Zero Is the Only Option

March 9, 2010

Four Medical and Environmental Cases for the Eradication of Nuclear Weapons

In March 2010, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War published a major new briefing paper on the global climate and health effects of nuclear war. Zero is the only option, produced for the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, draws extensively from the work of climate scientists at Rutgers University and the University of Colorado at Boulder, including Alan Robock, O. B. Toon, Michael Mills, and their colleagues, who have documented the climate effects of regional nuclear war.

Zero Is the Only Option comprises four medical and environmental case studies:

  1. Nuclear famine: how a regional nuclear war will cause global mass starvation
  2. A nuclear ozone hole: the global cancer burden of a regional nuclear war
  3. Nuclear winter: the Earth’s life-sustaining ecosystems remain at risk
  4. The casualties of nuclear war: Why prevention is still the only cure

Each page of this blog reproduces a case study from the briefing paper, and provides a collection of resources for further study and for use in presenting this information to others. The complete paper, with footnotes and references, can be downloaded here.

Publication of the briefing paper was made possible thanks to a generous financial contribution from IPPNW’s Swedish affiliate, Svenska Läkare mot Kärnvapen (Swedish Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons).


The necessity of getting to zero

March 9, 2010

The goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world, embedded in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has been embraced by a large majority of UN member states; by prominent diplomats, policy experts, and military leaders worldwide; and by overwhelming majorities of citizens in all countries where the question has been asked in public opinion surveys. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, have both said that ridding the world of nuclear weapons is one of the most urgent priorities of the international community. US President Barack Obama committed himself to working for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” in Prague on April 5, 2009.

The importance—in fact the necessity—of getting to zero has been explained by senior ministers, diplomats, and retired military leaders in several countries, including the US. Their views echo the conclusions of international physicians, lawyers, scientists, and civil society organizations, who have been pressing the case for nuclear abolition almost since the beginning of the nuclear age, and certainly since the entry into force of the Non-Proliferation Treaty some 40 years ago.

The priority and urgency of nuclear disarmament have also been articulated by high-level international bodies convened for the purpose of assessing the nuclear threat and for recommending solutions. Among these have been the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (1995); the International Court of Justice (1996); the Weapons of Mass Destruction (Blix) Commission (2006); and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (2009).

The latter issued its final report in December 2009, the first paragraph of which should be committed to memory by anyone concerned with the survival of humankind:

Nuclear weapons are the most inhumane weapons ever conceived, inherently indiscriminate in those they kill and maim, and with an impact deadly for decades. Their use by anyone at any time, whether by accident, miscalculation or design, would be catastrophic. They are the only weapons ever invented that have the capacity to wholly destroy life on this planet, and the arsenals we now possess – combining their blast, radiation and potential ‘nuclear winter’ effects – are able to do so many times over. Climate change may be the global policy issue that has captured most attention in the last decade, but the problem of nuclear weapons is at least its equal in terms of gravity – and much more immediate in its potential impact.”

Despite this upsurge in global support for a world without nuclear weapons, the road toward zero remains obstructed and the pace at which the nuclear-weapon states and the policy elites seem content to move is unacceptably slow. Behind the encouraging rhetoric about a nuclear-weapons-free world we see only modest, incremental proposals that will likely postpone the negotiation of a comprehensive nuclear disarmament agreement—a Nuclear Weapons Convention—for another two or three decades or more. Even President Obama has said that a nuclear-weapons-free world may not be achieved in his lifetime.

To put it plainly, the world does not have the luxury of time when it comes to eliminating the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Every day that they remain in fallible human hands is a day in which we might experience a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. Every day in which that catastrophe is averted must be counted as borrowed time.

Powerful evidence for abolition

March 9, 2010

For more than 45 years, physicians have documented and described the horrifying medical and humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons explosions. They have informed political and military leaders that doctors, hospitals, and other medical infrastructure would be so completely overwhelmed in the event of a nuclear war that we would be unable to respond in any meaningful way to relieve the suffering of survivors or to restore health to a devastated world. They have warned that the unique nature of nuclear weapons — their unprecedented destructive power and the radiation they release, causing cancers, birth defects, and genetic disorders across generations — removes any moral justification for their use as weapons of war and requires their abolition.

The findings described in Zero Is the Only Option have significant implications for nuclear weapons policy. They are powerful evidence in the case against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and against the modernization of arsenals in the existing nuclear weapon states. Even more important, they argue for a fundamental reassessment of the role of nuclear weapons in the world.

If even a relatively small nuclear war, by Cold War standards, could trigger a global catastrophe, the only viable response is the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Weapons Convention proposed by IPPNW and other NGOs, which has been a UN working document for more than a decade, is, in our view, the most effective way to achieve this goal and to give it the force of international law. A comprehensive, global agreement to prohibit the development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons—either the Convention as proposed or a similar framework—would fulfill the long-deferred promise of the NPT and remove the greatest threat to security and survival that humanity has ever endured.