Nuclear Holocaust Really Is The Sum Of All Fears

The specter of nuclear holocaust has haunted humanity for more than 60 years now. Here are some of the reasons that a nuclear nightmare is the worst one of all.

Last month I wrote about five times we almost nuked ourselves by accident. I received more emails in response to that article than anything I've ever written – they ranged from people thanking me, to lengthy descriptions of other nuclear incidents that readers had experienced through working in the military or the nuclear power industry. I'll admit there were a few irate readers who felt I had needlessly denigrated the nuclear reactor crews, and one justifiably angry Russian.

But mostly, people were scared. The outpouring of pathos stunned me, but also got me thinking. Why did these stories about nuclear disasters touch people's nerves like this? Why are we still so scared of nuclear incidents, with the Cold War over and nuclear power safer today than ever? Here are some of the reasons why we'll probably always be haunted by the specter of nuclear holocaust.

1. It really is that bad.
If we look at nuclear weapons only in terms of their sheer explosive force, they are still the most terrifying weapons ever constructed. The Hiroshima bomb exploded with a force of about 13 kilotons of TNT. Basically, it incinerated a city. The H-bombs developed in the next decade were roughly 1,000 times more powerful. Just…let that sink in for a moment. 1,000 times as powerful. Comic book super villains would blush and turn away at the thought of such a weapon. It's almost incomprehensible. The only word I can think of that even approaches describing what a doomsday weapon of that magnitude is like is, "Absurd." We can vaporize hundreds of thousands of humans in an instant. We have conceived of and successfully developed that ability.

Nuclear Holocaust Really Is The Sum Of All Fears

2. Radiation is mysterious and stealthy.
If nukes were just huge bombs, that would be bad enough. They also bring with them a bizarre creeping death that can't be detected without special equipment. Radiation is scary stuff. Consider the Goiânia incident, in which some scavengers found radioactive material in an abandoned Brazilian hospital. Not knowing what is was, they sold it, and it was carried and spread around, even rubbed onto the faces of children because it had a pretty blue glow. For the simple act of touching an unknown substance, several people died and dozens were contaminated.

There are also the cases of Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. and Louis Slotin – both men died doing atomic research, receiving instantaneous lethal doses of radiation simply because of accidental slips. In Daghlian's case, he dropped a brick of tungsten carbide (a neutron reflector), encasing a plutonium core and causing it go supercritical due to the extra reflected neutrons. Slotin was holding a screwdriver between two hemispheres of beryllium; when his hand slipped, the hemispheres fell together and released a burst of energy and radiation that killed him just a few days later.

So we worry about the nuclear reactors 50 miles away, or the groundwater that flows under the uranium processing facility that closed down 50 years ago, or the fact that a nuclear weapon could render huge areas of the planet completely uninhabitable for decades or centuries to come. There's this mysterious energy that can kill a man just because he banged two pieces of metal together, and that's pretty terrifying.

3. Cancer.
Because the radiation isn't bad enough by itself, it also causes cancer. If the dose is too low to outright fry your cells and shut your body down one system at a time, there's a good chance it could still cause aberrant cell growth that quickly grows into a malevolent, malignant cancer. And there's no denying that cancer is one of our great modern fears. It's a strange disease with many forms and causes, not all of which we understand. I experienced a minor cancer scare myself recently (it turned out to be nothing, so far). Without being melodramatic, even such a minor incident inevitably leads to a few "dark night of the soul" moments. Those of you who have cancer, have survived it, or who have loved ones who've dealt with it surely understand far more acutely than I do the visceral dread of a sprawling sickness that destroys you from the inside.

It's no wonder, then, that we look with trepidation at the cooling towers silhouetted against the evening sky, aircraft warning lights blinking endlessly, ominously. Is it safe to live downwind, to drink the water, to swim in the lake? What might go wrong that won't kill me now but might cause a slow, agonizing death 20 or 30 years from now? And what about my children?

4. We have no control over it.
Our nuclear fate is entirely out of our hands. A handful of people around the world have the ability to obliterate human civilization, or at least huge chunks of it, with the decisions they make. The other 6.8 billion of us are just going to have to deal with it. Sure, we can elect officials who encourage disarmament, we can hold NIMBY protests when they try to build a new power plant, we can put flowers behind our ears and sing Joni Mitchell songs, but ultimately some ideologue with a suitcase nuke or panicky bombardier or drunk engineer is going to make the fateful decision. It will happen without warning. One morning, all the radio and television stations broadcasting from Chicago will go silent at once; phone calls will be cut off; frantic callers will inform nearby emergency services and, shortly thereafter, national news outlets. It will probably take about 20 minutes for shaky cell phone video footage of the mushroom cloud to appear on CNN and YouTube.

And there's nothing you can do about it.