What Would Happen in the Minutes and Hours After a Nuke Was Launched at the UK?

We spoke to the Royal United Services Institute to find out.
March 21, 2017, 1:00pm

(Top photo: United States Department of Defense, via)

In many ways, the threat of nuclear war perpetrated by world governments is greater than any conceivable terrorist plot. Any loss of life is devastating, but nothing can match the sheer melted insanity of a nuclear strike. The only precedent we have are the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing up to 225,000 people. But that was 72 years ago; the weapons have become considerably more powerful since then.


But what exactly would a nuclear event look like in the UK in 2017, and how would it come about? A projection on the website NukeMap puts the death toll at almost 6 million people, were a large bomb to explode over London. But to find out what would happen in the minutes and hours before such an event I spoke to Emil Dall, Research Fellow of Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at the Royal United Services Institute.

A projection of the damage that would be caused if the largest USSR bomb ever tested was dropped on London: an estimated 5,778,950 fatalities, and an estimated 3,420,670 injuries. Image via NukeMap

VICE: Hi Emil. So what are the chances that we'll have a nuke fired at us in the UK?
Emil Dall: Of course it's not very likely, but the whole point of having a nuclear deterrent is that you prepare for the unlikely and you try to deter the unlikely event.

But in terms of the way geopolitics are at the moment, is it a likely event in the near future?
I wouldn't say against the UK, no.

Okay. Hypothetically, if anyone was going to nuke us, who would it most likely be?
Traditionally for the UK it has always been the threat stemming from the Soviet Union – what is now Russia. I very much doubt that's what would actually happen, but we have seen tensions escalate in recent years and we've seen a decline in relations between Russia and NATO. I can't be more specific than that.

What would be a reason for a nuclear strike from any country?
If you look at the Korean peninsula, North Korea have nuclear weapons for the reason that they want to deter an attack against the regime. They want to ensure the regime's survival, so they have nuclear weapons in order to deter the US and South Korea from invading it. Failing that, they also have nuclear weapons to deter an attack if a nuclear attack is on the way.


What are the defences in place in the UK for a nuclear attack?
Well, with NATO as an alliance, they have defences in place against any nuclear attacks. But if you're talking about a large-scale nuclear attack, it's difficult to repel that fully.

WATCH: The DIY Engineer Who Built a Nuclear Reactor in His Basement

How likely is it that the defences of the UK could be breached?
I'd rather not speculate on that.

Fair enough. If there were a nuclear explosion in London, what would be the immediate effect of that?
The UK nuclear command chain works in two ways; one is that the prime minister has to respond and authorise a nuclear strike in retaliation. That order will then go to the person below the prime minister, and then it will be carried out dual-track, so there are two people passing down that order through the command chain. It eventually reaches the nuclear submarine, and on board the submarine they will be given coordinates for the target they need to hit. They won't know what that target is, but they will basically carry out that order.

The other scenario is that London is taken out completely, including the prime minister and the deputy-in-command, and in that case the prime minister has written a letter of last resort, which is stored on all four nuclear submarines. The commander of the submarine would open that letter and read the instructions from the prime minister on what should happen in the event that Westminster is taken out. He would then also perform a number of checks, including checking whether BBC Radio 4 is still broadcasting, before he carries out the order that is contained in the letter of last resort.


Does this letter get rewritten every time the new prime minister takes office?
It does, so previous letters get destroyed and the new prime minister on their first day will have to write four letters – one for each of the nuclear submarines.

Are the contents of the letters all the same, or is it down to the individual?
It is down to the individual prime minister. We don't know what it says in the letter, so in theory we don't actually know if the prime minister has authorised a nuclear response to a potential devastating attack on Westminster. There have been rumours that previous prime ministers have ordered the remaining UK nuclear submarine to join US command if US command is still operating, so there are various speculations, but basically it is up to each individual prime minister. In the Trident renewal debate in July last year Teresa May was asked this question, if she would ever respond in a nuclear way, [and she said yes].

How much warning would the general public have on something like this?
Very little – we are talking minutes, not hours.

If, say, Russia were to launch a nuclear attack, how long would that warhead take to get to its destination?
I'm not sure – I don't have the specific timings – but it wouldn't be very long, and nuclear arsenals are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and advanced, and that includes their delivery time as well.

"Many people have said that the result of nuclear war would be so devastating that there is no way of facilitating a humanitarian response"

So they wouldn't be delivered by a plane, they would be fired?
That depends on who's firing them. The UK nuclear deterrent consists of a submarine-launched capability, and that is the only capability we have. If you're going to have one, that's probably the one you want to have in terms of its survivability and its ability to survive a devastating attack on the homeland. Russia and the US have a triad, so they have a submarine launch capability, ground-based missiles and air-delivered missiles – and Russia also have road mobile missiles, which means they have missiles which can go on trucks and they can drive them around the country, which makes it more difficult to detect exactly where their missiles are placed at any one time.

What's in place for recovery, if anything? What measures will be taken in the aftermath of a nuclear strike?
Many people have said that the result of nuclear war would be so devastating that there is no way of facilitating a humanitarian response that would necessarily be sufficient in meeting those challenges.


Awesome, sounds great! Thanks, Emil.

For a hypothetical view of what your hometown would look like if it got nuked, be sure to visit NukeMap.


More from VICE:

Remember That Time the US Thought About Nuking the Moon?

What Would Happen in the Minutes and Hours After North Korea Nuked the United States?

These Hippies Are Camping in the Forest to Rid Scotland of Its Nukes