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The International Treaty to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – A Critical Step Towards Saving Humanity from Mass Annihilation

By: 
Martin Donohoe

The History and Consequences of War

The history of war begins approximately 13,000 to 10,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture and the subsequent development of non-migratory populations, the division of labor, and the development of class structures, specifically the rise of a warrior class supported by these populations’ leadership and citizens as a means of both further enrichment and protection. Over time, weapons became increasingly sophisticated. Bronze weapons and armor were developed 3,500 years ago, iron weapons 2200 years ago, and the widespread use of horses to facilitate battles farther afield from home 1900 years ago. Bombs were invented in the Ninth Century, and rockets in Thirteenth Century China (although they were not employed until the 19th Century). In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon, which were soon used for reconnaissance and to drop bombs. In 1903, the Wright brothers ushered in the airplane age at Kitty Hawk, and now, in the 20th Century, we have all manner of destructive weapons at our disposal, including guns that can shoot multiple rounds per second, tanks, predator drones, and soon, robotic soldiers (which may be, frighteningly, autonomous).

There were approximately 250 wars in the 20th Century, and the epidemiology of warfare has evolved dramatically over the last hundred plus years. While 85-90% of direct casualties of war through the late 19th Century were among civilians, today 10-15% are among civilians, the product of increasingly sophisticated weapons that can kill at greater distances. A massive legal and illegal arms market supports these wars, most involving U.S.-produced and/or supplied weapons.

Consequences of warfare include deaths, injuries, physical and psychological suffering, refugees, internally-displaced persons, environmental degradation, famine, collapse of health care systems affecting those with acute and chronic illnesses, increasing poverty and debt, and in turn recurrent cycles of violence.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

The most feared agents of military destruction are chemical and biological weapons (which have been used for millennia, but which today can be weaponized to kill and sicken massive numbers of people) and nuclear weapons. The 1972 Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons, and the U.S. and Russia have been gradually destroying their significant stockpiles.  Similarly, the 1972 Biological Weapons Protocol calls for the elimination of such weapons, but enforcement has been lax and needs to be accelerated.

Nuclear Weapons/Nuclear War

The history of atomic weapons began on August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped a 15 kiloton bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, ultimately leading to 140,000 deaths. Buckminster Fuller called this “The day that humanity started taking its final exam.” Three days later we dropped a 22 kiloton bomb on Nagasaki, leading to 70,000 casualties. Both bombings left many survivors with burns, cancers, and other chronic health problems. Since the 1940s, there have been 1054 U.S. nuclear tests. 80,000 US citizens have developed cancers, 15,000 of them fatal, due to radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing.

Today there are approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons in at least 9 countries, down from over 71,000 at the height of Cold War. There are 4,300 active U.S./Russian warheads today, 1,800 on hair-trigger alert, which means they can be launched and reach their targets in less than 30 minutes. The world’s combined nuclear explosive power is several thousand megatons, or 100,000 Hiroshimas, and its arsenal vastly redundant. The Pentagon has acknowledged 32 nuclear weapons accidents since 1950, while the bipartisan Governmental Accountability Office has counted 233. Some of these have resulted in near launches, averted by quick thinking and lots of luck. Since 1950, 10 nuclear weapons lost and never recovered. All are laying on the seabed, potentially leaking radioactivity. Even so, the U.S. is planning to spend $1 trillion on new nuclear weapons and delivery systems over the next few decades.

In the event of a nuclear explosion, Immediate victims would be vaporized by thermal radiation, crushed by a powerful blast wave, and burned and suffocated by a massive firestorm. Later victims would suffer slower, painful deaths. A more specific description of the consequences of the explosion of just one nuclear missile is as follows: From ground zero to 2 miles, within 1/100 of a second a fireball hotter than the sun would vaporize everything in its path. From 2 - 4 miles out, enormous pressures and 650 mph winds would rip apart and level buildings. From 4 - 10 miles out, high heat and 200 mph winds would melt sheet metal; concrete buildings would be heavily damaged and all other structures leveled. 10 - 16 miles from the epicenter a 2,500 degree Fahrenheit firestorm would produce 100% mortality. From 16 - 21 miles out, glass would shatter and debris fly wildly about. At 21 - 29 miles from the epicenter, humans would receive third degree burns over all exposed skin. From 29 to 40 miles out, all who witness the explosion would be immediately blinded. Other types of Injuries would include deafness, collapsed lungs, fractures, hemorrhage and eviscerations from shrapnel wounds, as well as radiation sickness.

Those exposed to very high amounts of radiation would suffer cerebral edema, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, speech and gait difficulties, convulsions, and then coma followed by death within 1-2 days. Exposure to medium doses would cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea which would resolve, only to be followed 3 days later by recurrent bloody nausea and diarrhea which would kill most victims. Lower doses would cause bone marrow failure, infections, bleeding, sores, and a somewhat slower death. What few health care personnel and resources that remained would be overwhelmed, as almost all health professionals would be killed or fatally wounded and most major hospitals destroyed. There would be few if any working ambulances, X-ray machines, antibiotics or other medications, blood, plasma, or even bandages, let alone electricity or clean water.

Other consequences of a nuclear war would include famine, devastation of transportation systems and water and power infrastructures, the breakdown of national and international governments, and large numbers of displaced, wandering, starving persons suffering from psychological trauma and facing significant risks of later cancers. A massive nuclear exchange would cause the earth to cool and the resulting, decades-long nuclear winter would lead to mass starvation secondary to worldwide crop failures.

If a nuclear weapon exploded over any major US city, most urban residents and many of those living in surrounding suburbs would be dead within one month, with the survivors roaming a post-apocalyptic hellscape and likely wishing for a quick death.

The International Treaty to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

To prevent such massive destruction, there is only one real solution – the abolition of nuclear weapons and safe storage and destruction of all nuclear materials, to prevent them from getting into the hands of terrorists or being used by any future governments. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, has taken the first step toward doing this with the recent adoption by a majority of the world’s nations of the United Nation’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which will become effective when 50 of the adopting 135 nations formally sign the treaty. The US actively tried to scuttle negotiations; it and the other nations possessing nuclear weapons have not adopted the treaty, but should. In the meantime, Congress should take all our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert and the decision to launch a nuclear weapon not lie with just one individual, regardless of his or her party affiliation (although certainly given the current president’s unstable temperament, the risks of launch are higher than they have ever been, as noted when the Doomsday Clock was advanced recently to 2 minutes to midnight).

While it might seem impossible for the world to rid itself of nuclear weapons, citizen activism to encourage universal adoption of this treaty is absolutely necessary to achieve the dream of a much safer world free of nuclear weapons for ourselves and future generations.

Bio: Martin Donohoe, MD, FACP practices internal medicine and is the author of Public Health and Social Justice (Jossey Bass/Wiley) and the host of the cable television program “Prescription for Justice.” See http://publichealthandsocialjustice.org or http://www.phsj.org for further information. See also : martindonohoe@phsj.org