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New Momentum and Data Supports Push for Nuclear Weapons Abolition

Posted by Andrew S. Kanter, MD, MPH, FACMI on May 17, 2013

Nuclear weapons continue to pose an existential threat to human civilization.  Their elimination must be our highest priority if we hope to bequeath a sustainable world to our children.

During the Cold War it was generally understood that a large scale war between the US and the Soviet Union would be a disaster not just for them, but for the entire planet.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall there has been a dramatic decline in our awareness of the danger of nuclear war, but the weapons have not gone away.  There remain nearly 20,000 nuclear warheads in the arsenals of the world and there is no indication that the nuclear weapons states intend to eliminate these weapons.

Important data coming from sophisticated climate models in the last few years makes it clear that even a very limited nuclear war, as might take place in a regional war between India and Pakistan, would also be a catastrophe for all humanity.  A report issued last year by Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War[i] summarized the recent studies on limited nuclear war.  The scenario considered assumed that India and Pakistan each use 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs.  The scenario shows that immediate effects include the death of over 20 million people by the explosions, firestorms and prompt radiation effects, and much of South Asia is contaminated with radiation. This is well known.

What is less well known is that 5 million tons of soot are injected into the upper atmosphere, quickly dropping global temperatures an average of 1.3o C and reducing precipitation worldwide for 10 years.  This global climate disruption leads to catastrophic declines in food production.  Studies reviewed in the report show a 12% decline in US corn production and a 15% decline in Chinese middle season rice production for an entire decade.  More recent studies, which have not yet been published, show even more severe declines for other key crops in China:  corn decreases by 20%, spring wheat by 40%, and winter wheat, the second largest grain crop in China, by 60% all for a full 10 years.

There are today some 870 million people who are malnourished at baseline; an additional 300 million live in countries that are dependent on food imports.  All of these people would be at risk of starvation in the famine that would follow this limited nuclear war.  And the, as yet unpublished data on Chinese grains other than rice, raises the specter of previously unanticipated, widespread famine in China as well.

It is not just the arsenals of India and Pakistan that can cause this catastrophe.  Each US Trident submarine can carry up to 96 warheads, each 10 to 30 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bombs used in the nuclear famine scenario.  Each is capable of causing this catastrophe many times over.

The more widespread use of the US and Russian arsenals, whether by design or accident, would cause an even greater disaster.  A 2002 study by PSR[ii] showed that if only 300 warheads in the Russian arsenal reached targets in the US 75 to 100 million people would die in the first half hour and the entire economic infrastructure on which the rest of the population depends would be destroyed.  The climate disruption would be even more catastrophic.  A war involving only those warheads still allowed to the US and Russia when New START is fully implemented in 2018 would loft 150 million tons of soot into the atmosphere dropping global temperatures an average of 8oC. In the interior of North America and Eurasia, temperatures would drop 25o to 30o C producing conditions not seen on Earth in 18,000 years (since the coldest point in the last ice age).  In the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, there would be at least 2 years without a single day free of frost.  All agriculture would stop and the vast majority of the human race would starve. This recent data confirms earlier simulations in the 1980’s that prompted the name “nuclear winter”, but this would be a winter that the human race would not survive.

Whatever progress we make sustainable development will be for naught if we do not eliminate nuclear weapons and the immediate threat they pose to our common survival. The current pace of their elimination is not sufficient to guarantee our survival. As described above, even a small number of these weapons pose an unacceptable risk to the planet. We have managed to survive through luck, and there have been instances where a nuclear war nearly was launched, either accidentally or by intent.

In 2005, at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, little progress was made by the nuclear weapons states to reduce their arsenals and some ground was even lost. The Committee on Disarmament has been stalled for years. Civil society committed itself to an alternate path to ensuring our survival. In 2007, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that is now active in 60 countries. This campaign advocates for the banning and elimination of nuclear weapons through a nuclear weapons convention (like we have for chemical and biological weapons). It focused on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

In May 2010, the five-year nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference for the first time expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”

In November 2011, the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a resolution whose first two operative provisions state that the Council: (1) emphasizes the incalculable human suffering that can be expected to result from any use of nuclear weapons, the lack of any adequate humanitarian response capacity and the absolute imperative to prevent such use, and (2) finds it difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law.

In October 2012, 34 United Nations (UN) member states, plus an observer state, the Holy See, made a “Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Dimension of Nuclear Disarmament” in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. The Joint Statement quotes the position on incompatibility of use of nuclear weapons with IHL set forth in the resolution of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

In March 2013, the Government of Norway sponsored a diplomatic conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which was preceded by an ICAN civil society forum in Oslo.

Representatives of 127 countries attended the diplomatic conference. Of note, the P5 boycotted as a group with a scripted response that they felt that the focus on humanitarian consequences was a distraction. In Oslo, for the first time, UN agencies, from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to the UN Development Programme, confirmed that international help for the survivors of even a single nuclear explosion in an urban area would be far from adequate. Of course nothing could be done for those already killed by the blast, heat, radiation, and firestorm effects, numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The IPPNW report and ICRC positions were shared with the delegates, many of whom had not heard this information before, and they renewed vows to pursue the global elimination of nuclear weapons. At the meeting's close, Mexico announced that it will host a follow-up conference, which is expected to take place early in 2014. This process paralleled similar processes around the banning of landmines (Ottawa) and cluster munitions (Oslo) and has raised hopes that similar progress can finally be made regarding nuclear weapons.

At the NPT PrepCom just held in Geneva, 80 governments signed on to the Joint Statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, read by Amb. Abdul Minty of South Africa. It said regarding the Oslo conference: “The broad participation at the Conference reflects the recognition that the catastrophic effects of a detonation are of concern and relevance to all.” It declared: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances. The catastrophic effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, whether by accident, miscalculation or design, cannot be adequately addressed. All efforts must be exerted to eliminate this threat. The only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will never be used again is through their total elimination.” [emphasis added]

It is clear that there is new momentum to finally achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons. The recent medical and environmental data shows that these weapons are not only homicidal, but they are ecocidal. Their presence poses an unacceptable risk to all life on this planet and their elimination must be a primary goal if we are to achieve a sustainable, healthy and happy future for all Humankind.

At the ICAN presentation during the governmental conference, Nosizwe Baqwa, ICAN coordinator for Norway, said:

 “That nuclear weapons have not already been clearly declared illegal –to sit, outdated, alongside the other weapons of mass destruction – Is a failure of our collective social responsibility. The time has come for committed states to correct that failure.”

For the first time in many years, it appears that we might just be able to do that.[iii]



[ii] Projected US Casualties and Destruction of Medical Services from Attacks by Russian Nuclear Forces, Helfand, et al, Medicine and Global Survival Vol. 7 No. 2, 2002

[iii] Briefing prepared by Drs. Andrew Kanter and Ira Helfand (IPPNW and Physicians for Social Responsibility) and John Burroughs (Lawyers Committee for Nuclear Policy and UN Office of International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms)

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