Nuclear Weapons Remain The Greatest Threat
Mary-Wynne Ashford, M.D. (Canada), Abraham Behar, M.D. (France)
and Sergei Gratchev, M.D. (Russia) are the co-presidents of International
Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The organization was the
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for 1985.
Moscow - During some of the Cold War's darkest days, two cardiologists,
one from the Soviet Union and the other from the United States, dreamed
that physicians could be organized into an effective international force
to oppose nuclear weapons.
In addition to a shared interest in sudden cardiac death, Bernard Lown
of Boston and Evgeni Chazov of Moscow shared a powerful vision of a world
liberated from the nuclear threat. They believed that physicians, regardless
of political ideology, could be mobilized by their common commitment to
protect life and to promote health to see nuclear weapons not as a political/military
issue, but as a public health threat unparalleled in human history. And
they succeeded beyond all expectations.
Within five years, Lown and Chazov had built International Physicians
for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), an organization comprising
200,000 doctors and health-care workers in dozens of countries. Their
message-built on painstaking research-was one of ''primary prevention'':
the health and environmental conse
quences of nuclear war would be so catastrophic that prevention was the
Tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, would be killed and injured.
Massive outbreaks of disease would follow. Food supplies and water would
be contaminated and the systems to deliver them destroyed. All essential
services, including health services, would be rendered useless. They exposed
the hoax of civil defense, and laid bare the folly that large-scale nuclear
war was ''survivable'' or ''winnable'' in any meaningful sense. Medical
reality, reasoned Lown and Chazov, had to become a part of political reality.
Today, 10 years after the end of the Cold War, a new generation must learn
these same lessons. For despite abundant evidence to the contrary, there
is a widespread public perception that the threat of nuclear war is a
relic of the 20th century. Yet the nuclear powers remain poised and ready,
just as they were during the Cold War, to wage nuclear war using war-fighting
doctrines that remain fundamentally unchanged.
Moreover, few political leaders are courageous enough to challenge the
fundamental, yet deeply flawed, orthodoxy of the nuclear age-that nuclear
weapons make us safer and ensure national security when, in fact, they
make us all profoundly vulnerable.
Why has reducing the threat of nuclear war slipped so far down the political
agenda? Why is the public so blase? India and Pakistan, in a nearly constant
state of war for decades, now have nuclear weapons. The Middle East peace
process has collapsed and violence is again the order of the day. Israel
has nuclear weapons and other states in the region covet them.
The US and Russian arsenals still total more than 30,000 nuclear weapons,
with thousands of those on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched on
a moment's notice. Russia, which once maintained a pledge not to be the
first to use nuclear weapons, has withdrawn that pledge, even as control
over its nuclear arsenal has become a matter of global concern.
The US Senate has rejected the comprehensive test ban treaty and possible
US deployment of a national missile defense system threatens to undo decades
of efforts to control nuclear weapons.
Despite their promise, enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
three decades ago and reiterated just last May, the nuclear weapons states
have not, despite some reductions, moved meaningfully toward the elimination
of their nuclear arsenals-a promise made in exchange for a commitment
from the non-nuclear states not to acquire nuclear arms. So, one may ask,
if the nuclear powers are to lead by example, what kind of example are
they setting for the rest of the world?
Even if we are lucky, and nuclear weapons are never used in war, by accident,
miscalculation or in a terrorist attack on one of the world's cities,
the legacy of radioactive and toxic contamination from the testing, production
and maintenance of nuclear arsenals over the last half-century presents
intractable, costly, long-term problems.
Workers exposed to radiation and chemical hazards as they toiled in nuclear
weapons plants, and those living downwind of such sites, continue to pay
a high price in death and disease. Some nuclear weapons production sites,
such as the Hanford Reservation in Washington state and Chelyabinsk in
Russia, still pose potentially catastrophic health and environmental risks.
Cleaning up contaminated soil and water, and quarantining sites that cannot
be cleaned will cost untold billions of dollars over hundreds-and perhaps
thousands-of years. Holding on to existing nuclear arsenals and the proliferation
of new ones only compound these enormous health, safety and environmental
Simply stated, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and redressing the toxic
legacy of the nuclear age, are moral, medical and environmental imperatives.
The good news is that the opportunity to eliminate nuclear weapons is
greater than ever.
Dismissed in past decades, even by arms-control advocates, as utopian
and unachievable, abolition is widely supported today, not just by citizens
groups, but by world leaders, by national governments and by many who
were once ardent practitioners of nuclear statecraft, among them former
leaders of the US defense establishment and more than 60 former military
commanders from around the world.
The World Court ruled in 1996 that nuclear weapons use, or threatened
use, is generally contrary to fundamental principles of international
and humanitarian law, and that nuclear weapon states have an obligation
to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons. The 187 countries that
are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the US and Russia included,
recently af~rmed an obligation to make elimination of nuclear weapons
an ''unequivocal undertaking.''
In short, what was once a vision shared by only a few has garnered widespread
support. The critical question, of course, is how do we get there from
The answer will ultimately be an international agreement-a convention
or treaty-that establishes a new norm. IPPNW, with two prominent legal
and scientific organizations, has prepared a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention,
now under consideration at the United Nations, that provides a vision
of what complete nuclear disarmament might look like in concrete detail.
Some of the intermediate steps needed to get there are now clear:
1 The US must abandon plans to deploy a national missile defense system.
Deployment of such a system would require abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty and could well spawn a new nuclear arms race. The system
is deeply flawed technically and may cost well in excess of $100 billion.
The risks of deploying such a system far outweigh the dangers it is supposed
to protect against. Indeed, national missile defense has itself become
a potential threat to global security.
2 Countries that have not yet done so-the US in particular-must ratify
the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) so that it will enter into force.
The US Senate's 1999 defeat of the CTBT, an agreement that has been sought
for nearly 40 years and is essential to nuclear non-proliferation efforts,
was a major step backward. Without US ratification, the CTBT is dead.
3 The US and Russia must take thousands of nuclear weapons off hair-trigger
alert. What possible rationale can there be for maintaining a Cold War
posture that greatly increases the chances that nuclear weapons will be
fired by accident or miscalculation?
4 Both countries must make further deep reductions in their nuclear arsenals
on the way to zero. Since a single nuclear warhead is capable of slaughtering
a million people, today's nuclear arsenals are excessive by any measure,
and even Russia's proposal of 1,500 warheads per side can be seen only
as a welcome first step.
John Kenneth Galbraith, the great economist and former advisor to President
John F. Kennedy, has called nuclear disarmament the great unfinished business
of the 20th century. It is our obligation, as physicians and concerned
citizens, to finish the business of nuclear disarmament. The medical reality
of nuclear war must inform the political reality of the 21st century.
It will be up to an aroused and impassioned citizenry to demand the abolition
of nuclear weapons, for unless nuclear weapons are abolished, their use,
someday, is a virtual certainty.
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