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Earlier this month, we commemorated the devastating events which occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 — the detonation of nuclear bombs on August 6 and 9 that instantly or eventually killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and decimated two cities. Most people annually mourn the senseless loss of life, perhaps also giving a thought to the threat nuclear weapons continue to pose.
With the recent Korean crisis and hostilities in Syria that recall its former nuclear aspirations, the movement for the abolition of the production, testing, and use of nuclear weapons is justifiably gaining momentum.
Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons
Although there have been threats from the Korean peninsula before, none have ever been taken so seriously as the crisis launched when the North conducted its third nuclear weapons test in February. Even Fidel Castro said that “this is one of the gravest risks of nuclear war” since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. 1
Since comprehensive nuclear testing, including atmospheric, underwater, and underground testing, has been banned since 1996, 2 full-scale testing has mostly come to a stop, though some countries appear still to experiment secretly. North Korea has been detonating nuclear weapons underground openly since 2006, 3 even though it had declared in 2005 that it was “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” 4 Its second test was conducted in 2009.
At the time, I was living in South Korea and working as an English teacher. Even though seismic activity from the blast had caused the evacuation of some Chinese schools along the North Korean border more than 200 kilometres away from the test site, 3 reports from home seemed disproportionate, the threat not as serious as media made it out to be.
That’s partly because the testing at the time was meant to establish North Korea as a nuclear power during the lifetime of the late Kim Jong-il, 3 and expats treated the issue with stoic disillusionment.
Things must have been different for expats this time around, four years later when tension between the North and the South escalated once again. The phone line connecting Seoul to Pyongyang was cut off, North Korea declared a state of war against the South, multiple countries were warned to evacuate their North Korean embassies (though many refused), and North Korea advised foreign workers and tourists to leave the South since the two countries were supposedly on the brink of nuclear war. 1 On second thought, things must have been much the same.
Faced with increasingly harsh condemnation from the international community and severe economic sanctions, North Korea has been keen to assert a right to pre-emptive nuclear strikes, 5 moving away from its 2009 position of enhancing self-defensive nuclear deterrent. 3 Not for the first time, 6 it withdrew from the Korean Armistice Agreement, 1 interpreting the critical reaction to its nuclear testing as hostility. In particular, North Korea views the presence of the US military on South Korean soil as a threat, and the joint military exercises practiced by the two allies as an act of aggression. 6
And according to Michel Chossudovsky, director of the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal, the US has indeed displayed antagonistic behaviour and policies towards North Korea in the past, 7 deploying nearly 950 nuclear warheads to the South as pre-emptive deterrents from 1958 to 1991. In fact, his comparison of the two nations concludes that the US is the bigger threat to global security, with more warheads and more of the materials, experience, and technology with which to make them.
Both sides have extended invitations to talk out the issues, and North Korea has even suggested replacing the armistice with a peace treaty, but the US says that’s only possible if North Korea “takes irreversible steps toward denuclearisation.” 6 That’s unlikely to happen while the US maintains its nuclear program.
Discussions were slow in moving forward. 1 The US set meeting pre-conditions, to which North Korea replied it would not give up its nuclear program unless the US did the same. 8 These might have been perfect conditions in which to negotiate a binding disarmament treaty, but instead, the North’s tests and threats have bent the US on improving its own weapons. 7 Only in the past few weeks have talks made any progress. 1
However, questions concerning global security remain. For instance, is there any truth to the rumour that Iran paid to have scientists watch the last North Korean nuclear test? 9 Or that North Korea is possibly planning more tests this year? 10 Has North Korea managed to produce a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on a long-range missile? It appears so. 11
One thing is certain. The National Defense Commission of North Korea has said, “We do not hide that we will launch a series of satellites and long-range rockets and carry out nuclear tests in the next higher level new phase of the struggle against the US, the sworn enemy of the [North] Korean people.” 1
But it’s estimated North Korea only possesses 4-8 nuclear weapons, 4 while the US has 7,700 (Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, and Turkey host American warheads). Russia has the most with 8,500. The UK, France, and China have 200-300 each, India and Pakistan probably have more than 100, and Israel has just under 100 nuclear weapons. 12
The existence of these known 17,000-plus nuclear weapons threatens life, civilization, and the environment worldwide, 12 as do secretly-developed nuclear programs. 2 Nations of concern for immediate proliferation include Iran and Syria, not to mention North Korea. 4 Iran has pursued secret nuclear activities, though it has no known weapons or sufficient materials to build them. Still, its ability to create materials is being monitored. 4
Syria is also suspected of pursuing secret nuclear activities. 4 Following a 2007 Israeli airstrike on the supposed site of a nuclear reactor, Syria failed to adequately clarify the nature of the facility and its potentially nuclear-related procurement activity. In 2011, the country was therefore found in non-compliance with its obligations to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. 13 Now, despite the chemical weapons ban of 1993, 14 Syria refuses to abandon its chemical weapons program until Israel abandons its nuclear program. 13 And in light of recent allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, comprehensive disarmament is drastically needed, regardless of who the detonating faction was.
Yet, alarmingly, the US and Russia maintain approximately 2,000 nuclear weapons on high-alert status, 12 and most are more powerful than those dropped on Japan. Just one nuclear warhead detonated over a large city could kill millions between the initial impact and the spread of genetically-damaging radioactive fallout. 15
Unfortunately, instead of negotiating for nuclear disarmament, nations are heavily investing in modernising their nuclear forces, 14 with the apparent intention of retaining them for decades to come. However, nuclear-armed nations are more vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. 16 Nuclear weapons don’t keep the peace; they breed fear and mistrust. So long as any country has them, others will want them. 16
Even though over 40,000 nuclear weapons have been dismantled since the Cold War ended, 16 there’s no guarantee the remaining will never be used again. It’s almost certain they will be, whether intentionally or accidentally. In fact, there have been dozens of instances of near-use as a result of miscalculation or accident. 16
Effects of detonation
So what would happen if one or more nuclear weapons did go off?
First, the blast creates a huge and incredibly fast shockwave, causing death and injuries, and buildings to collapse. Second, heat so intense from thermal radiation vaporises nearly everything around ground zero, severe burns are sustained, and fires become firestorms. Finally, high doses of radiation kill cells, damage organs, and cause rapid death, while low doses damage cells and cause cancer, genetic damage, and mutations. Exposure to radiation increases the risks of passing on hereditary effects, while the food chain is also affected. 17
The technology has only seen battle twice, 68 years ago in Japan, ostensibly to end World War II. In Hiroshima, 80,000 people died immediately, while half that number died in Nagasaki. In both cities, tens of thousands of others eventually died from radiation poisoning, many others were injured, and cancer rates increased. 70 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings were burned to the ground — 42 out of 45 hospitals were destroyed or rendered non-functional. 6.7 kilometres 2 of Nagasaki was levelled, temperatures reached 4,000 degrees Celsius, and radioactive rain poured down. Pregnant women exposed to the bombings experienced higher rates of miscarriage and infant death. Children who were in the womb at the time of the explosions were more likely to have intellectual and physical disabilities and impaired growth development. Some people who entered the cities to help after the bombings also became ill or died. 18
The tragedy of this humanitarian offence is well-known, but the potential for nuclear disaster is much larger. Nowadays, with densely populated cities, a Hiroshima-sized bomb dropped over a city like Mumbai would cause nearly 900,000 deaths within weeks, 19 the death toll rising over time. Effective humanitarian aid would be impossible, with public infrastructure destroyed, many health professionals dead or injured, and those coming in from the outside at risk from radioactive fallout. 20
The use of tens or hundreds of nuclear weapons would disrupt global climate, 15 causing sustained agricultural shortfalls that would lead to panic and hoarding, then widespread famine. There would be infectious disease epidemics and conflicts over resources. 21 More than a billion people would be at risk. 15
If 500 bombs were launched over major US and Russian cities, 100 million people would die within 30 minutes. Most Americans and Russians would die in the subsequent months. 19
A war fought using only 5 percent of the global nuclear stockpile would render the planet uninhabitable. 21
If the entire global arsenal detonated, the result would be an average surface cooling of minus seven or eight degrees Celsius, compared to minus five degrees Celsius average surface cooling temperatures during the last ice age. 21
Production and Testing
Notwithstanding the potential for catastrophic nuclear weapons use, the production and testing of nuclear weapons have their own severe consequences. And considering that nuclear testing has thus far equalled the force of 29,000 Hiroshima bombs, 2 it’s easy to understand why all nuclear weapons must be banned and dismantled.
Although most nuclear testing came to an end after the 1996 ban, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War predicts that about 2.4 million people will eventually die from cancers due to nuclear testing. 2 Much of the Earth is already contaminated with radioactive particles from fallout. 2
More than 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted at over 60 locations since 1945. 2 Often, this has been on lands belonging to indigenous or minority peoples, usually without consultation. Some sites have been densely populated, and workers and downwind or downstream residents have suffered.
Timeline of Nuclear Tests, 1945-1998
Video creator Isao Hashimoto says:
This piece of work is a bird's eye view of the history by scaling down a month length of time into one second. No letter is used for equal messaging to all viewers without language barrier. The blinking light, sound and the numbers on the world map show when, where and how many experiments each country have conducted. I created this work for the means of an interface to the people who are yet to know of the extremely grave, but present problem of the world.
Even the production of nuclear materials is objectionable. One reason is that fissile materials remain toxic and useable for weapons for millennia. 22
Another is that mining uranium is highly harmful to human health and the environment. It can cause diseases in miners, industry workers, and nearby inhabitants, while waste tailings cause long-lasting radioactive and chemical pollution. In fact, no uranium mine in the world has ever been fully cleaned after the mine shut down. 22
From the global security point of view, the production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons allows nations to increase the lethality of their weapons. 2 The fact that 40 nations have nuclear power and/or research reactors capable of being diverted for weapons production 9 is worrisome since military and civilian nuclear programs are frequently affiliated. 22 Moreover, the normal release of radiation from reactors and spent fuel ponds means reactors are in effect pre-positioned bombs. 22
The case for shutting down nuclear reactors goes even further. Nuclear accidents such as those at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 or Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 eventually cause tens of thousands of deaths. Even within normal usage, reactors emit radiation into the air, water, and soil, increasing rates of leukemia in children living within 50 kilometres. 22
Nuclear Weapons Ban
The tragic humanitarian and environmental harm that has been caused by nuclear weapons and reactors in the past and the potential for further harm in the future has prompted the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to launch a Global Parliamentary Appeal for a Nuclear Weapons Ban. Parliamentarians around the globe are being asked to sign on in the hopes of building support for an international treaty outlawing the use, production, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons and calling for their complete eradication. The petition will be presented at various intergovernmental meetings throughout the next year to promote nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Taking the position that the only guarantee against the spread and use of nuclear weapons is elimination, ICAN warns that because the Non-Proliferation Treaty obliging nations to negotiate in good faith for total nuclear disarmament remains largely unfulfilled, 23 a new comprehensive, irreversible, and binding treaty must be negotiated. ICAN says this should include a ban on the production of fissile materials, and existing stocks should be eliminated or securely controlled. An international monitoring system and agency should also be established to verify treaty compliance. All nuclear warheads must be taken off high-alert status immediately.
ICAN is not alone. It has over 300 supporters in over 70 countries, including Ceasefire in Canada. Furthermore, the Red Cross has been calling for banning nuclear weapons since September 1945, 20 and many other organisations worldwide have identified the same goal.
In fact, 151 of the world’s countries support a ban, while 22, including Canada, remain undecided, and 22 more are in opposition. 24 Those which are unsure or that oppose a ban generally either possess nuclear weapons or claim to be protected by a country that does (Canada is such a one). Such doubt and opposition demonstrates the fear and mistrust engendered by nuclear weapons.
The Canadian government could be persuaded to support ICAN’s Appeal. A representative had officially stated in 2011 that Canada “is not opposed to the pursuit of a comprehensive, multilateral agreement banning nuclear weapons,” but in slow incremental steps based on “the pragmatic recognition that we cannot do everything at once.” 24 So, the country should be pleased with ICAN’s suggestion that a ban be implemented one step at a time, 23 and should have no objection to signing on!
Expenditure should also concern budget-conscious politicians. Nuclear-armed nations spend close to US $3 billion per day on their nuclear forces, or about $105 billion per year globally. That’s US $12 million per hour! 25 Wouldn’t that money be better spent on improving public services and infrastructure, increasing humanitarian aid, investing in a clean energy program, reducing national debts, and developing effective security policies?
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says, “The world is over-armed and peace is under-funded.” 25
And it’s no joke. The UN’s Office for Disarmament Affairs has a budget of $10 million per year, while spending on nuclear weapons in 2010 was twice the amount of official development assistance provided to Africa. 25
That’s ridiculous. Why should the taxpayer’s dollar fund harmful nuclear policies instead of beneficial public programs?
A nuclear weapons ban makes sense because their use in war violates international humanitarian law — they kill civilians indiscriminately, harm people in neighbouring and distant countries who have nothing to do with the conflict, and cause long-term environmental damage. 26 The World Court reinforced this in 1996, saying the threat or use of nuclear weapons is illegal. 27
So what’s the world waiting for? Governments already warned in 2010 of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of inaction. 23
Do Something About It!
- Use the Ceasefire form to encourage your MP to support ICAN’s Global Parliamentary Appeal for a Nuclear Weapons Ban.
- Forward a copy of the Ceasefire message to your MPP.
- Submit a comment before September 16 to Premier Wynne via the EBR Registry regarding Ontario’s energy policy to express your concern for the province’s prioritisation of nuclear power and your disapproval of the Darlington project.
- Send your energy policy comments directly to Premier Wynne via the Environmental Defence campaign to Lighten Up Ontario!
- 2013 Korean Crisis (Wikipedia)
- The Legacy of Nuclear Testing (ICAN)
- 2009 North Korean Nuclear Test (Wikipedia)
- Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance (Arms Control Association)
- In Focus: North Korea’s Nuclear Threats (New York Times)
- Korean Armistice Agreement (Wikipedia)
- The Threat of Nuclear War? North Korea or the US (Russia Today)
- North Korea Makes U-Turn From Threats, Tells US: Let’s Talk (Toronto Star)
- North Korea Is More Than Just a Nuclear Threat (Policy Mic)
- 2013 North Korean Nuclear Test (Wikipedia)
- UN Council To Hold Emergency Talks on N. Korea Nuclear Test (Korea Herald)
- Nuclear Arsenals (ICAN)
- Syria — Country Profile (Nuclear Threat Initiative)
- The Case For a Ban Treaty (ICAN)
- Catastrophic Harm (ICAN)
- Arguments for Nuclear Abolition (ICAN)
- Blast, Heat and Radiation (ICAN)
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings (ICAN)
- The Radioactive Incineration of Cities (ICAN)
- No Adequate Response Capacity (ICAN)
- Climate Disruption and Nuclear Famine (ICAN)
- Production of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
- Achieving a Nuclear Weapons Ban (ICAN)
- National Positions on a Ban (ICAN)
- Spending on Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
- Outlawing Inhumane Weapons (ICAN)
- Nuclear Weapons Timeline (ICAN)