How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 458

If we were ever to have a nuclear war, would we have to live underground?
The long-term effects of nuclear war would come primarily from the release of radioactive isotopes into our environment. Large nuclei, such as that of uranium 235, have many more neutrons than protons. These neutrons "dilute" the repelling protons and made these large nuclei less unstable. But once a large nucleus shatters into fragments of medium size, these fragments acquire electrons and become "normal" atoms with medium sized nuclei. Unfortunately, these medium sized nuclei need fewer neutrons than they wind up with and they are generally unstable. While they resemble normal atoms chemically, they contain unstable cores and eventually decay. The decays release energy and this energy can do chemical damage to surrounding material. If the atom has been incorporated into a biological system (e.g. a person), it can do chemical damage to that biological system, perhaps causing cancer or genetic damage. To avoid this insidious damage, people would have to stay away from the fallout chemicals. That would be a difficult task, even underground.

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