Ira Helfand, Northampton doctor, takes ‘nuclear famine’ warning to Oslo conference Monday

Last modified: Friday, March 08, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — A Northampton doctor will tell an international conference in Norway today that even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons could devastate food supplies and kill a billion people.

That grim assessment is the result of a growing research field into “nuclear famine.”

Dr. Ira Helfand speaks at 2 p.m. Monday in Oslo before representatives of 128 countries in a two-day program organized by the Norwegian foreign ministry. The point, the ministry says, is to help the world understand the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear conflict.

The United States is not participating in the conference.

“This is just something that people around the world don’t know about at all,” Helfand said of nuclear famine, in a phone interview before leaving for Norway.

Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Last spring in Chicago, he presented a report by the two groups called “Nuclear Famine: One Billion People at Risk” to a gathering of Nobel laureates.

Helfand’s presentation today will draw on peer-reviewed work by climate scholars at the University of Colorado and Rutgers University. They have studied what will happen to the global climate if India and Pakistan use 100 nuclear weapons against each other.

“They’re on the brink of war all the time. They both hold substantial nuclear arsenals at this point and have talked openly about using them against each other,” Helfand said of the two countries.

Researchers estimate that 870 million people live on the brink of starvation every day in the world. Lost food sources as a result of climate devastation in a nuclear war will hit them hard, Helfand said.

Another 300 million people who eat reasonably well today live in countries like Japan and Korea that depend on food imports. They are vulnerable to famine if international markets collapse.

“They will face real problems with the prospect of starvation,” Helfand said. “That’s a new message and one that has been resonating profoundly about the world. People are really disturbed about this.”

Since 1979, five incidents have been documented in which the United States or Russia prepared to launch nuclear attacks based on misinformation, the most recent in 1995, Helfand said.

A release from the Norwegian foreign ministry says this week’s gathering is designed to make countries more aware of the risk of nuclear detonation — and to plan for a crisis.

“This actually has the potential to be a fairly historic event, as the Norwegians and a group of other countries are trying to fundamentally redefine the terms of international discourse about nuclear weapons,” Helfand said in an email message, “and to force the nuclear weapons states to confront the actual effects these weapons will have.”

One point Helfand will be making is that, unlike the Cold War era, small countries with nuclear weapons must be seen as threats to the whole world. That is the case with an imagined nuclear fight between India and Pakistan, which Helfand said is not even the worst-case scenario.

Meantime, the U.S. and Russia continue to maintain immense nuclear weapons stockpiles. Each of the 14 Trident submarines in U.S. fleets carries 96 warheads — enough to bring about the nuclear famine that will be described in Oslo today.

Helfand was formerly chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton and is now co-owner of an urgent care clinic in Springfield called the Family Care Medical Center.

He has written about the medical consequences of nuclear war in the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal.

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.


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