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What If

What Happens to Canada in a Nuclear War

Here’s the unlikely but not impossible scenario that would bring the a nuclear warhead to Canadian soil and what would happen after the blast.

by Adam Kovac
May 1 2017, 1:07pm

Image by Ralph Damman

Since 1945, the world has had a nagging question in the back of its collective mind—what would it take for a nuclear war to start?

After the Cold War, it seemed nuclear fever had died down in North America—sure, India and Pakistan both got the bomb, but that was really far away. And North Korea might be nuts and armed, but even they must realize engaging in any kind of war with the west would end very, very badly for them.

Those fears have escalated again recently as the United States has begun signalling that it's willing to take unilateral action against North Korea. On April 4, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to a North Korean missile test with a terse statement that merely said "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea," leading to fears that a preemptive attack on that country's nuclear facilities is on the table. US President Donald Trump has furthered fears by recently saying a "major, major conflict" with North Korea is possible and installing an anti-missile system in South Korea.

The early April missile test came less than a month after the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that North Korea has doubled its capacity to produce enriched uranium, which would enable it to construct far more weapons than previously predicted.

While North Korea has long made its nuclear ambitions public, these new developments come as international institutions go through a period of intense instability—Brexit has shaken the EU and Trump spent the presidential campaign questioning why the United States would extend its nuclear protection umbrella over longtime allies like Germany and Japan.

The good news is, a nuclear war might not be the world-ending cataclysm you would think it is. The bad news is it would still be very, very bad. The worse news is that there hasn't been any kind of plan for how to deal with such an attack on Canada since the 1980s. Worst of all? Experts think a nuclear exchange in our lifetime is just a matter of time.

Canada stands to get out of this relatively unscathed. But Vancouver, grab a seat. We need to talk.

How it starts

No matter how unhinged you think Donald J. Trump might be and how terrifying it is that the man with the #MAGA hat is handling nuclear codes, none of the experts I spoke to thought it particularly likely he'll be the one to shoot first.

While several experts pointed to a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan as something that could conceivably happen at some point, it's doubtful that would end up with any North American cities becoming targets. Of the other nuclear powers, it's hard to think of a scenario that sees England, France, or Israel (whose nuclear arsenal has never been confirmed) striking out at the USA.

The consensus was that both Russia and China would have far too much to lose by hitting directly at North America (proxy nuclear wars in parts of Europe or Taiwan, respectively, remain on the table).

That leaves North Korea. Pissed as they might be at Seth Rogen for The Interview, they aren't likely to attack Canada directly. But according to Julian Schofield, a professor at Concordia University who specializes in security and strategic studies, there is one situation that's not entirely impossible, where the North Korean regime begins to fall apart and lashes out at the US in response.

"The North Koreans [could] fire something at Seattle and somehow they screw up and get Seattle mixed up with Vancouver," he told VICE. "The regime's falling, the North Korean people are revolting and [Kim Jong-Un] wants to unload some nukes before he's dead and he's stuck in his palace. I could see the guy fire off a nuke at Seattle and miss, definitely."

As it stands right now, North Korea claims to have executed five successful nuclear tests, with the most recent and largest being a bomb whose yield was as high as 30 kilotonnes—about the equivalent of the A-Bomb used on Hiroshima.

The highly secretive nature of North Korea's government means information on their nuclear capabilities is scarce. American government officials have argued that there is no proof they have been able to miniaturize a nuke to the point it could be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States' shores. But there's also no proof they aren't close to this capability either—they have had some success with submarine launches.

So, in this not-entirely unimaginable scenario what exactly would happen to Vancouver if the USA's west coast was attacked and a missile with a 20 kiloton warhead wandered north?

When the bomb hits

According to NUKEMAP, an algorithm that combines data from Google Maps and available information on nuclear weapon capabilities, the initial devastation of a strike on downtown Vancouver would be considerable—a fireball with a radius of 200 meters would appear over the city as the bomb explodes in midair. Every building within a two-kilometre radius would be virtually destroyed. Almost everyone within 16 kilometres of the explosion who survives the initial blast immediately suffers third degree burns.

The tally: almost 30,000 dead and over 100,000 injured almost immediately.

While NORAD radar would detect any ICBM or submarine launch, the warning time would be roughly 25 minutes—nowhere near enough to even begin evacuating a metro area with a population of over two million.

What would make matters worse is that currently there are absolutely no governmental plans for minimizing the death toll should a nuke hit a Canadian city.

"There isn't [a plan]," John Clearwater, author of Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada's Cold War Arsenal, told VICE. "We're all going to die."

During the Cold War, Canada did have plans in the event of a nuclear strike. In 1961, an underground hideaway was completed outside of Ottawa. Located 40 kilometers away from Parliament Hill, it was meant to house hundreds of government officials and military officers in case of a nuclear attack (it now functions as Canada's Cold War museum). Dubbed a "Diefenbunker" after then-prime minister John Diefenbaker, it was one of over 50 such multi-story units built across the country.

Fred Armbruster, the executive director and founder of the Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association, said parts of Canada are still home to the remnants of nuclear bunkers—a surprising amount of buildings in western Canada, in particular, are home to long-forgotten shelters.

"People don't realize the amount of bunkers that were constructed in Canada," he said. "It's phenomenal. For example, every single municipality around Edmonton has a bunker."

Today, almost none of those facilities remain operational, mothballed after Canada got rid of its nuclear weapons in 1984.

"There was no more plan because there was no more expectation that strategic nuclear weapons would fall on Canada," said Clearwater.

Crawl out of the fallout

In the immediate aftermath, thousands would die due to untreated injuries, dehydration, exposure, collapsing structures, and general unpreparedness in the face of such a disaster.

Armbruster pointed to the Fort McMurray fire as an example—just as nobody expects a nuclear attack, nobody was prepared for a blaze of that size. During the peak years of nuclear panic during the Cold War, information was regularly distributed on how to prepare for a strike—blueprints for bomb shelters, what supplies to have on hand, what to do if an air raid siren went off. In Fort McMurray, few had the emergency supplies or knowledge necessary to get through the ordeal.

"People didn't have bottled water, they weren't able to react. Many people ran out of fuel because they let their fuel tank go past half full," he said of the lack of preparedness that preceded the worst wildfire in Canadian history. "Back in (the Cold War), they were sending out pamphlets to every single household educating people on how to be prepared for a manmade or natural disaster."

When a largely unprepared population is faced with a disaster of this magnitude, it puts even more strain on governmental institutions like Public Safety Canada, who would have to improvise ways to decontaminate, shelter, feed, medically treat and house hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Those downwind from the blast would be affected by fallout, but even then, according to Schofield, it wouldn't be apocalyptic. Airbursts, where a bomb detonates several hundred meters over its target rather than on the ground, cause a larger shockwave but also result in less radioactive debris.

"The general rule of nuclear weapons is, the radiation effect which is lethal is well within the lethal zone of the shockwave," he said. "Radiation is not going to kill you."

Still, he warned, leukemia rates would likely spike in affected areas for several years.

On the ground, Canada's third largest city would probably rebound fairly quickly. While fiction would have you believe that nuclear weapons leave nothing but a scarred, uninhabitable landscape in their wake, Schofield said he wouldn't be surprised if Vancouver was rebuilt in a decade or less.

The bomb that struck Hiroshima in 1945 was 20 kilotonnes—not that much smaller than the largest tested North Korean bomb. But that city's population had returned to pre-war levels by 1958.

"Hiroshima … was built out of wood, [so] the whole place burned down," said Schofield. "There were a couple of buildings that were 200 meters from the Hiroshima bomb that were still standing."

Canada gets mad

Canadians would go through a pretty intense period of mourning and shock after the detonation. Then they'd get really ticked off.

"If a bomb goes off in Vancouver, most people's initial reaction is: we need to get a bomb so we can threaten other people so they don't bomb us," said Schofield. "For Canada, I think we'd say we need a nuke and then we'll probably revert to the Americans and have a much tighter security cooperation."

In 2005, then-prime minister Jean Chretien refused to let Canada participate in the construction of a continental anti-ICBM defence shield. Schofield predicted a reversal on that position—but first, we'd push for sweet, sweet revenge.

"The first thing we're going to do is see what's happening at NORAD," he said. "The second thing is going to NATO in Brussels and activating Article 15, where an attack on any member of NATO is an attack on all of them."

Given that other bombs likely would have fallen along the US West Coast, a retaliatory nuclear strike on North Korea would seem likely. Schofield said it would probably be relatively minor—on the one hand, the American and Canadian public would demand revenge. On the other hand, South Koreans do not want to see their northern neighbours nuked and the US needs South Korea to be a valuable ally.

"There would probably be some sort of retaliation somewhere between genociding the urban population that's communist and sparing the rural areas, plus taking out all the military facilities," said Schofield.

Don't freak out just yet

Since the United States dropped A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, no nuclear weapons have been used in an act of aggression. It's hard to think of that changing but experts agree it's just a matter of time.

Still, it needs to be stressed: the likelihood of Canada being involved is very, very, very low. Our lack of a plan isn't necessarily a bad thing—as Clearwater points out, it just means resources are being used on things that actually matter, like diplomacy.

"We should not be wasting taxpayers' money on a plan for something that results in our deaths," he said. "We should be using a fraction of that money working towards a global zero [amount of nuclear weapons]. You can get a lot more working towards zero than you can distributing survival packs, shovels, doors, water purification tablets and blueprints for backyard shelters."

So take heart, Canadians. Yes, our government isn't doing much to prepare for a nuclear strike, but that's because no one thinks we really have to...yet.

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