Fri. Jan 27th, 2023

    What are the effects of nuclear explosions on human health (intentionally or accidentally)?

    The effects of nuclear explosions on human health cause heat, shock waves and radiation.
    The forces released have the potential to cause massive human casualties, destroy homes, buildings and infrastructure and have serious consequences for the environment.

    Explosion of an atomic bomb, accident at a nuclear power plant: these words, which resonate with radioactive emissions, are legitimately frightening. Let’s take a look of radioactivity, the different forms of irradiation and their consequences on human health.

    Whether it occurs accidentally, or is the result of a missile launch during an armed conflict or a terrorist act, the explosion of a nuclear weapon will have a major impact not only on the health of anyone directly affected but also on the ability to quickly bring relief to survivors.

    Radiation and contamination

    The risk of a serious accident at a nuclear site is low but exists. During a nuclear incident, a radioactive emission can occur, in the air, water or on the surface.

    There is a risk of contamination or irradiation if radioactive material is released:

    • Contamination: when there has been contact with radioactive substances.
    • Internal contamination: when substances have entered the body (via inhaled air or ingestion of contaminated food)
    • External contamination: when substances come into contact with skin, hair or clothing.
    • Irradiation: when radioactive materials irradiate the body, at a distance and outside of it (there is then no direct and physical contact between the body and the radioactive material).


    The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and various subsequent medical studies showed the kind of immediate and long-term health consequences to be expected from even limited use of nuclear weapons. Below is a description of the effects that would result from the explosion at an altitude of 1 kilometer above a densely populated area, of a single 10-20 kiloton nuclear weapon (the size of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

    The intense fireball generated at the very moment of the explosion of a nuclear weapon of this power would release both heat, shock waves and radiation.


    – Victims of thermal radiation:

    The temperature on earth, under the epicenter of the explosion, would reach around 7000°C and, in this zone, all living beings would be pulverized. Tens of thousands of people are said to be burned, most with horrific third-degree burns. People up to a distance of 3 kilometers from the site of the explosion could suffer serious burns,and this is one of the effects of nuclear explosions
    In addition, many people who looked in the direction of the explosion would suffer temporary blindness (caused by the nuclear flash) for up to 40 minutes. Simply viewing the fireball without eye protection could cause permanent eye damage, including burns and retinal damage affecting the field of vision.

    – Victims of shock waves:

    The fireball and thermal radiation would be immediately followed by pressure waves (due to the explosion) traveling at supersonic speeds. People would be killed or seriously injured by flying debris or in the collapse of homes and other buildings, and some victims would be thrown by the blast effect. The victims would present in particular organ ruptures, open fractures, skull fractures and penetrating injuries. A significant number of people would lose their hearing as a result of a perforated eardrum.

    – Victims of the firestorm:

    The fireball and thermal radiation would cause temperatures to rise to such levels that many objects and structures that were not immediately pulverized would catch fire. Under the combined effects of the heat and the shock wave, the fuel tanks and flammable liquids would explode. As a result, a large number of fires would break out and potentially create a huge firestorm, each In Hiroshima, the Japanese Red Cross hospital was not destroyed but having suffered heavy damage, it could no longer serve as a fire care center being fanned by the winds and intense ambient heat. A firestorm consumes all nearby oxygen; many people seeking shelter above or below ground would likely die of asphyxiation. People who survived the lack of oxygen could be at risk of severe burns.

    Read also: Thermonuclear: Fusion, Weapon and History


    The immediate effects of nuclear explosions concerning radiation includes:

    • Dysfunction of the central nervous system (in the event of very high doses);
    • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea as a result of damage to the gastrointestinal tract, leading to dehydration and nutritional problems which can have fatal consequences; and
    • Destruction of the body’s ability to produce new blood cells, causing uncontrollable bleeding (due to the absence of platelets or a sharp decrease in their number), as well as infections (due to the absence of white blood cells or decrease in their number) which put the patient’s life in danger.

    Many people who survived the effects of the heat and shock wave caused by a nuclear explosion would fall victim to “radiation sickness” in the weeks and months that followed. This specific consequence of nuclear weapons would affect people who were not in the immediate vicinity of the explosion site (the other people having probably succumbed to their injuries). It is also possible that the radioactive fallout could be carried by the wind to considerable distances, endangering many more people than the explosion and the fires.

    Many of those affected would not realize that they had received a life-threatening dose of radiation until days or weeks after the explosion, when the damage to their bloodstream would show up in obvious signs such as bleeding from the gums, uncontrolled infections or non-healing wounds.

    Even if people survived the immediate effects of the blast or the radiation exposure, they would be at increased risk of developing certain cancers, such as leukemia and thyroid cancer. As time passed, many more lives would be taken.

    In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the number of deaths attributed to the bombings had reached, in 1950, 200,000 and 140,000 respectively. The incidence of leukemia increased in the last years of the 1940s; after peaking in the mid-1950s, it then declined, but remained at a high level. The risk of breast, oesophageal, colon and lung cancer has also increased, especially in people exposed to high levels of radiation. Even today, radiation-related illnesses and deaths are seen among the now elderly population of survivors of the 1945 bombings.


    The medical needs of the injured and sick after a nuclear bomb explosion would be enormous.
    A considerable number of people would need immediate care for serious and life-threatening injuries, but the necessary treatment and assistance would probably not be available in the short term.

    Health services would pay a heavy price in the event of a nuclear weapon explosion. In the area affected by the explosion, most of the medical personnel would be killed or injured and a large part of the medical structures would be destroyed or no longer be in working order.
    Stocks of medicines and medical equipment that survived the explosion would quickly be depleted (fluid solutions, bandages, antibiotics and painkillers, for example). Without electricity, the machines (X-ray machines or respirators, for example) could not work.

    Sources: PinterPandai, International Committee of the Red Cross, MIT Press, Britannica