Editorial Feature

How Nuclear Warfare Affects the Environment

Sourced from: Think Stock

Dubbed by scientists as the single biggest threat to the earth's environment, even a small-scale nuclear war is capable of having devastating effects on the world's climate and its ecosystems.

Despite the financial crisis of 2009, the Stockholm Internation Peace Research Institute reported that global military expenditure, arms production and arms transfers between countries did not decline. Over $1.5 trillion was spent on military projects across the world, a 49% increase since 2000.

There are 30,000 nuclear warheads estimated around the world, with 95% of these being owned by the USA and Russia.

Nuclear Weapons

There are a great deal of hazardous substances used and disposed of during production of nuclear weaponry. These include plutonium, uranium, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), strontium, cesium, mercury and cyanide. All of these materials have negative impacts on the environment and often find their way into oceans, rivers and soil harming wildlife living local to the production of the weaponry.

Unlike conventional bombs, the power of nuclear weapons comes from thermal and ionizing radiation generated by the splitting or joining together of atoms. Ionizing radiation, unique to the nuclear bomb, causes additional damage and death. Exposure to this form of radiation causes the victim to suffer greatly, with no effective medical treatments to help them.

Synonymous with nuclear explosions, "mushroom clouds" are formed through the displacement of vast amounts of earth, water and debris which becomes radioactive. This debris then falls back to earth and contaminates very large areas surrounding the initial location of the explosion rendering it uninhabitable for many years.

The potential devastation of nuclear weaponry was demonstrated by the atomic bombs dropped over the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. As nuclear weapons are estimated to be far superior in terms of power compared to the bombs used in 1945, the future impact of a nuclear war is predicted to be incredibly destructive to the entire planet not simply the country which is attacked.

How It Will Affect Health

Based on estimations by scientists, if India and Pakistan were to engage in a nuclear conflict, there would be an almost immediate loss of 12 million and 9 million people respectively. These countries would have to shut down all activities for a long time to recover from the devastation. The aftermath would be far worse for densely populated countries.

The atom bomb that hit Nagasaki released heat of 4,000°C, burning and carbonizing thousands of people in the immediate location of the detonation. Survivors located a considerable distance away from the explosion suffered from bleeding gums, high fever and stiffening and blackening of the body. It took some survivors over three years for their original skin color to return and survivors reported insomnia due to the shear psychological trauma of what had happened.

Many scientists and anti-nuclear activists warn of the dangers of the radiation released during every stage of nuclear weapon production and eventual detonation. Congenital defects, immunity destruction, cancer, stillbirths, mental disabilities and a variety of very serious health problems have been observed in relation to exposure to nuclear radiation. This has been reported from workers of nuclear power stations in Japan, those living in the Hanford region of the USA and the child survivors of the Chernobyl disaster.


Despite the increased awareness of the harmful effects of nuclear warfare, on February 12, 2013, North Korea performed its third nuclear test, causing widespread tension around the world.

Nuclear disarmament is a hot topic at many international conventions. It refers to the act of reducing the usage of or eliminating nuclear weapons. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT is an international treaty formulated with the following objectives:

  • To prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology
  • To promote cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy
  • To further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament

The International Court of Justice has formulated an Advisory Opinion concerned with the "Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons". The Court has stated that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would be looked upon as a violation of various articles of international laws such as the Geneva Convention, the UN Charter, The Hague Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Billions of dollars are spent annually by many countries on constructing, maintaining and safe-guarding their nuclear weapons. This money could be better focussed on the use of nuclear power for non-military applications such as health care and education. The potential use of nuclear explosives in propulsion systems for space travel is also being probed.



Alessandro Pirolini

Written by

Alessandro Pirolini

Alessandro has a BEng (hons) in Material Science and Technology, specialising in Magnetic Materials, from the University of Birmingham. After graduating, he completed a brief spell working for an aerosol manufacturer and then pursued his love for skiing by becoming a Ski Rep in the Italian Dolomites for 5 months. Upon his return to the UK, Alessandro decided to use his knowledge of Material Science to secure a position within the Editorial Team at AZoNetwork. When not at work, Alessandro is often at Chill Factore, out on his road bike or watching Juventus win consecutive Italian league titles.


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