Steffan Puwal, PhD
Special Lecturer &
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Medical Physics
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” After the Russian Federation committed to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last month, a few students asked me if I thought this could escalate to a nuclear war. It’s not an unreasonable question for them to ask. After living through the Great Recession and a global pandemic, it’s tempting to think that every week is one of Vladimir Lenin’s “weeks where decades happen”. My somewhat unsatisfying answer to their question is no, but also that it depends on how you define a nuclear war.
Our long history with these weapons convinces me they are not about to be used. Since July 16, 1945, when the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear device in the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico, strategic planners have attempted to form a doctrine for when, how, and if these weapons should be used. That doctrine has evolved from a first use doctrine of Massive Retaliation to one of Flexible Response and, finally, Mutual Assured Destruction. New academic disciplines were developed, most notably game theory, that were integrated into the strategic thinking of both sides. NATO and Warsaw Pact forces regularly conducted war games to practice how to use these weapons.
First use of a nuclear weapon is obsolete
As doctrine evolved, it changed the nature of nuclear weapons. Their utility came to be defensive, because first use invited nuclear retaliation. War gaming enforced the need to control the outcome, which had the useful effect of limiting the use of nuclear weapons to a smaller set of well-practiced scenarios that were understood by both sides. A surprise first strike is unlikely because improvised use is simply not how our nuclear weapons work anymore.
This long history of strategic thinking means that the United States and the Russian Federation know where each other’s red lines are. This should leave us concerned, however, about nuclear proliferation. The red lines for nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan, for North Korea, or for China over the issue of Taiwan are less predictable precisely because of their shorter history with nuclear doctrine.
The risk of using smaller tactical nuclear weapons seems minimal, as well. An army stalled outside of Kyiv and finding their advance far slower than they expected will be forced to ask itself if it is worth using such an unconventional weapon, and risking NATO’s response to drifting radioactive fallout, when it is logistically incapable of even exploiting its conventional advantages.
So, then, why is this being discussed?
Journalists, former military officers, even former ambassadors have been discussing the possibility of nuclear weapons being used. If it is so unlikely, why is it being discussed so much? Part of the reason is that it’s a terribly interesting subject for people who specialize in this topic. Part of the reason is clickbait; it’s also a terribly interesting subject for everyone else, and so articles and editorials about it will get views online. But another reason why nuclear weapons are part of the current debate may simply be fearmongering, often to support an argument against escalating military assistance to Ukraine. “It’s just too risky to do that,” the argument goes, “because there is a non-zero chance that it might cause Vladimir Putin to actually use nuclear weapons.”
It is true that the chance of nuclear weapons use is non-zero. It is, however, important to consider just how non-zero the chance of a scenario is. There is a non-zero chance that Moscow will be struck by an asteroid next week, forcing the Russian Federation to end the war. But we should not be basing our responses around scenarios that are so unlikely as to be preposterous. Instead, we should be developing a far more robust response to the war that actually exists.
Another kind of nuclear war
The deliberate use of conventional weapons against a nation’s nuclear power plants risks spreading radiation over civilian populations and deepening the already substantial humanitarian crisis. This is, in a very real sense, another kind of nuclear war, and it is happening right now. On March 3, Russian forces began shelling the nuclear power facility near the city of Zaporizhzhia. The damage seemed, at first, to be limited and, being a light water reactor, it never really posed a risk similar to that of Chernobyl in 1986. “At worst, it could merely have been a Fukushima.”
In fact, Russian forces had shelled an administrative building risking the lives of the only people in Zaporizhzhia who knew how to operate the plant, a shell landed just 250 feet away from Reactor Unit 2, there was damage to Unit 1, the transformer at Unit 6, and the spent fuel pad. And, for reference, what happened at Fukushima was this: After a tsunami disabled the back up generators for the coolant system, steam from the excess heat and hydrogen gas from the reaction caused significant explosions. Three reactor units melted down, and for a brief time radiation levels on site were more in a single hour than would be expected from background radiation in an entire year. To this day, TEPCO is struggling to find a realistic plan to manage the site. Fukushima was the worst nuclear disaster of this century. To prevent something far worse, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that an attack on a nuclear facility never happens again.
Tl;dr. So, what will happen?
Nuclear weapons will not be used in this war because our nuclear deterrence works and because tactical nuclear weapons will provide no advantage on the battlefield. The Ukrainian people will continue to fight for their democracy and for their homeland, and the humanitarian situation will get worse before it gets better. Nuclear power plants will come under attack, and this represents a very real risk of releasing radiation that will not stop at NATO’s border. In this sense, we are already witnessing a nuclear war.
So, how does this end? In 1942, three years after the start of the worst war in history and three years before the world’s first nuclear detonation, John Steinbeck published The Moon Is Down. It tells the story of people in a town under occupation by military forces from a country not unlike their own. There are no great battles told. Rather, Steinbeck focuses on the futility of the occupation. “You see, sir. Nothing can change it. You will be driven out. The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.” I’m convinced Steinbeck is right.
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