08
Jul
09

What I am scared of more than anything else in the world

I thought I should write about my greatest fear of all. With any luck, I can make it scary enough to make you scared about it, too. Of course my fear is nuclear annihilation. Many people are rightly scared of this happening. But I’m assuming most people don’t like to think about it very much. I suppose a lot of people hardly consider it at all. This is a good thing, I suppose. Still, I have dreams of nuclear doom on a regular basis. So here’s the story of why I’m so scared by it all.

To see why this subject is so scary, you first have to understand it. Specifically, how do these weapons work? I’ll start with atomic fission devices, the sort that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. Nuclear fission is what happens when you split atoms. In the nucleus of an atom, there are tiny particles called neutrons. These, along with the other particles inside atoms, determine what element it is. Uranium and plutonium are two elements that are incredibly dense. They have hundreds of particles inside their nuclei. They are incredibly unstable; and, left to their own devices, these atoms lose particles because they cannot stay intact for long, which causes the stuff to break down into lighter elements. It is the lost particles that make these materials radioactive. The tiny particles fly away at high speed. When they pass through a human body, they mess up the molecules of the cells they pass through, causing them to mutate and become cancerous. It is this that makes the fallout from a nuclear weapon so deadly.

Uranium and plutonium are so very dense, that it is possible to split them completely into two different elements. To do this, you must fire a neutron into the nucleus of one of these atoms. It becomes overloaded, and splits in two. The atoms it splits into don’t need so many neutrons, so the remainder are left to fly away. The discarded neutrons slam into other uranium particles, causing them to split, and so on. It causes a chain reaction that ultimately results in a huge fucking explosion. This is the technology that destroyed those Japanese cities. Atomic bombs such as these typically completely destroy everything within a mile, and seriously fuck up everything within two.

Still, it didn’t take long before some bright spark worked out a way to make these weapons more powerful. They settled on the idea of fusing atoms together, rather than breaking them apart. This technique, obviously enough, is called fusion. It is what powers the sun, and all of the other stars in the sky, and it is the process by which all matter in the universe came to exist in the first place. Including the carbon that made our planet, the moon, and even me and you. It is a pretty powerful force. Fusing atoms together releases an enormous amount of energy. In an as accessible way as I can manage to explain it, it works like this. There is a force between atoms that keeps them separated. There is another force, a much stronger force, that keeps atoms stuck together. Consider two magnets that repel one another. Now imagine the surface of these magnets is made of velcro. It is very difficult to push them together, but if you can, they will stay together. Where does all that energy that was keeping them apart go? It goes out, out and away, and becomes another huge fucking explosion.

In fission, scientists can only realistically split the heaviest elements with enough ease to create useful weapons. In fusion, of course, they choose the lightest. Hydrogen is the lightest of them all. When two hydrogen atoms are fused, they become a single atom of helium, the next lightest element we have. Unfortunately, fusing two hydrogen atoms together is extremely difficult. It requires temperatures of over one million degrees centigrade to do properly. We have only one thing that can easily create those kinds of temperatures, which is an atomic bomb. And that is precisely what fusion bombs use.

So, the final configuration of a thermonuclear bomb looks like this. First, commonplace explosives are used to smash up some uranium atoms, which create an enormous, super-hot explosion, which compresses a tank of hydrogen so much that it all fuses into helium, releasing a much greater burst of energy. You begin to see now, I hope, why so few nations have managed to successfully build nuclear weapons. Building them isn’t any secret; the physics of how they work is well-documented. You could give Robert Mugabe a copy of “How to Build a Thermonuclear Weapon”, but it would be useless to him, because Zimbabwe doesn’t have the technology required to build such devices. If it did, then they wouldn’t need a handbook, because they’d have already built one.

So how powerful are these fusion-based, thermonuclear weapons? The standard yield weapon has the power to almost completely vaporise everything within a nine-mile radius. The temperature in this zone is so high, that human bodies will burn when subjected to it. That’s right, you will actually be on fire. Not just your clothes. You. Your skin, your bones, your internal organs. They be in flames. The closer you are to the centre of the explosion, the less pain you will feel.  On the outer edges of this zone, if caught out in the open, the heat will sear the flesh of your bones, in what must be the most unimaginably painful way to die. Within the range of nine to twelve miles, the heat produced is not enough to cause you to burst into flames, but it is enough to make pretty much everything else burn. That means your clothes, trees, houses, cars, etc. You might not get set on fire, but you’ll be in an environment where everything is burning. If you manage to survive this, somehow, then the blast wave might just get you. If you’re within twelve miles, and you’ve managed to take cover from the searing heat by hiding under your stairs, it won’t much matter, because the blast wave will blow apart the bricks and mortar of your house like paper. Beyond the radius of twelve miles, your chances of survival are greatly improved, especially if you duck behind a strong wall, or get inside somewhere. But after the event, you must escape the fallout cloud to avoid getting radiation poisoning. Don’t think that hiding behind a series of steel-reinforced walls only a few miles away from the explosion will help you. Nuclear missiles and bombs are designed to go off a couple of miles above their target so as to maximise the damage they can cause. Your fancy walls will not save you.

So how at risk we here in the UK of getting nuked? Well, historically, it has always been the United States and Russia who have been gunning for each other. At one stage, Russia had over 60,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles. These are missiles that can be launched from anywhere in the world, and can travel to anywhere in the world. They are the very pinnacle of good rocket science. Guided death by missile strike from anywhere in the world! America, for their part, mostly relied on a fleet of B52 bombers to drop their payloads. Although they did just so happen to litter Europe with missile stations to try and get an advantage over Russia. One of the places they put their missiles was the UK, where many remain to this day. That means in the event of these two powerful nations going to war, the UK will be targeted as well. Major bummer. The risk was so great that at one stage the Government created a series of helpful documents called Protect and Survive. These were not very comforting. When I was at school we had to read these pamphlets. They were localised for each town they given to. And I was not very comforted to see my hometown on a map with a series of blast radius circles stretching outwards, engulfing every neighbouring town all the way to Eastbourne.

So, how at risk are you of getting nuked? Well, in the event of a nuclear showdown between Russia and America, it is the missile silos here in the UK that are targeted first. If you live near one of those, you’re sod out of luck. Next on the list are other military targets, so if you happen to live near an army barracks or a naval base, major bummer to you. Then it comes the turn of major communication centres; or anywhere with sophisticated communication equipment. Think airports, port towns, towns with powerful radio equipment. Then, our infrastructure that targeted. Power stations and major substations, waterworks, major rail links, and so on. Next, our industry is targeted: industrial estates, factories and such. After that, the remaining weapons will be used to hit any major centres of population that haven’t yet been bombed as per the previous targets (think of large suburban towns like Milton Keynes). The last few targets on the list may not be bombed for several days, as central command has been eliminated, and messages to submarine crew and secret missile bases around the world take time to come into effect. So if you manage to survive all that, what, exactly, are you going to do now? The UK has been completely fucked, as will most of the other countries in Europe. An enormous, radioactive dust cloud hangs over the country, which, come winter, will cause temperatures to drop to below minus twenty degrees centigrade. You’ll most likely freeze to death, or run out of food. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the army will have snipers patrolling the countryside in radiation suits. Their mission is to shoot dead anyone seeing walking around without radiation protection. The reasoning being that these people are as good as dead anyway, and walking around like that they put the lives of others in danger. Your chances of survival are pretty much a million to one, right now. So let’s just hope war never comes.

It nearly did, though. A whole bunch of times, in fact. I will relate the story that I think is probably the most maddeningly scary. During the Cuban missile crisis, an American Army General unilaterally raised the Defcon level to its highest. This meant the nuclear-laden B52 bombers were sent into the air to circle Russia, waiting for the go ahead to continue. Missile silos were primed, and everything was ready to go. The Russians knew it was happening, and I imagine they were all shit-scared. President Kennedy, on the other hand, hadn’t even been informed. This General wasn’t acting on any sort of military intelligence or official orders; he was just doing it as a fuck-you to the Russians. All it would have taken to cause Armageddon was for a jumpy Russian general to hit the big red button. Who knows how close they came to doing just that, but I believe it was too close for comfort.

Many people seem to labour under the misapprehension that the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty is the thing that stops countries from gaining access to these weapons. Unfortunately for you boys and girls, that’s a crock of shit. It is the difficulty of building these devices that has hampered many a dictator who would love some. And it is this alone. And some countries have even just simply bought their nuclear weapons from others. Even backwards buttfuck North Korea seems to have worked out how to build these things. Iran, apparently, is on their way to achieving likewise. We now live with the terrifying knowledge that we’re fast entering an age where having these weapons will be pretty commonplace. All it takes for it all to go bang is for one idiot to push that button. Do you trust the leaders of the world to make the right decision when it really matters? No. That’s what I thought.

I don’t think about this shit all the time, and it isn’t the sort of thing I lay awake at night dreading. Living in fear of something such as this is idiotic. You might as well live in fear of a meteor strike fucking us up. Still, it is just one of those things that, due to a variety of reasons, has become a regular feature of my nightmares. All the same, perhaps you will be scared by this stuff happening. Maybe you will live in constant fear of impending nuclear death. One can only hope. Thanks for reading.

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