Unreconciled to the unthinkable

Mankind has a handy way of not thinking about the unthinkable. Probably the best example of this is the atom bomb. Nobody wants to face the reality of what would happen to a city if a bomb fell on it; it is too terrible. Yet this awful possibility does not prevent us, and the Russians, from manufacturing more and more bombs. We are inclined to accept the explanation, since no better offers itself, that the bombs are not being made to be used, but they are made as "deterrents" to prevent a nuclear war. And we must not fall behind in the grim race.

The explosive force of a nuclear bomb is measured in "megatons" or MTs: that is the equivalent of a million tons of TNT. Some of them are 5 or 10 MTs or more. The popular standard of comparison is the Hiroshima bomb. That was measured in "kilotons" or KTs. A kilo is only 1,000 tons of TNT, or 1,000 times less than an MT. The Hiroshima bomb had the explosive force of about 13,000 tons of TNT. So you see the new ones are much bigger. They range in violence beyond 10,000,000 tons.

What would one of these things do if it went off? Prof. Henry Kendall of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others gave estimates at a conference last April in the Netherlands. His paper did not editorialize; the facts pretty much spoke for themselves. He used the example of a 1 MT weapon (i.e., 1,000, 000 tons of TNT). If exploded in the lower atmosphere, he said, it would create a fireball, 7,000 feet wide with air heated to over 2,000 degrees centigrade. It would dig a crater about a fifth of a mile wide and 300 feet deep. If exploded in an urban area it would destroy something around 50 square miles totally by a combination of blast effects and fires. (It would set fires over about 150 square miles.)

There would be secondary effects. A ground burst would loft rock and soil into the air as dust of which perhaps 2,000 tons would be fine particulate matter that would hang in the upper atmosphere for months or years, limiting or destroying the naturally occuring ozone, which protects the Earth's biosphere from damaging ultraviolet rays in sunlight. It would probably also affect the weather.

Professor Kendall's paper, which was put in the Congressional Record May 12, by Senator Kennedy, tentatively enumerates the arsenal of nuclear warheads of the NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries. The megatonnage of either side is far greater than is needed to destroy the cities and towns of the other. It is "easily within the capacity of the Soviet Union," he says, to "kill nearly all the persons in the urban centers of Western Europe and subject those areas to near total destruction." The NATO countries could reciprocate. Meanwhile the two sides energetically build new weapons.

Let us say that a major bomb is dropped on Boston, or Los Angeles, or whatever city is picked. The heat would be intense, perhaps four times greater than the heat at the center of the sun. Solid matter would evaporate into radioactive gas. The fireball would be three or four miles high; the wind velocity would be perhaps 300 miles per hour.

Figures like these led former diplomat and historian George F. Kennan to declare here last month that the nuclear arms race is apt to produce "fear and hysteria." He argues that there can't be a "winnable" nuclear war, that there cant't be a "limited" nuclear war. He fears that the US and Russia are on "a collision course." He makes the radical proposal that each should immediately reduce its atomic arsenal by 50 percent. Even as he makes the proposal, however , he agrees that it isn't very likely to happen -- the inner momentum of the bombs race is too great. But, he adds, "no country has ever been faced with such a clear, obvious, and unalterable catastrophe at the end of the road."

It is so much easier not to think about the unthinkable. There is a discouraging lack of discussion on the whole, I think, about what to d o about it.

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