The Health and Humanitarian Case for Nuclear Disarmament
Physicians and health professionals are leaders in advocating for public health solutions to growing nuclear weapons dangers in our world today. A medical response to a nuclear attack would be inadequate—any use of nuclear weapons would have devastating health, humanitarian and environmental consequences.
Prevention is the Only Cure
Physicians and health professionals warn that a meaningful medical response to any use of nuclear weapons would be impossible. We can’t prepare for nuclear war, we must prevent it.
A nuclear attack on any city would destroy hospitals and clinics, kill the vast majority of health professionals, wipe out medical supplies, and paralyze communication and transportation systems.
International health federations, including the World Medical Association, International Federation of the Red Cross, International Council of Nurses, and World Federation of Public Health Associations, have officially endorsed the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty on the basis that a meaningful medical response to any use of nuclear weapons would be impossible.
Regional Nuclear War, Global Health Impacts
Nuclear war is ecocidal.
Scientific studies demonstrate that a regional nuclear war would have planetary impacts on the climate and global health. PSR’s report, Nuclear Famine: 2 Billion at Risk?, offers scientific data on the climatic impacts of a regional nuclear war armed with less than one percent of the global nuclear stockpile.
Scientific modeling demonstrates that such a regional nuclear war armed with 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs would loft enough soot into the atmosphere to dramatically disrupt the climate and have long-term impacts on worldwide agricultural production. The resulting global famine would put 2 billion people at risk of starvation.
Beyond the Blast
Nuclear weapons inflict devastating health harms to civilians even before a bomb is dropped.
Nuclear weapons activities, including their use, production, testing, and waste storage, release ionizing radiation. In addition to the wartime citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, workers, veterans, and civilians living near nuclear weapons sites have been exposed to radiation and suffer acute and long-term illnesses. These illnesses are often lethal and have inter-generational health effects.
Illnesses from radiation exposure from nuclear weapons activities include:
- Multiple myeloma
- Stomach, colon, lung, breast, and thyroid cancers
- Birth defects
- Chromosomal aberrations
Nuclear Weapons 101
Nine countries possess nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
There are approximately 14,500 nuclear weapons in the world. 9,400 nuclear weapons are active in military arsenals. The rest are retired. 4,000 nuclear weapons are considered “operationally available.” 1,800 nuclear weapons are on high alert and can be launched in fifteen minutes or less.
A nuclear attack on any city would be a humanitarian catastrophe. One nuclear weapon could potentially wipe out an entire city. The heat and blast effects would indiscriminately kill tens of thousands to tens of millions of civilians depending on the city’s density and the explosive power of the warhead.
The 15-kiloton atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima immediately killed 70,000 people and injured approximately 75,000 people. By the end of 1945, 140,000 people in Hiroshima had died. The 21-kiloton atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Nagasaki immediately killed 74,000 people and injured 75,000 people. 90,000 people in Nagasaki were dead by the end of 1945.
Today’s strategic nuclear weapons are 6 to 53 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A PSR study modeled the humanitarian impact of launching 300 Russian nuclear weapons against U.S. cities. The study found 75 to 100 million people would die within 30 minutes.
In the event of a nuclear attack, physicians and health professionals would not be able to deliver medical assistance to immediate survivors. Physicians and relief agencies such as the International Committee on the Red Cross warn that a meaningful emergency response to the use of nuclear weapons on any city is impossible. A nuclear attack would destroy a city’s healthcare infrastructure, kill the majority of health professionals, and render transportation and communication systems unusable.
Using nuclear weapons have long-term impacts on global health and the environment. Scientific research shows that a regional war using less than one percent of the global nuclear stockpile would drastically disrupt the climate and put two billion people at risk of severe malnutrition.
The nuclear-armed countries party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty are legally obligated to negotiate complete nuclear disarmament and eliminate their nuclear weapons. However, all nine nuclear-armed countries are working to perpetuate and upgrade their nuclear weapons programs rather than fulfill their existing legal disarmament obligations. The United States plans to spend $1.2 trillion over 30 years to substantially improve the capability of its nuclear arsenal.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2017 to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty by comprehensively prohibiting nuclear weapons. The TPNW makes it illegal for parties of the treaty to use, develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess, stockpile, transfer, receive, threat to use, station, install, or deploy nuclear weapons. The treaty will officially enter into force after fifty countries sign and ratify the treaty.
Nine individuals have total authority to use nuclear weapons. In the United States, current nuclear launch procedures leave the President’s power to use nuclear weapons unchecked. Since 1945, any U.S. President could single-handedly order and execute a nuclear war killing tens of thousands to tens of millions of people in under fifteen minutes.
In 2016, total expenditures for the U.S. nuclear weapons program was $57.6 billion. Nuclear weapons cost Americans $6.57 million per hour.
The enormous cost of the nuclear weapons spending risks growing. Congress is debating a $1.2 trillion plan to extensively upgrade the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal.