Tensions continue to mount over North Korea’s threats of a nuclear strike, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Sunday with Japanese officials to discuss the conflict. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan — a nation that certainly understands the devastation of nuclear war — said it was imperative that North Korea not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, CNN reported April 14.
While North Korea is widely believed to be capable of making at least crude nuclear devices, the exact nature of its nuclear capabilities isn’t known.
And that means it’s not yet clear what devastating health consequences may result if North Korea launches a nuclear attack, but cancer and other health problems are possible.
Although North Korea has made threats for years, this time around the threat is “thermonuclear” war. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006. North Korea is widely believed to have mastered the engineering requirements of plutonium and may now be focusing its efforts on mastering uranium enrichment.
Most Americans have only experienced the effects of nuclear devastation in such nuclear war movies as The Day After and Threads.
But the Japanese know about the terrible aftermath of nuclear war — not just infrastructure damage but the unimaginable toll on human health.
Only two nuclear weapons have been used in warfare, both by the United States near the end of World War II and targeted at Japan. On Aug. 6, 1945, a uranium gun-type fission bomb code-named “Little Boy” was detonated over Hiroshima. Three days later, a plutonium implosion-type fission bomb code-named “Fat Man” was exploded over Nagasaki. Approximately 200,000 people were killed immediately.
Today, even a small nuclear device no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire and radiation.
While it’s impossible to know what health problems may arise if North Korea launches a nuclear missile attack, much is known about the human toll nuclear war can exact.
For one thing, there are the immediate deaths and injuries from the blast, which may include burns and people trapped in the rubble of collapsed structures.
Scientists have learned about the long-term health effects of nuclear war by studying the people of Japan who survived the nuclear explosions there and by studying radiation exposure after nuclear accidents, such as Chernobyl.
Data show that there was an increase in the incidence of leukemia that started three years after the nuclear attacks in Japan. Cases of multiple myeloma also increased.
There also has been a higher-than-average number of deaths in survivors in Japan from malignant solid tumors, including lung cancer, breast cancer and stomach cancer. Evidence shows that breast and thyroid tissue may be especially vulnerable to the effects of ionizing radiation.
Skin cancer also is more common after nuclear attack. Many of these solid cancers can take decades to appear, unlike leukemia and other blood and bone marrow cancers.
Still, many factors affect how the health problems could play out in the event of a North Korea nuclear strike. The big unknown is the technology of the nuclear weapons themselves. Other factors that can affect the health of survivors include their age and sex, proximity to the blast, and even compounding lifestyle factors, such as smoking.