Weapons of mass destruction

Nuclear warfare

On August 6, 1945, a nuclear bomb exploded in Hiroshima, killing some 70,000 people within the day. In total, almost a half of the city perished from the effects of the bomb, half in the heat, radiation, fires and building collapses following the blast, and another half before the end of the year from injuries and radiation, bringing the total number of deaths to some 150,000. Since then, the world has lived in the shadow of a war unlike any other in history. Although the tension between nuclear states has diminished since the end of the Cold War and disarmament efforts have reduced arsenals, the prospect of a nuclear war remains present, and might be closer today than it was a decade ago. Its immediate effect would be the catastrophic destruction of lives and cities, and debilitation, illness and deaths from radiation, but another concern is the risk that the dust released from nuclear explosions could plunge the planet into a mini ice-age, with dramatic ecological consequences, severe agricultural collapse, and a large proportion of the world population dying in a famine.

Biological and chemical warfare

Toxic chemicals or infectious micro-organisms have been used as weapons to harm or kill humans for millennia, from the ancient practice of poisoning an enemy’s wells and throwing plague-infected bodies over the walls of cities under siege, to the horrifying usage of germ warfare during the Second World War in Asia, or the use of nerve gases in the Iran-Iraq War. Biological and chemical attacks not only cause sickness and death but also create panic. Up to now, their destructive effect has been locally contained. However, new technological developments give cause for concern. In particular, developments in synthetic biology and genetic engineering make it possible to modify the characteristics of micro-organisms. New genetically engineered pathogens – released intentionally or inadvertently – might cause a pandemic of unprecedented proportions.