Public Health Interventions for U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy
Nuclear weapons are outdated and inhumane weapons of mass destruction that the United States should have eliminated in the twentieth century. The United States and other nuclear-armed countries part to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are legally obligated to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. However, instead of reducing their stockpiles, they are planning to rebuild their nuclear weapons programs.
PSR’s physicians and health professionals are alarmed by the health threat posed by the plan to build new nuclear weapons. That’s why we’re raising our voice that U.S. nuclear weapons policy must change course and get on the path toward total elimination.
Policy Challenges: the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Buildup
The United States flouts its existing disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty by planning an extensive upgrade of the nuclear arsenal.
Despite numerical reductions in the nuclear stockpile since the United States and Russia signed the New START Treaty in 2010, the United States plans to spend at least $1.2 trillion to upgrade the capability of its nuclear arsenal by investing in qualitative improvements in existing weaponry, including:
- A new fleet of ballistic missile submarines.
- New land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and supporting infrastructure.
- A new strategic bomber fleet and upgrades/replacements of current bombers.
- A new fleet of long-range standoff missiles (LRSOs) to replace air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).
Health professionals and national security experts alike have denounced policies to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal as destabilizing and increasing the risks that nuclear weapons are used. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry stated, “Today, the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War.”
Stand up for health. Get involved with PSR to educate our elected officials about the health risks of building new nuclear weapons.
Health Threat: “Low-Yield” Nuclear Weapons
Within policy proposals to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal, there are plans to produce new “low-yield” nuclear weapons on the grounds that they are “more usable” in military scenarios. From a public health perspective, the plan to build “low-yield” nuclear weapons present a dire threat to global health.
The “low-yield” nuclear weapons in debate today are of similar size as the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
U.S. nuclear weapons policy proposals in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review outline plans to build two new types of “low-yield” nuclear weapons for submarine-launched missiles and a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile.
The proposed new “low-yield” nuclear weapons are about the same size of the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The 15-kiloton atomic bomb 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 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.
The fact that these weapons are considered “more usable” is inhumane and morally abhorrent.
Proposed “low-yield” nuclear weapons are designed to fight a “limited nuclear war”—that’s an oxymoron. “Low-yield” nuclear weapons raise the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war.
Scientific data shows that the use of “low-yield” nuclear weapons in a regional nuclear war have devastating climatic impacts and humanitarian consequences.
A nuclear war fought with 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons would loft enough soot into the atmosphere to cause instant climate change, disrupting the agricultural production and causing up to 2 billion people to be at risk of malnutrition from a global famine. Such a war cannot sensibly be described as “limited.”
Using “low-yield” nuclear weapons in a military scenario also presents the risk of conflict escalation where higher-yield nuclear weapons are used.