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  • English
  • 2012.08.16
  • 798
To prevent another Hiroshima, nuclear weapons must be banned
Rebecca Johnson, Akira Kawasaki and Tilman Ruff*

Sixty-seven years ago, on August 6, the first uranium bomb was exploded above Hiroshima with the force of 15 thousand tons of TNT. Tens of thousands were killed by the blast and fireball that engulfed the city, and a similar number died of radiation sickness and injuries in the days and months that followed. By the end of 1945, 140,000 people had been killed by just that one bomb Three days later, Nagasaki was shattered by a plutonium bomb. This was the same design that the United States had tested in the New Mexico desert three weeks earlier, causing the Manhattan Project’s lead scientist Robert Oppenheimer to reflect that he had become a “destroyer of worlds”.  Over the next 40 years, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China) amassed some 70,000 nuclear weapons with a combined explosive force of 15 million tons. 

October this year will mark 50 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Presidents Kennedy and Krushchev managed – by luck as much as judgment – to pull back from the brink of nuclear war.  There were several more near misses caused by miscalculation and sabre-rattling, before civil society around the world created pressure that started a cascade of nuclear arms reductions and brought the Cold War to an end.  Explaining why he reached out to US President Reagan to discuss nuclear disarmament in 1986-7, President Gorbachev has highlighted both the influence of the peace movement and the “nuclear winter” studies by US and Soviet scientists, which demonstrated that a Soviet-American nuclear war would cause planet-wide freezing and environmental devastation that could extinguish life on earth.

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall was pulled down, most people prefer to ignore the appalling fact that thousands of nuclear weapons still endanger all life on Earth. Western politicians and media make it sound as if the main problems are Iran’s nuclear programme and the risk of nuclear terrorism.  Iran doesn’t actually have any nuclear weapons and Ayatollah Khamenei recently said they were “haraam” – religiously forbidden under Islam.  Nonetheless, Iran’s accelerating uranium enrichment and related nuclear and missile activities warrant concern, not least because near neighbours Pakistan, India and Israel do have nuclear weapons, and an Iranian nuclear capability would change security and relations in the Middle East, whether or not Tehran chose to weaponise.  

Between them Israel, Pakistan and India could have 300-400 nuclear weapons, adding to almost 19,000 still held by the five nuclear-armed states recognised by the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  These arsenals – and the doctrines and operations attached to their deployment – are the threats we should worry most about.  All-out nuclear war may be less likely now, but recent studies demonstrate that a regional nuclear war would cause global famine, jeopardising over a billion people.  

The new “nuclear winter” studies update the 1980s research , examining the use of 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons on urban centres in India and Pakistan. This limited regional scenario (0.04 percent of the explosive power in today’s arsenals) recognises the fallibility of deterrence and that suspicious neighbours could reproduce the risk factors that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, including miscalculation, miscommunication, military escalation and, potentially, rogue commanders.  Growing cyberwarfare capacities in many countries add an extra dimension of volatile danger to an explosive mix. 

Millions of tons of sooty smoke would be propelled by the nuclear explosions into the upper atmosphere. Skies would darken, temperatures across the planet would fall by an average of 1.25 deg.C. , and rainfall would be disrupted.  In addition to widespread radioactive contamination, these climate effects would persist for a decade, with devastating consequences for agriculture and the health and life cycles of many species. In addition to the tens of millions that would die from the direct effects of nuclear detonations on the major cities of a region such as South Asia, over one billion people around the world would be put at risk of death by starvation. Infectious epidemics and further conflict would exact an additional toll.

The Red Cross has determined that if nuclear weapons were used today, any attempts at responding or coping with the humanitarian needs of survivors would be utterly overwhelmed.  These new climate and health studies demonstrate that a limited, regional nuclear war would have global health and humanitarian consequences on a scale never seen before, regardless of whether people live in a “nuclear-weapons-free zone”, such as cover Africa, Latin America, the Pacific and Central and South-East Asia. 

As we remember the devastation wrought by two relatively small nuclear bombs in August 1945, we cannot afford to be complacent.  Proliferation and nuclear threats will continue as long as some countries value and hold on to these profoundly inhumane weapons of mass destruction. A treaty banning nuclear weapons is necessary and more achievable than ever before.  This opportunity to eliminate nuclear dangers must not be lost.

* Dr Rebecca Johnson, Akira Kawasaki and Dr Tilman Ruff chair the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The ICAN is a global movement of more than 200 organizations in 60 countries urging prompt negotiations for a treaty to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons.
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