It is inconceivable that Japan happens to be the only country in the world to have been devastated by two nuclear catastrophes: first, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty-six years ago, and then a Level 7 nuclear reactor meltdown at Fukushima seven months ago, to the day. That makes a strong case for the elimination of nuclear weapons and the phasing out of nuclear energy.
In the last few decades, global trends in military doctrines and ecologically unsustainable development strongly indicate that nuclear war and climate change now represent the two most critical threats to human security, the integrity of the planet, and ultimately the survival of civilisation.
The militarisation of diplomacy, such as the “war on terrorism,” has ignited armed conflict by state and non-state actors and carries the risk that nuclear weapons could be used in any conflict by intent, miscalculation or accident, as long as they exist. Incredibly, a nuclear Armageddon remains a relatively abstract and subliminal fear, despite the continued presence of thousands of nuclear weapons and the unforgettable destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Destruction of life-sustaining ecosystems and climate change have now become sufficiently visible and palpable to persuade people and governments of the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions by replacing fossil fuels with alternative energy sources and changing the nature of the global economy and human consumption. This has given the nuclear industry a new lease of life, but Fukushima has revived memories of Chernobyl, raised serious questions about the safety of nuclear power, and blunted the nuclear renaissance.
Albert Einstein warned: “The splitting of the atom changed everything, save Man’s mode of thinking. Thus, we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”
Let me paraphrase Einstein and include a corollary: Unfettered market forces and the corporate bottom line have changed everything, save Man’s mode of thinking. Thus, we drift towards unparalleled economic and ecological catastrophe.”
Nuclear arsenals and nuclear power plants pose serious threats. Both threats must be dealt with by abolishing nuclear weapons and phasing out nuclear energy. The curse of nuclear fission must be exorcised.
Beginning of the nuclear age
The first glimmer of the nuclear age appeared on the horizon in the 1930s when scientists in Europe discovered the structure of the atom and proceeded to split the atom, and then discovered that nuclear fission converts matter into energy, reinforcing Einstein’s famous equation:
E = MC2 (where E stands for energy, M for mass or matter, and C for the speed of light).
By 1939, laboratories in the United States had begun to explore the possibilities of generating energy from fissile uranium to make a bomb, before Nazi Germany did. To this end, President Roosevelt set up the Manhattan Project, a military and scientific enterprise.
Working feverishly, scientists, led by Robert J Oppenheimer, succeeded in fabricating three atomic bombs. Code-named Trinity, the first bomb was detonated in the pre-dawn hours of 16th July 1945 near Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert.
Two hundred and sixty scientists and military personnel witnessed the awesome power of the world’s first nuclear test explosion. A silent, brilliant flash lit up the dawn sky, a flash brighter than a thousand suns. Seconds later came the bang of the shock wave, and a titanic mushroom cloud rose from the desert floor, a boiling mass of dust and gas. Those present, the creators, stood in stunned silence, with a sense of foreboding. It was a turning point in history. It was a sobering moment. It was the beginning of the nuclear age - and the loss of innocence.
Oppenheimer recounted the experience:
“We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter, and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, he takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” 1
By then, Germany had been defeated and Japan was near capitulation. Some scientists questioned the morality of using such a destructive weapon and pleaded in vain that a demonstration bomb be exploded on a remote island to persuade Japan to surrender. But other scientists and military planners supported President Truman’s decision to drop the other two bombs on two Japanese cities.
Four hours after Trinity, the USS Indianapolis sailed from San Francisco, bound for the Pacific island of Tinian, where the components of the bombs were assembled and cynically named, Little Boy and Fat Man.
The bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August 1945, totally destroying both cities and incinerating and vaporising more than one hundred thousand people in a matter of seconds.
Mutually assured destruction
When the United Nations came into force less than three months later on 24th October 1945 “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima was foremost in the minds of world leaders.
The very first resolution of the UN General Assembly, adopted unanimously on 24th January 1946, established an Atomic Energy Commission which aimed at banning atomic bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. But at the time, the US still had a nuclear monopoly and was not prepared to surrender that absolute advantage. Understandably, the Soviet Union was not prepared to be restricted by UN inspections and forego acquiring the bomb. The Baruch plan for an international authority to control nuclear energy worldwide, therefore, failed.2
Instead, the ideological Cold War intervened in 1949 and triggered a surreal nuclear arms race that spawned 60,000 nuclear warheads. For five decades, the world’s superpowers conducted 2,047 nuclear weapons tests at locations all over the world - above ground, underground and underwater. Hundreds of atmospheric explosions spewed radioactive isotopes across countries and into the environment. It amounted to an undeclared nuclear war on innocent civilians, until the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1996.
Cold War security was based on the theory of nuclear deterrence and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD as it aptly came to be called, with nuclear warheads primed to be launched on warning within a few minutes. The central logical argument against deterrence is that it can only succeed in an error-free and rational world, and will therefore ultimately fail in the real world.
For five decades, the world played nuclear roulette and teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation. On more than one occasion, nuclear deterrence came close to failing and the human species came close to extinction, as in the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.
As Robert Kennedy recalled, those thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis saw “a confrontation between the two giant atomic nations … which brought the world to the abyss of nuclear destruction and the end of mankind.”3 This terrifying experience in brinkmanship profoundly changed the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, and paved the way for greater cooperation in arms control.
The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty
But the nuclear seduction continued and the exclusive nuclear club of two grew to five to include Britain, France and China. To stem the spread of nuclear weapons to other states, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force in 1970.
The NPT rests on two quid pro quo agreements between the five nuclear “haves” and the scores of nuclear “have-nots.” The nuclear weapon states pledge to work towards the elimination of their nuclear arsenals (Article VI), while the non-nuclear weapon states pledge that they will not acquire nuclear weapons (Article II) and in return will have an inalienable right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes (Article IV).
This was the perfect script for double standards and nuclear apartheid. The nuclear weapon states continued to enhance their nuclear arsenals, but demanded that the non-nuclear weapon states abstain. Every five years, member states of the NPT would meet at Review Conferences to assess progress or lack of progress in both nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.
In 1985, the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policies of glasnost and perestroika brought the Cold War to an end and heralded a period of bright hope, with significant concessions in arms control.
In 1995, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) was extended indefinitely, after commitments to nuclear disarmament had been reaffirmed by the five major nuclear-weapon states.
In 1996, the Australian Government-sponsored Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, in its report, demolished the theory of deterrence and spelt out the immediate practical steps for eliminating nuclear weapons. It argued that the possession of nuclear weapons by any state is a stimulus to others to acquire them; it questioned the credibility that they will not one day be used by accident, miscalculation or design; and asserted that any such use would be catastrophic.
That same year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its Advisory Opinion on the legal status of nuclear weapons, ruled that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is subject to the rules of international humanitarian law, and unanimously concluded that: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”4
In 2000, hopes were raised at the NPT Review Conference, when its final document set out a disarmament plan of “thirteen practical steps,” based on an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”
In 2005, hopes were dashed at the Review Conference when the nuclear weapon states, led by the Bush administration, reneged on their “unequivocal undertaking” to disarm.
Five years later, the negotiating atmosphere of the 2010 NPT Review Conference was transformed by the optimistic expectations of member states, following President Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009, when he said that “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act” to bring about “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Having signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with President Medvedev one month earlier, President Obama was able to create an enormous amount of goodwill and inspire states to commit to compromise and agree unanimously on a complex agenda of issues. This raises our hopes for the 2015 Review Conference.
Consequences of a regional nuclear war
While the risk of an all-out global nuclear war is virtually over, we must avoid complacency. Climate scientists have revealed disturbing new research about the climatic consequences of any low-yield regional nuclear war. 5
For example, even a limited regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, of the order of 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons, would send a regional cloud of smoke and soot deep into the stratosphere. This would blot out 7-10% of sunlight, cause significant cooling of the Earth’s surface, and reduce rainfall. These effects would persist over many years, shortening the growing season, significantly reducing agricultural production, and even causing famine, which would lead to major epidemics of infectious diseases, such as plague, typhus, malaria, dysentery and cholera. A regional nuclear war would also damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer and increase ultraviolet radiation and rates of skin cancer. There is no room for complacency.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
Professional groups have always played important and effective roles in human rights, peace and disarmament movements. Doctors are healers and often confront sudden death. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused more than 100,000 sudden deaths and proved that medicine has nothing meaningful to offer survivors of a nuclear war.
As cardiologists also confront cases of sudden cardiac death, it struck Bernard Lown, an eminent American cardiologist, that it was imperative to prevent nuclear war by eliminating nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War, when the rhetoric of nuclear deterrence reached a crescendo, Bernard Lown persuaded Evgeni Chazov, a leading Soviet cardiologist, to join him in organising a worldwide doctors’ movement to eliminate nuclear weapons. Cutting across the ideological divide in 1980, they founded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in Geneva. In 1985, IPPNW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for rendering “a considerable service to mankind by spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic war.” 6
Since 1980, IPPNW had worked within the flawed NPT process with other civil society disarmament groups, the United Nations and governments to rid the world of nuclear arms. When the 2005 NPT Review Conference ended in utter failure, IPPNW responded by changing its strategy. Instead of focusing only on the NPT, IPPNW decided to think outside the NPT box and mount a campaign outside but parallel to the NPT process. Calling it Internatioal Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN, IPPNW started campaigning for nuclear abolition through a Nuclear Weapons Convention, building on an Ottawa-style process.
The success of the Ottawa process in banning landmines in 1997 was largely due to the efforts of Canada’s former foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy. It showed that a partnership between like-minded governments, civil society, international organisations and the United Nations had the power to redress the intractable global problem of landmines and secure a Mine Ban Treaty.
In May 2007, at the NPT preparatory committee meeting in Vienna, IPPNW officially launched ICAN and tabled an updated and revised version of its Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, which had been submitted and accepted by the United Nations in 1997, as UN Document A/C.1/52/7.
Nuclear Weapons Convention
A Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) would prohibit the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, theat or use of nuclear weapons.
Vocal support for a Nuclear Weapons Convention has come from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In August 2009, he outlined a five-point plan for a world free of nuclear weapons and called for “a new convention or a series of mutually reinforcing instruments, backed by a credible system of verification.” 7
Achieving a Nuclear Weapons Convention would have to be a global endeavour, requiring the goodwill and participation of all governments and the many actors in civil society. ICAN’s action plan is to garner the support of like-minded governments, individuals, non-government organisations, citizen groups, parliamentarians, mayors and other civic leaders, and forge a multifaceted, global grassroots campaign.
A NWC would embody universal condemnation of nuclear weapons and embrace national and international measures that prohibit and delegitimize nuclear weapons. Such a treaty would help to engender a wider social and political movement away from reliance on nuclear weapons. It would accomplish the long-standing objectives of advancing nuclear disarmament to the point of abolition, based on a practical roadmap to zero nuclear weapons. It awaits one individual or group to kindle the political will to take the rest of the world along.
The abolition of nuclear weapons appears to be following the classic historical narratives of other great social movements, such as the abolition of slavery, colonialism, racial discrimination and apartheid. At first, decision-makers dismiss the idea. Then, the idea begins to germinate and pushes back resistance. Eventually, it becomes the norm in public opinion. Then, laws begin to change, provided civil society does not give up the struggle. Visionaries like William Wilberforce, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela come to mind.
Nuclear energy: Costs, risks and myths
The nuclear age is not only about nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war, but also about nuclear energy and the health, security and environmental risks from nuclear waste and nuclear accidents. Nuclear power developed as a ‘spin-off’ from nuclear weapons and took off in the 1960s and 1970s, but has only succeeded in supplying 13.8 per cent of the world’s electricity.
The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (2002) has called for energy that is “reliable, affordable, economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound.” But nuclear power is a treacherous form of energy, rich in myths, and misconceived by many as safe, clean and cheap, as a result of disinformation from the nuclear industry. Undoubtedly, nuclear power has had a detrimental impact on the environment, human safety, and national budgets, with its tangled history of unresolved risks and problems, such as:
• inability to safely dispose of deadly, long-lived radioactive waste;Disposal of nuclear waste
• security risks of clandestine nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism;
• nuclear economics and the escalating cost of building, operating, insuring and decommissioning nuclear power plants; and
• health and environmental dangers of nuclear accidents.
The most dangerous and unacceptable feature of nuclear power is that there is no way to safely dispose of long-lived radioactive nuclear waste. The industry’s so-called ‘solutions’ to the nuclear waste problem exist only in theory, such as the proposed Integral Fast Reactor for reprocessing spent fuel and deep geological repositories for burying nuclear waste. Not a single Integral Fast Reactor or geological repository exists anywhere in the world.
Most nuclear power plants in 30 countries store their highly radioactive spent fuel under water in pools on site, located below ground level or on top of reactor cores, as at Fukushima, which has highlighted the perils of such a method of storage. 8
Nuclear waste remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years. For example, plutonium has a half-life of 24,400 years. In other words, it will take 24,400 years for the radioactivity of plutonium to be halved. Nuclear waste must therefore be managed safely for at least 100,000 years or ‘forever.’ Yet, there is no social institution on the planet that has lasted more than 2000 years. The reality is that if medieval man had used nuclear energy, today we would still be managing his nuclear waste. To bequeath such a lethal legacy to future generations is unconscionable.
Nuclear weapons proliferation
As nuclear technologies and nuclear materials have dual civil and military uses, civil nuclear facilities can be secretly diverted to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as has happened with Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. There are suspicions that Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are edging towards weapons proliferation.
A nuclear renaissance would therefore increase the number of nuclear ‘threshold’ states capable of enriching uranium and separating plutonium, which would potentially increase the global stockpile of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Assuming that 10 kilograms of plutonium are sufficient to produce the equivalent of one Nagasaki-type bomb, a typical 1000 MW nuclear reactor could produce 300 kilograms of plutonium annually, sufficient to build 30 such bombs.
Nuclear power plants are vulnerable and make attractive targets for terrorists who could:
• steal, purchase or otherwise acquire fissile nuclear materials to fabricate a crude nuclear bomb;Nuclear terrorism has the potential to cause massive civilian injuries and deaths, widespread fear and panic, infrastructure damage, economic losses, long-term radioactive contamination of large tracts of land, and huge clean-up costs.
• target a nuclear reactor, a reprocessing plant or a spent fuel storage facility, by mounting a ground attack, crashing a plane into it, exploding a truck filled with conventional explosives, or sacrificing a suicide bomber;
• disrupt the power or water supply to a reactor to initiate overheating of fuel rods and a meltdown;
• explode a radiological weapon or ‘dirty bomb’ in a major urban centre, by detonating a core of conventional explosives, encased by radioactive nuclear and incendiary elements.
Nuclear energy is not cheap, contrary to assertions by the nuclear industry that it is. The true economics of nuclear energy are masked by the enormous subsidies for expensive reactor construction, research and development, uranium enrichment, waste management, insurance against accidents, loan guarantees, and decommissioning.
Since 2003, estimated capital costs of new nuclear power plants have escalated rapidly, while the capital costs of renewable energy technologies have decreased in real terms. Lowest-cost renewable energy, appropriately sited, is already competitive with nuclear energy. More expensive renewable energy could be competitive with nuclear by about 2020.
The Fukushima disaster has reinforced the Chernobyl experience that the costs of infrequent but catastrophic nuclear accidents are enormous and must be insured for. All funds channelled into a suspect, lame-duck nuclear industry will take away limited resources from much needed research and development of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Nuclear accidents have been a major public concern since the first nuclear reactors were built. Many preventive technical measures have failed to prevent minor and major accidents, near misses and incidents. Between 1952 and 2009, there have been 99 accidents, of which 56 occurred in the United States and 57 since Chernobyl in 1986.
A “major nuclear accident” is one in which a reactor core is damaged and large amounts of radiation are released, as in Chernobyl and Fukushima, both Level 7 emergencies, the highest level on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. 9
The meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 11th March 2011 resulted from overheating of fuel rods, following the loss of electrical power to the cooling systems of the reactors, when the nuclear power plant was hit by a devastating tsunami, 10-14 metres in height, triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
Within hours came the realisation that the nuclear infrastructure of the plant, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), was flawed - from technical issues, such as non-functioning backup generators, to administrative confusion about which agency was responsible for providing coolant for reactors. It is written in the stars that if something can go wrong, sooner or later it will go wrong. And that’s Murphy’s law.
When the four hydrogen explosions severely damaged the buildings in the Daiichi nuclear power plant, radioactive caesium-137 (half-life of 30 years), iodine-131 (half-life of 8 days), and other fission products were released into the environment. Today, caesium and iodine are the major radioactive contaminants in the soil in Fukushima and the surrounding prefectures. 10 Some 307,000 becquerels of caesium per kilogram of soil have been detected, whereas the Japanese government’s legal limit is 10,000 becquerels per kilogram.
An estimate of the cancer consequences of the accident, based on Chernobyl data, has not yet been conducted, but it is possible to make a preliminary order-of-magnitude guesstimate.
One million people were living within a 50-mile radius of the Fukushima plant, contaminated with caesium-137 to levels greater than 1 curie per square kilometre. Scaling to the six million people in areas contaminated to similar levels in the Chernobyl accident, one might expect 1,000 extra cancer deaths related to the Fukushima accident
For the nineteen years following the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children and adolescents exposed to radioactive iodine-131 in Belarus and Ukraine. There was also a doubling of radiation-induced genetic mutations among children born in 1994, eight years after the accident. 11 A comparable outcome can be expected from the Fukushima disaster.
The worst is far from over, as many health, technical, social, legal and economic problems remain. Major short-term challenges include stabilising the six reactors, managing more than 100,000 tons of contaminated water, and cleaning up the site, contaminated with radioactive debris. Long-term challenges include dealing with spent fuel in the storage pools and damaged fuel rods in the reactors, achieving cold shutdown, and decommissioning.
The extent of the final human tragedy and economic costs will not be known for many years. The Japan Centre for Economic Research has estimated that it could cost Japan US$250 billion, including compensation for the 180,000 people evacuated from the area.
The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown was a disaster waiting to happen. The seeds of the accident were planted very early in the history of Japan’s nuclear programme. From the very beginning of the nuclear age, the nuclear industry has shunned transparency and carried the stamp of secrecy, like a birthmark. The industry has a history of misleading statements, avoiding genuine open debate, and concealing nuclear mishaps and minor accidents. Nuclear regulatory bodies too often act out of expediency, gloss over critical issues of public health, and answer probing questions with standard, bland platitudes.
Similar to the Soviet Union’s response to Chernobyl, Japan’s response to Fukushima has powerfully demonstrated the degree to which the state prioritises its political interest over the fundamental rights of its people, by controlling the content and flow of information to prevent panic, reduce liability, and protect nuclear and other corporate interests.
As an example, three months after the Fukushima meltdown, the Japanese government announced that radioactive emissions in the first week were around 770,000 terabecquerels, more than double the 370,000 terabecquerels initially estimated by TEPCO. 12
Nuclear power plants are designed and built to withstand what is termed “design basis accidents,” and are carefully sited in geologically stable and physically secure environments, determined by geologists. The possibility of a “design basis accident” is based on “credible events,” which are determined by an analysis of probabilities. The Fukushima catastrophe was a “beyond design basis accident” because the analysis was wrong. It was calculated that the probable “credible event” expected to occur in Fukushima would be an earthquake no greater than a magnitude of 7.9 and a tsunami no higher than 6.7 metres. It was not in the analysis of probabilities that Fukushima would be struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake or a 10-14 metre high tsunami.
There are a number of unknown geological faults and processes which make it more difficult to accurately predict a “credible event”. In other words, it is very much an intelligent guessing game, but guessing nevertheless.
Fukushima could be a game-changer for the nuclear industry. It’s a wake-up call for all 30 countries operating 441 nuclear power plants and for those planning to build their first reactors. There is no such thing as nuclear safety or a fail-safe nuclear reactor. Human error and unpredictable events are unavoidable.
Policy-makers the world over and the nuclear industry must now seriously review, distil and learn from the lessons of Fukushima, which have rightly undermined confidence in and support for nuclear power. It has forced many countries to review the safety of their nuclear facilities, their nuclear options, and future energy policies. China, Venezuela, Italy and Taiwan have suspended plans for new reactors. Germany, which has relied on seventeen nuclear plants for 22% of its electricity, and Switzerland have passed legislation to phase out nuclear energy and develop renewable energy. Austria, Britain, Bulgaria and Finland have set up a nuclear safety review. Civil society groups in France, Italy, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey and Malaysia have stepped up campaigns against nuclear energy.
Radiation and health
Radiation is invisible, impalpable and odourless. Once released, it cannot be recalled or neutralised. There is no level of exposure to radiation that is safe. Even low-level exposures from radiological medical procedures carry a quantifiable risk of harm.
Ionising radiation causes changes in the cells of the human body, by stripping away electrons from atoms or by breaking the chemical bonds that hold together groups of atoms called molecules.
At high-dose exposures, a severely damaged human cell will die. At low- dose exposures, either the cell can repair the damage to DNA and survive, or late effects such as cancer may be produced many years after the initial exposure. In some cases, when the body is unable to repair the damage, teratogenic mutations may occur and be inherited by future generations, causing congenital malformations.
Human beings exist in a naturally radioactive environment of the sun, rocks, and mountains. Control of accurate information and repeated dissemination of disinformation have reinforced the false core message which many believe, such as:
• that human beings have evolved in a world where background radiation is natural and beneficial at some level;Average exposure to this ‘background’ level of radiation is measured at 2.4 millisievert (mSv) per year. But human activities in the past century have greatly increased our exposure to ionising radiation – two atomic bombings, the testing and development of nuclear weapons, uranium mining, the operation of nuclear power plants, and the unsatisfactory storage of spent nuclear fuel.
• and that when there is an adverse health effect of radiation, it only occurs occasionally and accidentally from high levels of exposure to radiation.
The 2005 National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR VII) estimated that, over a life time, each additional dose of 1mSv creates an excess risk of cancer of approximately 1 in 10,000. 13
The assertion that low-level exposure to radiation is not harmful is a figment of Cold War-era science that was created to meet government and industry needs in the testing and production of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, scientific findings on the health consequences of nuclear fallout, that contradicted the official narrative, were invariably censored. The 1994 US Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experimentation concluded that the literature on the health effects of radiation during the Cold War was heavily sanitised to reassure and pacify public protests in order to fulfil military and economic agendas and to avoid legal liability.
But there are several sources of conclusive data that provide evidence of health hazards caused by radiation, such as records of US and Soviet human radiation experiments, and long-term research on Chernobyl and Marshall Islands survivors We now know that radioactive fallout and contamination of marine and terrestrial environments ultimately infiltrate the food chain and the human body and represent significant health risks.
We know that fallout from the Chernobyl disaster contaminated about 40% of Europe’s surface area. About 16,000 deaths are projected during the lifetime of those who were exposed in Belarus, Ukraine, Western Russia and in Europe further downwind. It is not clear at present what the long-term health consequences will be in post-Fukushima Japan.
Health risks from radiation, either from a nuclear explosion or a nuclear reactor meltdown, must impel us to re-evaluate nuclear fission, the bedrock of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
Life and Death
Today, nine nuclear weapon states together possess 24,000 nuclear weapons, 95 per cent of which are American and Russian. Twelve thousand are operational, of which 3,500 still remain on high alert status. The Board of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reminds us that 50 of today’s nuclear weapons could kill 200 million people. 14
High-level international bodies have articulated the priority and urgency of nuclear disarmament, leading to abolition. 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 Commission (2006), and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (2009).
The first paragraph of the report by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament warns of the threat to human and planetary survival:
“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.” 15
Despite the upsurge in global support for a world free of nuclear weapons, the road to zero remains bumpy and progress is slow, because elite navigators and drivers in nuclear weapons states are moving at a very slow pace. But the world does not have the luxury of time on its side.
We must assail the mindset that the nuclear-fission genie is out of the bottle and that the clock cannot be turned back. We may not be able to disinvent nuclear weapons, but we can outlaw and abolish them.
Nuclear disarmament is gradually gaining momentum in a world no longer distracted by the nuclear imperatives of the Cold War. In January 2007, an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn reverberated round the world, not so much for what it said as for the political and diplomatic eminence of the “Gang of Four,” as they came to be known. 16
The op-ed has had a profound impact, bringing advocacy from the activist margins into mainstream discourse. The Gang of Four have come to realise that reliance on nuclear weapons is “becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.” They argue that action needs to be “energetically taken” on “a series of agreed and urgent steps that would lay the groundwork for a world free of the nuclear threat.”
Our disorderly world is largely shaped by political and economic forces, backed up by military power, often compromising fundamental human security, social justice and human rights. The challenges of inequity and poverty, naked militarism, and degradation of ecosystems demand of decision-makers a sense of moral responsibility and accountability. There is a great need for global civil society to be actively involved in tempering the excesses of politics and economics in general and ensuring accountability.
While moral codes and state laws may constrain citizens, ethics and international law do not seem to constrain sovereign nation-states in the same way. In practice, ethical norms are often deemed irrelevant to foreign policy in its pursuit of narrow national interests. There is a need to create a global ethical framework as a global social reality, which will depend upon what is established, not so much upon the norms accepted by states, as upon the universal norms embedded in institutions and practices. The challenge would be in creating the political will to establish a consensus of universal values and to eschew double standards.
The paradox of the Nuclear Age is that the greater the striving for military power and security through nuclear arms, the more elusive the goal of human security. For humankind to survive in an environmentally challenged and nuclear-armed world, we must learn from the mistakes of the past and forge a common, secure future. The greatest moral challenge of our time has been the unthinkable possibility of self-destruction on a global scale in a nuclear war or from cataclysmic climate change. The greatest priority for the future is to ensure that there will be a future.
1. Richard Rhodes. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Schuster,
1986, p. 676.
2. C.G. Weeramantry. Nuclear Weapons and Scientific Responsibility,
Longwood Academic, Wolfebro, NH, 1987, p. 19.
3. William A. Schwartz and Charles Derber, The Nuclear Seduction, University of California Press, Oxford, England, 1990, p. 146.
4. Ann Fagan Ginger. Nuclear Weapons are Illegal, 1998, The Apex Press, New York, p. 1.
5. Alan Robock et al. Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion, 2006; 6:11817-11843.
6. Bernard Lown. Prescription for Survival, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., San Francisco, 2008, p. 344.
7. Ban Ki-moon. A five point plan to rid the world of nuclear bombs, Gulf Times, Qatar, 3rd August 2009. http://www.un.org/sg/printarticle.asp?TID=105&Type=Op-Ed.
9. Richard Black. 12 April 2011, Fukushima: As Bad as Chernobyl?
10. Frank N von Hippel. The radiological and psychological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2011, 67:27. http://bos.sagepub.com/content/67/5/27
11. UNSCEAR Assessment of the Chernobyl Accident.
12. Masami Ishii. World Medical Journal, Vol.57, Number 4, August 2011, p. 144.
13. Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionising Radiation. BEIR VII: Health risks from exposure to low levels of ionising radiation. Washington DC, National Academies Press, 2005:303. Available at www.nap.edu
14. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2007, p. 67.
15. Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. Eliminating Nuclear Threats, Paragon, Canberra, 2009. Electronic copies: www.icnnd.org
16. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, Sam Nunn and others. A World Free of Nuclear Weapons, Wall Street Journal, New York, January 4, 2007.
Presented at St John’s College, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, on 11th October 2011.