Nuclear Attack

Consequences Of A Nuclear Attack

In recent months tensions surrounding the likelihood of a nuclear attack have increased. During his visit to South Korea on Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the threat of a nuclear missile attack by North Korea is accelerating. The thought of a nuclear attack anywhere in the world is a scary one, not to mention where we live. Whilst we all hope that such an attack will never become a reality we should be aware of the consequences.

What Is A Nuclear Attack?

A nuclear attack involves a device, such as nuclear warhead that creates a nuclear explosion on impact. When first thinking about how a nuclear attack could occur we often think of military missiles like North Korea’s Hwasong 14 missile. However, a nuclear attack could also be caused by an improvised nuclear device (IND). These are crude nuclear devices that are made from the components of stolen weapons. They can also be made from scratch using a nuclear material such as plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

What Is A Nuclear Explosion?

Nuclear explosions are caused by uncontrolled chain reactions that produce intense waves of heat, light, air pressure and radiation. When a nuclear missile impacts with the ground, the explosion creates radioactive particles. These particles get drawn up into a mushroom cloud that also contains dust and debris. The cloud produces nuclear fallout that can travel great distances and expose many people to radiation.

A nuclear explosion creates a fireball that can reach temperatures of tens of millions of degrees and create a shockwave that can cause significant damage to structures and cause fatalities, and injuries.

Radioactive material from the nuclear device mixes with the vaporized material in the mushroom cloud. Nuclear Fallout occurs when the vaporized radioactive material in the mushroom cloud cools. It condenses to form solid particles that fall back to the earth. The nuclear fallout can travel long distances with wind currents and can contaminate food and water supplies and surfaces miles from the explosion site.

Initial Nuclear Explosion Consequences

The size of the area a nuclear blast can impact upon will depend on the yield of the nuclear device used. It will also depend on the type of building structures at the explosion site, the altitude of the explosion, and the weather. The shockwave created by the blast will also depend on the yield of the nuclear device.

Radioactive fallout from the blast spreads in an irregular oval shaped pattern in the direction the wind is blowing. Although the most dangerous fallout would happen within minutes at the explosion site. Depending on the weather, the fallout could potentially carry lethal radiation doses hundreds of miles away. However, the concentration of radiation levels would decrease the further the fallout travels.

Secondary Nuclear Explosion Consequences

Intense heat from a nuclear explosion would produce fires throughout the immediate blast zone. The nuclear blast would damage buildings and cause power and phone line outages. In addition to this infrastructure like gas, water, roads, bridges, and tunnels would be damaged. The detonation of a nuclear blast can also produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that interferes with electronic equipment.

Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP)

A nuclear blast can create Ionization of the atmosphere which creates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). These pulses can send an electric current through underground electrical cables which result in damage to electrical systems. EMP’s can cause widespread disruption to electronic equipment and networks.

What Consequences Could A Nuclear Attack Have?

Initial nuclear radiation and radioactive fallout that settles after the blast can cause considerable death, injuries, and damage to infrastructure. An electromagnetic pulse from the explosion could also disrupt telecommunications and power distribution.

The number of injuries and fatalities that can result from a nuclear attack will depend on many factors. For example, the yield of the nuclear device, population near the blast site, the path fallout travels and weather conditions. Even a partial nuclear detonation could produce many casualties in densely populated areas.

Although the distribution varies depending on the type of nuclear weapon and the altitude of the explosion. A nuclear explosion releases energy made up of roughly:

  • 50 % Shockwave.
  • 35% Heat.
  • 5% Initial nuclear radiation.
  • 10% Fallout radiation.

During the first hour after a nuclear explosion, the radioactivity levels will start to drop steeply. Radiation levels will decrease further by around 90% after a further seven hours. It then drops to around 99% after 2 days have passed.

What Is The Risk To Health From A Nuclear Attack?

The pressure of the shockwave will cause flying debris, falling buildings and bodies being thrown and will result in many casualties. Anyone who survives the effects of the shockwave would most likely suffer adverse health effects from the radiation. The possible health effects of radiation depend on the following factors:

  • Type of radiation.
  • Length of time exposed.
  • The dose of radiation absorbed by the body.

Radiation doses are calculated in units called Rads and relate to the route of exposure (absorbed by the body, inhaled, or ingested)

Short-Term Effects On Health

The initial fireball and thermal energy from a nuclear blast can cause severe burns to the skin and eyes of survivors. If exposed to radiation levels of between 50 to100 rad, survivors may develop symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS).

ARS Symptoms can include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and reduced blood cell counts. Radiation, especially beta radiation, can cause skin burns and localized injury. Death begins to occur once the dose of radiation exposure reaches 125 rad. Once exposed to a dose of between 300 to 400 rad, around half of those exposed will die without treatment.

Radiation doses that are higher than 1000 rad, can cause people to die within hours or days. This is because the radiation attacks the central nervous system and inhibits stem-cell growth. Radiation can also result in damage to the gastrointestinal lining and to bone marrow where stem cell growth is crucial.

Fetuses are more sensitive and the radiation effects on a fetus may include growth retardation, malformations, and impaired brain function.

Long-Term Effects On Health

After the initial effects of radiation have passed, exposure to radiation can still cause long-term health issues. Ionizing radiation is carcinogenic and increases the risk of developing cancer later in life. The increased risk of cancer would be proportional to the amount radiation dose exposure. A decade or more can pass before radiation-related malignancies appear.

Survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs have a 10% increased risk of developing cancer over normal rates. Some occurring more than fifty years following first exposure.

Other long-term health effects resulting from exposure to nuclear radiation can include blood disorders, cataracts, hair loss, and keloids.

Consequences Of A Nuclear Attack – Summary

The information above talks about what could happen as a result of a nuclear attack. We also recently published an article that talks about the Practical Steps To Reduce Nuclear Attack Radiation Exposure. You can continue your research by reviewing the research credits and recommended reading links provided below.

Research Credits & Recommended Reading

Mattis says threat of nuclear attack by N.Korea accelerating


Preparing To Survive A Nuclear Attack

Radiation Emergency Assistance Center

Preparing To Survive A Nuclear Attack

Long-Term Effects on Humans

Could North Korean Missiles Reach The UK

Rad (unit)


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