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The ‘zapping point’

January 1, 2012

When does this point arrive?


By David Ritchie

We know how much radiation it takes to kill an individual human. But how much does it take to destroy a society?

There must come a point when irradiation leaves a society unable to function. Call it the “zapping point,” if you wish.

Then, things fall apart. But how exactly?

A few scenarios come to mind:

1. Maybe too many people would be dead, or else too sick and weakened to do anything but wait for the end.

2. Perhaps irradiation would kill crops and livestock, or leave them too hot for consumption. A society unable to feed itself cannot survive.

3. Public morale could deteriorate until too many people decide it’s hopeless to go on. The will to keep going is almost as important as food to survival.

4. Don’t forget energy and transportation. A society needs both … and each depends on the other for availability. How long until they reach the zapping point?

5. And how long could an economy survive a level of irradiation that makes essential commodities unusable or wipes them out entirely?

I wouldn’t dare to guess. Probably, no one else can say either.

A society past the zapping point might crumble slowly over years … or implode dramatically, within days or even hours.

We just don’t know. Nothing like Fukushima has happened before.

But the time to start thinking about society’s zapping point is now.

Where to start? Perhaps we have a few benchmarks.

Japan, for instance, did not collapse after the nuclear bombings in 1945. It recovered and indeed was thriving a few decades later.

The United States held together and prospered despite A-bombing its own territory time and again during the mid-1900s.

While conducting testing on a similar scale, the former Soviet Union endured. Economic failure, not fallout, did in the USSR.

And Ukraine survived as a society despite Chernobyl.

“What’s past is prologue,” wrote Shakespeare. True.

So let’s not give up. Instead, let’s study past experience carefully as the hot stuff flies.

There surely is enough to study.

ⓒDavid Ritchie 2012

(David Ritchie lives and works in Seoul, Korea. He welcomes correspondence and asks only that it be civil in tone. Contact: kwriter [at]


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  1. Stephengn permalink

    It is clear that meltdowns are nothing like atomic bombs.

    First and most obvious, atomic bombs blow up. Meltdowns sit and sputter.

    Second, is timeframe. Atomic bombs disperse their poisons and radiation in a single horrifying instant. Meltdowns disperse their poisons slowly, more locally and over a long (perhaps enormous) period.

    Third, is culpability. Atomic bombs are weapons of war. While their use is morally objectionable and while the rest of the world may condem their use, a society will easily explain or rationalize the use of atomic bombs away through a statement of their purpose.

    “We were at war. We had to use and test them. Do you think the other side would have hesitated in doing so?”

    Meltdowns are not weapons of war. The reason for nuclear power is ostensibly peaceful. But when a meltdown occures (though such things are not often spoken aloud) the rest of the world is left pointing the finger at the offending nation.

     “Look here, you have seriously polluted us. We are your supposed allies, but through your terrible mismanagement you have put our citizens at risk.”

    In this way, meltdowns are extremely embarrassing and demoralizing events on a societal level. And I have seen that the Japanese are more susceptible to shame and embarrassment than most.

    There are other differences as well and this is new territory for our species, but in total I believe meltdowns can push a nation to the “zapping point” you speak of just as easily and as devastatingly as atomic bombs ever could.

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