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Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons

The Effects of Nuclear Weapons

A nuclear bomb has certain special characteristics that distinguish it from a conventional weapon and make
the effects of this weapon particularly devastating in terms of immediate casualties and longer-term health
and environmental impact.
These unique characteristics are:
○ An intense burst of high-energy radiation (the amount of energy that is released by an atomic bomb
exceeds any other kind of weapon – e.g. biochemical weapons, conventional bombs…)
○ An exploding fireball instantly inflicting burns and starting fires
○ An enormously powerful shockwave
○ A mushroom cloud propelling radioactive fission products into the upper atmosphere, from where
they return as ‘radioactive fallout’
○ Radioactive substances which remain millions of years after the explosion and emit harmful
radiation that can damage living organisms
The explosion of a nuclear bomb over a target such as a populated city would lead to immense and severe
damage. The degree of damage would depend upon the distance from the centre of the bomb blast, which
is called the hypocentre or ground zero. The closer one is to the hypocentre, the more severe the damage.
The following diagram shows the destruction suffered by Hiroshima – it gives you an idea of the kind of
damage caused by a nuclear bomb.


○ At the hypocentre, everything is immediately vaporised by the high temperature (up to 500 million
degrees Fahrenheit or 300 million degrees Celsius).
○ Outward from the hypocentre, most casualties are caused by burns from the heat, injuries from the
flying debris of buildings collapsed by the shock wave, and acute exposure to the high radiation.
○ Beyond the immediate blast area, casualties are caused from the heat, radiation, and fires
spawned from the heat wave.
○ In the long-term, radioactive fallout occurs over a wider area because of prevailing winds. The
radioactive fallout particles enter the water supply and are inhaled and ingested by people at a
distance from the blast.

Diagram - Damaging effects of nuclear bombs

The damaging effects of nuclear bombs can be seen from the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki in 1945: click on the following links to find out.
Immediate casualties >>
Long term health effects >>
Environment >>

Immediate casualties
Although the exact number of dead and injured will never be known, the estimated death toll is staggering. It
ranges between 100,000 and 180,000 for Hiroshima, and between 50,000 and 100,000 for Nagasaki.
Causes of death were numerous and these included burning, being crushed by falling debris and
The Hiroshima health department estimated the proportion of deaths from burns to be 60%, deaths from
falling debris to be 30% and deaths from other injuries such as radiation to be 10%.
Immediately after the detonation the temperature at the centre of the fireball is several million degrees
Survivors in the two cities stated that people who were in the open directly under the explosion of the bomb
were so severely burned that the skin was charred dark brown or black and that they died within a few
minutes or hours.
Crushed by falling debris
In Hiroshima the atomic bomb exploded close to the centre of the city and 90% of buildings collapsed or
burned. Thousands of people were pinned beneath the debris. Many were able to escape or received aid in
escaping, but large numbers succumbed either to their injuries or to fire before they could escape
Our understanding of radiation casualties is not complete. In the words of Dr. Robert Stone of the Manhattan
Project, "The fundamental mechanism of the action of radiation on living tissues has not been understood.”
-Radiation victims who were near the hypocentre but escaped heat burns or secondary injuries became ill
within two or three days with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea and hair loss. Most died
within a week.
-Radiation victims who were further away from the explosion did not show severe symptoms until later (one
to four weeks after the explosion). The first signs were loss of appetite, lassitude and general discomfort.
Inflammation of the gums, mouth, and pharynx as well as fever appeared next.
Long term health effects
Radiation caused a wide range of disorders for decades. Even today, after more than fifty years, the full
range of effects of radiation taken into the body has yet to be clarified. Many survivors continue to suffer
from those effects.
Effects on unborn children
The atomic bomb had serious effects on foetuses. Many were stillborn, and exposed foetuses born alive had
higher infant mortality rates than other children. Children who were born also suffered an increased
incidence of a syndrome characterized by an abnormally small skull, accompanied in severe cases by
mental disabilities.
Beginning around 1960, the incidence of cancer began to increase. The main cancers included thyroid,
breast, lung, and salivary gland. The role of radiation in cancer is significant. Some researchers reported a
direct correspondence between distance from hypocenter, probable exposure dose, and malignancy rates.

Source: Effects of A-bomb Radiation on the Human Body 1992, Ed. Hiroshima International Council for Medical Care of the
Radiation-exposed, Bunkodo
The incidence of leukaemia among atomic bomb survivors was found to be in proportion to the doses of
radiation to which they were exposed. Furthermore, the younger they were when exposed, the higher the
leukaemia risk. The peak of leukaemia onset was about 7 to 8 years after exposure.

Source: Effects of A-bomb Radiation on the Human Body 1992, Ed. Hiroshima International Council for Medical Care of the

Nuclear weapons cause severe damage to the environment and it is suspected that no other weapon is
capable of causing environmental damage on a similar scale.
In 1987 the World Commission on the Environment and Development described the likely consequences of
nuclear war as:
"making other threats to the environment pale into insignificance. One thermo-nuclear
bomb [hydrogen bomb] can have an explosive power greater than all the explosives used
in wars since the invention of gunpowder. In addition to the destructive effects of blast and
heat, immensely magnified by these weapons, they introduce a new lethal agent -ionising
radiation- that extends lethal effects over both space and time." (Tri-Denting It Handbook,
A certain effect of the massive exchange of nuclear weapons is the nuclear winter. A nuclear winter would
arise as a result of hundreds of millions of tons of soot in the atmosphere from fires in cities, in forests and in
the countryside, caused by nuclear weapons. The smoke cloud and debris from multiple explosions could
blot out sunlight, leading to crop failures throughout the world and starvation.

The Basic Principle of the Atomic Bomb

The splitting of atomic nuclei releases enormous energy. When a single free neutron
strikes the nucleus of an atom of fissile (radioactive) material like uranium 235 or
plutonium 239, it usually knocks two or three more neutrons free. Energy is released
when those neutrons split off from the nucleus, and the newly released neutrons strike
other uranium 235 (or plutonium 239) nuclei, splitting them in the same way, releasing
more energy and more neutrons. This chain reaction spreads almost instantaneously. The
atomic bomb (A-bomb) was a weapon of destruction that used the power released by the
splitting of atomic nuclei.

If it were to accurately portray technological capabilities, the

symbol of the atomic era would not be the mushroom cloud, but a
Firestorms, the nuclear dimension