Emmanuelle Galichet: “The annihilation of humanity by nuclear weapons is a science fiction scenario”


How do you react to the statements of Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, who stated on Monday, August 1st that we have never been this close to nuclear war since the height of the Cold War? Yes, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the global geopolitical situation is so uncertain that it can seem unpredictable. However, when it comes to the nuclear danger, I tend to believe that the heads of state of the nuclear powers are responsible enough to do nothing. Nuclear weapons are usually part of deterrent forces and are not intended to be used offensively. They allow to create mutual fear between the belligerents. Especially in France. And globally, this also seems to be accepted by all. For example, Vladimir Putin announced on Monday that he had no intention of using nuclear weapons. We must be aware that no one wins from a nuclear war. Both the powerful and the people will be affected The follow-up after the announcement Aren’t we living in a kind of denial about the risk of a nuclear conflagration? Why is threat always experienced as abstract? I do not believe at all that we live in denial about the risk of a nuclear conflagration. On the contrary, it seems to me that we are all very aware of this risk. In addition, the media has been dealing with it very regularly, especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. It is the one risk for which so many treaties, conventions, independent agencies (international and national), laws and regulations have been created since the end of World War II. For everyone, nuclear disasters (both bombs and accidents at nuclear power plants) are unforgettable. Despite this, we rely on agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the Nuclear Safety Agency (ANSA) and the regulatory frameworks that nations and nuclear operators must comply with. And I think we’re right Nuclear war: “One accident would be enough…” In comparison, are chemical and biological weapons less dangerous and better controlled? Not sure and I think they are much more formidable. On the other hand, natural hazards are also enormously deadly. Earthquakes, floods, tsunamis have caused so many victims in human history. However, we are not in denial. We know they exist, that they can affect us. We organize ourselves by implementing strategies for prevention and protection of the population. In France, two thirds of municipalities are exposed to at least one natural risk and, finally, let’s not forget the risks associated with epidemics. The latest, Covid has already killed more than 6 million people, much more than the deaths caused by the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is not living with the perpetual threat of escalation? Living with any weaponry is a risk and can lead to fatal escalation. Since the beginning of humanity, human beings have continued to manufacture weapons essentially for two purposes: to defend themselves and to conquer territories and wealth. As for nuclear weapons, their manufacture and use are framed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force in 1970 and today ratified by 191 countries (including the United States and Russia) and the IAEA is responsible for its application. Four countries have not signed it: India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan. Regarding chemical and biological weapons, there are two conventions: one on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (CWC) and the other on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (CIAB). ). The first entered into force in 1997 and the second in 1975. But these two conventions still do not have a body in charge of verifying the application of the texts such as the IAEA, an annihilation of humanity. But can’t there be a “graduated” nuclear war? “Surgical” nuclear strikes? Military strategies may be based on the use of weak nuclear weapons whose damage could be limited to cities. Some countries have developed such weapons as “theater nuclear weapons” [forces nucléaires conçues pour des missions militaires localisées] developed by the United States or operational nuclear weapons developed by Russia. However, these types of strategies can quickly lead to an escalation of nuclear attacks and thus to a disastrous breakout. But when we talk about the annihilation of humanity, we mean the use of the entire nuclear arsenal of the world. They are more like science fiction movie scenarios. What are the very specific effects of a nuclear weapon explosion? The first effect of the explosion of a nuclear weapon is identical to that of a conventional weapon: it is the combination of the explosion, caused by the explosion, and the increase in temperature to more than 7,000 °C (followed by firestorms, giant fires). This is called a fireball. Then comes a shock wave caused by the explosion that will destroy buildings at a distance proportional to the power of the bomb. For example, a 1 kiloton bomb creates a fireball with an approximate diameter of 60 m and damage in about 2 km Follow-up after the announcement The effects of radioactivity are due to extremely high doses of ionizing radiation, immediately lethal for the people present at the point of impact and would not have already died from the heat and blast of the explosion. This is direct irradiation. For people who were not in the vicinity of the explosion site (the radius of action depends on the power of the bomb) there is a risk of developing long-term health problems. There are therefore two components that are not of the same nature as a conventional weapon: one, during the explosion with strong radioactivity due to short-lived radionuclides, and the other, afterwards, when the radioactivity disperses and falls to the ground with longer-lived and less harmful radionuclides, but keep in mind that the initial damage is the same as a conventional bomb. On the other hand, in the long term, exclusion zones (territories contaminated by radioactive contamination) and the consequences of nuclear accidents or explosions can be important. Is the nuclear danger really threatening us? In 2018, the geographer North – American Jared Diamond, known for his work entitled “Collapse”, declared that among the great threats that weighed on humanity, nuclear war came, according to him, before climate change. What do you think about it? I do not agree. Global warming will be far more devastating than a war, regardless of the weapons used. If we do nothing globally, if we do not rapidly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and in particular CO2 across the planet, not only people, but also vegetation and biodiversity will be wiped out. We need to start today to achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible and that at a global level. All the industrialized countries, of which France is a part, must set an example by looking for solutions adapted to all the countries of the world, almost all located in the northern hemisphere. A nuclear test is the detonation of a nuclear bomb for experimental purposes. Consequently, we are all born under the fallout of radioactive nuclei emitted during nuclear testing. This did not destroy life. Emmanuelle Galichet, bio expressEmmanuelle Galichet is a doctor in nuclear physics and professor-researcher at Cnam in nuclear science and technology. Currently, he is responsible for education in nuclear science and technology at Cnam.
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