January 02, 2008

Overrated nuclear weapons and underrated conventional weapons

In response to the 2008 Edge question "when did facts change your mind", Freeman Dyson describes the facts that changed his mind about the role of nuclear weapons in ending world war 2 I agree with the assessment that nuclear weapons are overrated and excessively feared. Nuclear weapons are devastating but conventional weapons and all out conventional war needs to be feared more that it is.

When facts change your mind, that's not always science. It may be history. I changed my mind about an important historical question: did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no.

The August 9 [1945] session of the Supreme Council resulted in the decision to surrender.

The Emperor, in his rescript to the military forces ordering their surrender, does not mention the nuclear bombs but emphasizes the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. In 1895 Japan had defeated China, but accepted a humiliating peace when European powers led by Russia moved into Manchuria and the Russians occupied Port Arthur. By making peace, the emperor Meiji had kept the Russians out of Japan. Emperor Hirohito had this analogy in his mind when he ordered the surrender.

The Japanese leaders had two good reasons for lying when they spoke to Robert Butow. The first reason was explained afterwards by Lord Privy Seal Kido, another member of the Supreme Council: "If military leaders could convince themselves that they were defeated by the power of science but not by lack of spiritual power or strategic errors, they could save face to some extent". The second reason was that they were telling the Americans what the Americans wanted to hear, and the Americans did not want to hear that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria brought the war to an end.

In addition to the myth of two nuclear bombs bringing the war to an end, there are other myths that need to be demolished. There is the myth that, if Hitler had acquired nuclear weapons before we did, he could have used them to conquer the world. There is the myth that the invention of the hydrogen bomb changed the nature of nuclear warfare. There is the myth that international agreements to abolish weapons without perfect verification are worthless. All these myths are false. After they are demolished, dramatic moves toward a world without nuclear weapons may become possible.

Conventional weapons can match nuclear weapon destruction but only a little slower

I do not suggest that conventional weapons should be used in the way that I will describe, but I illustrate how simple it is to achieve total devastation without using nuclear weapons. The lack of willingness by many to recognize that nuclear weapons are not unique in being able to cause complete devastation encourages bad decisions to be made which cost millions of lives every year. The wrong decision is to restrict and underdevelop nuclear power and fail to displace coal and fossil fuels for electricity and transportation. Outdoor air pollution from fossil fuels kills 3 million people every year and indoor air pollution kills 1.5 million people every year (World Health Organization statistics. Recent WHO statistics indicate the deaths from air pollution could be as high as 6 million. Over 10% of deaths from any source).

Modern conventional weapons can be used in an unrestricted way that would provide a more controlled destruction of an enemy nation. What is required is air superiority and the willingness to use conventional weapons fully. A military with air superiority can impose a Carthaginian solution upon its enemy. Rome destroyed its enemy Carthage at the end of their third war. Rome killed or sold into slavery the Carthaginians. They salted the land. Something akin to Stalin's scorched earth tactic except it would be scorching the opponents land.

1. First use your air force to destroy the opponents air force and air defences
2. Then use your air force to destroy bridges, airports, ports, and key parts of rail and roads to hinder movement within and out of the enemy territory. Blockade the country with Navy and Army forces.
3. Use your air force to destroy medical and emergency response infrastructure.
4. Drop poisons into water and food supplies or bomb food and water supplies and distribution. Use the air force to help spread certain diseases (Cholera and Malaria etc...) that devastate refugee populations but which do not effect populations with proper medical facilities.

The percentage of the target population that would be killed with this approach would equal the devastation of a nuclear attack. The devastation could be achieved in a matter of weeks and there would not be the risk of fallout and other spillover effects that come with the use of nuclear weapons.

In the 20th century, about 216 million people died from conventional war and violence and less than 200,000 died from nuclear weapons and nuclear causes. Air pollution and conventional coal mining killed over 300 million people in the 20th century.

The focus of policy should be on saving the lives lost to air pollution and on preventing wars in general. Far higher use of nuclear power (like the 80% of electricity from nuclear power in France) can reduce tensions and risks of war over limited oil resources. Higher usage of nuclear power can reduce air pollution and reduce the annual costs of medical coverage with fewer people getting sick from air pollution.

Lives will be saved and public health and national budgets and economies would be improved by using more nuclear power.

Note: Renewables can be used as well but there is 20 times as much nuclear power versus non-hydroelectric renewable power. Hydroelectric power is good but there are limitations on increasing it significantly except in China. So renewables should be developed as well but increasing electricity from nuclear power will have more impact over the next 20-30 years. From 2010-2020, a big boost to nuclear can come by using new thermoelectric devices to convert 50+% of the waste heat from nuclear into electricity. Also, in that time frame MIT power uprating technology could be deployed to generate another 50% increase in power from existing reactors. Those changes and a few more reactors that are likely to be built in the USA would increase nuclear power from the current 800 billion kwh up to 2000 billion kwh by 2020. This would be a move from 20% of electricity up to nearly 50% of electricity.

Number of Americans killed by nuclear weapons since WW2 : 0
Number of Americans killed by conventional weapons since WW2: almost 100,000

Number of Americans killed by commercial nuclear reactors since first US commercial nuclear plant (1957): 0
Americans killed by fear of nuclear power since first commercial nuclear plant (1957): 2 to 3 million mostly from air pollution.

The more accurate numbers would be what if the US had a strong nuclear power build after interest rates subsided by the 1980's and built standardized reactors:

Number of Americans killed by commercial nuclear reactors since and including Three Mile Island (1979): 0
Americans killed by fear of nuclear power (if the USA was not afraid and had copied France's strong nuclear power buildup of the 1980s. 78% electricity from nuclear power instead of 20%. Displacing coal and some natural gas and heating oil): 600,000 deaths from air pollution and 15,000 transportation and mining deaths avoided

Number of people killed by commercial nuclear reactors since first commercial nuclear plant (1956): 57 to 4000 and most likely about 400 (Mainly chernobyl).
Thyroid cancer mortality rates are about 5%. 200 deaths might be expected from 4000 cases.

People killed by fear of nuclear power since first commercial nuclear plant (1956): 150+ million mostly from air pollution. The strong build through the (1980s) to displace coal: 60 million excess deaths


1000 coal mining fatalities since 1957. 500 annual transportation deaths (rail and truck moving nearly 1 billion tons of coal per year, air pollution deaths in the USA about 70,000 per year. About 30,000 per year from coal air pollution. Air pollution and air quality was worse in the USA prior to the Clean air act of 1970, but there was half the population in the USA.

Air pollution causes 12% more cardiopulmonary deaths and 16% more lung cancer deaths Around 30-40 percent of cases of asthma and 20-30 percent of all respiratory diseases may be linked to air pollution in some locales.

A pdf with US Coal mining injuries and fatalities 1930-2006
Coal mining fatalities by state, 1993-2006

Most of the several thousand figure are for people who are expected to die from increased incidence of cancer.

Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2002 about 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases can be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding problems associated with screening, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The risk of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to its short latency time, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure

The first commercial nuclear generator to become operational in the United States was the Shippingport Reactor (Pennsylvania, December, 1957).
The world's first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall in Sellafield, England was opened in 1956 with an initial capacity of 50 MW (later 200 MW).[
On June 27, 1954, the USSRs Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant became the world's first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid, and produced around 5 megawatts electric power.


Joffan said...

Interesting rethink on why nuclear proliferation is a minor issue, quite apart from the technical reasons why it is neither easy nor widely sought.

One incidental point is that hydroelectricity has killed plenty of people, comparable to the nuclear weapon body count, in addition to wreaking much more widespread destruction. I'm still in favour of it even so, because it's so much better than coal and gas.

al fin said...

Interesting revisionist history by Dyson on the end of WWII. I read the history considerably differently, but it is exciting to read the different POVs. Almost like science fiction alternate universes.

The human mind truly is the creator and destroyer of universes.

Tom Craver said...

Brian - sure, but isn't the point that it'd take a huge amount of effort to do the devastation that a few nukes could do?

And that while you could see flights of bombers flying your way, you might miss a single A-bomb hidden in a cargo ship, slipping into your harbor?

I agree nuclear power has been maligned, but is discounting the threat of nuclear weapons the way to rectify that?

After all, we embraced nuclear power for years after the bombs were dropped on Japan and Russia and China got The Bomb. It was environmentalist fear-mongering that led to halting construction, not fears of people making a-bombs using their nuclear power plants or associated fuel refineries.

bw said...


I actually think the primary factor for not building nukes was cost. First high interest rates in the seventies and then cheap natural gas that stalled out nukes. Although the cost can be effected by policy and policy in the USA can be affected by people and events.

On the point of effort. While it takes a large logistical organization to mount a large conventional offensive, it is not necessarily more difficult politically. Making a nuclear offensive now would carry stigma and more political issues (the other nations and peoples would tend to rally against the user of nukes). A conventional slaughter is unfortunately not that unique and the response has often tended to be delayed and ineffective. (Darfur, Rawanda, etc...)

I feel that the economic and policy tide has already turned in favor of nuclear power in the USA. (loan guarantees in 2005 and 2007 and other favorable policy). If in 2009 the climate change bill passes then coal and carbon power will get even more expensive and nuclear will get a big boost as clear economic choice.

Discounting the nuclear weapons threat is because I actually believe nuclear weapons to not be that different from a Stalinesque use of conventional power. Nuclear power should be distinguished from nuclear weapons because of the different nuclear fuel cycle.

The other aspect for my discounting nuclear weapons is because as a futurist I believe in the progress of technology and in particular energy and space and nanotechnology and genetic. When the breakthroughs that I expect are made (nuclear fusion, space propulsion, materials, computers etc...) then the power at civilizations disposal and every day use will downgrade make control of nuclear weapons to the level of a chemical bomb now. ie. if you can freely travel the solar system at 10% of light speed then if you ejected a chair out of your ship and it hit something stationary the effect would be like a nuclear fission bomb.

Jim Baerg said...

"Hydroelectric power is good but there are limitations on increasing it significantly except in China"

There are lots of places where all the hydroelectricity potential is in use, but China isn't the only exception. If people in central Africa were to get their political act together the Congo river could provide all the electricity they need to have a western living.standard