Want To Know How A Nuclear War Might Go? There’s Now A Frighteningly Detailed ‘Game’ For That

To describe a nuclear war honestly is to argue for the abolition of nuclear weapons.


At least, that’s part of the goal of the Nuclear War Simulator, developed by Ivan Stepanov and released for download June 28. Built on the Unity3D engine, the simulator incorporates sheaves and sheaves of public data about yields, flight trajectories, and calculated armageddon.

Stepanov’s project specifically draws inspiration from the NUKEMAP made by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at Stevens Institute of Technology. Wellerstein’s tool lets people pick an existing warhead, toggle some settings, and then place the blast over a target area, rendering in concentric colored circles the salient details about what kind of effect would hit what people, where.

“[Nuclear War Simulator] was made to help you answer the question: what will a war between Russia and United States or India and Pakistan look like and what are the consequences for the world, your country and your family?” writes Stepanov.

To capture this fuller feeling of human impact, the simulation includes a population density grid, to render an impact not just in terms of blast radii, but in the deaths and injuries that can easily number in the millions.

While initially conceived of as a game, there is no winning in this nuclear war, and no set or measurable objectives. There are, instead, an array of menus of weapons, delivery vehicles, launch patterns, and sequencing, allowing users to explore just what it looks like when, say, a slight exchange of a couple nuclear warheads escalates into a planet-shattering conflagration of ICBM flights and submarine launches and fallout and casualties.

It is a way to make visible the often forgotten specter of nuclear annihilation that hangs over everyone on earth, at all times.

“I was born in the city Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan which is known for the fact that the Soviet Union was testing most of their nuclear weapons on a test site just 150 km away,” writes Stepanov. “Everybody in my family, including me, have experienced atmospheric or underground nuclear weapons tests. One of my family members was constructing the tunnels for underground testing for several years and another one was evacuated during one of the early atmospheric tests.”

That downwinder experience, of being a person who grew up exposed to the after-effects of nuclear tests, is an often-obscured part of the story of nuclear testing. The harmful effects uttered by downwinders are twice a tragedy: first, the harms directly experienced, and second, that they were harmed by nations actively preparing for a civilization-shattering cataclysm.

Computer modeling of nuclear exchanges is one way to truly visualize the scale of the weapons, and the way their use inevitably creates a tragedy on a scale that is almost impossible to imagine otherwise.

“The biggest motivation to create this software is the constant threat of a nuclear war,” write Stepanov. “We still have over 13 thousands nuclear weapons on this planet and while deterrence may have reduced the probability of a conflict between major powers, this probability is not equal zero.”

By building a tool to let people simulate that tragedy, Stepanov hopes to make the unimaginable comprehensible. And, in turn, to urge people towards action. The site for the simulation includes links to both ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and IPPNW, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.


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