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I am currently trying to write a story about a World War 3, but the major issue I am having is the presence of nuclear weapons. I want the war to constantly escalate to a point where it becomes a total war to setup a future story/idea I have in mind. However, the threat of nuclear weapons (mainly ICBMs and those from SSBNs) poses an insurmountable obstacle for me as of now. I am trying to figure out a military way for nukes to no longer be a factor in this war, rather that they somehow be destroyed by the major powers in the war. I was thinking about something like rail guns to target ICBMs before they reach the upper atmosphere but it wouldn't be foolproof, nor would it solve the SSBN problem.

EDIT: The timeline is near-future: basically technology is advanced enough for us to reliably send missions to Mars and have warfare in space with purpose-built ships designed for combat. So around 2060-75ish. Space warfare will be in its infancy, the best way I would describe it is like when ships finally got fitted with cannons in them by design. Likewise, this time we are seeing the very first purpose-built space weapons. My initial idea was that something like Philedelphia Station from Command and Conquer along with some sort of satellite defense network would render ICBMs useless, but then I realized the number of nuclear weapons would make that untenable, and would potentially be vulnerable to being itself taken out by a space weapon.

How can I make the current delivery of nuclear weapons obsolete?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! Your mention of railguns implies that you're open to futuristic technologies being used in an answer; is that correct? Could you edit the question to clarify when World War 3 takes place in your story? $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Sep 13 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ @F1Krazy Railguns aren't that far off $\endgroup$ – marcellothearcane Sep 13 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ Are you solely concerned about ICBMs/SLBMs, or against the use of nukes in general? Cruise missile/stealth bomber-delivered bombs would have basically the same effect. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 13 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ ...as would covertly-delivered nukes, or hijacked nukes, or false-flag nukes. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Sep 14 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ I am mainly concerned about ICBMs, then secondly cruise missles $\endgroup$ – FIRE Sep 14 at 0:31
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You haven't specified how far in the future you're thinking, so let's go with some Technology Indistinguishable from Magic:

The Neutron Limiting Field (aka FissionBGone)

Doctor Halle Toesis was working in her high-energy physics lab when she determined that running electricity through an antenna of exactly 14.2 HU (Halle Units) length, cycling at 14.29 GHz, caused neutrons moving at more than 100 kEV to spontaneously emit visible-spectrum photons and lose the corresponding amount of kinetic energy. This caused the U-235 sample she was working on to start glowing like a lamp, but, crucially, stopped its fission altogether.

Being no dummy, Dr. Toesis immediately contacted Lockheed Martin - while sending her results to be publishled publicly in one year, thus securing both her financial future and the future of the planet. By creating large Neutron Limiting Fields, cities became proof from any sort of strategic nuclear strike, as no nuclear bomb could detonate once within it. Careful exclusion areas were developed for nuclear research and power generation, but in a decade, overlapping fields covered most of the populated area of the planet.

Wars, therefore, were restricted to old fashioned guns and bombs, with the hideous city-destroying nuclear weapons replaced by hideous, city-destroying ultra-accelerants and chemical weapons.

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  • $\begingroup$ But fusion power is also unreliable now, which means all the future space stuff OP wants might not come to fruition. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Sep 13 at 22:06
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    $\begingroup$ @fredsbend Why would fusion power be unreliable? Fusion depends on internuclear collisions, rather than neutron flux, so slowing neutrons and forcing them to emit their energy as photons actually makes fusion power more usable, because you don't have to have blankets of low-density material to capture high-energy neutrons. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 13 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ I meant fission. Autocorrect fubar. We're currently using fission reactors in many of our massive war machines. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Sep 13 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ Stable and safe fusion would have to be invented concurrently, to replace the unreliable fission. $\endgroup$ – fredsbend Sep 13 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ We have fusion bombs now. That's what thermonuclear weapons are. They require a fission initiator. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 13 at 22:18
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Since ideas like SDI and similar have already been floated, I’ll offer two ideas that are on the wild side.

NUMBER 1; The proliferation of particle beam weapons means that a nation's own nuclear weapons can be detonated prematurely, even over their own territory. The particle beam weapons saturate a non-critical mass of fissile material with slow-moving neutrons triggering a chain reaction. The detonation is a fizzle, which is still pretty destructive and spreads highly radioactive material across the area of effect.

NUMBER 2: Wakanda sez it will remain neutral in any conflict until nuclear weapons are used. Then, and only then, will Wakanda take action and declare unrestricted war against the country or alliance that used nuclear weapons against other humans.

And, of course, I don’t mean Wakanda in the sense of the Marvel Universe, but am using it as a stand in for a highly advanced and powerful nation like Freedonia for instance. A nation so powerful that no other country or alliance of countries would ever consider entering into hostilities with it. They are wise enough to know if they try to enforce a global peace, that the results will be disastrous so instead they try to limit the carnage of the less advanced nations. Hoping that in the future, all nations will chose to live in peace.

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  • $\begingroup$ Particle beams have this nasty effect of creating a large radiation surge upon use as it collides with the air inbetween the beam canon and it's target. It might dissipate much faster but is kind of a bad way to go about it. It would be safer (and about as "easy") to use high-powered lasers to detonate the fuel of the ICBM early on. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Sep 15 at 13:18
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The idea of satellite defenses to render nukes useless is a good idea. And not a new one.

Strategic Defense Initiative Redux.

1983.

It was a plan that read like science fiction: A system armed with an array of space-based X-ray lasers would detect and deflect any nukes headed toward the United States. President Ronald Reagan saw the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as a safeguard against the most terrifying Cold War outcome—nuclear annihilation. When Reagan first announced SDI on March 23, 1983, he called upon the U.S. scientists who “gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” https://www.history.com/news/reagan-star-wars-sdi-missile-defense

2024. Rogue elements in the North Korean military launch intercontinental ballistic missiles with various warheads; these reach South Korea, Japan, and (accidentally) China and North Korea.

In the aftermath, developed nations of the world reboot SDI, arming space in such a way as to prevent the use of long range missiles of any sort. The developed countries realize that these weapons can too easily fall into the hands of actors with nothing to lose and so the only way to prevent wanton destruction is to deny them to everyone. The signatory countries go about dismantling most of their own now useless nuclear missiles.

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    $\begingroup$ SDI isn't going to be effective against air- or sub-launched nuclear cruise missiles, nor against nuclear artillery, nor even against air-dropped bombs. So this takes ICBMs off the table, but not much else. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 13 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop - agreed re planes and artillery. The OP stated he was mostly concerned about ICBMS. Re other missiles - you could reasonably assert that 40 years of tech improvement allows 2023 satellites to see and react in a way not possible in 1983. That Iranian launch site Trump tweeted was pretty sharp and it is only 2019.. $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 13 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ The USSR has recently started fielding a long range nuclear tipped "underwater missile" with a range of several hundred nautical miles. Effectively an underwater cruise missile with a nuclear warhead large enough to destroy a coastal city. Stopping it using a space based laser would be impossible. Even detecting it would be nearly impossible unless you were very near and caught its (masked) sonar signature. Weapons like this, and the new generations of hypersonic cruise missiles are going to be far greater threats soon than ICBMs and SLBMs. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Sep 16 at 5:14
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A completely different direction of thought:

Maybe in that future, nuclear power was utilized so widely and intensively that all uranium has already been used up. Since the world had gone through a peaceful phase, this also included any uranium originally used for nuclear bombs, as well as any plutonium that could be generated (for a while, plutonium power plants were used to replace the uranium plants running out of fuel). There are no nukes, for lack of fissile material.

Since it was finally figured out how to build viable nuclear fusion plants just when the last stocks of fissile materials got used up, this did not lead to an energy crisis. But when hostility returned to the world, nobody could figure out how to detonate a thermonuclear bomb without a fission starter.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you have a fusion reactor then you can simply throw it at the enemy. It will bounce couple of times and the containment will fail. $\endgroup$ – Congenital Optimist Sep 15 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ @CongenitalOptimist: Dropping a huge building on your enemy is not practical. And if the containment of a fusion plant fails, fusion simply stops, as the plasma disperses. There definitely will not be not an explosion. The main damage would be done by a building falling on your head. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 16 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ That... would have to be a lot of use. Even if recoverable mined uranium were used up (and thorium), it could be recovered from seawater virtually indefinitely at a higher price. Given the economics of nuclear power, that would still be worthwhile, and would promote more efficient reactors to boot. On top of that, volatile fissiles created as waste from power generation could be used as bomb material, even if all the power generation potential had been used up. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 16 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk The reactor will be a building only in first iteration. Some generations of technology forward it will fit in a car, airplane or spacecraft. Same way as certain country has recently experimented with fission-powered rocket engine. It blew up but I bet lot was learned from it. $\endgroup$ – Congenital Optimist Sep 17 at 8:12
  • $\begingroup$ @CongenitalOptimist: Then this optimized power plant will do even less damage. The fact that a failing fusion plant will never explode doesn't change. The big difference between fission and fusion is that for fission bombs, you just need enough fissile material at one place. For fusion, on the other hand, you actually have to force the nuclei to fuse. That's so hard that you need a nuke to start if in the thermonuclear bomb. For power plants, fission plants basically control fission, while fusion plants force fusion. If a fusion plant fails, fusion simply stops. No explosion whatsoever. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 17 at 10:13
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Have someone discover an incredible medical process which so supercharges the human immune system that within its' recipient, all existing medical conditions are cured and estimated youthful life expectancy is increased by 50 years. The only downside is that the process consumes a not-insignificant quantity of weapons grade fissionable material.

Within a few decades of this process becoming available, all the nuclear refineries will be re-purposed from military to medical usage, and every single ICBM's payload will have been stolen by the very officers assigned to guard them.

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Cheap antirocket system.

Right now we're destroying them with many times more expensive rockets, so the game favours attackers. You need a situation when it works in the opposite way and ex. laser armed satellites or railguns are much cheaper than their targets. (at least per shot) However, such weapon would also slaughter all aircrafts and railguns would be tremendous artillery.

Conventions

In case of multiple powers, some 3rd party may dislike nuclear fallout on its soil and openly threaten with bloody revenge anyone who dare to use nukes. As long as they are not bluffing and clearly able to tip the balance, then ignoring them would be a bad idea.

Still a limited conflict

Soviets, in their famous war plan Seven days to river Rhine planned not to use nukes first and even when tactical nukes were used, to try to avoid to use them against targets on soil of nuclear powers like France or Great Britain. (Yes, Russians were willing to nuke even Italians and Danes, but hoped that conflict would not escalate so much that Soviet Union would be targeted too. Presumably there is gulag for people who doubt that it would work ;) )

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  • $\begingroup$ As discussed in a now-deleted comment, this ignores the OP's specification that the war is global and total. There are no 3rd parties to ride herd on nuclear exchanges. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 16 at 18:58
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TL,DR:

Keep the current expensiveness of anti-nuclear options like THAAD or I-5 interceptors (or knock some off the price but not too much) and create an IAEA on steroids that regulates nukes, economical sanctions and liberally invests and distributes a large range of anti-nuclear options to countries to reduce the success chance and cost/benefit of having a nuclear arsenal in the first place.

Long version:

Intercepting ballistic missiles is expensive, an interceptor missile that tries to take out a minuteman III during its boost phase is in fact larger and more complex than the ICBM it tries to catch up to, which considering the speeds of ICBM's and the time it takes before you can fire an interceptor (often more than half a minute) isnt that surprising. So rather than invent new ways of stopping ICBM's you could create incentives not to have nukes in the first place.

So what if the world simply funds an anti-nuclear organisation who's sole intention is to prevent large scale war by any means necessary? Basically it would be the IAEA but on steroids. Using political pressure, agreements with possible massive economical sanctions and a worldwide expensive anti-ballistic missile system (ABMS) combined with a large arsenal of cruise missiles and the like intended to damage and disable nuclear launch sites..

Countries surrounding nuclear superpowers are going to be dealing with the most unintended consequences of a nuclear war (aside from those living in the bombed country), and will agree to an ABMS far sooner. If you and surrounding countries can guarantee missiles of the nearby superpower to be shot down or prevented from firing then retaliation isn't a necessity. The downside is that it also makes you a target by the superpower in question. So as another consequence this organization will demand that all countries disclose the position of all their nuclear silo's and firing positions. Anyone who is found out to hold secret sites will automatically receive massive economic sanctions with the goal of hurting their economic capability to sustain nuclear weapons along with a civilian populace that will protest nuclear weapons to rid themselves of the sanctions. Additionally anyone who seems to prepare strikes to disable the ABMS and have tried to keep launch sites secret will be retaliated against by the combined countries with the goal of disabling the nuclear weapons. Yes there are countries like Iran that arent deterred by this but in this case the steroids IAEA would expend massive amounts of missiles and perhaps force a coalition invasion to stop it if a threat continues.

Faced with this, many countries would refocus their military spending on other weapons. Why spend billions researching, building and sustaining an ICBM arsenal if you are faced with harsh economical sanctions, possible invasions, your nuclear sites bombed and any missile you did fire having a massive chance of being shot down anyway?

For "theater" nuclear warheads and tactical nukes the organization would use widespread THAAD launchers and similar systems. They are too expensive to use against aircraft and would you use them against a fighter if you knew nuclear strikes could still happen?

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  • $\begingroup$ And how would such an organization arise in the first place? $\endgroup$ – Geronimo Sep 16 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Geronimo same way we got things like the current IAEA and UN and Europe? All are pretty different organisations with different ways of using their power, but each was created in response to a world-wide problem. If we go into another cold-war like scenario there could be enough incentive to do this, especially if one or two nukes are actually used and nuclear war was truly a buttonpress away. After all why sit still while two or more nuclear powers might end the world without you having any say in it? $\endgroup$ – Demigan Sep 16 at 20:44
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Given the number of possible delivery systems for nuclear weapons, as well as the proliferation of the weapons as well as the knowhow on how to make them, I'm afraid any technological or political means to prevent their use is doomed from the start.

Even were you to have a world spanning ABM defense in place, that's not going to stop cruise missiles, artillery shells, torpedoes, freefall bombs from aircraft, or a truck or cargo ship driving into a city under a false flag loaded with a nuclear weapon on a suicide mission.

All those methods have been fielded or at the very least postulated as delivery systems, and are quite viable.

Heck, there were even experiments with nuclear hand grenades (never fielded as it was found the strongest soldier couldn't lob them further than the blast radius) and bazookas (which were actually fielded, despite the same problem in all but the most perfect conditions).

So you're not going to have a technological means to stop nuclear weapons from being successfully used. Given the relative ease of designing and building them (the problem is mostly getting the raw materials, not turning them into a bomb, even if a crude one) you're also not going to be able to have say the UN simply ban them and nobody will have them any longer, especially if this turns into an all out war of survival for the countries involved. At least one and probably several WILL start building them and using them if the situation gets dire enough for them. Think the current Israeli stance where their nuclear arsenal is a weapon of last resort, to be used only if nothing else can prevent the destruction of the country they're going to take their enemies with them.

So politics is also out of the question. And in a war the scale of WW2 or larger, with the very existence of countries in questions, entire peoples being threatened with annihillation, moral objections are also going to take a back seat over the will to survive. So even the most steadfast pacifist will eventually have to face the question of whether they'd rather die or live with the consequences of using a nuclear weapon to destroy those attacking them.

So no, unless you have some handwaivium going on here that makes nuclear weapons impossible you're not going to prevent their use. The cat is out of the bag and has been since the 1930s (it was known as far back as that that nuclear weapons were theoretically possible, though it took until about 1943 to figure out how to actually construct them and even then there were surprises, like the impossibility of the gun type plutonium bomb, which came as a surprise only found out during the design and component testing of such a device). And once that happens, it's next to impossible to prevent a system from actually being built if the stakes are high enough to warrant it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Citation needed on the "nuclear hand grenade" comment. AFAIK, the smallest nuclear weapon ever created was the warhead for the Davy Crockett, clocking in at 23 kg. Below that weight (of fissile material and explosives), it gets really difficult to get an actual nuclear yield, so I can't imagine anyone ever even trying to develop a nuclear hand grenade, let alone making something soldiers could throw. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Sep 16 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop like I said, there were plans but they never were implemented. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Sep 17 at 5:41
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I might like to add you specify only that nukes are not a factor in this war, not that they are useless or no longer function.

Have you considered an environmental reason why any country detonating a nuke anywhere on the planet would have global cataclysmic consequences? You may prefer a less hand-wavium explanation which might be a topic of another question, should you choose to go down this route. But the idea that weapons of such destruction may cause an already collapsing environment to turn up the violence in natural disaster side effects and harm their allies could result in turn coating or unrecoverable political ties, not to mention general habitat and natural disaster fallout that could make living in many large areas impossible.

Not to incite some kind of debate about what nukes do to the weather patterns we currently have, but perhaps the scientific data behind unstable weather patterns globally were explored when idiotic notions such as nuking a hurricane were puked out by some fool, revealing how destructive the side effects of such an act would be. And despite that warning, said insipid fool somehow manages to overturn all authorities and actually does it, which causes the extreme backlash as warned, forever ruining the stability of large regions already prone to weather disaster, causing greater storms, and so on... until many years later where these storms are a normal thing, hugely devastating, your war starts to boil up, and an act of NATO or some other convention like the Geneva one which is often ignored set upon us standards to ... disarm... or some such... nukes with recent history as a guide that shows the planet as a whole cannot sustain any further detonations. Here's where your hand-wavium comes into place.

Yeah, we already have agreements of some kind, and yeah people claim they have dismantled some of the nuclear stockpile. But a lot of that could be thought of like an international policy deal that keeps economic stability in place for everyone, as well as makes what seems like a good impression on the inhabitants of the world. Never before has it become so evident that using them would bring upon the planet a global assurance of immanent death. The existence of fallout proved already that nuclear weapons leave a dent in the world none of us alive now will live to see the end of. Careless use, like what started the climate disaster era, have convinced everyone that it is clear these weapons cannot possibly be used to the end of peace. They will destroy us all if anyone uses them. And so your hand-wavium is that this unstable global condition is bad, but how bad and the precise details of all the whys and what abouts don't really get explored. Only that it is clear that use of nuclear weapons, and even the threats of nuclear disaster like Fukushima Dai-ichi eventually going full on melt down pose a threat of such significance that even in a state of war, everyone involved knows that using a nuke anywhere would be an act of suicide. Violent winds, storms, enormous shifts in conflicting temperature heat zones, and even such things like contaminated industry and global trade meaning everyone on the planet could be exposed to lethal levels of radiation simply because one nuke dispersing fallout amid a turbulent environment means everyone alive gets hit with the same bomb no matter where it is dropped.

So people refuse to accept it as a viable option, even in the worst of wars. Threatening such use causes social panic, catastrophe, riots, protests, and possibly even erupts smaller civil wars. Stock markets go nuts over the impending destruction and presence of large corporations involved in global trade. Destabilization is guaranteed. It is no longer a utility to demonstrate power. Possession and use of nuclear devices is now considered a top tier threat to the existence of humanity, and the warlords of the planet know this. As a result, they have not agreed upon anything in the form of a convention. But it is just known that to use one would be ending the war for everyone with no victories.

What use is winning a war if there is no planet left to live on?

And thus, nukes are not a factor in you war. Simply because in your world the warlords are convinced it would mean the end of everyone, which is not anyone's goal.

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    $\begingroup$ Hiroshima and Nagasaki are large and prosperous cities... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 13 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - I never contested that. I only said it left a dent we would never see the end of. While the fallout of those particular strikes didnt prevent repopulation, it did expose the side effects of using nuclear devices and was emphasized in other incidents like chernobyl, which has much stronger lasting effects. I did imply there would be environmental consequences and I did not specify the zones would be survivable, even neutral. But the overall geo-political consequences are lasting indefinitely now and would only be greater in the weapons of today which are measured in magnitudes of ww2 $\endgroup$ – Kai Qing Sep 14 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ ... often ranging from ~80x to pver 3,000x the power of the bombs from yesterday. And the OP is talking future, so who knows what psychos will come up with in the interim. But yeah, I get it. I'm not saying the WW2 nukes, chernobyl, or fukushima would be the end of humanity as we know it. But their impressions have since caused us all to re-think casual use of these kinds of weapons. What if some idiot decided not to heed the warnings and actually used a nuke 3,000x the strength of hiroshima on a hurricane? We don't want to find out. Neither do the war lords of the OP's story. That's all. $\endgroup$ – Kai Qing Sep 14 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ France, the Soviet Union, the U.S.A. (and others) have detonated many many nuclear bombs on the surface, some very much more powerful than those used in WW2. We are still here, and our existence was not threatened. (And the idea of disrupting a hurricane by detonating a nuclear warhead has been proposed and studied scientifically. We know that it won't work; hurricanes are very powerful and highly energetic phenomena, and would laugh at our puny bomb. Not even the largest bomb ever made, the Soviet 50 megaton Tsar Bomb, would disrupt a fully developed hurricane.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 14 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - I'm not sure what your goal here is. I am well aware of the global use of nuclear devices and the fact that we're still here. My point is exactly that a hurricane would laugh at our puny bomb, but the backlash of that event may not be so laughable. Hence the hand-wavium. It's speculation what such an act would set as a standard for nuclear use and what sort of environmental impact it could cause in a fictional scenario where the OP can make flying pigs a reality if they wanted to. $\endgroup$ – Kai Qing Sep 14 at 1:20

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