When an atomic or nuclear bomb detonates, the consequences on the immediate environment are devastating. The accident at the Chernobyl power plant and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki provide insight into the short and long-term effects of radiation and thermonuclear detonation on the environment. If enough nuclear weapons were exploded in a large-scale nuclear war, it would make large areas of the earth uninhabitable.
Immediate Environmental Effects
When an atomic bomb explodes, plutonium in the device undergoes fission, releasing enormous quantities of energy. The initial blast creates a blinding flash, followed by extreme heat. Temperatures in the area of the explosion reach upwards of 10 million degrees Celsius. Electromagnetic radiation leads to the formation of a fireball. An extremely strong, crushing wind is also caused by the initial blast. In Hiroshima, a single, 15 kiloton bomb was detonated over the center of the city. Everything within a 1-mile radius was completely destroyed. The effect on the immediate environment is one of total devastation. The extreme heat of thermal radiation burns everything in its path, including animals, trees, buildings and people. The nuclear radiation penetrates the body and many of those who didn’t die from radiation or burns, later developed cancers from the radiation.
An atomic bomb explosion creates radioactive dust that falls out of the sky into the area around the site of the explosion, and is also carried out way beyond and contaminates the ground, water and the food chain in environments farther away. Initially, little was known about radioactive fallout. In the United States many test explosions of nuclear weapons were carried out and by the 1950s scientists discovered that the particles were comprised of split atoms that were extremely radioactive and very dangerous.
The release of radiation from the Chernobyl power plant gives scientists an idea of what the effects would be on the environment in a small nuclear war. The amount of radiation released at Chernobyl would be equivalent to the detonation of about a dozen atomic bombs at an altitude that would cause maximum blast damage. At Chernobyl large amounts of radioactive particles were released in the huge fire that burned for 10 days and released iodine-131 and cesium-137 into the environment. These are particularly dangerous to the human body and the environment in general. Radioactive particles from nuclear fallout also affect the animals in the environment and get into the milk supply, as well as contaminate agricultural plants.
Water and Forest Contamination
Radioactive particles can travel from the site of an atomic bomb explosion and contaminate bodies of water, including aquatic life like fish. Animals in Chernobyl’s forests, for example, have high levels of radioactive cesium and scientists expect the contamination to remain that way for decades. The fallout from the detonation of numerous atomic bombs would result in contamination of berries and other plant life found in the surrounding areas and forests. Genetic mutations and disease in the generations of animals and humans following contamination would also occur.