Indo-Pak Nuclear Confrontation: First Use Policy and the Race Towards Armageddon  (Part Two)

Click here to read Part One.

Quixotic Plans

In the background of the persistent attempts to change the NFU policy, one may also focus attention on what may be termed as policies for facing the post-attack scenario. For example, para 6.3 of the DND is regarding the strategy for disaster control. According to it, “India shall develop an appropriate disaster control system capable of handling the unique requirements of potential incidents involving nuclear weapons and materials.”   Potential small/local incidents involving nuclear weapons and materials may be managed successfully through a disaster control system. But how does the DND propose to control the massive disaster that would be unleashed by a nuclear war? While the DND has not formally proposed one (at least not publically), there are certain newspaper-reports about such plans, which have not been officially confirmed or denied.

The first one titled “India Protected Against Nuclear War” was published in The Pioneer, Delhi, on 24 Apr, 1998. This article appeared barely two weeks prior to the May 1998 nuclear tests and was based on an interview with Dr. U.C. Misra, Director – Health, Safety and Environment Group, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai. Dr. Misra, we are told, had had 40 years experience in dealing with environmental aspects of nuclear activities. According to the said report:

“In case of a nuclear war, a person falling under the influence zone may be permanently disabled or killed depending upon the extent of nuclear radiation. But these effects can be minimized by consuming iodine tablets and taking certain measures, Dr. Misra averred. The BARC scientists have already formulated some preventive steps which should be taken in such an eventuality. According to them one should remain indoors; should consume only stored water and food and avoid milk. However, small children can be provided powdered milk. People in the danger zone should immediately go to ground floors and if possible to the basement. Dr. Misra says one should not panic in case there is a nuclear war as the country is fully capable of defending herself in such a case.”

What is clear from the news report is that just two weeks before Pokhran-2, the Government had started using the Dr. Misras in India to spread misinformation. People were told that they were not to panic because the country had braced itself to tackle the consequences of nuclear war! The solution was simple: all that was required was a dose of iodine and to seek shelter down below! The trouble is that even underground shelters might at best provide protection from blast and direct thermal radiation effects from the detonated nuclear weapons. But how does one protect oneself from ravaging fires that would be unleashed by thermal radiation, which, even if it does not ignite the shelters, would at least suck up all oxygen from them? Can a dose of iodine ward off ill effects of ionizing radiation released by the radioactive components (uranium/plutonium) in the nuclear bomb? How long could one stay indoors? How long will the stored water and food last? How does one replenish them? What is the next step? How does one escape the effects of radioactive fallout that would cover a far larger area? These questions are left unanswered. Therefore, the prescription was at best a half-witted way of conditioning people to calmly face a nuclear catastrophe. But the realization that it is these Dr. Misras of India who are dealing with health, safety and environmental aspects of the nuclear power plants in the country sends a chill down one’s spine!

The second news item titled “Preparing for a N-attack Aftermath” was published in The Hindu, Delhi, on 06 Nov, 1999. The report, which is equally sensational, states that:

“The Delhi Government has proposed a Rs.1,100-crore [then $250 million] plan to counter the after-effects in the event of a nuclear attack on the national capital and adjoining areas. The proposal, which also covers the National Capital region, does not, however, advocate construction of expensive underground shelters…. The proposal for Delhi has been premised on the assumption that a nuclear attack will not allow survival within a “Dead Zone” radius of around 24 km to 48 km. A “Survival Zone” will begin thereafter and extend to the next 32 km. In this zone, according to experts, survival will depend on speedy evacuation and provision of necessary medical help. The survivability rate in this zone will go up in case co-ordination among disaster management agencies is fine-tuned. The area falling in the ambit beyond 80 km from the point of impact would be relatively secure and would be called “Safe Zone”…. According to senior Government officials here, it is crucial that widespread public awareness is created for effective implementation of such a programme.”

It may be noted that almost the entire twenty million population of the     National Capital Region in and around Delhi now reside within the potential “Dead Zone”. Delhiites would be mighty pleased to know that even the Rs.1,100-crore ($250 million) disaster management plan of their Government cannot save them from certain death. Therefore, knowing fully-well that their fate is sealed, should Delhiites support a nuclear war-fighting plan or should they strive to prevent a nuclear war? It is indeed “crucial that wide-spread public awareness campaign is created” not for implementation of such a ludicrous plan but for revealing to the potential victims the consequences of nuclear war and about the need to strengthen the global campaign to prevent such a war.

While the above news items are more than twenty years old, the third news item, which is an echo of the views expressed in the first news item, is just about thirteen weeks old. It is a video clip dated 29 Aug, 2019, in which TV anchor Sudhir Chaudhary, Editor-in-Chief of Zee News and a close associate of the present ruling establishment in India, is seen offering advice to viewers on ways and means to protect oneself from a nuclear attack. While the content of the video makes little sense, the fact that it is a close associate of the present ruling dispensation who is rendering such advice is itself a clear warning that nuclear-war clouds may be gathering over the Indian subcontinent.

Another outlandish claim is the assertion that cow-dung can offer protection against nuclear radiation. In a debate on Bharat TV (Mumbai) on 12 Sept, 2019, a civil defence officer actually made this incredible claim. (The ways in which cow-dung would offer protection against heat and blast effects of nuclear explosions is left unsaid!) Down-playing the effects of a nuclear war and giving false hope regarding survivability after a nuclear attack seems to be the objective of these meaningless assertions. However, the fact that these views are being freely aired on TV at this point of time does raise a lot of suspicion about the intent and purpose behind such discussions.

More Bizarre Plans

According to a report in The Times of India (Delhi, 09 Oct, 2004):

“…two groups of officers from Parliament’s security have received training at Defence Research and Development Organisation’s Gwalior unit in dealing with a situation moments after a nuclear attack on the most politically sensitive structure in the Capital…. Under the cloak of secrecy, Parliament House is being fitted with a shield to withstand a nuclear, biological or chemical attack…. As the first step, the Central Hall is being made fully air-conditioned to enable it to serve as a refuge before rescue operation can start for the country’s political leadership in a hypothetical situation.”

It is just incredible that fifty-nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bureaucrats in India had actually proposed to their political leadership such a farcical plan to supposedly protect them from a nuclear attack!  The authors of this senseless plan have apparently made no attempt to study in detail the havoc let loose by the use of two tiny nuclear weapons on Japan. They seem to have no idea that detonation of a high yield nuclear weapon would cause eight types of deadly effects: thermal wave; electro-magnetic-pulse (EMP); blast wave; release of initial ionizing radiation; fire-storm; generation of highly toxic fumes; radioactive fallout; and climatic changes. [World Health Organization (W.H.O.), “Effects of Nuclear War on Health and Health Services”, Follow-up of Resolution WHA 38.26, A40/11, 18 Mar, 1987]

By what technological means are these bureaucrats hoping to shield India’s Parliament House situated at ground zero from blast effects of a nuclear weapon that would be hundreds of times as powerful as the ones used on Japan unless they are planning to entomb the building in a thick layer of concrete? By what means are they intending to protect the interior of the Parliament House from being ravaged by the heat effects unless they have plans to keep the structure completely air-tight even under high blast pressure? Since there are no evidence of any attempt to entomb it or keep the structure air-tight, by what stretch of imagination can the Central Hall of Parliament, which reportedly would be the main target of attack and which is situated at ground zero, serve even as a temporary shelter in the aftermath of a nuclear strike? It is just unbelievable that these are the types of quixotic plans that are in place to save the political leadership of India from a nuclear strike! Nevertheless, all indications are that the Government of India is intent on constructing so-called “nuclear-war proof” buildings and shelters in the garb of redeveloping the Central Vista – the heritage complex around India’s Parliament House in New Delhi that was built by the British between 1911 and 1931. A number of disturbing news reports in this regard have appeared recently. These include two articles in The Wire (Delhi) titled “Lutyens’ Delhi Set to Undergo Massive Changes As Part of Govt’s Revamp Move” and “Leading Architects Concerned About Central Vista Revamp Plan for New Delhi”, which were published on 13 & 14 Sept, 2019 respectively. Articles published in The Telegraph (Kolkata) titled “The problem with the proposed redevelopment of Delhi’s central vista” and in The Print (Delhi) titled “Narendra Modi wants to rebuild New Delhi for no good reason” on 21 & 28 Sept, 2019 respectively provide further information about the grandiose plan. One thing is clear: if the Indian Government’s intentions were, indeed, straight forward, it would have taken the trouble of consulting all concerned agencies and followed all the necessary procedures before proposing the present redevelopment plan. Since it has consciously decided to side-step all necessary rules and regulations regarding redevelopment of a heritage site, there is deep suspicion that the Government of India has hidden objectives in mind, including illusions of building structures to withstand a nuclear strike given the fact that it has dabbled with such mindless proposals in the past. It is high time that the Government made a concerted attempt at assessing the impact of even a so-called “limited” nuclear war and to evaluate if at all it is possible to build structures that can safely withstand the wide-scale destructive effects of a nuclear strike as explained below.

Effects of Nuclear Bomb

After a nuclear bomb is detonated at its optimum height from ground zero in relation to its yield, the various stages of impact of its destructive power may be described as follows:

1. Thermal WaveAccording to the above mentioned W.H.O. Report of 1987 titled “Effects of Nuclear War on Health and Health Services”:

“The thermal wave, or heat flash, contains about a third of the total energy released by a nuclear bomb. It results from the extremely high temperature generated by the bomb at the moment of the explosion and is of short duration, about a second for low-yield bombs and about 10 seconds for bombs in the megaton range. The thermal wave starts practically instantaneously, well ahead of the blast wave, and travels at the speed of light. The effect of the high temperature is to vaporize everything within a certain distance of the explosion, melt solid materials at greater distances, and still further away start fires.” (Para 21, p.9)

Those exposed to direct heat flash within 16 kms radius of ground zero of a one megaton nuclear blast, if they don’t get vaporized, are likely to suffer at least third-degree to first degree burns.

2. Nuclear EMP: Nuclear electromagnetic pulse is generated when gamma radiation released by a nuclear explosion interacts with the atmosphere. The process is as follows: the photons from the blast’s intense gamma radiation knock out a large number of electrons free from oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere. This flood of electrons interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field to create a fluctuating electric current, which induce a powerful magnetic field. The resulting electromagnetic pulse induces intense electrical currents in conductive materials over a wide area. Subsequently:

“The energy picked up is transmitted to computers or other devices employing transistors and integrated circuits controlling systems of vital importance such as telecommunications and electricity and water supplies. All are extremely sensitive to the electromagnetic pulse, and it is highly probable that enough of their components would be damaged to render the systems useless. The effect of the electromagnetic pulse depends on the height of the burst. At low altitudes the range of action of the pulse is limited to a few tens of kilometres, whereas at high altitudes the range could be thousands of kilometres.” (Para 12, p.7)

In short, EMP is a very potent force that could disrupt telecommunications systems and electricity supply over a wide area (several thousands of sq. kms) in direct proportion to the yield of the nuclear bomb and the altitude of its detonation. For example, EMP from a single powerful “explosion at a height of 350 km would cover practically the whole of Europe, or of the United States as well as parts of Canada and Mexico.” (Para 13, p.7)

3. Blast Wave: According to the said W.H.O. Report:

“About half of the total energy released in nuclear explosions is in the form of a blast wave, the colossal build-up of pressure in the vaporized material of the bomb giving rise to a wave travelling through the air at supersonic speed. As the blast wave spreads, its intensity gradually diminishes until it is effectively dissipated, at distances that, if the bomb is in the megaton range, may be tens of kilometres or more [destroying almost all structures within that range]…. The human body can withstand pressures up to about twice the atmospheric pressure (which is about 100 kPa) …. Thus an overpressure of 35 kPa [kilopascal or about 5 pound force per square inch (psi)] would not crush them [people], but the accompanying wind blowing at 260 km/h could hurl them against nearby objects, with fatal consequences…. An indirect result of the blast wave would be fires. The wave would damage … smash fuel storage tanks and cars, spilling out volatile or explosive fuels, and cause short-circuits; and fires would inevitably result. The wave could also breach dams or flood barriers and cause catastrophic flooding. Or it could damage chemical plants and nuclear reactors as well as their storage facilities, releasing toxic substances into the environment.” (Paras 18-20, pp.8-9)

4. Initial RadiationExposure to ionizing radiation causes internal injuries to human and animal bodies by inducing biological damages in direct proportion to the strength and duration of exposure to radioactive material, which continuously release three substances known as alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays. Alpha particles are the nuclei of helium atoms, which can cause a lot of damage if swallowed. Beta particles are high-energy electrons that can penetrate the body but causes less damage. Gamma rays are extremely high energy electromagnetic waves, which can easily pass through the body and cause a lot of damage to all the tissues by killing the cells or altering the DNA. According to the said W.H.O. Report:

“A small proportion [about 15 per cent] of the energy released by the explosion of most nuclear weapons appears in the form of neutrons and gamma-rays emitted in the first minute. An exception is the enhanced-radiation warhead commonly known as the neutron bomb. The proportion of the energy carried by the neutrons in such a bomb could in theory be as high as 80 %. The initial radiation would not contribute much to the overall toll of casualties from bombs larger than 100 kt, as the lethal area from blast and heat is much larger than that from radiation.” (Paras 26-27, p.10)

5. FirestormAs the said W.H.O. Report had noted:

“The many individual fires started by the heat wave would in all likelihood coalesce to form gigantic superfires that could spread to distances greater than 10 km from the site of explosion of a 1 Mt [Megaton] bomb. The column of hot gases rising from the fire would bring an influx of air from the periphery, creating winds of hurricane force [wind speed above 120 km per hour] that would fan the flames into a fierce and all-consuming conflagration…. For the conflagration model involving a superfire, it [the lethal area] would be about 350 km2.” (Paras 23-24, p.10)

The renowned scientist Joseph Rotblat’s observations in this regard are very pertinent. According to him:

“The explosion of a nuclear weapon can start fires either directly, by the thermal pulse, or indirectly, by the blast wave…. Blast-induced fires may develop from the spilling of volatile liquids, rupture of gas lines, overturned radiators, short circuits, sparks near volatile or explosive fuels…. Within the area in which fires rage no one is likely to survive. Even the people in deep underground shelters would die from one or more of the secondary effects of the fires, namely: high temperature, reduced levels of oxygen, and elevated levels of carbon monoxide or dioxide.” (Annex-I, W.H.O., 18 Mar, 1987, pp.1-2)

Please note: even deep underground shelters cannot offer any protection!

6. Toxic FumesThe large scale burning of toxic materials in the form of petroleum products (including plastics), rubber products (mainly tyres), paper and other inflammable materials as a result of conflagration would generate huge amounts of highly toxic fumes that would engulf the environment in and around the burnt-out area. The result would be catastrophic as the said W.H.O. report has again pointed out:

“If the atmosphere was greatly disturbed by the smoke and gaseous products of the fires, long-term changes in the ozone layer could take place. Decrease in the ozone would permit harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth’s surface. The injection of other toxic chemicals into the atmosphere – carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, sulfur oxides, hydrochloric acid, heavy metals – could, before they were removed or deposited, inflict great damage on many forms of life as well as human beings.” (Para 17, p.8)

In other words, if by any chance any life form (human or animal) manages to survive the thermal wave, the blast wave, the initial radiation and the firestorm, the toxic fumes would make sure they would not escape certain excruciating death not only in the affected area but also along some distance downwind until the toxic fumes get dissipated.

7. Radioactive FalloutRadioactive fallouts are of three types: local, intermediate and global. As the said W.H.O. Report has noted:

“… the radioactive products of the bomb … are deposited downwind and expose people within certain areas to lethal doses of radiation. The material deposited within the first 24 hours constitutes local fallout. Such local fallout constitutes about half of the total radioactivity produced by the explosion. The other half, containing finer particles, rises with the mushroom cloud into the atmosphere. After a surface burst of a 1-Mt bomb, people remaining in the open may receive lethal doses of radiation within an area of nearly 2000 km2. Injurious doses may be received over an area of some 10000 km2 [down-wind].” (Para 28, p.10) 

Fallout from bombs in the megaton range enters the stratosphere, where it spreads all over the world before slowly descending over a period of months or years to the ground as global fallout. On the contrary,

“The radioactivity from bombs of lower yield is largely deposited in the much more turbulent troposphere…. When deposited in the troposphere the radioactive particles encircle the globe rapidly several times in a latitude band around that of the detonation and are then deposited on the ground during a few weeks. Because of the shortness of this period the radioactivity is much stronger than in global fallout and is termed intermediate fallout.” (Para 31, p.11)

The long-term effect of exposure to ionizing radiation would be an increased incidence of cancer and genetic defects.

8. Climatic ChangesThe simultaneous use of multiple nuclear bombs is likely to add an entirely new dimension to the problems that the survivors are bound to face in the aftermath a nuclear war. According to available information:

“Millions of tons of particulate matter would be injected into the atmosphere from the bomb craters of surface explosions and from the fires that would break out in cities, forests, and fuel stores. A substantial fraction of sunlight would be absorbed in the atmosphere instead of at the earth’s surface, the dense clouds formed causing a fall in temperature and reducing photosynthesis in plants. The extent of the fall in temperature that would take place in a large-scale nuclear war is a matter of much debate, but a fall of even a few degrees could affect the growth of crops and create other environmental disturbances that, even if they did not create a so-called nuclear winter, would be far more serious than would have been thought a few years ago… The present estimates suggest that smoke carried high into the atmosphere could remain there for a year or more and cause long-term cooling throughout the world, reducing the temperature of the oceans and having ecological effects that would prolong and aggravate the atmospheric disturbances.”  (W.H.O. Report, Para 16, p.8)

In short, destructive effects of nuclear weapons are so huge and all-pervasive that so-called “nuclear-shelters” are incapable of offering any protection.

(To be continued)


N.D. Jayaprakash is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum and Co-Convenor, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (Coalition for supporting the Cause of the Bhopal Gas Victims).