Are We Too Afraid Of The Atomic Bomb?

Most writers don't like to hear that readers fall asleep on their books but professor John Mueller of Ohio State University explicitly hopes you do so while reading his book 'Atomic Obsession'[1]. This is about the permanent global fear of a devastating nuclear war, and in his view this fear needlessly keeps many people awake.

There is no real risk of nuclear war, and that threat has never really been serious either, and if it ever comes to a real nuclear detonation, the damage will not come close to the apocalyptic predictions that we have heard for decades. In contrast, according to Mueller attempts to prevent countries ‘going nuclear’ have claimed more lives than 'Hiroshima' and 'Nagasaki' together. The atomic bomb is a terrible weapon, Mueller is well aware of it, but the 9 countries that now own a bomb have had little use for it. Not as a real bomb, but neither as a deterrent. The Bomb has had little influence on world peace, and Mueller expects the number of nuclear weapons to be reduced and interest in it will ebb away. A useless weapon.Rust in peace.

It was at the first test of the atomic bomb in 1945 in the Nevada desert that Professor J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb and heavily impressed by the explosion, cited the holy Hindu text Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am death, the Destroyer of Worlds." Oppenheimer had an irritating tendency to preach, as his colleagues had already noticed, but in the rest of the world many people love to hear that hell will open soon. Oppenheimer is followed by a long line of high-ranking figures who constantly see atomic danger everywhere: ‘Proliferation chains, cascades, dominoes, waves, avalanches and tipping points’, Armageddon and the Nuclear Winter.  Last (November 2019) in line is the Pope who warns in Nagasaki once again of the 'total annihilation'[2]  the total destruction of the planet if we do not shut down nuclear weapons. Other people even claimed that the size of the nuclear armament was such that the planet could be destroyed several times. Some may consider these warnings useful as warnings per se (they are not as we shall see), but factually they are untrue.

A rough calculation. In Hiroshima, a bomb of 15 kilotons (called the 'yield' of the bomb) flattened a surface of about 13 square kilometers. The world's total land area covers 170 million square kilometers. Then you'd need about 13 million Hiroshima bombs or a total yield of 200 million kilotons, to bomb the whole world. At the height of the Cold War, in the mid-1980s, the world had 70,000 nuclear weapons[3]. A appalling quantity, but still 'only' sufficient for a sixth of the land area. You can argue that you don't have to destroy the entire earth to speak of an apocalypse, but the destruction of that sixth part has never threatened.

In the 1990s, 80% of the nuclear weapons stockpile was converted into fuel for nuclear power plants through the 'Megatons to Megawatts’ program. At the moment there are still 14,000 nuclear weapons with a total destructive force of 6,600,000 kilotons. With that quantity ‘only’ one thirtieth of the planet could be annihilated. There are probably enough conventional weapons to destroy the entire planet, but somehow that is of lesser concern.

Did the atomic bomb end World War II (in Asia)?

The atomic bomb, so we are told, forced the Japanese to surrender. Many historians now think differently. According to researcher Ward Wilson[5],  'Hiroshima' was not so exceptional from the Japanese perspective. By the summer of 1945, the Americans had bombed dozens of cities in Japan, so Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just two extra heaps of rubble. The Japanese only understood that something special was going on after they read the Press Releases of the Americans that explained that a new weapon was being used here, said general Crawford Sams, who was in charge of the rebuilding of the Japanese medical infrastructure. The misery caused by the radiation only became evident after about a week. After the bomb was dropped some Japanese high military asked for a meeting of the highest military college, but the situation was not deemed urgent enough.  The real reason for the Japanese capitulation is now believed to be the Soviet Union's decision to join the Pacific war. That was too much for the Japanese.

After the capitulation, the Americans occupied the country and Brigade General and physician Crawford F. Sams started what he considered the most important job in his life. He stayed there from end of august 1945 until 1951. His autobiography[6]  shows that the effects of the atomic bomb only claimed some of his attention: the word 'radiation' only comes in 16 times, 'cancer' 3 times but 'typhus' 88 times and 'cholera' 46 times. The fight against communicable diseases dominated his work and he is supposed to have saved 3 million lives.

General Sams gives a different picture of what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki than we used to. In texts I received through the Hoover Institute from Sams' estate[7]  the general disputes the victim statistics. In Hiroshima, there were an estimated 250,000-350,000 people present at the time of the bomb.  Sams:

'When it did go off, there were maybe from 3,000 to 5,000 people killed instantly. If we relate that number to the total estimated population in the target area, the atomic bomb was not really a very good killer insofar as instantaneous killing is concerned. In other words, a bomb didn't go off and 100,000 people lay down and die and a city disappears as we've developed the picture through our own self propaganda'.

The firestorm that raged for 36 hours - Hiroshima was mostly made of wood - was the real big killer: 21,000 people Sams counts. In the months that followed, 47,000 people died, partly from burns and partly radiation sickness or both. 80% of those deaths could have been prevented so Sams believes if medical supplies had been available. According to him, the total death toll from Hiroshima is 68,000. That contrasts quite a bit with the official data from the Japanese-American Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) founded after the war: 90,000-166,000[8]. Sams calculates this number in a piece in which he explains how the U.S. can prepare if attacked and he wrote this 10 years after the war, so one may assume that the scientific debate about the statistics would have come to rest at that time. Why the discrepancy? I have asked the RERF to explain this discrepancy (Dec. 7, 2019)   but gotten no reply.

The best explanation seems that American propaganda wanted to make a good use of the bomb. General Sams describes how he is told by his Washington superiors 'to play up' what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that bothered him because, he said, there were no differences in the devastation caused by either the atomic bomb, a conventional bombardment, a hurricane or an earthquake. Moreover, the bombing of Tokyo had taken more lives and in other cities a much larger surface was destroyed. The atomic bomb that Sams 'saw' dealt a moderate blow instantly and caused a lot of prolonged and torturous burns later.  ‘Washington’ preferred the picture of a clean kill: a flash of a second and that was t - war ended!'

American propaganda was urgently shy of a "super weapon" that would convince the world of American supremacy. Until then the world thought that having a strong air force was what made a country invincible, but the bombings of Germany and Japan had debunked that (The Japanese war industry even grew during those bombardments). The atomic bomb became the new bogeyman, the 'deterrent'.

Has the radiation claimed millions of lives?

The atomic bomb owes its gruesome reputation for a large extent to the (gamma) radiation that it released. Sams estimates that 18% of the 47,000 people he calculated ultimately died from the radiation. That's 8,460. Official figures say 10% and that would then amount to 9,000-16,600 in Hiroshima alone, but it is not clear how this figure is compiled.

These figures are about Acute Radiation Sickness, not about cancer which takes several years to show up. Probably every survivor within a 1-kilometer radius of Ground Zero got Acute Radiation Sickness. The disease is not necessarily fatal depending on dose and treatment.

It was expected that the number of cases of cancer would increase, but only in the 1950s the Life Span Study was started which followed 100,000 so-called Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bomb, medically for the rest of their lives. They proved indeed to have a higher risk of cancer, but it wasn't a big effect: the average chance of people in the rich world to ever get cancer is about 40%. Among the Hibakusha, that chance was about 41%. The risk was what they call 'dose dependent', more radiation meant a greater risk of cancer, but it wasn't very impressive. 'Radiation', according to American radiation scientist Dr Bruce Napier 'is a lousy inducer of cancer'.

It was also found that people who had received low doses of radiation had a risk of cancer that was even lower than those who had not been bombed/irradiated at all. That suggested that a certain dose of radiation even protects against cancer. Do some people live longer thanks to the bomb? In science, the discussion on this is ongoing.

However, an increased risk of miscarriage and retardation has been identified in a small group of women who were in the first trimester of their pregnancy during the blast and had received a very high dose of radiation.

In the 1920 the American researcher Muller showed that irradiation of fruit flies could change the color of the eyes of the fly’s offspring. This was seen as proof of de possibility that radiation could ‘mutate’ the DNA.  

As a result of this fruit fly study there was a lot of fear that the children of the Hibakusha would show all sorts of effects due to mutation of their genetic material. A huge amount of research has been done, but no ‘transgenerational effect’ has ever been found. The children of the Hibakusha are OK. The fruit fly research of a century ago is now considered wrong or even fraudulent, but the cartoonists of the world do not know that since every time an accident happens that involves radiation, they draw babies with three heads or other malformities. [10]. (These insights have been confirmed in Chernobyl). [11].

Has the atomic bomb prevented World War 3?

After the war, the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) remained as superpowers that divided the world into the communist eastern bloc and the capitalist American sphere of influence. The Soviet-ideology implied that communism had to be exported to the rest of the world, and this scared the hell out of the west. When the USSR in 1949 also turned out to possess an atomic bomb, the arms race began. For nearly 40 years, monumental sums were spent to keep an eye on how many weapons the other party had, the creation of worst-worst-worst-case scenarios and to prepare for those no matter the cost and show this to the other side. Governments in many countries made scary films to tell their citizens what best to do in the face of an atomic attack (sit under a table or under the stairs). The wording 'When the Russians come' became part of normal speech[12]. The arms race would have cost the US an amount similar to the price of everything on the US territory – excluding the land itself, according to Mueller.

But after the Cold War ended without fighting in 1989, it turned out that the Soviets had never had any plans for aggression. Communists were supposed to export the revolution alright, but this had to be done by supporting subversive movements in other countries, infiltrating and causing unrest, but not by a military attack. No evidence of such plans has ever been found in extensive archival research.  All scenarios of the Warsaw Pact assumed the West would initiate an attack. "There wasn't much to deter,"   Mueller quotes an expert.

According to Mueller, the atomic bomb hardly played a role in those Russian considerations, which to them was just another bomb. It was above all the horrors of the Second World War that defined the Soviet position. The Soviet Union had lost 20 million people! The diplomat Averell Harriman – certainly not an admirer of Stalin – found in the early 1950s that Stalin was determined to prevent a repeat of World War II. His successor Khrushchev - who had lost a son in the War - had spoken in a similar way. US President Ford recounts in his memoir how Soviet leader Brezhnev takes his hand during an interview and tells how the Russian people suffered during World War 2 and that he does not want to do that to them again.

Stalin was also in awe of American economic performance. Mueller doesn't mention it but a well-known example of that is that of the Liberty Ships, 135-metre-long warships of which the Americans produced three every two days between 1941 and 1944. Stalin knew that if it ever came to a real confrontation, the US would stamp such a large industry out of the ground in no time and he probably couldn't. He also benefited from that industrial power: because of their alliance, the Americans provided him with 409526 trucks, 12,161 combat vehicles, 32,200 motorcycles, 1966 locomotives, 16 million pairs of boots and lots of food.

Is it thanks to the Non-Proliferation Treaty that so few countries have an atomic bomb?

Every country would like to possess such a superweapon, it was assumed in the 1950s, but not so. In spite of all sorts of alarming predictions, no more than 9 countries have come up with a Bomb in the past 70 years. Maybe Iran's going to get there, and then? According to Mueller, but also according to the military historian Martin van Creveld of Hebrew University in Tel Aviv, that is of little importance[13]  and to Iran will happen the same thing as every time a country got the bomb: nothing.

Since 1970, the Non-Proliferation Treaty has been in force to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. It has now been signed by 191 countries. Mueller doesn't believe it has had much influence; the number of signatories is primarily an illustration of the unattractiveness of the bomb. A few reasons for this:

An atomic bomb is very difficult to make and means a huge claim on the scientific talent in a country (Pakistan needed 28 years)

The development of a bomb costs handfuls of money (Pakistani prime minister: ‘It’s eating grass'). Gaddafi spent $100 million to develop an atomic bomb, but at later inspection, all the parts he had bought before were still in boxes. Too hard and wasted money.

Canada participated in the 'Manhattan project' for the development of the first atomic bomb and thus had access to the technology. By the19th century, the country had been at war with the US, so there could well be a reason for extra defense. Yet Canada doesn't have an atomic bomb.
Argentina abandoned the atomic bomb program because they knew it would lead to a very expensive arms race with Brazil.

Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia Belarus and South Africa had the bomb gave it up.

The deterrent effect of the bomb has proved to be very limited. India and Pakistan both have an atomic bomb, but that does not appear to affect the ongoing conflicts between the two countries. Argentina was not afraid to claim the Falklands despite Britain being a nuclear power. France is also a nuclear power, but that had no influence in the war with Algeria. Vietnam fought the U.S. and the Chinese, both nuclear powers and won without the bomb playing a role. In the Korean War, two nuclear powers were opposed to each other (USSR and US) but when General Douglas Mac Arthur suggested to deploy nuclear weapons, he was fired. Nuclear power USSR fought in Afghanistan but nuclear weapons were not used. Egypt attacked nuclear power Israel in 1973, but the bomb did not enter play. According to Mueller, Israel would have been better off using the money for the bomb (10% of national income) for conventional weapons. Egypt seems to have no interest in making a bomb of its own. Having the Bomb also played no role in Israel's other conflicts.

During the first Gulf War, U.S. Commander-in-Chief Colin Powell investigated whether the deployment of nuclear weapons would make sense. The answer was no, Powell:

‘The results unnerved me. To do serious damage to just one armored division dispersed in the desert would require a significant number of small tactical nuclear weapons. I showed this analysis to Cheney and then had it destroyed.  If I had any doubts before about the practicality of nukes on the field of battle, this report clinched them’.

Kim Jong Un has several times threatened to use his missiles, but this is seen as a fanfare to be taken internationally seriously or to receive aid. He looks more like Cartman from SouthPark than Dr. Strangelove.

China proved to have the bomb in 1964, but according to Mueller it had no effect on the country's global prestige. China has only been taken seriously since it went on to perform economically, according to Mueller, but few people know anyway that China is a nuclear power.

Other things that reduced the attraction of the bomb were the fact that the bomb is seen by everyone as extremely unsympathetic. A country also needs support to wage a war and you cannot get it through an atomic bomb. Atomic bombs are also 'messy' due to radioactivity so that the battlefield is not available for at least for some time – that makes such a weapon among soldiers unpopular.

Iraq – Weapons of mass destruction

It is not wrong to try to keep a country from nuclear weapons, but there is a price says Mueller, and in the case of Iraq it was disastrously high. After the first Gulf War, Iraq was imposed heavy sanctions, which were motivated, among other things, by the fear that Saddam wanted to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. Biological, chemical or nuclear. After that so imagined his opponents, he could impose his will on the whole Middle East.

Fearing that, the country was no longer given hypodermic needles for a while, no chlorine, no equipment for radiotherapy, no painkillers or chemotherapy, no plastic bags for blood transfusions, no insecticides or fertilizer, always because of the suspicion that all that stuff could be used in for making weapons.

But the whole threat was implausible from the start. Instead of Saddam gaining a dominant position as owner of a Bomb, it was much more likely that the Middle East would unite against him, just as had happened in the first Gulf War. And besides, the man didn't even have his own country under control. His army was weak and demotivated, which had already been demonstrated at the first Gulf War, and Saddam also limited the amount of ammunition for his own army for fear of a coup. The Scud missiles he fired produced miss after miss and suggested that nuclear technology out of his league. But the U.S. was in a war mood. Security adviser Condoleezza Rice at the time: 'We don’t want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud’ and in 2003 the US and Britain invaded Iraq. Indeed, no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found and the goal of the mission was quickly adjusted into ‘bring democracy’.

As a result of the sanctions alone, half a million children would have been killed. For the war itself, estimates range between 150,000- 1 million[14]. Much more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Nuclear terrorism

There is a lot of fantasizing about nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. Occasional reports of black trade in nuclear weapons or missing highly enriched uranium appear, but Mueller cannot confirm them.

These are two types of weapons: real atomic bombs and so-called 'dirty bombs' that contaminate people with radioactive materials.

How does one get an atomic bomb? Buying or getting one from a friendly nuclear power is unlikely. The bomb would be immediately traced to the original owner. North Korea might have thrown a ball at China on this, but was resolutely rejected. To Libya happened the same. [15]

Stealing is also problematic. There is an impression that all nuclear powers are well guarded, and moreover, the bomb is sometimes stored in separate parts that are each again protected by codes known only to people who do not know each other.

Making an atomic bomb yourself is much more difficult. Obtaining highly enriched uranium or plutonium is already difficult, but that is also finding large amounts of employees who are both competent and reliable. And that must stay in hiding for years. Mueller distinguishes 20 steps you have to take as a terrorist organization to produce a bomb and take it to his place. If the probability of success of each step is 50%, the total probability of success is 1 in the million. It is not surprising that the terrorists prefer conventional weapons.

For the 'dirty bomb' you need highly radioactive material, but killing acutely is difficult, sowing unrest will work. The infected victims will still have plenty of time to go to the doctor, so it's not a quick effect. The material may increase the risk of cancer, but that will many years to manifest itself. The higher radioactive something is, the more dangerous the work for the terrorist himself[16]. and the greater the chance of discovery and the greater the need for a good laboratory. But also something that is very radioactive, is that a short period of time, the longer some element is radioactive, the less it radiates. A dirty bomb is not impossible, but very unlikely and again: conventional weapons are also very effective.  

Al Qaida/Bin Laden have repeatedly suggested that they would like to deploy an atomic bomb, but there is no evidence of concrete activities in that area. In addition, according to Mueller Bin Laden had financial difficulty tying the ends together and after 9-11 his network did not represent much more, also because his activities had cost him a lot of sympathy in the Islamic world. Long before 9-11, in 1998, the United States had bombed a drug factory in Sudan because of the suspicion that bin Laden made poison gases there. That wasn't right, it really was a drug factory.  The resulting shortage of medicines would have cost tens of thousands of lives.

In 1995, the terrorist sect Aim Shinrikyo distributed the deadly poison gas Sarin in a Japanese metro station. That cost twelve lives (and injured many). This organization (the perpetrators were given the death penalty) had first tried to make an atomic bomb in an Australian uranium mine during the years of preparation of this action. That seems to be as close a terrorist attack with an atomic bomb ever got.






[6] ‘Medic, The mission of an American Military Doctor in Occupied Japan and Wartorn Korea’. Crawford F. Sams. East Gate 1998

[7] 'Hiroshima and Nagasaki'. Crawford F. Sams. Arizona Medicine, J Arizona Med. Ass. Vol 15 no 11 nov 1958 plus het manuscript (in mijn bezit). Beluister ook:


[9] Ik heb de RERF op 7-12-2019  om een verklaring gevraagd, maar geen reactie gekregen.

[10] Google ‘Calabrese Muller’ voor meer.


[12] Najaar 2019 was er in het Nationaal Militair Museum nog een tentoonstelling met als titel: ‘Als de Russen komen’.



[15] In de Bescheurkalender (wsch 1986) deden Jacobse en Van Es een bod op de oude kernwapens van Gorbatsjov.

[16] Daarom is ook de angst dat radioactief afval miljoenen jaren blijft stralen onzinnig. Iets dat langdurig straalt, straalt weinig en is niet gevaarlijk, of beter: net zo ongevaarlijk als het uranium dat al miljarden jaren in de aarde zit. Een stof die hevig straalt doet dat maar een korte periode.


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