by Mona Jhaveri - May 23, 2022

In these uncertain times of international conflict and rising tensions between nuclear-armed countries, it’s a question more people are asking. What happens after a nuclear weapon is detonated? What is the immediate, and what are the long-term effects?

Even though several scientists in the first half of the 20th century invested their time and effort into radiation research and its effects on the human body, it is only after the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that we have any real data on the matter. The atomic bomb survivors have been studied extensively in the years since, in an attempt to understand both the short- and long-term effects of a nuclear detonation.

This blog post will explore what the current scientific consensus is on the matter of cancer rate and nuclear weapons.

What is a nuclear explosion?

A nuclear explosion is the result of a nuclear bomb detonating.

The term ‘nuclear bomb’ can mean a couple of different things, both of which are weapons of mass destruction.

  • Atomic bomb – This is a weapon that derives its destructive power from the release of nuclear energy that comes from the splitting, or fission, of atoms. The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were atomic bombs.
  • Hydrogen bomb – This is a weapon that derives its destructive power from nuclear fusion reactions. It is far more harmful than an atomic bomb.

Compared to conventional bombs, nuclear ones are vastly more powerful and destructive.

The energy released from a nuclear bomb detonation is measured in kilotons of TNT (the explosive chemical). One kiloton is equivalent to the explosive force of 1,000 tons of TNT.

For context, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was around 15 kilotons, while the one dropped on Nagasaki was slightly more powerful, at around 20 kilotons.

Nuclear explosion effects

A nuclear explosion doesn’t just cause immediate physical damage. The blast and heat from the explosion can kill people and destroy buildings within a range of several miles from the detonation site. But the radioactive fallout from a nuclear blast can cause death and illness long after the initial explosion.

There are four primary types of medical effects caused by a nuclear detonation:

  1. Initial stage – occurring in the first 1-2 weeks after the explosion, with the highest number of casualties. 90% of deaths occur due to direct or indirect thermal and blast injuries. 10% of deaths are caused by exposure to supra-lethal levels of radiation.
  2. Intermediate stage – 3-8 weeks after the explosion. The main cause of death is exposure to ionizing radiation, somewhat less lethal than in the initial stage.
  3. Late stage – 8-20 weeks after the explosion. Those who have survived until this stage might show some improvement in their condition in this period.
  4. Delayed stage – more than 20 weeks after the explosion. Fallout effects begin in this stage. They include infertility, subfertility, blood diseases, cancers, and other diseases caused by exposure to radioactive material (such as radioactive iodine).

The type of medical effect will depend on how close a person was to the nuclear detonation, as well as what kind of protection they had from the blast, heat, and radiation.

For example, people closer to the explosion will suffer more from burns, while those further away will be more likely to develop radiation sickness.

Cancer and nuclear weapons

One of the most well-known delayed effects of nuclear radiation exposure is an increased risk of developing cancer.

Normal cells become cancer cells because they acquire a mutation in their DNA. DNA mutations occur for many reasons (such as cigarette smoking, exposure to known carcinogenic substances, etc.), including exposure to ionizing radiation released by a nuclear weapon.

Ionizing radiation can damage the DNA in cells, which can lead to the development of cancer.

How soon cancer develops after radiation exposure depends on some factors, including the type of radiation and radiation dose and the age and health of the exposed person.

Generally speaking, the younger a person is when exposed, the greater their chance of developing cancer later in life.

Japan atomic bomb findings

A Japanese physician, Gensaku Obo, first noticed an increased solid cancer incidence for all cancer types about ten years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1956.

This was later confirmed by establishing tumor registries in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1957 and 1958. These registries have been used to track the health of survivors of the atomic bombings.

Studies conducted using data from these registries have shown that there is an increased risk of developing cancer after exposure to ionizing radiation from a nuclear weapon.

Here are the details of those findings, according to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation:

Solid cancer risk

  • People exposed to radiation doses between 0.005 – 0.1 Gy (Gray) had an increased risk of solid cancer (excluding leukemia) by 1.8%.
  • Those exposed to radiation doses between 0.1 – 0.2 Gy had an increased risk of solid cancer by 7.6%.
  • Those exposed to radiation doses between 0.2 – 0.5 Gy had an increased risk of solid cancer by 15.7%.
  • Those exposed to radiation doses between 0.5 – 1.0 Gy had an increased risk of solid cancer by 29.5%.
  • Those exposed to radiation doses between 1.0 – 2.0 Gy had an increased risk of solid cancer by 44.2%.
  • Finally, people exposed to radiation doses over 2.0 Gy had an increased risk of solid cancer by 61.0%.

To give a clearer picture of these radiation doses, an atomic bomb survivor located at around 1.5 miles from a nuclear explosion would receive approximately 0.2 Gy of radiation, meaning their cancer risk would increase anywhere between 7 and 15%.

The largest number of solid cancer cases in the aftermath of Japanese atomic detonations were stomach cancer cases. They were followed by female breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, thyroid cancer, and liver cancer.

Leukemia risk

The risk of leukemia compared to solid cancers was considerably higher.

  • People exposed to radiation doses between 0.005 – 0.1 Gy (Gray) had an increased risk of leukemia by 6%.
  • Those exposed to radiation doses between 0.1 – 0.2 Gy had an increased risk of leukemia by 36%.
  • Those exposed to radiation doses between 0.2 – 0.5 Gy had an increased risk of leukemia by 37%.
  • Those exposed to radiation doses between 0.5 – 1.0 Gy had an increased risk of leukemia by 63%.
  • Those exposed to radiation doses between 1.0 – 2.0 Gy had an increased risk of leukemia by 72%.
  • Finally, people exposed to radiation doses over 2.0 Gy had an increased risk of solid cancer by 100%, meaning their risk of developing leukemia was doubled.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia was more common in younger A-bomb survivors, while acute and chronic myelogenous leukemias were more common in the elderly.

Conclusion

Even though detailed research on the exact effects of nuclear weapons on cancer incidence and mortality rates is limited because there have only been two nuclear explosions in history (disregarding nuclear weapons testing sites), the data that does exist is clear. There is a direct link between radiation exposure resulting from a nuclear detonation and an increased risk of cancer.

This is especially true for leukemia, which is the most common type of cancer to develop due to radiation exposure. However, other cancer types, such as stomach, breast, lung, and other cancers, are also more likely to develop in those exposed to radiation.

Of course, the effects of a nuclear weapon don’t stop at cancer. Other health problems such as birth defects, fertility issues, and psychological problems have also been linked to nuclear weapon detonations.

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