(OPINION) A new report by researchers from Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security warned that 300 million people could die from radiation exposure in the United States within days following a nuclear attack.
The paper, which modeled the possible effects of such a catastrophic incident and was published in Scientific American on Wednesday, estimated that in the first four days after the country’s 450 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch facilities (silos) were struck, between 340,000 and 4.6 million people would die – though the average death toll would be 1.4 million.
They predicted that 300 million would be at risk of a fatal dose of fallout. It also indicated that if the U.S. is attacked by enemies, they are most likely to target all fire on the ICBM silos located in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The population density in these states is low, but winds could carry the radioactive material far and wide.
Moreover, 90 percent of the population of the lower 48 U.S. states, as well as people living in Mexico’s northern states and the most populous regions of Canada, would be at risk of receiving lethal doses of radiation. The gravity of the aftermath would also depend on weather conditions in the said other areas.
The report included a map predicting the worst-case scenario if a nuclear strike happens on the ICBM silos in the western area of the country. Using weather patterns, scientists simulated the aftereffects of an 800-kiloton warhead hitting every one of the silos at once to cripple the U.S. arsenal.
They mapped how wind patterns would have carried the fallout on each day of 2021. They also recorded the worst possible outcome for each location. “In this scenario, three million people living in communities around the silos would risk receiving eight grays (Gy) of radiation in the four days following the attack, resulting in certain death. One Gy is enough to cause radiation sickness,” the DailyMail reported.
“One Gy is the international system of units (SI) equivalent to 100 radiation units (rads), which is equal to an absorbed dose of 1 Joule/kilogram, a thermal heat capacity.” The actual annual limit for radiation is 0.001 Gy.
The Princeton report also indicated that the symptoms of radiation syndrome, which include nausea, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, skin damage, seizures, and even coma, would depend on the dose a person receives. At high enough doses of penetrating radiation, these symptoms can start within minutes and can be deadly.
The study came after the U.S. Air Force said last year that it would be replacing its Minuteman III ICBMs, which have been in operation since the 1970s, with the more modern Sentinel missile from 2029.
The United States government is in the midst of a $1.5 trillion project to refresh the said obsolete nuclear weapons. Though the range and payload of the Sentinel ICBMs have not been officially released, they are thought to carry an equivalent explosive power of 800 kilotons of TNT and are expected to reach up to 6,000 miles and be capable of striking any target around the globe in 30 minutes, reports said.
Also, the Minuteman missiles have a range of 8,000 miles and carry estimated payloads equivalent to 170-335 kilotons, which is enough to effectively destroy the whole of Washington, D.C.
The researchers said that while the Air Force had assessed the potential effects on humans and the environment of deploying a Sentinel, they had not mentioned what would happen if the missiles were detonated in their bases.