The day was marked with a memorial service at which the city’s mayor made an annual call to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This year, the call was coupled with a warning of the rise of nationalism and, in what was a clear dig at US President Donald Trump, a criticism of countries choosing to increase their nuclear arsenals.
Earlier this year, Trump pledged to expand US nuclear capabilities “far in excess of anybody else” and his updated Nuclear Posture Review had some members of Congress going so far as to label it “a roadmap for nuclear war.”
The danger of “major nuclear actors on the cusp of a new arms race” forced The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to place its famous Doomsday Clock at just two minutes to midnight, the closest to catastrophe since 1953. The group claims the increased proliferation and heightened tensions “will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions.”
The USAF dropped the first nuclear weapon to be used in conflict on the Japanese city of Hiroshima #OnThisDay in 1945. The device detonated shortly after 8am, killing around 80,000 instanty, and many more in the months and years after. pic.twitter.com/mnGATLpeeW
— Mike Stuchbery 💀🍷 (@MikeStuchbery_) August 6, 2018
Given the stark outlook and the timely warnings of Mayor Kazumi Matsui, it’s understandable if you have some questions. Here are a few keys ones to put the whole dismal situation in perspective:
Which countries have nuclear weapons?
There are nine countries in the world that currently have nuclear weapons, but two dominate when it comes to sheer numbers. Both Russia and the US stand head and shoulders above their closest competitor.
According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Russia leads the pack with 4,350 warheads in their military stockpile in 2018, while America has 3,800. Lagging way back in third place is France with only 300.
These numbers do not include retired warheads that are awaiting dismantlement. Add these, and the total inventory of Russia and the US are 6,850 and 6,450 warheads, respectively.
The remaining six countries are China, United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, India and, most recent to join the group, North Korea. In total, that makes a whopping 15,000 warheads – both retired and deployed – globally.
While that sounds like an awful lot of warheads for one small planet, the global number has actually declined significantly since peaking in 1986 during the Cold War.
The vast portion of the reduction happened in the 1990s with the pace of reduction slowing significantly over the last decade.
Despite the lower numbers, the threat isn’t any less real. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the United States and Russia maintain roughly 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high-alert status – ready to be launched within minutes of a warning.
How powerful are today’s nuclear weapons?
While the number of warheads may have decreased dramatically, the power of them has absolutely skyrocketed.
The “Little Boy” that fell on Hiroshima all those years ago, killing hundreds of thousands of people and laying waste to an entire city, would be considered small fry by today’s standards.
The energy released from the world’s first nuclear weapon used in warfare was around 15 kilotons of TNT. Compare that with the largest nuclear explosion in human history, the Russian’s Tsar Bomba, which detonated with a force of more than 5,000 kilotons or the power of 333 Hiroshimas.
The Tsar Bomba was so powerful when it was tested in 1961 in northern Russia that it reportedly almost destroyed the plane that dropped it and shattered windows as far away as Norway and Finland.
Most modern weapons are five to 25 times more powerful than the ones used in World War II, ranging from 100 to 500 kilotons.
What would happen if there was a nuclear attack?
There’s obviously a lot of variants when it comes to answering the grim questions around what a nuclear attack would mean for the world; the disparities in power being just one.
But a group of scientists in the US set out to find how many nukes you can throw before nuclear winter sets in. The research, released in the journal Safety, runs a few purely hypothetical scenarios to assess the outcome on both the target and the aggressor.
In one hypothetical scenario, if the US were to drop 100 nukes on China’s most populous cities, the initial blasts would kill an estimated 30 million people.
This “best-case scenario” in which China doesn’t retaliate would subsequently trigger a nuclear autumn, causing a one-degree Celsius temperature drop and a 10 to 20 percent drop in global food production.
The resulting famines would kill scores of people in China, but American citizens would emerge largely unscathed. If the US were to drop 1,000 or 7,000 bombs on China, however, the story would be vastly different, resulting in 140,000 and five million US deaths, respectively.
One hole in the research, however, is that the bombs used in this scenario are on par with those dropped on Hiroshima, meaning with modern day weapons, the impact would likely be significantly grimmer and further reaching.
Could a terrorist group get their hands on a nuclear weapon?
The scary prospect that a terrorist group could somehow get their hands on a warhead is a very real one that has been considered by intelligence agencies the world over.
Terrorist groups are free from many of the restrictions and fears that prevent states from launching an attack. They cannot be easily identified, and retaliation is almost impossible to carry out effectively without further damage to other states.
While a bomb is incredibly difficult, and expensive, to make independently, there is a concern that rogue nations with links to terror groups may enable access.
Pakistan, in particular, is of concern given it has radicalised elements within its military and intelligence services with links to terror groups.
There is also concern that the new kid on the nuclear block, North Korea, could sell off one of its warheads to the highest bidder.
In the digital age, the chances of a group gaining access to command computers of a nuclear power have increased. There’s a danger a group could trigger a launch or fake an early warning alert, making the military believe an attack was imminent.