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Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear War

The Health Effects of Nuclear War:

When a nuclear bomb explodes, fission products are produced. Many of those fission products are radioactive.  There are 3 major effects: blast (as any bomb), heat and radioactive fallout.

Scaling up the known effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs can provide us with an estimate of the likely fatality figures resulting from the explosion of a one megaton bomb (which is 75 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb and common in today’s nuclear arsenals.). The total number of deaths comes out at around 8 million – but this would depend on the distance between the centre of the bomb blast and a centre of population. It would also depend on the altitude of the detonation and the extent of global effects due to radioactive fallout.

The explosion of a one megaton bomb would produce around 60kg of fission products most of which would be carried into the atmosphere resulting in the familiar mushroom cloud. These fission products pose a danger to humans when they return to earth as radioactive fallout.

In Hiroshima the atomic bomb exploded close to the centre of the city and victims who were nearby but escaped falling debris, burning or secondary injuries, became ill within 2 or 3 days with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and hair loss. Most died within a week.

Longer term health effects:

In the 1960’s incidences of cancer amongst Hiroshima survivors began to increase –most notably in the incidence of thyroid cancer and leukaemia. Some scientific studies suggested that the incidence of leukaemia was in proportion to the dose of radiation to which the victims were exposed. However cancers caused by fallout are very difficult to distinguish from cancers due to other causes – and this has led some scientists to question the fatality figures resulting directly from exposure to radioactive fallout.

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Burns victim from the Hiroshima blast, 1945

Nuclear test blast

Nuclear test blast

Question: There are undeniably horrific consequences of exploding a nuclear bomb close to a population centre,. Is it right for scientists to be arguing over the fatality figures in this way?