Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Those who witnessed Castle Bravo looked into Armageddon (medium.com/war-is-boring)
296 points by omarfarooq 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 214 comments

This was really when people started figuring out how bad fallout from thermonuclear bombs could be. General Fields described it most lucidly:

"If Bravo had been detonated in Washington, D.C., instead of Bikini, Fields illustrated with a diagram, that lifetime dose in the Washington-Baltimore area would have been 5,000 roentgens; in Philadelphia, more than 1,000 roentgens; in New York City, more than 500, or enough to result in death for half the population if fully exposed to all the radiation delivered. This diagram was classified secret and received very little distribution beyond the Commissioners." [1]

Image reproduced here [2].

Thermonuclear bombs are really terrifying. If one goes off and you're in the fallout zone do not go outside for at least 2 weeks. If you survive the initial blast you have about 10 minutes to get inside where you must stay. If you're still outside and it's 'snowing' ash you're already dead. More tips and tricks in [3].

Though these days, they say it's likely that a single individual or small group can have even worse impact from a basement bioterror lab.

[1] Hewlett and Holl - Atoms for Peace and War around pg 181 (free pdf history book) https://www.energy.gov/management/downloads/hewlett-and-holl...

[2] https://whatisnuclear.com/img/castle-bravo-if-on-dc.png

[3] Nuclear War Survival Skills (free pdf book) https://www.oism.org/nwss/

>>If you're still outside and it's 'snowing' ash you're already dead.

Are you sure? Even from this article - Pacific Islanders came out and even licked the "snow" curious what it is, yet only a single death is attributed to it. Shouldn't they all have died if it's as bad as you say?

Castle Bravo was the first weapon of its kind.

But moreover, many of those people likely died due to complications down the road. The US government has done a poor job of accurately tracking the deaths of even US service members years after their exposure to radiation. You might not die right then, but you'll live a significantly abridged life.

>> you're already dead

> many of those people likely died due to complications down the road

Nitpick - with that interpretation of "already dead" I was "already dead" from the day I was born.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” -Carl Sagan

The implied difference is that the radioactive fallout is an unnatural event that will directly lead to your untimely demise, while being “dead” the moment you’re born is not useful to any discussion. I thought it was pretty clear what they meant. Your interpretation is not useful for anything, so I have to assume that’s not what they meant.

I think it is relevant to understand whether "being outside in ash cloud" leads to more or less instant death (1 day - 4 weeks as is typical with acute radiation syndrome) as my interpretation of the original post implied.

Or cancer 10 years down the road (unless you die of a car accident before that, or are treated with modern transplant/chemo therapies)

Yes it’s not very precise language, but I believe the implication is death very shortly after, based on how I’ve heard similar language used in the past.

> The US government has done a poor job of accurately tracking the deaths of even US service members years after their exposure to radiation.

Meanwhile, the US performed unethical radiation experiments on its own citizens.


This one is particularly noteworthy:

> In 1957, atmospheric nuclear explosions in Nevada, which were part of Operation Plumbbob

> determined to have released enough radiation to have caused from 11,000 to 212,000 excess cases of thyroid cancer

> leading to between 1,100 and 21,000 deaths

Do you really need enemies when you have such a government looking out for your well being?

>"Do you really need enemies when you have such a government looking out for your well being?"

Governments (via their agents) of the 20th century killed more than 7x more people than were murdered by fellow civilians. This is not counting wars.

Citation requested.

60-80 million china 20 million russia 8 million germany


Rummel's numbers are considered "considerably inflated".

Rummel himself described his figures as "little more than educated guesses."

-- Wikipedia, citing Rummel, Rudolph (2003) [1997]. "Statistics of Mexican Democide: Estimates, Calculations, and Sources". Statistic of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900 (hardback ed.). Charlottesville, Virginia: Center for National Security Law, School of Law, University of Virginia; Transaction Publishers, Rutgers University. ISBN 9783825840105. Retrieved August 31, 2021 – via Freedom, Democide, War at the University of Hawaii System.


His numbers for China might also be revised downwards.

Keep in mind that this period involves war (WWII and the Chinese Communist Revolution), as well as famine (the Great Famine of 1959--61). The latter has estimates ranging from 15--55 million lives lost. It should be noted that famine was a frequent visitor to China over the previous century, with famines noted in 1810, 1811, 1846, 1849 1950--73, 1876--79, 1896--97, 1907, 1920--21, 1928--30, 1936--57, and 1942--43, prior to succession by the Communists. Most of those involved a million or more dead, several tens of millions. It might be more accurate to describe Communist China as having stopped the history of famine in the country.



At least two of those occurred during wartime.

It's difficult to differentiate between "government" and "business", particularly where the two entities are strongly interrelated, as with both the Nazi and Soviet states.

You've omitted the case of Britain, who killed off a quarter the population of a country, largely through business interests:


Estimates of deaths in the business-operated slave trade run as high as 60 million, at a time when the total global population was 500m -- 1 billion (1/16th to 1/8 of today's population, very roughly 1/6 to 1/2 that of the WWI--WWII period). Recordkeeping was not especialy precise, as contrasted to the IBM-tallied slaughter of Jews by Nazi Germany.



Discussions of who's to blame and fingering "government" gloss over far too much to be especially meaningful except in ideological debate.

> Do you really need enemies when you have such a government looking out for your well being?

To play devil's advocate some, it's not possible to know but.. how many millions of Americans would have been killed and/or subjugated if America had a timid and weak military in world war 2?

If we gave up our arms after world war 2, would the Soviet Union have tried to spread communism throughout the world and how many millions of Americans would have died as a result?

I think people are inherently tribal and conflict is inevitable. Having a strong, sometimes inept government that is mostly trying to do the right thing for their people seems to be a lot better to me than having a leader with absolute control like stalin who murdered millions intentionally.

>To play devil's advocate some, it's not possible to know but.. how many millions of Americans would have been killed and/or subjugated if America had a timid and weak military in world war 2?

None? If the idea is that the US would have been invaded by the Axis seems unlikely, as all of their goals were fairly localized to each of Germany, Italy, and Japan. I don't think the Quirin Gang confounds this speculation, but of course anything is possible when imagining alternate futures of the past. ;)

>I think people are inherently tribal and conflict is inevitable.

Yeah, apparently!

> None? If the idea is that the US would have been invaded by the Axis seems unlikely, as all of their goals were fairly localized to each of Germany, Italy, and Japan

How was conquering Russia, Europe, and Africa a local goal? How was conquering all of the indo pacific a local goal?

You honestly think Hitler would have been content to keep Europe, Russia, and Africa forever? You don't think he would have wanted to conquer more? Appeasement and naivety didn't work too well for those that used it.

Power vacuums are not imaginary concepts. Regimes will expand to fill them.

But where is the part that Americans were at risk if they didn't enter the war, presumably via some kind of invasion?

We were fighting empires that liked conquering. Is it really that hard to envision the nazis wanting to keep going? After they took Poland they told Russia, we promise we are content. Then they invaded Russia. They took land that wasn't theirs at a frightening pace. Where exactly did you see any evidence of them wanting to stop?

Fine. Correction: You *may be already dead, within 2 weeks from acute radiation syndrome. It does depend how close or far to the detonation site you are. If you're catching the first snow in the nearby vicinity of the detonation, then that's where you're in a fatal dose range, by my understanding. There may very well be snow far away that is less fatal.

During ABC (nuclear, biological, chemical) survival training in the army we were taught to dust off the snowflakes off each other as often as possible to maximize survival until the radiation zone could be left. I got the impression it was survivable for some amount of time.

We got taught the same thing in the Marines. Dawn your mask (if you have it, and the right canister -- which, probably not), lay prone with your kevlar facing the impact area (if cover cannot be found), wait for the explosion to wash over you, and begin your trek away from the blast as quickly as possible.

The right canister is any of them, most of the isotopes will be bound to dust, and anything you can do to reduce the dust you breathe in helps. Gaseous isotopes like iodine aren't that easy to filter, you are better off taking iodine tablets for that.

The one recorded death was a Japanese citizen, which caused a diplomatic crisis. The Marshall Islands were occupied by the US and very remote, so it was probably easier to sweep any deaths that may have occurred in the local population under the rug...

Nobody really wanted to count deaths and long time effects on people from Chernobyl neither. Because, IMHO, people knew. Accurately counting would have meant knowing, an nobody really wanted that.

On the contrary, UNSCEAR has painstakingly tracked the long-term effects at Chernobyl specifically because they wanted to know.

[1] https://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/chernobyl.html

The immediate impact, yes. Liquidators and residents, no. Not even Soviet authorities really tracked how many were there or what happened to them after. Long term effects were not properly recorded. Everything done since is basically meta statistics on cancer rates and types.

It seems like it's all tracked by that organization... plus, determining causality for diseases 30 years later is really hard.

Yeah, that doesn't make sense.

LD50 for prompt exposure is 4-5 sieverts. 1 sievert of exposure translates to about a 1% lifetime cancer risk.

Now, if you're inhaling the ash that's another matter. At that point you're probably dead.

Being fairly ignorant of this stuff, your comment made me check the location of bikini atoll. I had just assumed it was reasonably close to the USA but it might as well be south east asia's back yard compared to the distance across the pacific to the US. History and international nuclear testing rules aside, imagine the reaction from nations like China, Japan or Australia today if the US set off a 15 megaton thermonuclear reaction that close to them! 1954 was a different world.

The US detonated a bomb in space over Honolulu. The timing was broadcast and tourists/locals gathered to watch the blast like a fireworks show.

It was a very different time.


>The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce issued a calendar for tourists, listing the scheduled times of the bomb detonations and the best places to view them. The Sky Room at the Desert Inn, offering a panoramic view of the Nevada horizon, was a favorite watch spot of tourists, as was nearby Mount Charleston. Many tourists packed "atomic box lunches" and had picnics as close to ground zero as the government restrictions would allow. On the eve of detonations, many Las Vegas businesses held "Dawn Bomb Parties." Beginning at midnight, guests would drink and sing until the flash of the bomb lit up the night sky.

>For twelve years, an average of one bomb every three weeks was detonated, at a total of 235 bombs. Flashes from the explosions were so powerful that they could reportedly be seen from as far away as Montana.

Not going to, I would've gone to see it.

A former professor of mine once brought out some Trinity glass he had collected from the desert floor a couple of weeks after the Trinity blast in New Mexico. 50 years later, that little piece of glass sent the Geiger Counter off the scale.

I'm not saying that wasn't also pretty crazy, but there is a huge difference in size and danger.

"Starfish Prime" was detonated 250 miles into space where there is no atmospheric fallout, and it was a mere 1.4 megatons... Castle Bravo was detonated at sea level and was 15 megatons! It was completely insane. We are lucky they didn't accidentally make it even larger (they intended for it to be much smaller).

>> if the US set off a 15 megaton thermonuclear reaction over there right now! 1954 was a different world.

Ok..how different? What would Australia do?

The first political action I ever participated in was a country-wide walkout of high school students protesting Chirac's France resuming testing weapons in the Pacific. It was a pretty big deal at the time - boycotts etc.

Look stupid. The British tested their smaller nukes in the Australian desert, Maralinga.

Successive territorial claims to the Marshall Islands were made by Spain (first landing, 1526, formal claim, 1874), Germany (1885), Japan (~1911), and the US (1944), the latter two during World Wars Sr. & Jr., respectively.


Unlike many of its Pacific island posessions, the Marshalls were not aquired under the Guano Islands Act (which I'd suspected when seeing the above comment):


Hm. That's strange, because USSR's 57 Megaton Tzar-bomb had a negligible amount of radiation:

"Radioactive contamination of the experimental field with a radius of 2–3 km (1.2–1.9 mi) in the epicenter area was no more than 1 milliroentgen / hour, the testers appeared at the explosion site 2 hours later, radioactive contamination posed practically no danger to the test participants" [1].

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba#Test_results

One of the main differences is what the tamper is made out of (the casing). You need a material that is reflective to the X-rays used to compress the fusion fuel. In Castle Bravo, this was made out of uranium-238, in the Tsar bomb, it was made from lead. Using uranium boosted the power output by about 2x, at the expense of making the bombs far, far dirtier. The extreme heat and the high neutron radiation from the primary (a fission device) detonating would cause the uranium to decay into more unstable isotopes (U-235, Pu-239, etc.) which would then fission themselves.

The ideology at the time was that a larger blast was more important, since at the time nuclear weapons were still to be dropped by bombers (No ICBMs for another decade). You wanted the bomb to take out the target even if you couldn't quite reach it.

The Soviets estimated that using the same technique would have produced a yield of 100 Mt, but for testing, lead was used to limit the fallout to something they deemed manageable.

There are multiple effects, tamper material is only one of them.

Ground bursts also increase the overall amount and concentration of fallout: First, with the explosion closer to ground, more neutrons can reach the ground and activate material there, producing radioactive isotopes from previously harmless earth. The "fireball" is a shell of expanding lower-density plasma which doesn't dampen neutrons as much as gas (especially water vapour) in non-plasma air. So that fireball touching ground produces more activated elements increasing overall fallout. Second, all newly created active elements and more fusion/fission products get bound to ground particles like dust, coral or water droplets if the explosion stirs up more of that. Those particles are larger and heavier, producing a more concentrated fallout closer to ground zero, whereas unbound products would be dispersed higher in the atmosphere without producing too much of a distinctive fallout pattern.

And note that when the particles are small they stay up longer--and a lot of the hottest stuff decays before it ever reaches the ground.

The most evil invention here is the cobalt bomb.


A theme for example in Nevil Shute's On the Beach. Where people in Australia spent their last days waiting for the cloud to eventually reach them.

The doomsday device on Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove is also a fictional cobalt type bomb, or as quoted [0] in the movie:

"If you take, say, fifty H-bombs in the hundred megaton range and jacket them with Cobalt-Thorium G, when they are exploded they will produce a doomsday shroud. A lethal cloud of radioactivity which will encircle the earth for ninety-three years!"

It's a fantastic movie that I highly recommend to anybody that hasn't seen it yet.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobalt_bomb#In_popular_culture

Love it, both farcical and terribly serious.

Peter Sellers at his very best. Herr Doktor Merkwürdichliebe was phenomenal.

Please do see this movie! Otherwise nobody will ever get my brilliant faux-German "Animals vill be bred und schlautered!" routine.

Another evil intention I can recall along this thread is the "neutron" bomb.

The idea being, produce a nuclear weapon that has a extreme radiation pulse during detonation but generates no long lived nuclides. Detonate over enemy territory, everyone dies from radiation sickness from the detonation, then you can move in and all the infrastructure is still in place.

Not much development ever took place, considering such a thing could only ever be an offensive/invasion weapon.

Air burst vs ground burst. As a good rule of thumb air bursts are fairly clean, ground bursts are very dirty.

About ten years ago Chinese general stated that in a nuclear war they would use a curtain of ground bursts on the Western coast of the US (and presumably also the UK) to destroy the population.

There are semi-classified maps from the late 50s which show that most of the UK would have been turned into a desert in an old fashioned fission bomb war. (They were posted online about fifteen years ago. I downloaded them but lost them in a drive crash.)

It's also known strategy to target power reactors with ground bursts to spread even more fallout and kill even more people for longer.

Anyone suggesting "Nuclear war - not so bad actually" is delusional.

Is anyone seriously suggesting that? If yes, tell them to watch "Threads".

I looked this up and it's currently free on YouTube for anyone interested:


I get a "Video unavailable"

The hospital scene from Threads is on YouTube:



That's the first movie I saw that really, _really_ scared me.

It remains the only film I saw to leave me depressed and gloomy for several days after.

Agreed. When people talk about the scariest horror films, I always think that nothing comes remotely close to Threads. It left me feeling quite disturbed for a full week.

I've wondered if the meme of "we have to bury nuclear waste now" is a fossil left over from the cold war, when surface spent fuel could be converted to fallout by a ground burst.

Another reason to colonize the asteroid belt.

That's only because it was airburst and the fallout dispersed in air.

Tsar Bomba was very clean relative to the yield.

Even then, it release more radionucleonides than any bomb before it (airburst). They limited the yield to 50 megatons, because fallout in Europe would have been catastrophic from a bigger 100 mt bomb that was allowed by the design.

TBF the 100Mt variant probably wasn't a viable weapon.

As it is, Tsar Bomba was air-dropped from a specially modified Tu-95 Bear, the Tu-95V, which had its engines, bomb bay, suspension and release mechanisms redesigned and fuel tanks and bomb bay doors removed to lighten it:


The bomb was dropped at 10,500 metres altitude and descended by parachute to 4000 metres before detonation, by which time the carrier aircraft had travelled 39 kilometres. Even so, when the shockwave from the bomb caught up with it the plane dropped a kilometre, although the pilots managed to recover. A US aircraft in the vicinity had its paint scorched.

And that was the ~50Mt version.

It's highly unlikely that a carrier aircraft could have survived a 100Mt bomb. Or that it could have reached targets in CONUS when flying from Warsaw Pact territory. Or that a parachute-retarded bomb gently descending towards a target in US airspace during a shooting war could have survived for several minutes without being blown apart by a surface to air missile (which would almost certainly have disrupted its ability to deliver a full, or even partial, explosion).

And as the weapon weighed 27,000kg the USSR would have had problems building an ICBM able to carry a re-entry shielded version (to avoid being shot down).

So: not a practical weapon, but it really gave Nikita Kruschev something to wave in JFK's face.

Just quibbling on a small point. The pilots/plane not surviving the blast would not make it impractical. It would just change it to a suicide mission. A small price to pay in a nuclear war.

And de facto suicide missions were totally a thing in event of a 1950s-70s nuclear war. B-52s didn't have enough fuel to get home after delivering their payloads. Best they could hope for was to reach neutral territory before they had to bail out. Neither did RAF Bomber Command's V-Force. But the V-Force married officers' quarters were alongside the runways, so if they had to scramble, there was probably nothing and nobody to come home to ...

Megaton range bombs have no good use in war. The same weight in 300 - 400 kt warheads covers more area and the destruction is just as good. Rest is wasted in the atmosphere.

50 mt weapon and 100 mt weapon were the same design, same size. The yield was just tuned down with lead. Not enough range for the bomber to be useful.

If you read Sakharov's memoirs, the whole thing was a dog and pony show for international politics. No technical side was consulted before the decision was made and better proposals were turned down. There was no military use or scientific need to make it. When the US and Brits started testing in 1958, Khrushchev wanted Big Bomb to show off.

The Soviets and then the Russians did maintain SS-18s variants with a single 25Mt warhead - presumably for EMP generation or hitting deep bunkers like those at Cheyenne Mountain or Raven Rock Mountain.

Big booms were compensation for inaccurate delivery systems. We don't need them *now*.

They still have a role for an EMP attack or even a thermal pulse attack. A gigaton range bomb in orbit will fry electronics to the horizon and light fires to the horizon.

Maybe Proton could lift that ? It was originally developed as an ICBM, but likely just on paper to get funds from the military.

The N-1 Soviet Moon rocket was partially sold by Korolev as a delivery ICBM for the Tsar Bomba. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N1_(rocket)#Early_Soviet_lunar...

Wow and I thought the narrative even for Proton as an ICBM was pretty flimsy! A huge loss that Korolev died so early due to his gulag destroyed health as it looks like he could push through what was needed, by any means necessary! :)

Dropping a full-yield Tsar Bomba was probably a suicide mission.

Castle Bravo was a ground burst and produced a crater about 2Km across. The debris from the crater ended up as fallout.

Tsar Bomba was detonated at an altitude of 4Km, the shock wave prevented the fireball from reaching the ground and producing a crater, so it produced less fallout.

That's clearly wrong. Debris from a crater is just what it is: harmless ash, with no dangerous isotopes. See [1] for the correct answer.

[1]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28479051

Neutron flux from the explosion will turn the atoms of surrounding harmless materials into heavier isotopes that are, in fact, dangerous.

And more importantly, the fission products from the bomb condense/agglomerate onto debris from the ground, allowing them to fall out more quickly.

Most modern bombs can be tuned for the size of the explosion + the amount of fallout produced. Also the fallout heavily depends on how high up the bomb is detonated - detonate it close to the ground, then all the soil and debris gets irradiated and thrown into the air. Detonate it high up and you still get the destructive heat blast and shock wave, but not a whole lot of fallout.

The Tzar-bomb was not an fission-based A-bomb, it was a fusion-based H-bomb. This type of nuke has typically much less fallout.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermonuclear_weapon https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapon_design

Should you ever find yourself in a situation where this information is useful, there's the seven-ten rule of fallout radiation decay:

A book by Cresson H. Kearny presents data showing that for the first few days after the explosion, the radiation dose rate is reduced by a factor of ten for every seven-fold increase in the number of hours since the explosion. He presents data showing that "it takes about seven times as long for the dose rate to decay from 1000 roentgens per hour (1000 R/hr) to 10 R/hr (48 hours) as to decay from 1000 R/hr to 100 R/hr (7 hours)."[41] This is a rule of thumb based on observed data, not a precise relation.


The 7x intervals are:

- 7^1 (7) hours: 1/10 initial radiation

- 7^2 (49) hours, about 2 days: 1/100

- 7^3 (343) hours, about 2 weeks: 1/1,000

- 7^4 (2401) hours, about 2 months: 1/10,000

- 7^5 (16,807) hours, about 2 years: 1/100,000

7^6 is about 15 years, 7^7 is about a century.

The empirical data is based on values to 7^4 (two months). See:


In nuclear war, practically all detonations would be airbursts. They don't cause similar fallout.

Castle Bravo had huge fallout for two reasons

1) It had natural uranium tamper that had very dirty reaction. Huge amount of radionuclides. Modern weapons use beryllium reflectors and gold.

2) It was ground burst in water. That white "snow" was coral. Neutron activaton of sodium in seawater makes things even worse.

Hydrogen bomb can be made cleaner than fission bomb. In fact bigger bomb, less fallout.

I understand modern weapons actually use enriched uranium tampers, for even more fission. This lets them be even smaller for a given yield.

Gold has been proposed for radiological bombs due to production of 198Au, which decays with a halflife of 2.7 days and produces a 411 keV gamma photon. I understand the 5 MT W71 warhead contained a lot of gold, due to a desire to reduce fission product production to reduce radar interference (it was to be used in the Spartan ABM).

Tactical nuclear weapons would cause massive fallout and both sides deployed thousands of them.

> In nuclear war, practically all detonations would be airbursts. They don't cause similar fallout.

No, definitely not. It really depends strongly on who your opponent is and what their strategy might be. And on whether they stick to their pre-anounced strategy. And how many exchanges (first, second, third strike) you might get to.

Generally, there are two strategies that are usually distinguished in US literature for leading a strategic (i.e. big, as opposed to small, tactical) nuclear war: counter-force and counter-value.

Counter-value means that your nukes target what values the enemy has by destroying enemy cities and the population and goods/industry/infrastructure in those cities. Destroying a large, non-reinforced, "soft" target like a city with humans in it is more efficiently done by airburst, because the overpressure/temperature effect is weaker but spread over a far larger area. Weapons also don't need to be that accurate, if you miss downtown Manhattan by a kilometer, it won't matter much. Most smaller nuclear powers, those with a no-first-use doctrine and those without accurate fast delivery systems (i.e. modern ICBMs or SLBMs) do rely on a counter-value strategy. The goal there is usually something akin to France: They aim to be able to kill more of the enemy population than there are French to kill.

Counter-force means that your nukes target the enemy military infrastructure, most prominently ICBM silos and command infrastructure. Usually this strategy calls for a preventative first strike with very accurate weapons that can destroy heavily reinforced underground structures surrounded by possible anti-missile systems. Meaning you have to hit the target with multiple ground bursts, quickly and as accurately as possible. Since you have only one try at this, some of your warheads might be shot down and some might miss by a few hundred meters, causing the crater to not destroy that ICBM bunker enough, there will be quite a few warheads on the way to each single silo. Meaning that this supposedly "humane" strategy will produce enough fallout to still kill a lot of the enemies population. One example would be https://www.nukestrat.com/china/Book-173-196.pdf p184, where a US counter-force strike against a Chinese missile silo site out in the sticks would kill between 5 and 20 million Chinese just from fallout. And of course, if your counter-force strategy includes command bunkers near capital cities (ground burst), nuclear submarine bases near other harbors (ground/sea burst) or larger military airports (air burst), you are bombing much closer population centers, also with mostly ground bursts. Most prominent in claiming a counter-force strategy is the US.

So most probably, if your opponent is the US, GB or Russia, you'll receive a large number of ground bursts in the first strike. Only if there still were an exchange after that, would there be any significant number of air bursts.

Strikes against hardened ICBM silos are low altitude airbursts (optimum between accuracy and required overpressure). Ground penetrating bunker busters are not used against silos. The source you site makes really weird assumptions about US and China using ground bursts. Probably based some kind of misunderstanding.

The US, China and Russia have capital command bunkers that survive even ground penetrating nuclear strikes.

I don't think GB has a first-strike policy or the nuclear arsenal we would need to pursue one. We have on the same order of warheads as the French.

We are supposed to have one bomber sub at sea at all times but a Royal Navy submariner once told me that we quite often don't have this due to cuts in maintenance budgets causing the vessels to be out of service quite frequently. Also, bombers carry IRBMs not ICBMs so that one boat needs to be within 5000 miles of whoever might launch nukes at us, so the whole strategy is a bit farcical really.

I used the list here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterforce#Counterforce_disa...

Britain uses Trident SLBMs, so should be capable of such an attack. However, further research reveals similar capabilities of the French M51 SLBM.

All in all I wouldn't give too much on that list of stated or probable strategies anyways. An apparent strategy and the stated conviction to stick to it is necessary for deterrence. But I'm not so sure of what will happen if push comes to shove. I guess every nuclear weapons state has a number of war plans fitting the various possible opponents and strategies, and which one is picked strongly depends on the current mood of the ruler when pressing the red button.

The wishes of the UK Prime Minister are communicated to the commanders of the UK's Tridents subs on what to do if they lose contact with the UK and civilisation ends (i.e. Radio 4 goes off air) by hand written letters:


> If Bravo had been detonated in Washington, D.C., instead of Bikini, Fields illustrated with a diagram, that lifetime dose in the Washington-Baltimore area would have been 5,000 roentgens; in Philadelphia, more than 1,000 roentgens; in New York City, more than 500, or enough to result in death for half the population if fully exposed to all the radiation delivered.

If it were to, half of Washington-Baltimore would've been blown to pieces, and burnt to the ground first.

> If it were to, half of Washington-Baltimore would've been blown to pieces, and burnt to the ground first.

No way. Looking at NUKEMAP right now, a 15 megaton surface burst like Bravo, in the center of Washington, wouldn't even deal "heavy blast damage" much past the National Cathedral. Beyond that, you're looking at "moderate" blast damage sufficient to destroy wooden homes afflicting the rest of the District proper; once you're out past Laurel or so (a decent halfway point between Washington and Baltimore) you're not even breaking windows anymore.


This is why they made films to teach kids to duck and cover. The bombs weren't survivable at ground zero, but most kids wouldn't be at ground zero.

It’s worth reminding people that the US still refuses to properly clean up or compensate the Marshall Islanders for this and the 66 other nuclear tests done on their islands.

The US did a half-assed clear up. They dumped tons of radioactive waste into a crater on Runit Island and capped it in concrete, which is now deteriorating.


The material outside the dome is hotter than the material inside the dome. I agree it was a half-ass cleanup, but OTOH dilution and time are wonderful things. The damage has already been done to the local marine life.

They haven’t even cleaned up Navy bases around SF very well.

I know it's near trivial in comparison but I really understood the power of atomic weapons as a child when I read what happened to the Saratoga, namely the explosion lifted the ship out of the water, more like thrown it out of the water several meters high. How can anything lift a thirty seven thousand ton ship???

To be fair if you look at conventional weapons against ships most of them manage to lift ships out of the water (or just break them in half).

I think it was that "Not what you think" Youtube channel, saying that today weapon systems are powerful enough that there is no amount of armor that you can put on a ship that would protect it on a direct hit (so ships are actually becoming less armored and more agile to prevent being hit).

That's true at least with today's heavy torpedoes. They detonate under the ship, breaking its spine/keel. That will sink a ship. If a ship is properly buttoned up, damage controlmen are squared away, etc. most antishipping missiles will result in a mission kill, but not a quick sinking. Even without active intervention, ships stay up through quite a number of big hits in SINKEXs. However, Mark 48 torpedoes and the like are in a different class, and are generally what are used to bring the festivities to a close.

Of course, both torpedos and antishipping missiles can carry nuclear warheads, which rather changes the equation. When a friend worked the Outer Air Battle problem back in the day, a projected worry was a regimental-sized Blackjack raid firing AS-16 diving hypersonic missiles with at least some fitted with 300 kt nuclear warheads (AS-16 was/is the Soviet equivalent to the SRAM). Combine that with missiles from Oscar II submarines and Backfire bombers and you've got a party.

Even by WWII the futility of trying to armor-plate aircraft carriers like battleships was already recognized. The British put some armor on their aircraft carrier flight decks to give some defense against land-based bombers, but in the Pacific, neither the US nor Japan did this, leading to outcomes like Midway.

I think the description I read was something to the tones of throwing it in the air ten meters or so high, no traditional weapon is capable of that, not even close, not even today. Yes, it can be sunk, for sure but throwing a ship that big out of the water like that?

I don't know if anyone else pointed this out, but that fishing vessel got screwed over coming and going.

"The crew suffered acute radiation syndrome (ARS) for a number of weeks after the Bravo test in March. During their ARS treatment, the crew was inadvertently infected with hepatitis through blood transfusions."


Nuclear weapons are utter madness to be "messing around" with, we need to dismantle all of them to make sure no accidents occur.

You first


Said South Africa...

...at the tail-end of the apartheid government's reign, just before handing over power to a majority government and possibly fearing retribution.

The fear wasn't retribution against the former government. The fear was what the ANC and its leadership (or whatever might follow, because nobody knew what was going to happen) might do with full access to the nuclear/chemical/bio programs RSA engaged in.

Tribal dynamics are still a very real thing there, and it's not inconceivable that a leader might decide to slime those jerks across the way that have been rivals since well before colonists showed up.

The were very real concerns within the apartheid government about a racial civil war: not everyone in the government was convinced that ending apartheid was a great idea.

You also have to remember why the apartheid government developed the nuclear/bio/chemical programs in the first place, and who they considered to be their enemies - looking at the range of the respective payload delivery platforms (or lack thereof) should give you a hint.

> Tribal dynamics are still a very real thing there[...]

...and the apartheid intelligence apparatus fanned those flames of division to the bitter end, by supporting, and providing training for the IFP militia[1] to put the ANC on the back foot.

> [...] it's not inconceivable that a leader might decide to slime those jerks across the way that have been rivals since well before colonists showed up.

The apartheid government didn't consider black people to be citizens of South Africa, instead, they were regarded as citizens of balkanized Bantustans which were supposedly sovereign enclaves, divided by tribe, and forcibly moved (by the apartheid government). I have great difficulty believing the same apartheid government was motivated to denuclearize in order to avoid inter-tribal strife.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Marion

At the end of the program, the primary reason RSA developed nuclear weapons was to force the hand of Western powers into interceding if RSA was losing a conventional war (help us or we'll start nuking cities).

They had zero interest in detonating a nuclear weapon just to kill black people, especially not on their own territory. RSA intelligence services certainly investigated things like race-specific diseases, but that's not what the nuke program was for.

The risk of an accident is much lower than the risk of full-on wars w/o them. Nuclear weapons are the reason I can raise my children in a relative peace.

> Nuclear weapons are the reason I can raise my children in a relative peace.

You can raise your children in relative peace because the social contract still holds. The fact that a neighbour you don't like hasn't walked into your house and shot everyone to death, has nothing to do with your goverment/military stockpiling nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons need to be dismantled or stored in neutral territory in case we encounter belligerent aliens.

Social contract didn't magically materialize in the West in 1950s. People have warred since forever, and still do, regardless of the ways they run their societies. But nuclear weapons are the reason major military powers don't go all-in against each other today.

Let's also not forget that social contract survives because of a legal system and people enforcing it with power overwhelming any individual trying to violate it. On an international stage, there's no such top-down enforcement (all nations are sovereign) - there's only mutual policing, and nuclear weapons are the overwhelming power.

> Let's also not forget that social contract survives because of a legal system and people enforcing it with power overwhelming any individual trying to violate it

My god, what an arrogant statement. Your faith in overwhelming force is misguided.

The social contract holds because an individual makes a choice to choose peace. That is all the law can do - give us options of consequence. The law can't stop anyone from slaughtering their neighbours or running a bus through a full schoolyard. Thats why despite the US being one of the best armed and equipped police states - school shootings, which are unheard of in most countries - have continued to exist and continue to be perpetrated by teenagers.

Overwhelming force is not the answer. Individual responsibility is.

> The social contract holds because an individual makes a choice to choose peace.

No, that's not all. The crucial missing ingredient here is the individual being able to assume others will make a peaceful choice too. The law offers incentives and disincentives that very strongly promote making peaceful choices - and it's because of that everyone gets to hold the belief that almost everyone else will be mostly peaceful.

(By "everyone" I of course mean "strangers" - laws and governments are not needed when communities are small and everyone personally knows everyone else. It's the scaling up that made formal governance necessary.)

> That is all the law can do - give us options of consequence.

Yes. The "consequence" part comes from the law being backed by a system of enforcement that wields overwhelming force.

> The law can't stop anyone from slaughtering their neighbours or running a bus through a full schoolyard.

It can't stop anyone who's bent on it, but it is an effective deterrent, and this is why, in fact, it does significantly reduce occurrence of such events in the population.

> Overwhelming force is not the answer. Individual responsibility is.

Individual responsibility is a measure of how good you are at following incentive structures in your environment for longer-term benefit. It neither creates nor maintains those incentive structures.

> laws and governments are not needed when communities are small and everyone personally knows everyone else.

Crimes like rape and sexual assault still happen in cases where everyone knows one another (90% of cases). Even when everyone involved is family! The law and government are still needed to give strength and redress to these victims. What recourse would they otherwise have?

People are mostly peaceful, but emphasis on the mostly. The mostly doesn’t go away when then community size decreases - people will still mostly be peaceful, but others sometimes won’t. And when they won’t, that’s what law and government are for.

>Overwhelming force is not the answer. Individual responsibility is.

Honestly, you're both wrong. It's obvious that overwhelming force doesn't work as a deterrent, at least in the context of the modern US, as you point out, and it's not great as a response. But as the other poster says, you need to be able to assume that most of the time, everyone else will choose peace, and in the modern US, that's not at all a safe assumption.

Both of you are ignoring two factors: culture, and material conditions. I'm only going to address material conditions, because while culture is important, there's not actually a lot you can do about it except through changing material conditions. In the modern US, people generally live in "atomized" conditions — you may know your neighbors, but you're not interdependent with them in any way. Most people don't really have any say in what their community is like, other than the individual act of voting once in a while. Most people work for a living, but don't really have any say in what their work life is like, because that's decided by managers, and people don't have much incentive to identify with their work or take pride in it, because the conditions of their work are decided by someone else, and the product of their work goes to someone else. People are encouraged to identify with their consumption choices, but in the end that just increases the framing of human social interactions as commodity exchanges.

In that context, it's not surprising that the social contract breaks down and that force is not terribly effective in enforcing it. If you want to change that, you have to change the underlying material conditions producing that alienation. Doing so is left as an exercise for the reader.

> My god, what an arrogant statement. Your faith in overwhelming force is misguided.

No, you are the one who is misguided here for having any faith in personal responsibility. Humans are inherently greedy, and if left to their own devices without consequence they will absolutely attack their neighbors.

This is a very deep rooted idea in American culture, the kill or be killed, you screw someone over before they screw you over mentality. It's actually something people from Europe need to learn about to be successful in business negotiations with American firms, as there are certain boundaries that we don't cross for cultural reasons and so we don't tend to take a negotiation all the way to the logical extreme and we lose out as a result.

I assume you've never been involved in many high level American business negotiations. Because in the real world it's nothing like that. Regardless of cultural boundaries, the most profitable business relationships last for many years so it just doesn't pay to screw the other side over.

The only major exception is perhaps for certain limited sectors of the finance industry where derivatives contacts are understood to be a zero sum game. So everyone looks for clever ways to screw their trading partners. But European financial firms are just as ruthless as their American counterparts. In fact the Europeans have often been more willing to cross ethical lines.

You're either lying through your teeth or using a very, very creative definition of "Europe" that excludes most of everything that once took orders from either Rome or Moscow.

Having to distrust your business partners is not uniquely American in the slightest.

That’s not how it actually works. Most businesses work together for many years and it is a win-win situation. If you screw over your business partners you will very quickly run out of partners to work with.

There will always be consequences. If you attack your neighbour there is a chance that it will go badly for you. There is also a chance that a group of neighbours will join forces to remove you as a threat. That’s the kind of dynamics that has created the modern society: groups of people joining forces to overpower individuals that refuse to leave their neighbours alone.

Odd, in most social animal species, the drive to be part of the group is stronger than the drive to exploit the group.

Of course, I'm arguing a tautology. And ignoring that while most animals in a social species are socially motivated, certainly some of them will 'cheat'.

The size of the group matters. Humans function well in small groups where everyone knows each other, and everyone must work together to survive (and then only if we ignore what happens to individuals that, due to character or a sudden health issue, can no longer pull their weight). But this doesn't scale past couple dozen people.

Meanwhile, the other strong drive that both humans and other animal species share is competition between the groups. Over the course of history, humans started to form groups of hundreds, then thousands, and eventually millions of people. In such groups, the drive to subdivide and compete dominates - the history of social development is one of inventing social technologies - cultural and legal mechanisms that keep those large groups whole and defeat our competitive instincts.

> But this doesn't scale past couple dozen people.

Modern corporations contradict that claim.

No, they don't. They're strong evidence for the claim.

Corporations are strongly structured internally. They usually have a "spine" of bog-standard hierarchical organization[0], and some form of secondary, graph-like, functional organization, different in every big company. Like e.g. (roughly real structure, but fictional names):

- Hierarchical spine: I currently work for team Awesome, under business unit BU1, under department D1; I report to manager Eve (Awesome), who reports to Fred (BU1), who reports to Greg (D1) who reports to Helen (CEO).

- Secondary organization: My team (Awesome) closely works with teams Invincible (BU1) and Jazzy (BU2), all with slightly different reporting chains.

There are dozens other teams in the corporation and several more BUs. I almost never interact with them directly. My social cooperation instinct covers my team and other teams in the "secondary organization" section. Separation of responsibilities and complex structure prevents my team from actively competing with other teams - we either cooperate with them, or don't know they exist.

This is how corporations scale. If you want to see a scaled-up system demonstrating competitive tendencies, that's... the market itself. And it needs the strong, top-down, hierarchical regulatory system to prevent that competition from immediately turning bloody[1].


[0] - Which is the fundamental social technology we've invented that allowed us to scale the societies and build a civilization. It's why every large (> ~100) group of people you can find has some form of hierarchical governance.

[1] - As a social technology, the modern symbiosis between the market and governments is a marvel. It's by no means perfect, but the fact still is: we didn't just suppress our competitive tendencies while scaling societies up - we've harnessed them and put them to work, and it mostly turned out OK.

True enough, I was incorrect to look at corporations from the outside, monolithically.

Social animal species with a strong drive to be part of the group are still quite happy to exterminate other groups of the same species. Just a random example is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gombe_Chimpanzee_War , but there are many others in different species - illustrating that being socially motivated does not mean avoiding organized slaughter of your fellow species-mates.

There's a very interesting chapter on why larger powers no longer go to war in industrialized societies in this game review https://acoup.blog/2021/08/20/collections-teaching-paradox-v... (don't let yourself be fooled by the fact it pretends to be a game review, it's a history lessen in disguise)

TL;DR: It no longer pays off. Before the industrialization, the way to improve your countries productivity was to acquire more land, more people, more resources - annex your neighbor. After the industrialization, that is no longer true. Any war against a power that is roughly approaching your power is likely to be net negative: You'll loose more of your economical improvements than you'll gain by annexing lands that are probably destroyed by war. It's what makes guerrilla warfare so powerful. The author also convincingly argues that the first and second world war were a product of people still stuck in the old, per-industrialization mindset while the economics and destructive power of post-industrialization applied.

(very selective) Quote:

Historically speaking, there is actually something to this. As Azar Gat notes in War in Human Civilization (2006), for most of human history, war ‘paid,’ at least for the elites who made decisions. In pre-industrial societies, returns to capital investment were very low. ( ...) For antiquity, the Roman Empire (...) one estimate, by Richard Saller, puts the total gains per capita at perhaps 25% over three centuries.

But returns to violent land acquisition were very, very high. In those same three centuries, the Romans probably increased the productive capacity of their empire by conquest 1,200% (...). Consequently, the ‘returns to warfare’ – if you won – were much higher than returns to peace. The largest and most prosperous states tended to become the largest and most prosperous states through lots of warfare and they tended to stay that way through even more of it.

As Gat notes, the industrial revolution changed this, breaking the agricultural energy economy. Suddenly it was possible, with steam power and machines, (...) to do work (...) – for the first time, societies could radically increase the amount of energy they could dispose of without expanding. Consequently – as we’ve seen – returns to infrastructure and other capital development suddenly became much higher. At the same time, these new industrial technologies made warfare much more destructive (...). Those armies were so destructive, they tended to destroy the sort of now-very-valuable mechanical infrastructure of these new industrial economies; they made the land they acquired less valuable by acquiring it. So even as what we might term ‘returns to capital’ were going wildly up, the costs of war were also increasing, which mean that ‘returns to warfare’ were going down for the first time in history.

It’s not clear exactly where the two lines cross, but it seems abundantly clear that for the most developed economies, this happened sometime before 1914 because it is almost impossible to argue that anything that could have possibly been won in the First World War could have ever – even on the cynical terms of the competitive militarism of the pre-industrial world – been worth the expenditure in blood and treasure.

There were similar arguments before WW I, but the European nations still went to war. All you need is a situation where the people in charge hate their enemies more than they love their children.

I'd say there's more to it.

. Underestimation of the cost of an early 20th C. war. Some glorious charges, you win, get home in time for dinner.

. A game theory problem in that once you start mobilizing you can't stop. Not starting the war is more dangerous than simply drawing down.

. The simple fun (for leadership) and profits in a war. Pushing pieces around a map is an enjoyable endeavor.

. Interlocking treaties with single points of failure.


Then how come WWII happened? Were the great dictators just irrational?

>Were the great dictators just irrational?

Probably not at all, although it's hard to think/talk in a general fashion about such large systems.

The Axis Powers strike me as fighting a more reasonable war than (for instance) their WWI aggressor predecessors if you view it as simply a grab for land and resources. It's a thing that a Khanate or a Roman governor would understand and appreciate. I'd say that the actions of the Germans and Japanese would make perfect sense to the ruling class of most pre-modern states.

It's hard work to avoid Historian's Fallacy.

If you want to summarize it in one sentence: yes, they were. In a nutshell, the argument is that the world wars were so destructive because the economic calculus changed, but people required the horrors of the wars to realize that the change had happened.

Not sure if this is sarcasm, but yes, I don't think you need to look too deep to see that.

However if war is used to funnel money from tax payers to companies, and politicians owned by those companies, then going to war makes a lot of sense. See the US invading Iraq and Afghanistan for example. The US lost the war in Afghanistan but it was a massive win for defence contractors and politicians controlled by those companies. So don’t hold your breath. The US will be going to war again as soon as a good inflammatory excuse can be used to whip the US population into yet another frenzy (made up “weapons of mass destruction” for example).

> Nuclear weapons need to be dismantled or stored in neutral territory in case we encounter belligerent aliens.

Lifeforms able to travel the universe are unlikely to be vulnerable to our nuclear weapons in a significant way. They might just not care about us and eat our sun. Or they might infect our planet with their spores.

The idea that space-faring aliens would be at a comparable technological development to our species has no base. That we would have a chance to respond to an attack is even more remote. It just makes for a story we can respond to emotionally, which is why these stories are told. Hoarding nuclear weapons for for such an occasion would be like goat-sacrifices to the gods.

>Nuclear weapons need to be dismantled or stored in neutral territory in case we encounter belligerent aliens.

If they've traveled across the stars to find us, I suspect nukes ain't going to save the day.

We cannot put our nukes to use beyond say the lunar orbit at the most. They can throw a few cheap but far more deadly rocks at us from the Oort cloud. Just being in a higher orbit with respect to the earth's is totally sufficient advantage for devastating destruction.

With sufficient access to energy, I imagine you could do Rods from God at significant fractions of c from Alpha Centauri and give Earth a serious bad time. Planetary orbits are kind of regular after all.

That is the plot of some Larry Niven Scifi :)

It reminds me of a part in The Dark Forest [1] by Liu Cixin, where a single alien probes annihilates a whole fleet of human space ships because of such big technology difference. This series [2], btw, has transformed my view of space and space opera litterature. I have a much somber thinking about space, the theory in the books, is that there are species that want to wipe all their opponents and the only way to survive is to hide.

Another take at this is from Charles Stross in Singularity Sky [2], where a whole human fleet is again destroyed by aliens like a flick of a switch.

I know these two are science fiction, but like comment, a nuke won't save the day when aliens have been forced to live in the void for the travel time and have engines capable of taking them here.

1. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23168817-the-dark-forest

2. https://www.goodreads.com/series/189931-remembrance-of-earth...

3. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/81992.Singularity_Sky

I think 2001: A Space Odyssey did an excellent job with its treatment of this dynamic.

It still blows my mind that it’s 53 years old.

If they've managed travel from star to star, I very much doubt[1] there's anything of ours they want or need that they cannot make for themselves.

[1] https://one.mikro2nd.net/2021/07/interstellar/

Also, any civilization capable of harnessing the amount of energy needed for interstellar travel would have long ago destroyed themselves if they hadn't outgrown violent competition over resources. (The likelihood that few or no societies do so is the most likely answer to the Fermi paradox, and is strongly suggested by our own historical trajectory — see TFA.)

> Also, any civilization capable of harnessing the amount of energy needed for interstellar travel would have long ago destroyed themselves if they hadn't outgrown violent competition over resources.

If you replace inter-stellar with inter-continental, that might just be something that a (misguided) Aztec wise man would say when he met Cortez.

Not necessarily. I think a belligerent alien civilization might be frequently warring amongst themselves, driving various factions to flee their planet/system/local group. If transport and hiding were easier than seeking out and killing those factions, such a civilization would spread quickly, driven by their belligerence.

With aliens the issue is delivery systems.

A nuke with no way to get it to an alien ship in space is irrelevant. The alien ship will have no problem throwing rocks at us. It's pretty hard to imagine some sort of stardrive that doesn't provide a practical kinetic bombardment capability.

About the closest to a weaponless drive would be the Bergenholm of the Lensman series--but even that was eventually used to throw planets.

The belligerent aliens with their Illudium Q-36 explosive space modulators laugh at our puny nuclear weapons.

Social contract? That does nothing to protect a foreign power from taking over my country.

Are they?

Maybe. What if it is like forest fire prevention? The dead timber accumulates, and thus when an uncontained fire breaks out, it is 1000s of times worse as a result.

Fully managed forests, sometimes have controlled burns now, to prevent this.

Are nukes like this? Maybe, for tension can build, and build, and then?

Note: I don't know an alternative.

Yes they are. It’s not like brush accumulation.

With technology open war became more and more destructive until it passed the threshold of there no longer being a point. Two modern nation states can easily entirely reduce each other to ash in a few hours, and not before the other side can do the same.

Precision weapons also make nukes unnecessary in large ways.

It’s not about tension, big wars are pointless suicide pacts.

The big world wars were about nations feeling powerful with new technology and wanting to build on that power, that’s not the case anymore. No nuclear powers are going to think they’re better off after a war.

There’s not tension building to explosion, war is obsolete between technologically advanced states. Proxy wars, civil wars, and border skirmishes are all that is left or will be until there is a major technological change that changes the cost/benefit of war.

The weakness in your argument is you assume both sides are rational actors. All it needs is one dictatorial lunatic in charge who doesn't care about the people for MAD to ensue.

While I could see this happening in a smaller state, the big 5 states likely have pretty good institutions built around nuclear weapons. Accidents might happen, but I doubt a single lunatic in those places + India and Israel could do much actual button pressing.

Now Pakistan perhaps less so, but apparently the US believes it's at least secure. North Korea definitely less so, but their capabilities are comparatively very limited

And that's why NK is so worrying: Not because their technology is any good, but because it only has to work once, and they might actually try it.

North Korea built a nuclear weapon because they're acting rationally. Nuclear weapons provide them legitimacy and bargaining power, both domestically and internationally. It's the same reason Iran wants a nuclear deterrent, or anybody else for the matter, like the U.S., China, or Russia. When you have the bomb, other powers tend to tiptoe around you--see, e.g., how Pakistan sabotaged US interests in Afghanistan with no discernible repercussions.

The real threat from North Korean nuclear weapons (other than empowering North Korea geopolitically) is in proliferation. And that's probably one (albeit minor) reason everybody tends to look away when they skirt the embargo.

From a proliferation perspective, Pakistan would seem to be a greater threat than North Korea. There is strong evidence that Pakistan actually sold nuclear technology to North Korea (although it's unclear whether NK used that technology in their weapons program).


There is also evidence of Pakistan sharing nuclear weapons technology with Saudi Arabia.


That's assuming they'll be able to scale it. Having a few low-yield nukes doesn't buy you much in terms of offensive capacity, especially not against "old" nuclear powers. But what it does is give you sovereignty - which is why I think NK wants to have those nukes.

The reality of modern world is that nuclear powers get to push around every other nation without consequences, whether overtly (like US getting away with invading two countries in the recent years) or covertly (proxy wars). But the world sees the use of nuclear weapons as qualitatively different from conventional ones, so having even one nuke you can threaten other countries with seems like an effective way to deter other powers from bullying you too hard.

I wonder about nukes being of value during "day-to-day" diplomacy. Does even NK really go into negotiations with China for access to oil or something with the argument "sell it to us or we nuke you!".

I only see it as a deterrent for invasion. The US and South Korea will think twice before drone striking Kim if they know there could be a nuke in the air.

For any other diplomatic purpose the other party must surely just walk away when the "or we'll nuke you" argument comes out?

Yeah, I don't think nukes matter "day-to-day". But there's a constant awareness of them in the background, much like there is a constant awareness of general military situation.

On the negotiation table, there's only so far one nation can push another before the other one starts considering military options. There's no sharp line here - economics and war are parts of the same spectrum. Usually, it's in the best interest of every party to stay on the "economics" side of the talks. Both parties having nukes makes both of them try harder.

NK could at most destroy a few square blocks of e.g. Seattle. That would be a tragedy, but it would also serve as justification for a multinational coalition (possibly even including China) to take over NK and ultimately hand its territory to SK.

IOW, if NK lobbed a nuke anywhere they would cease to exist. I'm pretty sure Mr. Kim understands that.

> "...war is obsolete between technologically advanced states..."

That's what they said after WW1, the "war to end all wars", yet we had another and (in my opinion) rather narrowly avoided a third between the '50s-'80s.

A foolish belief that no-one would dare start another large-scale war allows nations to indulge in grand posturing and ever closer brinkmanship which will inevitably to (surprise) another war.

If someone were to gain some kind of advantage that could prevent a retaliatory nuclear strike, then I could see it. Otherwise I highly doubt it. World War 2 offensives were made possible by the advances in mechanized and aerial warfare.

Interestingly enough the US has been retrofitting their nuclear arsenal with better targeting systems, making it much more effective. The Russians don't like this, which is why you hear talk of hypersonic missiles, autonomous submersibles carrying nuclear warheads, etc.

Perhaps some kind of neutron-based weapon could be developed to counteract large numbers of incoming ICBMs in the upper atmosphere, or to destroy an enemy nuclear arsenal in place. There we concepts like this, and the US even built some for defense against ICBMs (The W66 warhead).

Damn, I wonder about this too. Not to defend nukes (and I know you're not defending them), but I find it hard to believe that the apparent progress enabled by them is sustainable in the long term. And by "progress" here I mean, (a) large countries can no longer engage in total war, and (b) smaller countries are getting their asses kicked in proxy wars (e.g., Korea, Vietnam, Iraq).

Have we really left total war behind? Is it really, finally, to awful to contemplate? That would honestly be a huge step forward for humanity. It seems too good to trust. This isn't the terminal phase of history; 2,000 years from now this may be a blip.

The problem with MAD is it requires perfect decision making or perfect luck with no graceful failure if things go wrong.

From the Cuban Missile Crisis portion of Fog of War

"Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us.

I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today."


Sure, but when the alternative to rationality is hope -- as in, disarm and hope that everyone else follows and doesn't lie despite having every incentive to take advantage -- rationality starts looking pretty good by comparison.

I'm all for arms reduction that maintains strategic deterrence. Everyone knows that MAD is, well, mad -- but the real question is whether it is more or less mad than the alternatives, and the leading alternative is to trust a bunch of sovereign nations to act together against their best interest, and that's even more mad than MAD.

There's also the launch from Norway.

Russia detected something rising off the coast of Norway. The performance looked like an older US SLBM. It was heading towards Russia and north--not towards anything important but a viable trajectory for an EMP decapitation attack. What it really showed is how poor their systems were.

The bird was real. It really was an older US SLBM--repurposed as a scientific launcher. It was launched from an island off the coast of Norway--but the Russian systems weren't good enough to figure that out. They also weren't good enough to figure out it was really heading mostly north, basically following the coast. And their bureaucracy had lost the launch notification, probably related to the fact that it didn't have a time on it. The bird was prepped (a good reason to use a solid rocket, it can sit there on the pad for a long time) awaiting the conditions it was meant to study.

I don’t really understand your forest fire analogy.

One slightly paradoxical thing with nukes is that anti-ICBM systems makes us less safe by making the strategic landscape less stable. If a hypothetical world power trusts their “shield” then they are incentivised to strike their enemies nuclear forces in the hopes that they destroy enough enemy missiles that even if they launch them all they can be reliably soaked up by the “shield”. And it in turn incentivises the other party to strike first or risk loosing their nuclear arsenal. That sucks.

On the other hand having a survivable second strike capability can act as a stabilizing force. Those countries who believe they have this know that their enemy knows that even if they sucker punch them they will suffer. That’s the “assured” part of the MAD doctrine.

So it is not really the number of nukes which makes things more or less stable but other factors. If you are interested in these questions, and want to listen to much better analysis than what I have presented here I can warmly recommend the Arms Control Wonk podcast.

This is why the major nuclear powers are again engaged in an arms race to develop nuclear delivery systems that will be harder to intercept than ICBMs. The major focus now is on higher speed cruise missiles. Russia is also developing a long range nuclear torpedo.

You mean like Reagan's "Peace Shield"?





>Last May, a scientists’ group took to TV in Washington to oppose the Reagan Administration’s “Star Wars” proposal for a space-based missile defense system. Now, a group supporting the Strategic Defense Initiative, as the concept is formally known, will make its case as did the scientists--with a TV commercial.

>The two opposing sides are the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Coalition for the Strategic Defense Initiative. The former contends that a space-based missile defense system can’t be perfected, would militarize space and increase the possibility of nuclear war. The latter argues that such a system would work and prevent nuclear war.

>Although light years apart in their beliefs, the two organizations have one thing in common: Their 30-second commercials each use the powerful emotional appeal of a child facing a nuclear holocaust.


>Its commercial, which had a local TV test run in Washington on Oct. 12, opens with a child’s stick-figure crayon drawing of a family and a house, with a large sun shining above.

>A little girl is heard saying that she had “asked my Daddy what this ‘Star Wars’ stuff is all about. He said that right now we can’t protect ourselves from nuclear weapons and that’s why the President wants to build a peace shield.

>“It would stop missiles in outer space so they couldn’t hit our house. Then nobody could win a war . . . and if nobody could win a war, there’s no reason to start one.”

>As she speaks, a dome is drawn over the house and family. Incoming missiles strike the shield and are destroyed. The dome turns into a rainbow. Frowning faces become smiles, and the girl concludes with: “My daddy’s smart. Support the peace shield.”


>He says the coalition’s ad has three aims--the first a contention that a defense-in-space system is feasible right now. Another is to drum up public support for congressional backing of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or the “peace shield” as he calls it.

>The group also wants to air its ad, he says, “to offset the anti-SDI propaganda, such as has come from the Union of Concerned Scientists with their 30-second thing, which says what SDI is about is blowing up little children.”

>He referred to the union’s TV effort last May. That $10,000 commercial showed a little boy watching the night sky, singing a snatch of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Suddenly, a star explodes like a nuclear blast and an announcer says: “Heavens are for wonder, not for wars. Stop ‘Star Wars.’ ”


do you know how many of them are unaccounted for?

i don't except that this number is greater than 0. i hope the cia and the kgb know.

> do you know how many of them are unaccounted for?

Nuclear weapons have incredibly tight tolerances to be or remain viable, those tolerances degrade over time, so they require frequent maintenance in order to stay usable. Many have been "lost" over the last 70 years, sure, but few if any of them would actually still function without state-level expertise in maintaining them - the kind of capability which could just make new ones anyway.

Sure, they could still be used as fodder for "dirty bombs" but so could a lot of things and it's much less of a concern.

They wouldn't make decent dirty bombs. The stuff in the bomb is only going to hurt you if you inhale it--and it's heavy enough that it's going to be very hard to inhale.

Dirty bombs basically just make a mess, they are not a realistic threat.

How confident are you about that? I don’t know much about fusion, plutonium implosion was hard back then but I don’t know if becomes easier with modern electronics or not, and I though gun-type uranium is straightforward once you have the enriched uranium?

Let’s see how safe children will be when Isis or Taleban gets nuclear weapons…

Given the track history of near nuclear accidents, attempting to dismantle all of the existing ones may be statistically more likely to cause an accident, simply in the dismantling process.

I'm still mind bogglingly confused at how badly the San Onofre nuclear power plant got butchered that I really think there was sabotage involved. It's hard to believe what happened to the place is all because of sheer stupidity.

Nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors do both leverage atomic nuclei, but they are pretty darn different. Dismantling nuclear weapons is unlikely to cause a radiological accident. Before nuclear detonation, nuclear weapons aren't all that radioactive. Nothing like post detonation.

You probably know this, but nuclear reactors, despite how well known various incidents are, are still among the safest, cleanest, and lowest carbon ways to make electricity we know [1]

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy

Given the track history of near nuclear accidents, attempting to dismantle all of the existing ones may be statistically more likely to cause an accident, simply in the dismantling process.

Nuclear weapons don't last forever and need to be dismantled/replaced at some point, so dismantling them all doesn't add additional risk as long as it's done over a long enough period that they would have needed to be replaced anyway.

“Dismantling the nukes” doesn’t necessarily mean to monkey with the physical package. You can just change the alert level of the nuclear forces. Instead of paying man and women to operate the silos at hair trigger, you can pay them to move the warheads to storage where they protect them. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.

> the San Onofre nuclear power plant got butchered

Have you any link to a good summary? The Wikipedia is interesting but doesn’t make us sound as malicious/scandalous as you suggest.

Not any more mad than any other war. Wars are end of the world for everyone who dies.

The idea that nuclear war are mad but lets keep normal wars seems really insane to me.

For those who haven't read A Canticle for Leibowitz, I highly recommend it.

Funny timing - I'm reading Topographies, a book of essays by Stephen Benz, and just last night I read a poignant one about visiting a WWII-era atomic testing site in the New Mexico desert. Looks like this link gets you to it in Google Books:


It's remarkable how world-changing (and potentially world-ending) this technology is and how infrequently most of us think about it.

That's an interesting mistake. Fusion reactor designs today mostly target deuterium-tritium fuel, because it's the most energetic and easiest to get net power. They plan to breed the tritium from a blanket of lithium.

Based on this article, it sounds like the bomb scientists were using lithium deuteride fuel just as a solid form of deuterium, and didn't realize the lithium would breed tritium and fuel a more powerful reaction.

Now I'm wondering whether this unfortunate event was the seed for today's reactor designs.

They were expecting the lithium-6 to split and contribute to the boom. They were expecting the lithium-7 to be inert. They just didn't consider it worth the isotope separation work to use just lithium-6. Likewise, they didn't realize how much energy the U-238 jacket would add.

I believe this is the third nuclear weapon related post I've seen on HN this week. I'm not sure what that means..

Probably that people are realizing that the fall of the Soviet Union didn't actually end the threat of nuclear annihilation, just pushed it to the backs of our minds. Now we know we have multiple potential civilization-ending crises hanging over our heads, and it's in the zeitgeist.

Well, the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs is in August. There's usually some news articles around that. That might spark some interest for people to do more research and then a few weeks later (now-ish) you get some new articles.

The Youtube video is not available here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ew064gt2thY -- The Castle Bravo Disaster - A "Second Hiroshima"

This is a general explanation of what went wrong and its consequences, like a well done amateur documentary.

Yup, same here.

So basically releasing unknown toxins into the atmosphere and sea, I mean, it's freaking outrageous.

Nuclear mania! I posted my article in the previous thread about nuclear physics, but I wrote one on the tests in the Marshall Islands as well.


War is not only boring, but stupid.

Didn’t Soviets test a compact thermonuclear bomb in 1953?

Unusual and spectacular failure mode:

Loads perfectly, then after loading reloads and displays a 500 error and tells me to find something else to read on Medium :-]

The site actually "de"-grades gracefully, in that with js disabled the experience is objectively better.

It'd be a shame if anything happened to that article you wanted to read, lol. Dark patterns like this are infuriating.


The event in this story took place in 1954 and India was sanctioned in 1998. I'd expect that there's a wealth of information between those two time periods that give evidence that we shouldn't be; you're also talking about post-Cold War time period in which, although non-linearly, the world has been attempting to disarm.

> I'd expect that there's a wealth of information between those two time periods

If you have gathered information but doesn't share it freely you have no right to point fingers at anyone else who does the same testing no matter the time difference. The US doesn't share the results and knowledge gained freely so it have zero right or moral ground to point fingers at anyone on weapons testing. If the knowledge had been shared India would have had less reason to do the tests. The US is partly to blame.

India's first weapon test was in 1974 with Smiling Buddha. The sanctions occured in 1998, after the cold war, and India had already developed enough weaponry to be a "no first use" country with triad capabilities (air, land, and sea). All that to say, they didn't depend on the US for knowledge like that.

> world has been attempting to disarm.

evidently not.

It's a challenging task. You're dealing with nations who think a nuclear weapon to their name will give them representation on the world stage. In reality, it doesn't, because there's a lot more factors at play for representation in the global landscape than fission. So, as powers rise the US (and other countries) have attempted diplomacy in various forms to curb deviation from the conclusions we reached at the peak of the arms race. I don't think that'll end, and my prediction is that we'll go through this with state-sanctioned hacking as well.

no one thinks having nukes gives them representation on the world stage, people think having nukes keeps the Americans from attacking you if they don't like something you're doing.

Of course trying to get nukes will make the Americans attack, so you try to hide it, unless you already are doing stuff that are making the Americans make attacking noises so then you start to ramp up the nuke production because maybe you can get some and stop the Americans or maybe the Americans will back off if you agree to back off with the nuke production.

on edit: so in other words, people try to get nukes as deterrents, not as status enhancers. You might want to deter a neighbor of course, like Pakistan and India, but there are countries in almost every region that might want to deter the U.S should it be necessary. I suppose in the near future countries may also wish to deter China.

> no one thinks having nukes gives them representation on the world stage, people think having nukes keeps the Americans from attacking you if they don't like something you're doing.

This oversimplifies it. How does that logic apply to Britain, France or Israel?

> This oversimplifies it. How does that logic apply to Britain, France or Israel?

While it may not have been a fear of being nuked, the United Kingdom's program was very much motivated by fear of the United States in other ways. Ernest Bevin said at the time:

> "We've got to have this thing. I don't mind it for myself, but I don't want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at or to by the Secretary of State of the United States as I have just been in my discussion with Mr Byrnes. We've got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs ... We've got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it."

Cited from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_of_the_United_...

France having nuke is definitely about asserting its sovereignty over US interference. Read de Gaulle's biography if you want to know more.

Yes, France wants to be beholden to no one - they don’t fear American attack though (except perhaps on their culture).

They want to be actually sovereign states. Having nukes is pretty much a prerequisite for the reasons GP explained. Even if, back when the countries you mentioned were developing their nuclear programs, their overt focus was mostly deterring USSR, it's hard to imagine they weren't thinking about their relationship with the USA either.

it's true it oversimplifies - hence why I added my part about it being deterrence in the edit. Israel of course had deterrent reasons to have nuclear weapons, the same for Britain and France.

Obviously countries that are under U.S protection are not as a general rule fearing U.S invasion (unless big changes occur suddenly in a Presidential election) but they must also fear the loss of U.S protection through minor changes in a U.S election. If the U.S is currently providing their deterrence, it makes sense to invest in some of their own in case the protection is ever removed.

All that being said, Israel, Britain and France got their nuclear weapons in the past. I think anyone who is trying to get Nuclear weapons in the present time have a pretty good chance in wanting to deter the U.S.

Having nukes also keeps all others from attacking, for most second and third world powers the USians are the primary threat due to their very mobile military. But everyone has enemies, Britain and France feared a German resurgence after WW2 as well as a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Israel fears it's neighbors and most muslim states. But in all cases, nukes are there to keep someone you fear from attacking.

And various crises and practical problems causes even the British to not totally rely on US protection. E.g. the Suez crisis and the Falkland war showed them that they need their own military capabilities, because they cannot even rely on the US for support in "small stuff".

The world has literally an order of magnitude less nuclear warheads than it used to have - 13k vs 100+k.

That's a good thing. No one should be testing nuclear weapons.

If you test and gain knowledge and then work to ban testing you are part of the problem. If the US wants to stop others from testing it needs to share all gained knowledge freely or accept it opened pandora's box and cannot shut it again.

The bikini, as in the swimsuit, was named after the devastating effect of these explosions.

It's one of the sad ironies of history that it's now virtually impossible to read a line like "We left Bikini and have wandered through the ocean for 32 years" without snickering, because sexy ladies amirite hurr durr.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact