Are we doomed to nuclear apocalypse?
Everybody’s favorite crony capitalist and democratically elected dictator Vladimir Putin just announced an all-new nuclear-powered cruise missile that can hit any target on earth. The missile can, according to Putin, fly under any existing US missile defense systems undetected. It’s a bizarre announcement, because Russia already has more than 1,900 nuclear missiles on standby that most experts agree could bypass any missile defense systems anywhere. The announcement comes just weeks after the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock to two minutes till midnight. If you don’t know, the Doomsday Clock represents expert global opinion of how close the world is to nuclear apocalypse. Midnight means the party’s over, and experts believe the planet is closer to total nuclear destruction than it has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was really really damn close. Well, and in 1953, just after the United states tested a hydrogen bomb.
I typically try to keep things light and somewhat fun, but if you couldn’t tell from the title, this one is somber and serious. If you have enough existential dread in your life already, you may want to skip this one. If you want to be a little educated about close we are to complete Mad Max chaos, keep listening. My hope is that listeners - all 30 of you - will be inspired to take some kind of action to stop the madness.
Everybody’s favorite crony capitalist and democratically elected dictator Vladimir Putin just announced an all-new nuclear-powered cruise missile that can hit any target on earth. The missile can, according to Putin, fly under any existing US missile defence systems undetected. It’s a bizarre announcement, because Russia already has more than 1,900 nuclear missiles on standby that most experts agree could bypass any missile defense systems anywhere. The announcement comes just weeks after the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock to two minutes till midnight. If you don’t know, the Doomsday Clock represents expert global opinion of how close the world is to nuclear apocalypse. Midnight means the party’s over, and experts believe the planet is closer to total nuclear destruction than it has been since the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was really really damn close. Well, and in 1953, just after the United states tested a hydrogen bomb.
Why? Experts cite a rise in populist political movements around the world, increased saber rattling by existing nuclear powers, unstable nations like North Korea developing their own weapons, and the chances of terrorists building or gaining control of weapons. When the leader of one of the world’s nuclear superpowers openly threatens a country with hellfire and another nuclear superpower announces new and more deadly weapons, it’s time to get nervous.
And we should be nervous. There are more than enough nuclear weapons in existence to turn the planet into a ball of glass. The US has 1,800 deployed and 6,800 in reserve. Russia has nearly 2,000 deployed and 7,000 in reserve. Nobody knows how many China has. India and Pakistan have a couple hundred between them and Israel could have as many as 400.
When you’re dealing with numbers like that, it’s difficult to imagine the destructive force we’re dealing with. Nuclear fission bombs split heavy unstable atoms to release tremendous amounts of energy. Elements like uranium or plutonium are gigantic and unstable. When you mash them together with enough force, they split apart and release insane amounts of energy and deadly radioactive material. Fusion bombs use small fission reactions to fuse hydrogen atoms together, releasing even more energy, but not as much radioactive gunk.
Both types of weapons release incredible amounts of energy. The first ever tested in 1945, named Trinity, released as much energy as 19,000 tons of TNT. The most powerful ever tested, the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba, released the same energy as 50 million tons of TNT. For comparison, the largest conventional bomb in service today, the MOAB or mother of all bombs, is equivalent to just 10 tons of TNT. Most of today’s warheads are between the 100,000 and 500,000 tons of TNG range, but they are dropped in packages of eight to 12. Just one 500 kiloton warhead is enough to completely flatten, then burn, then irradiate up to 100 square miles of land. Effectively erasing large population centers from the face of the earth and poisoning the area for thousands of years to come.
It’s unbelievably scary stuff, but the new Russian cruise missile is even scarier. But not original. While we don’t know a lot about it, it appears to be based on an old American idea that was deemed too horrible to make: The SLAM missile. SLAM - Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile, was an unmanned nuclear-powered nuclear bomb-dropping nightmare dreamed up by the Air Force in the late ‘50s. The missile used a nuclear reactor to power a ramjet engine. It would’ve flown at four times the speed of sound, spewing deadly radioactive exhaust in its wake, while dropping nuclear bombs on up to 18 targets. After it had completed its tour of destruction, it would’ve smashed headlong into its final target at speed, releasing the remaining deadly radiation. It would’ve killed anything along its flight path and poisoned the ground for thousands of years to come.
The Air Force tested a few of these terrible nuclear ramjet engines before deciding that the whole idea was just too horrible. They canceled the project in 1964.
Russia, however, appears to have been working on something similar, only worse. The new Russian cruise missile apparently has twice the range of SLAM, but that’s all we know. Putin didn’t say whether the new missile uses the same type of radiation-spewing ramjet, but he did say it’s nuclear powered. Experts think the missile probably does spit nuclear hellfire, though.
There are a ton of things to worry about in life. You could lose your job, you could get sick, your dog could get sick, your car could break down. But none of those things would mean the end of humanity. The weapons I’ve just described could destroy us all and poison the planet for a million years. It’s an overwhelming thought, like worrying about the possibility of an asteroid impact. Thing is, nuclear armageddon is under our control. We can urge government leaders to reduce the number of and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. It is possible, but it would take a massive coordinated effort. You see, it’s not easy to refine the material you need to make these things. It takes a ton of time, energy, and specialized equipment. Which is why it has taken so long for states like North Korea and Iran to develop these weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is supposed to keep tabs on nuclear weapons and power plants, but many criticize it for missing safety issues at places like the fukushima power plant in Japan. Still it seems like the IAEA is on the forefront of doing anything to stop nuclear proliferation. There are other groups, too, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK, Greenpeace, Peace Action, Global Zero and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. And, of course, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is also a great organization to support.
Go do some research, find out which group is trustworthy and aligns with your goals, and maybe donate or help out. The world may depend on it.
I apologize for the overtly apocalyptic nature of this episode, but I feel this is something we should be paying attention to. I grew up in the ‘80s, and I remember lying awake at night, terrified of a Soviet nuke. I don’t want my kid to lay awake fearing a North Korean or Russian nuke. And I don’t want any kid anywhere to feel the fear of pending nuclear apocalypse. It’s just not cool.
But! Next time I’ll have some more rosey nuclear news for you! It seems that we’re closer than ever to unlocking the power of nuclear fusion for power generation, which could herald a golden age of energy that will make the fossil fuel age look like the stone age! Also, I’m working on shows about unicorns, tardigrades, octopus genes, and voice recognition! Lots more fun to be had, for sure.