We’re back to nuclear psychosis (and there’s less risk of fighting than it appears)

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In the last two weeks, an article we published in May 2019 has unexpectedly come to life. It is about “How to survive an atomic bomb (and why it is better not to run away after the explosion)” and it has been among the most read of Xataka for days. It does not seem like an isolated event if we take into account that the media have been filled with articles on “what to do in case of nuclear attack“, from X-rays of the Russian arsenal or from simulations of “how would it impact an atomic bomb in the middle of a city.” It’s official: nuclear psychosis is back.

Russia puts weapons on the table. On February 27, Vladimir Putin made public through a televised message that Russia had activated (and put on alert) the nuclear deterrence forces. “Nuclear deterrence” is one of those terms inherited from the Cold War that translates into the idea that, in the event of an attack, all military force, including nuclear force, will be used, causing unbearable damage to the attacker. Thus, neither side would initiate any offensive for fear of the consequences. The ‘If you see pacem, for bellum‘ raised to its maximum power.

However, the drums of nuclear disaster came from before. On February 24, for example, the clashes around the Chernobyl power plant already awakened ghosts (and fears) from the past. And, even more so, after the conflict of Crimea in 2014 and the consequent violation of the treaty that denuclearized Ukraine (in exchange for guaranteeing its “territorial integrity and political independence”), the idea that Kiev should rearm nuclearly has been a constant buzz that the Kremlin itself has used to legitimize the invasion.

How close Chernobyl really came to turning Europe into a post-nuclear stage

A tension that seeps into public opinion. To this escalation of war tension (and rhetoric), we must add events such as the fire at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in Europe. The general feeling (amplified by both parties of the conflict) is that either because the war escalates to a nuclear scenario or simply by accident, the atomic disaster is closer than ever. But is that “feeling” really justified or are we being victims of a certain collective hysteria (motivated by this media coverage of the war)?

The risk of reaching a nuclear war. If we stick to the facts and not to the rhetoric, “activating” the nuclear deterrence forces is a way to put “command and control center (missile launch) teams on alert”, shorten the time and simplify the procedures for issuing the missile launch order,” explained in France 24 Rafael Loss, nuclear doctrine specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations. However, “on the scale of a nuclear conflict, there are many other steps.”

Should Russia be preparing for nuclear conflict, “nuclear-armed submarines would probably start moving” and “nuclear missiles would roll out of hangars and load onto bombers.” All this, in principle, would be detectable by intelligence agencies and the network of satellites that monitor nuclear weapons around the world. Above all, because these procedures are designed to be used as a dissuasive measure, as “diplomatic blackmail”. There is no satisfactory scenario for anyone after pressing the “nuclear button”.

The war amid a dozen and a half nuclear reactors Although the scenario of nuclear war is far away, what about accidents? The International Atomic Energy Agency It has been recognized that the Zaporizhia fire was caused by a Russian missile, how close are we to a new Chernobyl?

The answer, on a physical level, is relatively reassuring: we are far away. Nuclear power plants cannot explode in the same way that nuclear bombs do. The plants use between 3 and 5% of U-235 (an isotope of uranium unstable enough to subject it to nuclear fission); the bombs, for their part, need materials that contain up to 90% and, for this reason, it is called “enriched uranium”. This does not mean that there is no risk, as is evident.

An attack that knocked out the cooling system and caused the core to melt could release large amounts of radioactive material into the environment. However, for this to happen, the enormous set of security measures would have to be compromised and, more specifically, the containment building (which is specifically designed to contain these emissions in the event of a fatal accident) would have to be destroyed. In other words, the attack should be capable of dismantling the plant’s control systems: something that is not as simple as firing one or more missiles.

An oversized nuclear danger… We must not forget that the international shock (and nuclear fear) that the Chernobyl accident unleashed overdimensioned its impact on the continent. Despite what we have heard many times, the crash of ’86 did not come close to causing “Europe to become uninhabitable.” It was a nuclear disaster, the biggest accident of its kind that has ever happened and its impact was savage, yes. But it is also a clear example that the risk to nuclear power plants is limited. It would take clear and determined intervention to bring about anything remotely similar.

…but a danger after all. As we have explained several times, Many experts who have studied the Chernobyl case are convinced that the profound consequences psychologicalsocial and cultural “turned out to be a much bigger problem than radiation”. Before them we do not have “containment buildings“.

Image | GTRES

In the last two weeks, an article we published in May 2019 has unexpectedly come to life. It is about…

In the last two weeks, an article we published in May 2019 has unexpectedly come to life. It is about…

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