Nuclear Use: The Human Cost
Weekly Newsletters

Nuclear Use: The Human Cost



26 April 2023

This week’s newsletter is a special feature on the Nuclear Use in Northeast Asia project, a collaborative three-year initiative with the Nautilus Institute, the Research Center for Nuclear Weapon Abolition, Nagasaki University (RECNA), and the Panel on Peace and Security of Northeast Asia (PSNA).

The project takes an ambitious and detailed look at the pathways to nuclear use in Northeast Asia. The project aims to educate policymakers on the risk of nuclear war, and the devastating consequences it would bring.

Year 2 of the project simulated five of the cases identified during Year 1 and produced estimates of fatalities and health effects due to the physical impacts of nuclear detonations.

The Year 2 report provided sobering implications on the use of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia.

  • Escalation is almost certain: A nuclear conflict based on regional issues could escalate to a nuclear global conflict within hours or days.
  • There is no “restraint” in nuclear use: Any nuclear detonations, even in relatively unpopulated areas, are likely to result in at least thousands of deaths.
  • Nuclear strikes can never be contained to military targets: Even when focused on military targets, nuclear detonations have the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people due to long-term effects.
  • Nuclear fallout cannot be contained to the area of conflict: Even third parties that are not initial parties to a nuclear conflict will face serious threats to their national security due to nuclear detonations in their neighbourhood.
  • Nuclear planners cannot ignore the additional devastating effect of firestorms: Firestorms resulting from nuclear detonations cause greater damages than the direct physical and radiological impacts of the weapons themselves.

Read the Year 2 Report
Read the Executive Summary
Like and share the report on Twitter
Like and share the report on Twitter

Year 1 of the project developed 30 hypothetical cases of nuclear weapons use in 2025-2030 during conflicts in Northeast Asia that involved the DPRK, the United States, China, Russia, and non-state actors.

The Year 1 report analysed a broad range of use cases and asked: 

  • Why does the nuclear use happen?
  • Which state responds to nuclear first use with nuclear weapons and/or conventional forces?
  • What and where are the targets of nuclear weapons in each case, and when does the attack occur?
  • How are the first strikes and subsequent nuclear attacks carried out?
  • How plausible is the nuclear use case, how significant are its impacts likely to be? 

The report found striking similarities among the suggested use cases, noting that nuclear use is likely to be triggered by misinterpretation, leadership figures, and lack of communication.

Read the Year 1 Report
Read the Executive Summary

Read recently published reports in the Nuclear Weapon Use Risk Reduction Project.

Implications of the Ukraine War for ROK Security

Cheon Myeongguk explores the possible implications of the Ukraine conflict on the ROK attitudes regarding nuclear weapons.

Birds of a Feather: Pyongyang’s Lessons from the War in Ukraine

Alexandre Mansourov discusses the lessons learned from the Ukraine conflict by DPRK leadership.

Russia’s Nuclear Signaling in Ukraine and China’s Nuclear Policy

Tong Zhao argues that China may look at the war in Ukraine and internalize lessons that add further ambiguity and uncertainty.

Potential Implications of the War in Ukraine for Northeast Asia

Paul Davis argues that the Ukraine war has made the range of nuclear-use cases in Northeast Asia even more plausible.

Potential Implications of the Situation in Ukraine for Russia’s Nuclear Deployment in Northeast Asia

Anastasia Barannikova warns that impacts of the situation in Ukraine on Russia’s nuclear policies in this region cannot be ruled out.

See all project reports

Several Japanese media covered the release of the report:

The Human Horror of a Nuclear Conflict in Northeast Asia

Eva Lisowski, APLN Associate Fellow, co-wrote an article with David Von Hippel and lay out stark scenarios of nuclear-weapons use and their horrible costs. The impacts go well beyond the Korean Peninsula and raise the risks of a global nuclear disaster.

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