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Why Medical Students Should Care About Nuclear Weapons

Tova Fuller & Doug Shaw


If you’re reading this essay, you probably already have some inclination to support worldwide nuclear abolition and disarmament. However, for the purposes of argument, let’s assume you don’t. We can all probably agree that doctors are trusted in their profession to protect the health and vitality of their communities -- not only in the clinic but also through advocacy. When public health crises occur, whether they be the unexpected side effects of a medication, a grave natural disaster or an epidemic, doctors are looked to as leaders and advocates for treatment and future prevention. In the event of a nuclear explosion, doctors would be the vanguards of the emergency response. They would find themselves helpless as hospitals near the epicenter were demolished and the surrounding medical infrastructure was hardly able to accommodate the thousands suffering from burn wounds and radiation sickness. For those who did survive or even found themselves downwind, chronic effects such as leukemia, thyroid disorders, birth defects, heart and pulmonary disease would cause suffering and premature death.


Perhaps it is not enough to note that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 220,000 civilians or that many more suffered morbidities, since it happened more than 60 years ago.


Why should medical students care now? Nuclear weapons still pose a risk to health and human survival. Currently, both the U.S. and Russia have approximately 10,000 nuclear weapons,many which remain on high alert and some that are still pointed at Cold War targets. Today, there exist “loose nukes” leftover from the USSR that could potentially fall in the hands of a rogue nation or terrorist. In the 1990s, over 1,000 pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) sat unprotected in Kazakhstan. Over the years there have been both insider conspiracies and outsider plots to steal these weapons. For example, in 1993 Ukranian security police confiscated 400 kg of weapons grade uranium (enough to make 20 bombs), and in 1998 an insider conspiracy to steal 18.5 kg of HEU was discovered at a Russian nuclear weapons facility. Likewise, "loose expertise," or nuclear weapons experts willing to work for rogue states or terrorist organizations, poses a grave threat to safety and security.


All this would be useless, however, were there not the intent to use such weapons. Al-Qa’ida, North Korea, Pakistan and the U.S. have all threatened use, to name a few. Israel’s undisclosed nuclear arsenal and Iran’s growing capability to produce nuclear weapons with dual-use reactors represent the threat of a regional nuclear war in the Middle East that could potentially involve the U.S. and the ongoing conflict between Pakistan and India represents a threat in South Asia. Today’s bombs are a 1,000 times stronger than Fat Man and Little Boy, and conflicts in these areas would have far-reaching consequences. Even a limited nuclear war would lead to nuclear winter, which by shortening the crop growing season would lead to worldwide famine and staggering mortality.


We are at a critical juncture in abolition history. President Obama has thus far expressed a commitment to nuclear abolition; in his Prague speech he notably quoted that the U.S. would "take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons." However, much progress has yet to be made. Under article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), we are expected under good faith to shrink our arsenals. Multilateral abolition is necessary. Some steps to get there include:


  1. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Currently, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 bans atmospheric, space and underwater testing. The CTBT would prohibit all testing.
  2. We are still expecting a START follow-on treaty. START I, or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed by the U.S. and Russia (signed at the time by the USSR) limits the amount of nuclear warheads, ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and bombers deployed. However, this treaty is set to expire December 5, 2009 (START II, signed by Bush and Yeltsin, never entered into force and Russia has since withdrawn from the treaty). As such, the U.S. and Russia are expected to replace START I with a new treaty.
  3. At the end of this year, the President’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) will be finalized which will guide U.S. nuclear policy for the years to come; this review must make disarmament a priority. While Obama has expressed interest in both decreasing the amount of weapons in our nuclear arsenal and rewriting the terms of use, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has articulated the possibility that the NPR will recommend new nuclear warheads. This is exactly what we don’t need, despite unverified claims that new weapons which we should not intend to use are more reliable.

Doctors have a special responsibility to respond to these dangers. Neither politicians nor military planners will understand the consequences of these policies for human life and health if medical professionals are silent. The use of a single nuclear weapon could kill more people than a doctor could heal in a hundred lifetimes. The work of Physicians for Social Responsibility proceeds from the premise that every doctor is responsible for preventing that which cannot be cured. 

Page Updated September 12, 2013