A nuclear attack limited to the silos that hold the United States’ nuclear-tipped missiles would put more than 300 million people at risk of radioactive contamination. In the worst-case scenario, 4.6 million would die in the first four days of exposure.
This is what a new study on the apocalyptic theme points out, which has gone out of fashion since the end of the Cold War and is now in the news constantly, whether due to the threats made by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the context of its confrontation with the West, or due to the China’s nuclear expansion or tensions on the Korean peninsula.
It was published this Tuesday (14) by the North American magazine Scientific American, as part of a set of reports in its December edition that seeks to discourage the US government from renewing its arsenal of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). kept in onshore silos.
It forms, alongside warheads in missiles and bombs launched from airplanes and models fired by submarines, the so-called nuclear triad, which has existed since the 1960s.
In 1978, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Lew Allen Jr, created the so-called sponge theory, according to which the existence of fixed targets would force rivals, then the Soviet Union, to deploy a prohibitive quantity of their missiles to render them useless — hence the metaphor of absorption. While this occurred, planes and submarines could retaliate against the Soviets. The risk would discourage the enemy from attacking.
This scenario only envisaged the exchange of nuclear fire between military installations, destructive enough, and did not take into account what is seen as inevitable by planners: an escalation that involves cities and industries as targets — such fear kept atomic attacks in two until today, both made by the USA against Japan in World War II, in 1945.
In the Cold War, it was called the balance of terror or MAD, an acronym for mutually assured destruction, or “madman” in that language. Tensions in the world were renewed and the Pentagon announced in 2017 a plan to revitalize its entire nuclear arsenal over 30 years, estimated in current values at US$1.5 trillion (R$7.4 trillion) over 30 years.
New nuclear warheads are being designed, including for the Sentinel missile, which should replace the 400 Minuteman-3 models that sleep in silos in five states in the center-north of the country by the next decade. There were already a thousand of them, but they are limited by the last strategic arms control treaty, those that aim to end wars by obliterating large areas, suspended by Putin this year.
Scientific American had already published estimates of the dispersion of radioactive particles resulting from an attack on these bases in 1976 and 1988, and since 1990 Washington has stopped publishing such studies. So researcher Sébastien Philippe and a team from Princeton University’s Science and Global Security Program turned to computers.
Attack simulations were carried out on every day of 2021, taking into account the wind patterns on each occasion. An impact of 800 kilotons was chosen, or more than 50 Hiroshima bombs, usually associated with three explosions of powerful warheads from the Russian and Chinese arsenals, in each of the 450 US silos — 50 of which are never loaded.
In the most optimistic reading of the dispersion, in the July 1st attack, 340,000 people would die within four days from exposure to radioactivity carried by particles raised with the atomic mushrooms. In the most fatal, 4.6 million would perish after a hypothetical action on December 2. On average for the whole year, 1.4 million deaths.
Philippe calculated the most pessimistic case for each day of the year and expanded it into a map, suggesting the maximum radius of dispersion of quantities ranging from 0.001 gray, the maximum annual limit that a person can receive radiation without causing harm to their health, and 84 gray, the dose for the populations of states close to the attacked bases. Gray is equivalent to 1 joule, a measure of energy, of radiation for each kilogram of the body.
The result is a grim picture of high doses across almost all of the USA (340 million inhabitants), part of Canada (40 million in total) and northern Mexico (130 million). More than 300 million, most of them Americans, could be exposed to some potentially fatal level of radiation.
And it is a conservative simulation, given that a global nuclear war would most likely escalate into an exchange involving the destruction of capitals and important industrial centers. Philippe also remembers that there is a risk of accidents at the bases, which is not taken into account by the military.
“The Air Force needs to be much more transparent about the real risks of its ground-based nuclear missile arsenal so that the American public can make informed decisions about living with this danger for another half century,” he wrote.
In other texts in its new issue, Scientific American explores the resumption of construction of plutonium cores and life in towns near the silos in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana and North Dakota. In an editorial, the magazine concludes that it will be better if the US cancels the land leg of the nuclear triad, given the risks highlighted.
The sequence of bad news about the planet’s nuclear security seems endless, but there was one good one: the resumption of arms control talks between China and the USA, major rivals in Cold War 2.0. The topic could be discussed between the countries’ leaders, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, who are scheduled to meet this Wednesday (14).
The Chinese have, according to the Federation of American Scientists, 320 warheads. They are still far from Russia and the USA, which hold 90% of the world’s 12,500 nuclear weapons, with around 3,500 strategic weapons ready for use.