What happens if the UK is targeted by nuclear weapons? How Britain would respond to attack by Russia
Russia has the world’s largest supply of operational nuclear warheads – at around 4,500
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone to plan, with almost every key city remaining in Ukrainian hands despite weeks of heavy bombardment.
The war, however, shows no signs of stopping, and Vladimir Putin continues to make threats against Western involvement.
Nato’s system of collective security means that if Russia were to attack one Nato nation, it would be at war with all 30 – including the UK and US.
However, the Government and military experts have not ruled out President Putin doing just that.
Russia also has the world’s largest supply of operational nuclear warheads – at around 4,500 – making the threat of a nuclear attack the largest since the Cold War.
What would happen if Russia decided to target the UK with nuclear weapons? Here’s what we know.
Could Russia use nuclear weapons against the UK?
President Putin ordering the use of nuclear weapons against the UK remains very unlikely, but is not impossible.
In February he raised Russia’s nuclear deterrent to high alert, which world leaders and experts took as an attempt at intimidation.
A civil defence source told i‘s David Parsley: “No one thought Putin would invade Ukraine, a democratic nation. So, how do we know he’s not mad enough to attack the UK, places like London, our naval bases and our nuclear power stations. However unlikely such an attack is, it’s a great deal more likely than it was a few weeks ago.”
Last weekend Cabinet minister Michael Gove said he was concerned that Russia may use nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine, adding that President Putin was capable of “terrible, terrible violence”.
James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Pace in Washington DC, told BBC News President Putin may resort to nuclear weapons if he continues to be frustrated in Ukraine.
He said these would more likely be smaller nuclear weapons known as tactical nuclear weapons, used within Ukraine. These are different from strategic nuclear weapons, like the ones used by the US in Japan during the Second World War, but would still represent a significant escalation.
“I am legitimately worried that in that circumstance Putin might use a nuclear weapon, most likely on the ground in Ukraine to terrify everyone and get his way. We are not at that point yet,” he said.
What would happen if Russia targeted the UK?
A nuclear strike on any UK city would kill everyone within a 1.2-mile radius instantly. Anyone exposed within a 6.8-mile radius of the impact would almost certainly suffer third-degree burns, while hundreds of thousands would be likely to die due to radiation fallout.
The UK Government has no active system in place to provide the public with early warning of a nuclear attack, i revealed this week.
Civil defence, military and local council sources have all confirmed no UK cities have had air raid sirens or civil defence systems in place since they were wound up at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
The Government has been working on a new emergency system that will use push text alerts to mobile devices since last year, but disputes between ministers over which Government department will pay for it have caused delays.
These alerts could also only be sent to smartphones. They would sound a loud siren on a phone or tablet for around ten seconds even if the device is set to silent, but not work if the device was off.
The Government webpage for the alert system states: “The Government and mobile phone networks are testing emergency alerts. You may get an alert if you live in, or travel through, a test area.”
It says it expects the system to launch in “early 2022”.
A Cabinet Office source told i: “There is no public warning system because the Government has dithered on it as no one department wants to pay for it, whether that the Home Office, the Defra or the Cabinet Office. We are totally unprepared.”
The UK’s nuclear advice for citizens is called the Protect and Survive booklet. It was first produced at the height of the Cold War in 1974 and last updated in 1980.
Officials have not updated it since, for fears it could cause panic and lead people to panic buy.
The UK does have plans to extract the Queen, other members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and top officials from London in the event of a nuclear attack, and into bunkers dispersed across the country.
In 1968 the Government developed an operation, codenamed Python, to disperse the key figures in groups to different parts of the country, including on yachts at sea.
These plans date from the Cold War and will have changed considerably, but nuclear war expert Julie McDowall, who hosts the Atomic Hobo podcast, says the notion of dispersing small groups of ministers and staff would still be the safest way to ensure some form of government could continue after a nuclear attack.
Where could Russia target?
A missile strike by Russia on London would not be Vladimir Putin’s primary goal should the UK and other nations be dragged into the war in Ukraine, a senior defence official has told i.
The official, who requested anonymity, said Putin would “strike London for its symbolic impact” but would also prioritise Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet and its three main naval bases in Clyde, Devonport and Portsmouth.
“A strike, whether using conventional or nuclear missiles, would almost certainly occur in London should Putin push on with his threats against the West,” said the source. “However, while that would create the pictures around the world Putin would want, he would be more concerned with hitting our nuclear submarines, three of which can be in or around any of the UK’s main naval bases.”
The UK has 58 US-made Trident missiles with UK-made warheads. The nation’s four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines can each carry up to 16 missiles. One is always at sea.
The defence source added: “In the event that an attack from Putin became more likely then the UK would send all the submarines out into the oceans to protect them.
“While there is no imminent threat from Russia, the nuclear drills around our naval bases have increased in frequency in recent months, as has security around other military bases.”