President Putin of Russia has been talking a lot lately about his forces using nuclear weapons — presumably tactical nuclear weapons — in the war with Ukraine. It’s an easy threat to make but a difficult one to follow-through for reasons I’ll explain here in some detail. I’m not saying Mr Putin won’t order nuclear strikes. He might. Dictators do such things from time to time. But if Mr Putin does push that button, I’d estimate there is perhaps a 20- percent chance that nukes will be actually launched and a 100 percent chance that Mr. Putin will end that day with a bullet in his brain.

Given that I don’t think Mr. Putin really wants a bullet in his brain, my goal here is to lay out facts and probabilities to show how nuking Ukraine would be a huge mistake for Putin and Russia.  With the facts thus presented and presumably repeated by many people in many venues, that information will quickly reach everyone in positions to make such a nuclear war NOT happen. But without essays like this one, that education and intervention is much less likely. So I am writing this as a public service. Pass it on.

What do I know? I worked as an investigator for the Presidential Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. Part of my portfolio then was to study the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to that nuclear accident, which was pathetic.

TMI was FEMA’s first big crisis as FEMA. Most of the agency had been called Civil Defense until a short time before TMI. Their idea of nuclear safety (remember the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not FEMA, actually regulates the reactors) had been tracking clouds of predicted fallout from Russian nuclear attacks driven by prevailing winds and coming up with plans to move civilians out of the way of those clouds. In the northeast USA around Three Mile Island, the old Civil Defense plans called for moving 75 million people in 72 hours — an impossible task, then or now.

Think about that task for a moment. In Ukraine so far it has taken three weeks — not three days — to move THREE million people. And this is before any nukes have dropped.

The simple lesson here is that nobody is going to have time to move out of the way of tactical nukes.

If you are wondering what the damage of such a limited nuclear war would look like, the Chernobyl nuclear accident from 1986 provides a pretty good example, since that disaster site lies between Kiev and Russia and Belarus.  Above you’ll find a map showing the Cesium 137 fallout from Chernobyl. If you want to know what bombing Kiev would do, just move the Chernobyl spot down and a little to the right and see where the blotches fall.

But tactical nukes aren’t a nuclear accident, you say, the map would be different. Yes, it would be BIGGER. Chernobyl melted DOWN while bomb and missile and artillery fallout bounce UP into the atmosphere and spread much farther.

Most of the fallout of a Kiev attack, in fact, would land in Russia. The cities of Bryansk (427,000 population), Kaluuga (338,000), Kursk (409,000), Orel (324,000), and Tula (468,000) would all be hit, not by weapon strikes, but by fallout. That’s just under two million people exposed in those five cities, not counting folks in the countryside between.

Two million is approximately the population of Kiev, or was before a lot of those people fled west.

We can estimate civilian deaths from radiation, from heat, from atmospheric over-pressure, but I’ll just jump here to the bottom line that about one million Russians would die from such a nuclear attack, both directly and through greatly increased cancer deaths in later years.

So a nuclear attack on Kiev would kill more Russians than Ukrainians.

Moving the attack to, say, Odessa would kill more Ukrainians, but it would completely destroy the Ukrainian agricultural economy for a century and still kill tens of thousands of Russians.

Now consider the supposed military justification for such an attack. Ukraine clams to have killed 15,000 Russian soldiers while Russia says its losses are more like 1500. I don’t care which number is correct because Putin killing one million of his own people to avenge 1500 or 15,000 deaths makes no sense.

He’s just whining.

The Russians are not evacuating those five cities, so Putin is either willing to lose a million Russian citizens or he has no real intention of launching nukes.

I’m guessing it’s a bluff.

And what if it isn’t a bluff? What if Putin actually goes ahead and pushes that button saying — as bullies are wont to do — “Look what you made me do.”

IF Putin pushes that button, it will set in motion a series of very quick events as half a dozen nations take action not against Russia, but against Putin personally. Navy SEALS and Chinese commandos will fall from the sky, but Putin will already be dead, killed by his own people, whether any nukes are actually launched or not.

Look what he made them do.