Nuclear Detonation: Fifteen Scenarios


David Krieger – Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Many people are complacent about nuclear weapons.  They would prefer to deny the nuclear threat and put nuclear dangers out of their minds.  Unfortunately, this is a dangerous approach to a serious threat to humanity. There are many ways in which a nuclear detonation could take place, including accident, miscalculation and intentional use.  Any use of nuclear weapons, including by accident or miscalculation, could lead to the destruction of a city as occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Further, a nuclear weapon detonation could trigger a retaliatory response leading to nuclear war and even broader devastation, including the annihilation of complex life on the planet.  Listed below are 15 possible scenarios for a nuclear detonation.  These are 15 arguments against complacency and for engagement in seeking a world without nuclear weapons.

  1. False Alarm:  A false alarm triggers a decision to launch a nuclear attack.
  2. Unauthorized Launch: Launch codes are obtained by hackers, espionage agents or coercion and used to launch high alert forces.  This could involve the physical takeover of a mobile missile, or the use of codes obtained via pre-delegation.
  3. Accidental Nuclear War:  An accidental launch leads to an escalation into a nuclear war.
  4. Control and Communications failure:  A rogue field commander or submarine commander falls out or deliberately puts himself out of communications with his central command and launches a nuclear attack on his own authority.
  5. “Dr. Strangelove” Nuclear War:  The launch of a nuclear attack by a rogue field or submarine commander leads to a retaliatory strike that escalates into a nuclear war.
  6. A Terrorist Bomb:  A terrorist group obtains nuclear materials and creates an unsophisticated nuclear device or obtains a bomb and succeeds in detonating it in a large city.
  7. Terrorist Bomb Triggers Nuclear War:  A terrorist nuclear attack is disguised in such a way as to appear to come from another nuclear weapons state, leading to a “retaliatory strike” that escalates into nuclear war.
  8. Preemptive Attack:  Believing one’s country to be under nuclear attack or about to be under such attack, a leader of a nuclear weapon state launches a preemptive nuclear attack.
  9. Preventive Nuclear War:  A nuclear weapons state launches an unprovoked nuclear attack against another country perceived to pose a future threat.  An example would be the use by Israel of a small tactical nuclear weapon against deeply buried nuclear facilities in Iran.
  10. Escalation of Conventional War:  India and Pakistan, for example, engage in further conventional war over Kashmir.  The conflict escalates into a nuclear exchange of approximately 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons, resulting in potentially a billion deaths.
  11. Military Parity:  In a conventional war, Russia defaults to nuclear weapons due to its deteriorating conventional military capability.
  12. Irrational Leader:  An unstable and paranoid leader, fearing attack and/or regime change, launches a nuclear attack against perceived adversaries.  There are no democratic controls.
  13. Rational Leader:  A leader, making what he deems to be rational calculations, launches a nuclear attack against perceived adversaries to assure the survival of his country.  There are no democratic controls.
  14. Prompt Global Strike:  The US proceeds with plans to place conventional weapons on some of its inter-continental ballistic missiles.  When launching one of these missiles, it is mistaken for a nuclear-armed warhead, resulting in a retaliatory nuclear attack.
  15. Intentional Nuclear War:  Tensions and conflict between major nuclear powers mount, leading to an intentional nuclear war.  Civilization is destroyed and complex life on Earth is ended.


David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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