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News from the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons Conference In Nayarit, Mexico, Part 2

Posted by Ira Helfand, MD on February 14, 2014

Speakers at the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons conference continued their depiction of the medical effects of nuclear war Thursday afternoon.  The first speaker Mr. Rogelio Conde from the Mexican National Council for Civil   Protection described the impact of a theoretical 50 megaton explosion over Mexico City, which he predicted would kill 21 million people. [Note: most the weapons in today's arsenals are in the range of 100 to 800 kilotons, but the 50 megaton bomb might serve as a model for an attack involving large numbers of these smaller weapons.]

The next speaker, Richard Moyes of Article 36 and ICAN, considered the financial impact of a single small nuclear device in a major city. He reviewed a number of studies which all put the dollar cost in excess of one trillion dollars.

He was followed by Professor Alan Robock, who presented his pioneering studies on the climate impact of limited and large scale nuclear war and the subsequent impact on agricultural production.

Roman Vakulchuk then discussed the terrible health impact of Soviet nuclear testing on the people of Kazakhstan who lived downwind from the hundreds of atmospheric tests at Semipalatinsk.

The Conference reconvened in Nayarit Friday morning and turned from a discussion of the what would happen if nuclear weapons are used to an examination of the circumstances under which this might happen.

Bruce Blair from Global Zero described the growing danger of accidental nuclear war as more countries develop nuclear weapons and place them on hair trigger alert with safeguards even less reliable than those in place in the US.

He raised the possibility of cyber terrorism in which hackers might fake a nuclear attack to spur one of the nuclear powers to launch a "counter attack" or might directly activate nuclear missiles by hacking into their launch systems.  He described two recent episodes when hackers would have been able to fake attack orders to US nuclear forces. Summing up the danger,  Blair argued that nuclear deterrence  is fundamentally based on maintaining the risk of nuclear attack and that if we do not eliminate these weapons completely he fully expects to see their use during his lifetime.

The next speakers, Patricia Lewis  and Heather Williams from Chatham House in London, continued the grim assessment of the likelihood of nuclear weapons use presenting data from their soon to be released report Too Close for Comfort which reviews episodes of near nuclear weapons use that are in the public record.  The presentation highlighted the Able Archer 1983 episode when the Soviet Union misinterpreted a large NATO exercise as the prelude to a surprise attack on the Soviet Union.  Fortunately, a KGB officer stationed in London was a double agent and alerted the British that the Soviets were planning a preemptive strike before NATO could attack. Lewis argued that the probability of nuclear weapons use is real and higher than policy makers have believed and that we need to reset our perceptions to match reality. She said that policy makers have consistently failed to understand how much they have relied on luck in avoiding nuclear war.

Watch ICAN's new 6-minute video on the urgency of banning nuclear weapons below:

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