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The nuclear nemesis

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    South Asians Against Nukes April 11, 2008 URL: groups.yahoo.com/group/SAAN_/message/1111 ... Daily Times April 12, 2008 The nuclear nemesis by Saleem H Ali The
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 11, 2008
      South Asians Against Nukes
      April 11, 2008
      URL: groups.yahoo.com/group/SAAN_/message/1111


      Daily Times
      April 12, 2008

      The nuclear nemesis

      by Saleem H Ali

      The greatest devastation can be caused by a nuclear device when it is
      actually detonated slightly above ground rather than on the ground
      itself because the damage can be dispersed more quickly

      Ten years have passed since Pakistan conducted its first fateful
      nuclear test. As if to ominously commemorate this bittersweet
      anniversary, we had the first recorded accident at a nuclear facility
      this week at Khushab in which two people were killed.

      At the time of the nuclear tests in 1998, I wrote a brief article
      about the environmental impact of a nuclear explosion which the
      Pakistani media was reluctant to cover, given the revelry of the
      hour. It is perhaps time to revisit that theme now that we are a more
      "mature" nuclear power.

      My aim here is not to argue for or against nuclear weapons but rather
      to present the facts about their impact so we can keep our vision in
      perspective. What would happen to our lives, and those of other
      organisms, if there was an above-ground nuclear explosion, either
      incidental or accidental?

      Though the probability of such an apocalyptic event is relatively
      small, the impact has the potential of being so cataclysmic that it
      warrants serious discussion. When the photographs and video footage
      of Pakistan's nuclear tests were released, the Pakistani public was
      struck with awe with the powerful glow which illumined the mountain
      under which the explosions took place. The glowing Chaghai mountain
      has been immortalised now in a rather awkward sculpture in Islamabad.

      The magnitude of even a modest nuclear explosion has not yet surfaced
      to cognition in most minds. So let us try and recount what actually
      happens when a nuclear bomb explodes, such as the 13-kiloton bomb
      which exploded over Hiroshima in 1945. Although this was a very
      primitive nuclear device, it managed to kill over 45,000 people
      within 24 hours of the blast and several generations continue to
      languish as casualties.

      Unlike conventional explosives which rely on the energy generated by
      chemical combustion, nuclear weapons rely on the extreme energy which
      is generated when an atomic reaction takes place in which one element
      is converted into another element (for example when hydrogen is
      converted to helium). The difference in the energy which is generated
      is immense. A sphere of plutonium about the size of a cricket ball is
      capable of producing an explosion equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT.

      There are basically three types of nuclear bombs which have been
      developed. The first kind are atomic bombs which use fission
      reactions, or the splitting of atomic nuclei to generate energy. This
      is the kind of bomb which was dropped by the Americans on the
      Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

      The second variety are thermonuclear devices which use an atomic
      trigger and a uranium jacket to start a fusion reaction in which
      lighter elements such as hydrogen are forced to undergo a fusion
      reaction to combine and form a heavier element. The energy liberated
      from 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) of hydrogen-isotope fuel is equivalent to that
      of about 29 kilotons of TNT, or almost three times as much as from
      the uranium in an atomic bomb. The environmental impact of both these
      bombs would, however, be similar though the magnitude would be
      greater in the case of a thermonuclear device.

      The third kind of nuclear weapon is the neutron bomb which is a
      modified thermonuclear device that does not have a uranium jacket and
      thus reduces the chance of widespread radioactive fallout. The
      neutrons generated from the thermonuclear device can, however,
      generate radioactivity within a small impact radius, killing life but
      without causing widespread fallout destruction to buildings and
      infrastructure (the neutron bomb is thus a tactical weapon).

      The greatest devastation can be caused by a nuclear device when it is
      actually detonated slightly above ground rather than on the ground
      itself because the damage can be dispersed more quickly. The
      detonation of a nuclear device about five hundred meters above land
      would first generate an enormous fireball, whose radiant energy would
      travel rapidly in all directions.

      The intense heat generated at several thousand degrees celsius would
      incinerate all organic material within seconds. Even stable
      substances such as sand would be thermally changed to glass. The
      extreme temperatures would cause otherwise harmless combustion
      processes to release deadly pyrotoxins that would travel as gaseous
      clouds beyond ground zero. For example, a woolen suit when burned at
      extreme temperatures can release enough hydrogen cyanide to kill
      seven people.

      The shockwave generated by the blast would travel at the speed of
      sound shaking the foundations of buildings and bringing them down
      within a matter of minutes. The damage radius increases with the
      power of the bomb, approximately in proportion to its cube root. If
      exploded at the optimum height, therefore, a 10-megaton weapon, which
      is 1000 times as powerful as a 10-kiloton weapon, will increase the
      distance tenfold, that is, out to 17.7 km (11 mi) for severe damage
      and 24 km(15 mi) for moderate damage.

      Meanwhile, looming over the scene would be the proverbial mushroom
      cloud. After the extreme heat of the blast has dissipated, the debris
      cloud would block sunlight, thereby decreasing the proximate
      temperature below freezing. The effect would be similar to the global
      temperature decreases which occurred in 1991 when Mount Pinatubo
      erupted in the Philippines.

      The most insidious environmental damage of a nuclear explosion would,
      however, result from the release of radioactive materials that would
      generate intensely penetrating energy capable of causing cellular
      damage for years to come. In the case of the Chernobyl disaster
      (which was not even a deliberate explosion), a study conducted by the
      US Centre for Disease Control and Yale University estimated that out
      of the 115,000 people evacuated as a consequence of the 1986
      incident, 24,000 would have a doubled risk of acquiring acute

      This discussion may seem irrelevant to many people who believe that
      since we are simply developing the weapons as a deterrent, there is
      no point in thinking about their actual use. What we must remember is
      that there is always the chance of an accident.

      Even the usually reticent US Defence Nuclear Agency has stated that
      "accidents have occurred...which released radioactive contamination
      because of fire or high explosive detonations". It is very true that
      the West has no moral authority to dictate terms of disarmament to us
      when their own record is so dismal. However, like other instances of
      colonial emulation, must we South Asians also follow in their
      footsteps when it comes to something as supremely consequential as
      nuclear weapons?

      Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the
      University of Vermont's Rubenstein School of Environment and on the
      adjunct faculty of Brown University's Watson Institute for
      International Studies. Email: saleem@...


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