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Report from Vienna: PSR Presents at Civil Society Forum

Posted by Catherine Thomasson, MD on December 8, 2014
Front entrance of the Civil Society Forum

On Saturday and Sunday, December 6 and 7, more than 600 campaigners gathered in Vienna in the largest ever civil society meeting on the abolition of nuclear weapons, the Vienna Civil Society Forum, organized by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. PSR Executive Director Catherine Thomasson, MD and PSR Security Committee chair Ira Helfand, MD traveled to Vienna to represent Physicians for Social Responsibility. Dr. Helfand is also Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Dr. Thomasson presented about PSR's public outreach programs at the Forum's "Speaker's Corner," and Dr. Helfand delivered a plenary presention on Medical Consequences of Nuclear Weapons.

The campaigners attending the Civil Society Forum came from over 70 countries, representing more than 100 different organizations. The Forum took place directly before the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, sponsored by the Austrian government, December 8 and 9. One hundred fifty-seven nations, 81% of the nations of the world, attended the HINW conference. This is up from 127 at the March, 2013 conference in Norway, and 146 at the February, 2014 conference in Mexico. At the urging of PSR and many other American and British organizations, the United States and the U.K. ended their boycott of the Humanitarian Impact Initiative and for the first time, sent an official delegation to the Vienna conference. In October, PSR delivered to the State Department over 5,700 signatures on our MoveOn petition.

Drs. Catherine Thomasson and Ira Helfand

In one of the highlights of the first day of the governmental conference, Archbishop Tomasi, representing the Holy See, delivered a stirring message from Pope Francis, saying, "I am convinced that the desire for peace and fraternity planted deep in the human heart will bear fruit in concrete ways to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home."

Dr. Thomasson sent some notes back to PSR directly from the first day of the Civil Society Forum, and here they are:

Werner Kerschbaum, Austrian Red Cross

2011 and 2013 resolutions: "Red cross and Red Crescent calls for a ban on nuclear weapons and strong education campaign from all their affiliates to make that happen."

Paul Walker, PhD, Green Cross International

There have been at least 20 confirmed cases of theft, loss or diversion of bomb-grade materials. Conclusions—we must double down on safely removing these weapons in ways which protect humans and the environment.

Ira Helfand, MD, IPPNW

"Limited" nuclear war between India and Pakistan of 100 nuclear weapons would immediately kill 20 million people. 5 million metric tons of soot from huge fire storms drop global temperatures immediately. Impact on global food production is huge. 39% drop in world wheat production alone. Rice in the first year in parts of China will fail completely. China will be unable to feed its own populations.

Even a single bomb on one city in the U.S. would be overwhelming. If "only" 300 Russian missiles struck the U.S., 75-100 million Americans would die. All of the infrastructure would be lost. Any remaining people would die of starvation due to total crop loss.

There have been 5 near misses since 1979. 

In WWII, about 3 megatons of explosives were used, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once New START is fully implemented, there will still be 1000 megatons of explosives present.

Tony de Brum, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Marshall Islands

-- provided context for the "Nuclear Zero" lawsuits the RMI have filed against all nine nuclear weapons states. He gave a first-person account of the huge Castle Bravo test perpetrated on the Bikini Island of the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954. This test was the first of a dry-fuel type hydrogen bomb, far exceeded the expected "yield" and was the second largest nuclear weapon ever tested in the world. The fallout was immense and fell upon residents of several atolls, eventually making its way around the world. The islanders weren't evacuated until three days later and suffered significant radiation sickness. U.S. personnel were burned, Japanese fisherman became ill, and one was found dead. The islanders were returned to the islands three years later but were removed again when their islands were still found to be unsafe. 

"I was walking with my grandfather in 1954. I was a fish carrier for him. There was a flash from the west—so bright, then the entire sky turned red. We felt a force like a wind, then the rumble, followed by a continuous roar that would not stop. As if someone had put a glass bowl over my island and poured blood over it. It was a traumatic event for all the young men on that beach that day. That was the explosion of Bravo—1000 times the strength of Hiroshima. It was only 1 of 67 tests conducted in the islands. We suffered the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshimas every day for 12 years."

"I am the father of 4 children and I have 9 grandchildren. Every day that I see my grandchildren, every day I am asked to speak at their schools, we ask ourselves, 'What are we leaving behind for them? Is there real peace, real security in a world dominated by these weapons?' For most of you, you already believe that there is no place for these weapons in the world. I am here to attest to that fact. We were not part of any war, but the effects put upon us are with us forever."

Eric Schlosser, Author of Command and Control

Author Eric Schlosser presenting on nuclear weapons risks at the Conference

I feel there are 2 gravest threats in the world. Climate change and nuclear weapons. Climate change can be affected and slowed, and it is receiving a lot of attention. However, nuclear weapons are not. There is a notion that it can't or won't happen. This is a dangerous way of thinking.

Nuclear deterrence works until it doesn't. This can happen in an instant.

Nuclear weapons are not symbols. Not emblems of world power. Nuclear weapons are man-made machines. That is very worrisome. When you look at our history, every machine ever made fails at some time. Whether the toaster, your brand-new computer, or commercial airline travel, failures happen. One of the most advanced airplanes ever built disappeared and we don't know why.

Nuclear weapons are attached to other machines, like missiles or submarines. And those are connected to more machines like computers. And those are connected to human beings. All humans contain flaws. We are much better at creating complex machines but less effective at controlling these machines. 

I've interviewed the bomb officers and the technicians. What I heard is that it's been a miracle that there hasn't been a serious accident.

This technology can slip loose at any minute. Back at the first detonation, they didn't know how big of an explosion it would be. They took bets on it. Edward Teller estimated 34,000 tons of TNT. Oppenheimer said 350 tons. Another felt it would be a dud. They speculated that it might catch the earth's atmosphere on fire, killing all living things. They studied this for one year. Enrico Fermi thought this might have 1 out of 10 chance. One young physicist was standing 10 miles away from the shot. He saw the blast and felt the heat on his face and was petrified that the earth's atmosphere was on fire and every living thing would die including himself. 

That uncertainlty has extended to this very day. There is a hubris and arrogance of management of these systems. Despite this uncertainty they still went ahead with this test. I recount in my book of some extraordinary accidents. There was a weight imbalance in the B-52 which caused it to break apart. The centrifugal force in the spinning plane pulled a lanyard that allowed the hydrogen bomb to separate from the plane. Only one switch inside that bomb didn't fire which was the only thing that kept this hugely powerful hydrogen bomb from going off. This switch was so rudimentary and ineffective that many bombs were armed when we didn't know it.

I interviewed Robert McNamara. He was terrified when he found out that none of the hydrogen bombs had locks on them. There was nothing to prevent a U.S., Dutch or German officer from setting off a bomb. Doctor Strangelove played out this scenario, but the Pentagon vehemently denied. We now know that it was true. Robert McNamara worked furiously to put locks on the bombs of the U.S. by the early 1970's. 

The only thing that prevented a catastrophe was the military performance and the discipline of their training. None of them wanted to nuke the Soviet Union but they could have.

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