Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2001

Stop Playing the Nuclear Game

By Michael Christ and Peter Zheutlin

The basic medical facts about a full-scale nuclear war have been clear and undisputed for decades. 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. Drastic and sudden climate changes would wreak havoc on agriculture and human and animal populations. All essential services, including medical and health services, would be rendered useless. Epidemics would rage. Civil defense--the notion that there is somewhere to hide--remains a hoax.

While the risk of an all-out nuclear war has receded since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons remain very much a part of the world's political and military landscape. The chance that nuclear weapons will one day be used--in war, by terrorists, or by accident or miscalculation--continues to rise inexorably over time. Unappreciated is the fact that just a single modern nuclear weapon is capable of inflicting unprecedented catastrophe, killing millions and wounding millions more. No amount of planning can prepare the medical community, the public, or government to respond meaningfully.

Yet, despite these truths, the medical realities of nuclear war and nuclear weapons are not yet fully a part of political reality. Instead, the romance with nuclear weapons continues and the world flirts, every day, with disaster.

Notwithstanding abundant evidence to the contrary, there is a widespread public perception that the threat of nuclear war is a relic of the twentieth century. The deep and broadly felt fears of nuclear war that characterized the Cold War years have largely faded. People no longer take to the streets to demand the removal of missiles, an end to nuclear testing, and global nuclear disarmament. 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). Indeed, in the 2000 presidential election, nuclear weapons were a non-issue.

Why has reducing the threat of nuclear war slipped so far down the political and public agenda? In part because many have a vested interest in the status quo. But also, in part, because the public is not demanding change. This gives political leaders little incentive to address the issues boldly.

Yet the nuclear powers remain poised and ready, just as they were during the Cold War, to wage nuclear war, Hundreds of cities are targeted for destruction. The United States and Russian arsenals still total more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, with thousands of those on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched at 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. In the United States, the Senate has rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and possible deployment of a National Missile Defense (NMD) system threatens to undo decades of efforts to control nuclear weapons. Indeed, the United States has ambitious plans for the militarization of space, even beyond NMD.

Despite their promise, enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) three decades ago and reiterated just last May, the five original nuclear weapons states (the U.S., the U.K., France, China, and Russia) have not, despite some reductions, moved meaningfully towards the elimination of their nuclear arsenals--a promise made in exchange for a commitment from the non-nuclear states not to acquire nuclear arms.

There are other grave problems as well. India and Pakistan, in a nearly constant state of war for decades, now have nuclear weapons. Many other states are working fervently to obtain them, especially in the troubled Middle East where only Israel currently has a nuclear arsenal. Neither India, Pakistan, nor Israel are signatories to the NPT.

The Middle East presents special problems. The peace process has virtually collapsed and violence is again the order of the day. Israel has nuclear weapons and other states in the region covet them. Yet, within Israel, a democracy, the subject of nuclear weapons is virtually taboo. Just over a year ago, on February 2, 2000, the Knesset held its first ever, and to this date only, open debate on Israel's nuclear weapons policy. The debate was very short and very contentious, but the fact that it happened at all was significant. In the end, the lid was shut, no further debates have been held, and Israel's nuclear arsenal continues to be an open secret Israelis have learned to live with.

The taboo on public debate undermines Israel's democracy by avoiding critical questions--questions similar to those the citizens of all nuclear-armed countries must ask themselves:

* Are nuclear weapons good or bad for Israel's national security? Is the security of Israeli citizens enhanced or endangered by Israel's nuclear weapons?

* Assuming, for the sake of argument, that nuclear weapons have been an effective deterrent in the past, will they continue to be so if other states in the region acquire nuclear weapons?

* Under what circumstances would the Israeli people give their consent to the use of nuclear weapons, and what would the future of Israel be once nuclear weapons were used?

* Is the policy of nuclear ambiguity good for Israel?

* What sacrifices, in terms of human health and the environment, have been made to build and maintain Israel's nuclear arsenal?

While the nuclear conundrum is largely seen, even today, as a U.S./Russian problem, the presence of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and South Asia, where violent conflict has persisted for generations, is deeply troublesome. In neither region do there exist the safeguards--political and technical--to restrain nuclear weapons use, nor the experience of managing the highly complex and dangerous mechanisms of the deeply flawed theory of nuclear deterrence.

There are abundant reasons why the risks of nuclear war continue to dog us into the beginning of the twentyfirst century, and the list of reasons is getting longer, not shorter. But one significant reason, largely hidden from view for many decades and now emerging with greater clarity, is the environmental, medical, and toxic legacy of the nuclear age.

Even if nuclear weapons are never used in war, by accident, miscalculation, or in a terrorist attack, the legacy of radioactive and toxic contamination from the testing, production, and maintenance of nuclear arsenals over the last half-century presents intractable and costly long-term problems. Workers who were exposed to radiation and chemical hazards as they toiled in nuclear weapons plants and those living downwind of such sites continue to suffer disproportionate rates of work-related 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--sites the government has called "national sacrifice zones"--will cost untold billions of dollars over hundreds--and perhaps thousands--of years. Holding onto existing nuclear arsenals, along with the proliferation of new ones, only comp ounds these enormous health, safety, and environmental problems.

Abolishing nuclear weapons and redressing the toxic legacy of the nuclear age is a moral, medical, and environmental imperative. Despite the seriousness of the threats that have accompanied us into the twenty-first century, 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 citizen's groups, but by world leaders, national governments, and many who were once ardent practitioners of nuclear statecraft, among them former leaders of the United States defense establishment and more than sixty former military commanders from around the world. The World Court ruled in 1996 that nuclear weapons use, or threatened use, is generally illegal under 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 United States and Russia included, recently affirmed an obligation to make elimination of nuclear weapons an "unequivocal undertaking." While deeds, not words, will be the true measure of this commitment, it is a step in the right direction.

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 here? The answer will ultimately be an international agreement--a convention or treaty--that establishes a new norm. Our organization, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, together with the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms and the International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation, have introduced 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. But there are many important milestones on the road to abolition and some of the intermediate steps needed to get there are now clear:

1. The United States 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, NMD has itself become a potential threat to global security.

2. Countries that have not yet done so--the United States in particular--must ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty so that it will enter into force. The U.S. Senate's 1999 defeat of the CTBT, an agreement that has been sought for nearly forty years and is essential to nuclear non-proliferation efforts, was a major step backwards. The Bush Administration must change course and make U.S. ratification of the CTBT a top priority. Without U.S. ratification, the CTBT is dead.

3. The United States and Russia must de-alert the thousands of nuclear weapons now on hair-trigger alert in their arsenals. 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 right now. Since a single nuclear weapon is capable of killing millions and wounding millions more, today's nuclear arsenals are excessive by any measure. 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 twentieth 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 twenty-first 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.

Michael Christ is Executive Director, and Peter Zheutlin is Associate Program Director, of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (www.ippnw.org), recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

Source Citation

Christ, Michael, and Peter Zheutlin. 2001. Stop Playing the Nuclear Game. Tikkun 16(3): 61.

tags: Israel/Palestine, Nuclear Weapons, War & Peace