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The continuing threat of nuclear weapons

Posted by Barry S. Levy, MD, MPH and Victor W. Sidel, MD on April 23, 2014

Out of sight. Out of mind.

Nine countries, mainly the United States and Russia, possess 17,000 nuclear weapons, many of which are hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost 70 years ago. An attack and counterattack in which fewer than 1% of these nuclear weapons were detonated could cause tens of millions of deaths and could disrupt climate globally, leading to crop failures and widespread famine. A greater conflagration could cause a "nuclear winter" and threaten the future of life on earth.

The recent tensions concerning Ukraine demonstrate that although 23 years have elapsed since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons remain a clear and present danger to humanity. Persistent threats include accidental launch of nuclear warheads, proliferation of nuclear weapons among nations, potential acquisition and use of nuclear weapons by non-state actors, and diversion of human and financial resources in order to maintain and modernize nuclear arsenals in the United States and other nations.

Despite safeguards, accidental detonation remains a real possibility. A few years ago, a US Air Force plane transported six missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, unbeknownst to the pilot and crew. Twice, in recent weeks, it was revealed that as many as half of navy and air force personnel who maintain nuclear-armed missiles and would be responsible for launching them if commanded to do so had cheated on their competency examinations. In 1995, Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, had only a few minutes to decide whether to launch Russian nuclear-armed missiles against the United States in response to what, on radar, looked like a US air attack with multiple re-entry vehicles (MERVs); it turned out to be a rocket launched by a team of Norwegian and US scientists to study the aurora borealis.

Another major concern is that the leaders of the nine nations that possess nuclear weapons each have absolute authority — unchecked by other government officials or institutions, even in the United States — to launch an offensive or allegedly defensive nuclear strike.

Furthermore, proliferation remains a serious threat. During the past decade North Korea obtained nuclear technology and fissile materials, and developed and tested one or more nuclear weapons. At least until recently, Iran apparently was — and may still be — on the path to developing nuclear weapons. Given the widespread knowledge about nuclear technology and the potential availability of fissile material, non-state actors could acquire and use nuclear weapons.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Betty Puma, from the 5th Munitions Squadron, reviews a nuclear weapons maintenance procedures checklist as part of the Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI) May 19, 2009, at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. An NSI is designed to evaluate a unit’s readiness to execute nuclear operations. Areas to be evaluated during the NSI include operations, maintenance, security and support activities needed to ensure the wing performs its mission in a safe, secure and reliable manner. This no-notice inspection is expected to conclude May 22. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Miguel Lara III/Released). defenseimagery.mil

Highly-enriched uranium (HEU) — the fissile material used in nuclear weapons — is distributed globally, and used in nuclear reactors to perform research or power aircraft carriers and submarines. Converting to low-enriched uranium would eliminate the possibility of HEU being stolen or otherwise diverted to produce nuclear weapons.

Yet another major concern is the huge diversion of financial resources to maintain and modernize the US nuclear weapons arsenal, estimated over the next 30 years to be about $1 trillion. The proposed nuclear weapons budget of the US Department of Energy for fiscal year 2015 is higher than at any time during the Cold War. Meanwhile, substantial cuts have been proposed in programs to dismantle and prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons — and in programs to reduce poverty and protect human rights.

To most Americans, all of these concerns are out of sight and out of mind. Each of us has a responsibility to become more educated about these issues, increase the awareness of other people about them, and advocate for measures to reduce the dangers associated with nuclear weapons, including the abolition of nuclear weapons.

A longstanding proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons is the Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC). In 1997, a consortium of experts in law, science, public health, disarmament, and negotiation drafted a model convention. The Convention would require nations that possess nuclear weapons to destroy them in stages — taking them from high-alert status, removing them from deployment, removing warheads from delivery vehicles, disabling warheads by removing explosive "pits," and placing fissile material under control of the United Nations. Such a convention has had wide public support throughout the world.

An immediate step that could pave the way to the Nuclear Weapons Convention and the eradication of nuclear weapons is a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Such a treaty could be negotiated with or without the participation of those nations possessing nuclear weapons. It could create an international norm of the illegality of nuclear weapons, similar to the norms that have been established concerning chemical and biological weapons, antipersonnel landmines, and cluster munitions. Such a treaty could put substantial pressure on the nations possessing nuclear weapons to comply with their disarmament obligations — which they have been unwilling to do thus far. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has mobilized 300 civil-society organizations in 90 countries to campaign, on humanitarian grounds, for such a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

Given resurgent Cold-War-era arguments for revitalizing US nuclear-weapons capabilities to deter Russian actions in Ukraine, we must resist measures that would reset the "Doomsday Clock" to a point that places all humanity — and indeed all life on earth — in great peril of annihilation by nuclear weapons.

Barry S. Levy, MD, MPH, and Victor W. Sidel, MD, are co-editors of the recently published second edition of Social Injustice and Public Health as well as two editions each of the books War and Public Health and Terrorism and Public Health, all of which have been published by Oxford University Press. Dr. Sidel is a co-founder and former board member of PSR and Dr. Levy is a PSR member. They are both past presidents of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Levy is an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Sidel is Distinguished University Professor of Social Medicine Emeritus at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein Medical College and an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College. Victor W. Sidel was a member of the 1997 consortium of experts in law, science, public health, disarmament, and negotiation that drafted the model Nuclear Weapons Convention.

This blog post was originally published at OUPBlog. Republished with permission.

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