Nuclear War Could Devastate US, Even if No One Shoots Back

Washington could only safely use a fraction of its arsenal without killing Americans with an unintended adverse series of cascading environmental effects, writes Joshua M. Pearce.

The U.S. has thousands of nuclear weapons stockpiled. (3d generator/

By Joshua M. Pearce
The Conversation 

The White House’s 2021 budget calls for $28.9 billion for the Pentagon for nuclear weapons and a 20 percent increase to $19.8 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Yet the U.S. already has over 3,000 nuclear weapons. And my research shows that the U.S. could only safely use a fraction of them without killing Americans with an unintended adverse series of cascading environmental effects.

My models and those of others show that soot from the burning of cities following numerous nuclear blasts would cause a significant drop in global temperature, blocking the sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface. This would cause a drop in precipitation, increased ultraviolet radiation resulting from a badly damaged atmosphere, and a breakdown in supply chains and food production.

The study my colleague, David Denkenberger, and I did shows how damaging a nuclear attack using several nuclear weapons would be for the aggressor nation.

Nuclear Winter Versus Nuclear Autumn

You have probably heard of nuclear winter.” That’s when multiple nuclear weapon strikes cause cities to burn, putting massive amounts of smoke into the upper atmosphere and blocking sunlight for years. The resultant agricultural loss would cause massive global starvation.

The science behind nuclear winter influenced Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. president Ronald Reagan  to end the Cold War and begin nuclear disarmament.

The agricultural loss from the less-known “nuclear autumn” – meaning a smaller amount of smoke – would range from a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in global agriculture. That’s enough to cause widespread food shortages, still causing many millions of people to starve.

Every nation willing to use its nuclear weaponry must determine whether it has the ability to survive the problems of its own making. Nations with nuclear weapons all ascribe to the concept of nuclear deterrence – the idea that more nuclear firepower is intimidating and makes other countries think twice before picking a fight.

My colleague and I wanted to know: How many nuclear weapons could a country use against an enemy without causing a nuclear autumn and killing their own people?

Simulating Nuclear War

First, we determined how many nuclear weapons would be enough to provide substantial deterrence for a “worst case” enemy – the most populous target nation. We looked at the threat posed by a number of different countries, from those with around 100 weapons, like India or Pakistan, to Russia, which has about 7,000.

We estimated that, if 100 nuclear weapons hit China’s most populous cities, initial blasts would kill more than 30 million people. This would kill a higher fraction of the population than even severe pandemics, destroy China’s economy and would almost certainly destabilize its political system.

It would be even worse for any smaller country — providing plenty of deterrence to prevent any other nation from attacking.

Next, we looked at the impacts on the nuclear aggressor. We optimistically assumed no accidents; all nuclear weapons hitting their targets, whether that was 100, 1,000 or 7,000; and no retaliation of any kind.

We built a model of the burnable material in cities: how much would burn in a nuclear attack, how much of that would turn into smoke, how much of that smoke would make it into the upper atmosphere. Then, we used the result of climate and crop simulations to predict the impact on food supply. Finally, we coupled this with food storage to predict how many people would starve.

Our results showed no Americans would die in the scenario of the U.S. using 100 weapons. The U.S. is blessed with a large amount of agricultural land compared to the population, so the country is resilient to industrial loss and mild nuclear autumn if Americans cooperate and share resources.

If Americans used 1,000 nuclear warheads against an enemy and no one retaliated, the U.S. would see about 140,000 Americans die, due to the burning of cities in other countries, causing environmental catastrophe at home from lower food production.

If the U.S. attempts to expand our stockpile as recently proposed and then used 7,000 nuclear weapons, even if everything went perfectly our way, at minimum 5 million Americans would starve.

This analysis severely underestimates the number of dead Americans, since we assume severe rationing, which is the best way to keep the most people alive when there is this level of food shortage without alternative food.

Current Arsenals

Compared to other nations, if the U.S. used its entire current nuclear arsenal, it is the best case for surviving nuclear autumn – losses to industry and a 10 percent food shortfall. Other countries are far worse off.

If a country with fewer weapons, like North Korea or Israel, fired off relatively few nuclear weapons and triggered nuclear autumn and were not hit by any in return or suffer retaliation, they would be harming themselves. Our model shows that they would lose 60 percent and 80 percent of their populations, respectively.

China would expect to lose 70 percent of its population in a nuclear autumn, even if they were the ones lobbing the missiles.

Overall, we found that limiting America’s arsenal to 100 nuclear weapons still provides nuclear deterrence, but avoids the worst of the probable effects of a nuclear autumn. It is clear by cutting down on nuclear weapons, the U.S. actually would save money making the safe decision. 

Joshua M. Pearce is professor of materials science and engineering; and electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Technological University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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20 comments for “Nuclear War Could Devastate US, Even if No One Shoots Back

  1. March 16, 2020 at 21:45

    Nukes and the ozone layer. Have a look:

  2. David Otness
    March 16, 2020 at 09:55

    Just look at us. In all of our genocidal psychopathy.
    We live under a military-industrial junta, a regime that does not answer to humanity for humanity’s sake.
    Nor to our voting.
    Look at us.

  3. Mark Thomason
    March 14, 2020 at 10:37

    All true, yet it does not mention nuclear fall out. Any significant use of nuclear weapons would put that fall out into the upper atmosphere, over all of us. It would be like Chernobyl, but hundreds of times worse.

  4. SteveK9
    March 14, 2020 at 10:22

    Not to worry, Russia and China will indeed ‘shoot back’ … so it won’t be a slow, but a very quick death for most Americans …

    This has been true, and will always be true, which is why nuclear war is only contemplated by idiots.

  5. lexx
    March 14, 2020 at 09:52

    if Americans cooperate and share resources.
    good luck with that
    the wealthy will grab what they can and some with guns will too
    severe rationing, which is the best way to keep the most people alive when there is this level of food shortage without alternative food.
    the wealthy will happily let the poor die 30 million of them at least

  6. Dave
    March 14, 2020 at 09:22

    1 in 24 rockets doesn’t work, blows up on the pad, has to be destroyed in boost phase, etc. so a nuclear attack by the US would contaminate the country with radiation.

  7. peter mcloughlin
    March 14, 2020 at 05:30

    “…Limiting America’s arsenal to 100 nuclear weapons still provides nuclear deterrence.”
    Except it is not the nuclear weapons that ultimately provide the deterrence, it is the ability of governments to prevent the scenarios where the use of these WMD will have to be resorted to. They did manage to contain this in the Cold War. We are in a far more unstable world now, and heading for the very war we seek to avoid.

  8. geeyp
    March 13, 2020 at 23:47

    Those of us who paid attention have known this since 1970. Any use of nukes would affect the entire planet and this study is so hypothetical that it renders it null and void on the reality of this. Saying “no Americans would die in the scenario of the US using 100 weapons” (nukes) is just propaganda.

  9. Luke
    March 13, 2020 at 13:12

    Interesting research, but why stop half-way?
    Why not add retaliation of 100/1000/7000?
    That should define “deterrence” pretty well.

  10. elmerfudzie
    March 13, 2020 at 12:07

    Targeting nuclear power plants with atomic weapons was considered an option at one time. Chernobyl, written by Yablokov, V.B. and Alexey V. Nestereko demonstrated that the ground-shine resulting from an average atomic blast is next to nothing, in strict terms of environmental impact, when compared to a hundred or so fission products vaporized by the destruction of commercial reactor cores. The sheer varieties of radioactive materials, blanketed almost all of Europe. Practically every exposed living thing was carefully analyzed and the results documented. Yablokov shows an inconceivable penetration of these isotopes, both short and long half life’s, their invasion into many natural life cycles. These facts support comments made by peace advocate and physician, Helen Caldicott, I’d never eat any food in Europe!

    The International Journal of Health Services shows that the Fukushima disaster initially killed 14,000 Americans from fallout. Visit Trancend Media Service for details. The depositions containing radioactive Iodine and Cesium, among others blanketed the State of Washington, lest we not forget the contamination of a greater portion of Pacific Ocean and what will evolve into long term bio-concentration in fish (tuna). Fukushima debris continues to wash up on the black sands of San Fransisco’s shore line and elsewhere along the American Pacific coast.

    Debris resulting from a surface or low air burst from a bomb smaller than one hundred kilotons (Obama’s new mini nuke program) would not rise above 30,000 feet or so. Over the course of a few weeks, there’s a good chance of washout during precipitation. In this case, fallout will have very high concentrations of I 131 and can drift thousands of miles from the point of detonation, even tho the I 131 half life is eight days. In a scenario where a nuclear power plant is hit, the airborne concentration of radioactive Cesium, Strontium and Iodine would be magnified many, many times. Fission products resulting from atomic weapon detonation is far less complex than plant core isotopes however combined together during atomic war, the horrible consequences are now obvious.

  11. March 13, 2020 at 09:16

    After seeing the horrors of nuclear explosions during WW2, any nuclear war is unthinkable. The current nuclear arsenal is hundreds of times lethal than those nuclear explosions. Using these weapons by any nation is like suicide by human race.

  12. Tony
    March 13, 2020 at 08:03

    If Ronald Reagan were still around I think he would be appalled that nuclear weapons still existed.

    It was not always obvious at the time but Reagan was somebody who had a great fear of nuclear war and a strong dislike of nuclear weapons.

    His speech to the Republican Convention in 1976 illustrates the point very well. As far as we know, these are his own words rather than those of a speechwriter. Here is an extract:

    “And then again there is that challenge, which he spoke, that we live in a world in which the great powers have poised and aimed at each other horrible missiles of destruction, nuclear weapons that can in a matter of minutes arrive in each other’s country and destroy virtually the civilized world we live in.

    And suddenly it dawned on me: Those who would read this letter (placed in a bicentennial time capsule) a hundred years from now will know whether those missiles were fired. They will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedom that we have known up until now, will depend on what we do here. Will they look back in appreciation and say thank God, for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now a hundred years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction, and if we fail, they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.

    The situation that we face today is very much unchanged from the very moving situation that Reagan warned us about in 1976.

    We must renew our efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. A first step should be to tell President Trump to renew the START treaty rather than let it lapse next year.
    Every former Republican Secretary of State supported the ratification of that treaty. He can then go ahead and negotiate a successor treaty of his own.

    But there is much more that can be done too. Does your bank lend money to companies that make nuclear weapons? Visit the Don’t Bank on the Bomb website to find out and how you can get them to stop.

    We all need to act as if our very survival depended on it for the simple reason that it actually does.

    Thank you.

    • OlyaPola
      March 16, 2020 at 12:48

      “We must renew our efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. A first step should be to tell President Trump to renew the START treaty rather than let it lapse next year.”

      Those immersed in the spectacle typically seek to change aspects of the spectacle using a component of the spectacle.
      This leads to seeking to address symptoms sometimes perceived as causes thereby not perceiving and not addressing causes.

      A useful case study illustrating such revolutions around a fixed point is the “gun debate”, and this is also applies to the “nuclear weapons debate.”

      The portal to transcend revolutions around a fixed point is often entered through the questions – Why ?

      Why does “The United States of America” have nuclear weapons ?
      Why did “The United States of America” use nuclear weapons ?
      Why does “the United States of America” seek to increase emphases on “tactical nuclear weapons”?

      avoiding as far as possible emulating “We the people hold these truths to be self-evidentness” which facilitated many revolutions around a fixed point.

  13. OlyaPola
    March 13, 2020 at 07:22

    “Nuclear War Could Devastate US, Even if No One Shoots Back”

    That has been known and agreed between practicioners since at least 1984.

    The “nuclear option implementation debate” since then has primarily been about what ” a fraction of its arsenal” if any and the iteration of MAD often designated more politely as “nuclear deterrence”; Mr. Sagan’s observation on all standing in a gasoline tank, one with 3 matches and others with 2 matches applying.

    There were “meetings” from 1988 onwards during activities to “authenticate and agree” de-escalation in regard to the “Soviet Union” and “reciprocation”, including but not limited to the “Samson option”.

    Plans have always relied on attempts at coordination of multi-options/tools in belief/hope of facilitating present social relations within linear modulations/tolerances.

    Hence in differing assay present perception is partly a function including but not restricted to “what ” a fraction of its arsenal” if any and the iteration of MAD in conjunction and in parallel with other attempts at implementing multi-options/tools in attempts to facilitate present social relations within linear modulations/tolerances, not restricted to things that go bang.

  14. jdd
    March 13, 2020 at 07:21

    “If America used 1,000 nuclear warheads against an enemy and no one retaliated, etc, etc ?” Who commissioned a study based on such absurd premises.

    • Getald the Dog
      March 13, 2020 at 13:10

      The US is an absurd country. They have over 7000 nuclear warheads even though only around 2500 are available for use at anyone time. Obama spent more money on nuclear warheads than any other POTUS since the end of WWII because they realised they had 100 or so less than Russian Fedearation. I like Lavrovs quip about only needing enough to destroy the world once right! Its all show with the Yanks, a dick swinging contest. The reality is that even if the US were stupid enough to try a first strike against say the Russians the US would cease to exist as an entity due to RF response and there is absolutely zero proof that any US strike could get through Russian hypersonic umbrella.
      For sure the US is completely and utterly exposed in terms of defence with no adequate missile defence system anywhere on land or sea.
      At the end of the day even if they managed to cripple Russia the Status 6 system that Russia may or may not have deployed would ensure the nuclear annihilation of coastal America and inland for up to 100 km leaving this land saturated in Cobalt 60 for a century. The US is a busted flush in terms of it’s military and it is going to take decades and trillions that it doesn’t have to try and catch up. It is ironic that in all likelihood if they try they will bankrupt and collapse their country in the attempt, much as the USSR is said to have done in the 80s.

  15. Stevie Boy
    March 13, 2020 at 06:49

    I guess there would be other affects as well, not just environmental ones.
    For example, how much does the USA rely on overseas trade, which in the event of a nuclear attack would probably be detrimentally impacted ?
    There would be no winners.

  16. Sally Snyder
    March 13, 2020 at 06:08

    Here is an article that looks at the potential outcome of failed nuclear talks:

    Unfortunately, it is civilians that pay the high price for the ultimate failure of nations to control their nuclear arsenals.

  17. Subhuti37
    March 12, 2020 at 16:54

    *China easily has 100 million people in its top ten cities. Let alone using 100 missiles.
    *US policy includes first use, not deterrence, unlike Russia and China. Israel’s use would assume it’s not being attacked with nukes.
    * The possibility that the US could use nukes without being retaliated against is very small. Just a few EMPs that knock out the electrical grid and most devices that use electricity would result in social disintegration within a week.

    • OlyaPola
      March 13, 2020 at 12:30

      “*US policy includes first use, not deterrence, unlike Russia and China”

      It appears that you perceive distinct absolutes rather than varying assays of components interacting.

      The “US policy” of deterrence includes in some assay the hope of the belief of others in the “US policy” of first use.
      However the others “deterred” tend to be non-practitioners including their “own”(posessive case) populations, since “nuclear weapons” are in significant assay tools of attempted blackmail “targetted” to facilitate the continuation of their social relations, including their “own” population’s belief in the necessity to prepare for MAD.
      The US practice is informed by some understanding that first strike would “very likely” be a Samson option.

      Both Russia and China understand that first use would not serve their purposes given that blackmail and “nuclear winter” is antithetical to cooperation, and that first use by others would likely be a Samsom option since they could ensure that it would be made so.

      The “Israeli policy” of deterrence includes in some assay the hope of belief of others in the “Israeli policy” of first use.
      However the others “deterred” tend to be non-practitioners including their “own”(posessive case) populations, since “nuclear weapons” are in significant assay tools of attempted blackmail “targetted” to facilitate the continuation of their social relations, including their “own” population’s belief in the necessity to prepare for MAD.

      “Israel’s use would assume it’s not being attacked with nukes.”

      Israeli policy was based in some assay on the Samson option a.k.a the girl who would sit down and eat worms gambit – Massada updated – but some practitioners have suggested that that might make many people happy and hence that might not serve Israeli purposes – Mr. Sagan’s observations applying.

      Consequently in some regard both the “US and Israeli policy” are functions of fiat deemed appropriate/necessary given purpose, like many of their “activities” not limited to “currencies”, which in conjunction with notions of magic bullets, bigger/more is better, render finding the way home difficult.

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