Guardian: On 6 August 1945, the first atomic bomb to be used in anger detonated over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn. That was the last such attack. Despite the worst of the cold war’s close calls, like the Cuban missile crisis, no other nuclear weapons have ever been used outside of testing. Seven decades later, it is worth asking: could it happen again? Here are five possible nuclear use scenarios.
Major power nuclear war
During the cold war, the most likely scenario seemed to be a conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, each of which possessed many thousands of nuclear weapons. Three other countries eventually entered into the “nuclear club” as well, developing relatively large, sophisticated arsenals with global reach. Today, the idea that the US, Russia, UK, France or China would start a nuclear war seems considerably more remote than it once was.
But it is not entirely off the table. The US and Russia still possess thousands of weapons each, with the other three nations possessing arsenals in the hundreds. Tensions over regional affairs, such as the fighting in Ukraine, always carry the threat of spilling over into larger conflicts. War strategists call this possibility “escalation”, where one side, perhaps without realising it, pushes the other side into a slightly larger response, which leads to another response, and so on until – at its very worse – a full nuclear exchange, the sort of thing that can kill millions.
None of these powers want this sort of thing to happen – it’s not in their interest to be mutually annihilated, and their arsenals are sophisticated enough that nobody thinks they could get away with a sneak attack without fearing reprisal. Despite sometimes having blistering rhetoric, they take pains to avoid it. Could it still happen? It’s not impossible. But it’s probably not as likely to happen today as it might have in the 1960s or 1980s, when tensions were at their highest.