Effects of nuclear explosions on human health (Intentionally or Accidentally)

Effects of nuclear explosions

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.

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– 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

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.

Nuclear explosions have a devastating impact on human health, both in the short and long term. The immediate effects of a nuclear explosion can include:
  • Radiation exposure: The most immediate and serious effect of a nuclear explosion is radiation exposure. The initial radiation from a nuclear explosion can cause acute radiation syndrome, which can lead to death within hours or days. Even low levels of radiation exposure can increase the risk of cancer and other health problems later in life.
  • Direct blast effects: The blast wave from a nuclear explosion can cause severe injuries or death, depending on the distance from the explosion. The blast wave can also cause buildings to collapse, which can trap and injure people.
  • Fires: Nuclear explosions can ignite fires, which can spread quickly and cause widespread damage and destruction.
  • Initial thermal radiation: The initial thermal radiation from a nuclear explosion can cause burns and other injuries. The thermal radiation can also ignite flammable materials, which can contribute to the spread of fires.
The long-term effects of a nuclear explosion can include:
  • Cancer: Radiation exposure from a nuclear explosion can increase the risk of developing cancer, including leukemia, lung cancer, and thyroid cancer.
  • Genetic damage: Radiation exposure can also cause genetic damage, which can lead to birth defects in children of exposed individuals.
  • Neurological problems: Radiation exposure can also cause neurological problems, such as memory loss, dementia, and difficulty concentrating.
  • Mental health problems: The experience of a nuclear explosion can also lead to mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety.
In addition to the direct effects of a nuclear explosion, there are also indirect effects that can harm human health. These indirect effects can include:
  • Food and water contamination: The radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion can contaminate food and water, which can lead to widespread food shortages and malnutrition.
  • Infrastructure damage: A nuclear explosion can damage critical infrastructure, such as power grids and hospitals, which can make it difficult to provide emergency services and care for injured people.
  • Social and economic disruption: A nuclear explosion can cause widespread social and economic disruption, which can lead to poverty, malnutrition, and violence.

The effects of a nuclear explosion on human health are severe and can last for generations. It is important to do everything possible to prevent nuclear explosions from occurring.


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.

The effects of nuclear explosions, whether intentional or accidental, profoundly impact care and medical assistance for affected populations:
  1. Immediate Medical Challenges: Following a nuclear explosion, immediate medical care is critical for treating burns, injuries from the blast, and radiation sickness. Hospitals and medical facilities face overwhelming demand, often exceeding their capacity to provide adequate care.
  2. Radiation Exposure Management: Managing radiation exposure is paramount. Medical professionals must quickly assess and treat radiation sickness, which involves providing supportive care to mitigate symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and skin damage. Access to specialized medical equipment for radiation exposure management is essential.
  3. Healthcare Infrastructure Overload: Healthcare systems can become overwhelmed due to the sheer volume of injured individuals, leading to shortages in medical supplies, personnel, and facilities. This overload can hinder the provision of adequate care for both immediate and long-term health issues resulting from radiation exposure.
  4. Long-Term Health Monitoring: Survivors of nuclear explosions require long-term medical monitoring for radiation-related illnesses, including cancer, genetic disorders, and neurological conditions. This necessitates ongoing healthcare resources and specialized expertise for diagnosis, treatment, and supportive care.
  5. Psychological Support: Beyond physical ailments, survivors may experience significant psychological trauma, including PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Adequate mental health services and support systems are crucial to address these issues.
  6. Public Health Concerns: The broader public also faces health risks, particularly from radiation-contaminated food and water sources. Public health efforts must focus on monitoring and managing these risks to prevent widespread health crises, including malnutrition and radiation-induced illnesses.

In summary, the impact of nuclear explosions on healthcare and medical assistance is multifaceted, demanding immediate, specialized care for injuries and radiation sickness, as well as ongoing support for long-term health issues and psychological well-being. Additionally, comprehensive public health strategies are essential to mitigate broader health risks for affected populations.

Preventive Measures

The best way to mitigate the effects of nuclear explosions on care and medical assistance is to prevent them from happening in the first place. This can be done through a variety of measures, such as nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and international cooperation on nuclear safety and security.

In addition to preventing nuclear explosions, it is also important to develop strategies for responding to them. This includes training healthcare providers in the treatment of radiation sickness and other health problems caused by nuclear explosions, developing emergency plans for the provision of care in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, and stockpiling medical supplies that may be needed in the event of a nuclear attack.


Nuclear explosions have a devastating impact on human health and can severely strain the ability to provide care and medical assistance. By taking steps to prevent nuclear explosions and developing plans for responding to them, we can help to mitigate their impact on healthcare systems and ensure that those affected receive the care they need.

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

Photo credit: Yuri_B via Pixabay

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