Members in the Media
From: Discover

Nuclear Anxiety Is Nothing New. Here’s How to Handle It

If you look at the Google trends analysis for the term “nuclear war” over the past 30 days, it’s pretty hard to miss: On Feb. 24th, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the search term’s popularity soared. Just a few days later, it surged again, when President Vladimir Putin placed Russian nuclear forces on high alert — the first time its government had done so since 1991. And on March 4th, there was another spike, right after Russian forces captured a Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia.

Alex Wellerstein, a science historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, is familiar with such signs of concern about nuclear war. In addition to his work studying the history of nuclear weapons, Wellerstein is also the creator of NUKEMAP, a website that allows users to model how much destruction different types of nuclear bombs might wreak if dropped on a given location. He says that NUKEMAP has seen well over 300,000 daily visitors in recent weeks — about 20 times the site’s normal traffic. In the days following the invasion, the site was so overloaded with traffic that it crashed regularly.

This undeniable rise in nuclear anxiety is perfectly understandable, too. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t just a humanitarian crisis; it’s also a conflict taking place in the shadow of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals. While these stockpiles — built during the Cold War — may seem like relics of a bygone era, the threat they pose is very real. And scientists are still learning new things about their dangers. Beyond any immediate casualties, for example, the smoke and soot from the fires that would rage in the wake of a nuclear explosion could trigger a climate change that threatens both global food supplies and overall human health, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

Read the whole story (subscription may be required): Discover

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It is interesting how quickly the world’s mindset went from nuclear war to anxiety over mutually-assured destruction. Nuclear war is destructive. We know this because we have already survived one called World War 2. However, the idea of nuclear weapons assuring the end of the world is speculation derived from models based on a very small number of detonations over half a century ago.

We should keep in mind that mutually-assured destruction was hypothesized in an era that lacked effective anti-missile defense systems. That is no longer the case. Small tactical nuclear artillery shells and bombs are relatively new. A few tactical detonations probably would not trigger global nuclear war (WWIII) much less create global destruction. It is additionally worth keeping in mind that not all the world’s ICBMs are likely to be fired in a nuclear war either due to age-related malfunctions or operator reticence. Don’t these reassurances make you feel less anxious? Come on, we can hear you chuckling.

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