Hiroshima and the World: We can imagine and build a world free of nuclear weapons

Nov. 10, 2009

by Tilman Ruff

Tilman Ruff
Tilman Ruff was born in Adelaide in 1955. He graduated in medicine from Monash University (1980) and completed internal medicine training at Prince Henry's and Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital (1988). His preventive medicine work encompasses immunisation and the urgent public health imperative to abolish nuclear weapons. He is Associate Professor, Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne; Australian Red Cross International Medical Advisor; and technical advisor to the Australian government and UNICEF on Pacific immunisation programs. Mr. Ruff chairs the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); is a Board member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Laureate 1985), and past national president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia).

We can imagine and build a world free of nuclear weapons

My life changed in Hiroshima 20 years ago. In October 1989, my daughter was 7, my son 18 months old. I arrived for the Ninth World Congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, checked into the hotel, and for the first time passed not urine but copious blood. A few months later I underwent radical surgery for aggressive cancer of the bladder. Such experiences remind one of the precious and fragile gifts of life and health, that neither can ever be taken for granted, that every day should be fully lived, and that one should focus on what matters.

We must collectively deal with twin threats on an unprecedented scale: global warming and nuclear destruction. No previous generation has ever had to deal with such threats to all future generations and the capacity of our Earth to support complex life. We are all in this together, and all hands are needed to avert the common danger and secure the future. We have no time to lose.

The crisis of nuclear danger is stark: disarmament has been one step forward, two steps back while new nuclear weapons and delivery systems continue to be developed; new countries, even some of the most impoverished, have acquired nuclear weapons, fuelled by a corrosive double-standard nuclear apartheid; the capacity to build weapons spreads with nuclear technology; and the international rule of law has been eroded. The other side of this crisis is growing realisation that nuclear business as usual is a recipe for disaster, and the advent of the Obama administration, committed it appears, in deed not only word, to a world free of nuclear weapons. These provide a historic opportunity for progress towards outlawing and eliminating nuclear weapons.

My professional responsibility as a physician is to treat disease, allay suffering and promote health, without fear or favour; evaluate the scientific evidence and particularly where there is no viable treatment, advocate for prevention. Preventing the use of nuclear weapons requires abolishing them. The World Health Assembly declared in 1983 that nuclear weapons constituted the greatest immediate threat to human health and welfare. That threat to global health remains acute.

Almost 30 years ago scientists discovered that even 100 large nuclear weapons targeted on cities would rapidly plunge temperatures below freezing. A Hiroshima-size weapon ignites an urban firestorm over up to 15 square km; a strategic nuclear warhead would ignite a firestorm over up to 300 square km. Understanding the global climatic catastrophe and starvation that would follow nuclear war played an important role in winding back nuclear arsenals from their 1986 peak of 70,000, to at least 23,300 now. But the danger has not receded.

Recent research demonstrates that severe global climatic consequences would follow even a limited regional nuclear war involving 100 Hiroshima-size bombs targeting cities--just 0.03% of the explosive power of the world's current nuclear arsenal. An estimated 44 million people would die quickly from blast, fires and radiation. Five million tons of black, sooty smoke would be lofted high into the stratosphere, beyond rain and weather, and spread around the world, persisting for a decade. Cooling up to 5°C and darkening, with killing frosts and growing seasons shortened by up to a month, up to 60% decline in rainfall, failure of the South Asian monsoon, substantial increases in ultraviolet radiation, disruption of supply of seeds, fertiliser, fuel and equipment would combine to slash global food production over successive years.

A conservative estimate is that over one billion already hungry people could starve. More would succumb from disease epidemics, radioactive fallout and mayhem which would follow. Large areas would be uninhabitable for decades, and tens of millions would flee contaminated areas. Global trade and inputs to agriculture would be disrupted, those with food would hoard it, food prices would soar, with further violent conflict likely. Such a war is within the capacity of all the nuclear armed states except North Korea.

These data make plain our shared fate and the overwhelming need to prevent any use of nuclear weapons, and urgently wind back stockpiles to zero. No purpose could ever justify use of such weapons and the risk of escalation. Using nuclear weapons in response to nuclear attack would be suicidal and defies credibility. Nuclear deterrence, based on capacity and willingness to use nuclear weapons, is immoral, will one day fail as it almost has at least five times already [as in the Cuban Missile Crisis], and incites nuclear proliferation and targeting. These are not weapons which can be wielded or threatened like any other, only bigger.

Our DNA, our core genetic blueprint, is the most precious thing we inherit from our forebears and pass on to our children. It is highly vulnerable to ionising radiation. A lethal dose of radiation can contain no more energy that the heat in a cup of coffee. Nuclear weapons would unleash the awesome power of the stars on our small planet. The radiation produced by large-scale nuclear war would be similar to that from a supernova generated by the collapse of stars 20-30 times the size of our Sun. The more we learn about radiation and health, the worse it looks. It is now clear that the risk of leukemia is more than doubled for children living within 5 km of a nuclear power plant, and increased risk extends for more than 50 km.

An IPPNW study conservatively estimated 2.4 million cancer deaths would result globally from radioactive fallout from past atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. The fallout from British nuclear tests in South Australia in the 1950s which spread radioactive fallout over much of Australia, including Adelaide where I lived as a young child, will have contributed to my cancer risk. In a real sense, we are all hibakusha.

Nuclear reactors multiply radioactivity in the starting fuel around one million fold. Each of 441 operating civilian nuclear power plants in 31 countries constitute huge potential radioactive dirty bombs in the event of accident or attack. Spent fuel storage ponds contain large amounts of long-lived radioactivity, often 10 to 20 times more than reactors. Nobel Laureate physicist Joseph Rotblat showed that the area of a given level of radioactive contamination was up to 17 times larger for a nuclear warhead on a nuclear power plant than for a warhead alone, and further doubled if the target was a typical spent fuel storage tank.

Our approach to fissile materials usable for nuclear weapons should be based on their inherent properties, and not the current nature or intentions of their owners. Australia exporting uranium under safeguards known to provide little more than an illusion of protection, is irresponsible. Similarly, stockpiling plutonium (half-life of 24,400 years), is extremely dangerous, even if the Japanese government has no current intention to build nuclear weapons. We have simply no idea or control over what might happen to this material in tens or hundreds, let alone thousands or hundreds of thousands of years.

Good governance, like good medical practice, is driven by evidence. Abolishing nuclear weapons will require a comprehensive, verifiable treaty applying consistent standards to all countries. It will require an end to production of fissile materials and strict international control and where possible their elimination. A world free of nuclear weapons will be much more readily achieved and sustained were nuclear power generation being phased out. At least, the nuclear industry will need substantial restructuring, to restrict and control uranium enrichment and cease separation of plutonium.

The sooner we start negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention, the sooner we can reach agreement on all the required legal, technical, transparency, verification and political challenges. A comprehensive treaty has been the way that dum dum bullets, chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions have been or are being abolished. In the lead-up to next year's important nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, our governments should advocate and begin preparing for such a treaty. It is entirely reasonable to hope and expect that negotiations on such a treaty should commence prior to the next Review Conference in 2015, and be concluded by the following Review Conference in 2020.

(Originally published on Nov.9, 2009)

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