Ira Helfand, MD: Halt the nuclear weapons spending spree

Published: 8/4/2016 8:25:33 PM

 

This year’s 71st anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings should serve as an urgent reminder of the momentous decision about nuclear policy that faces our country today.

The international community is working for a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The Obama administration is opposing that effort and proposing instead that the U.S. spend $1 trillion over the next three decades to maintain and “improve” our nuclear arsenal.

Will we, as a people, allow our government to follow this dangerous policy?

Several weeks ago, during the coup attempt in Turkey, power was cut to the U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik, Turkey, and the base was essentially locked down for many hours.

The U.S. stores some 50 hydrogen bombs at Incirlik a short distance from the Syrian border, and the disruption of normal activity there set off alarm bells throughout the international community. What is the U.S. doing with an arsenal that can destroy modern civilization parked at a location that is so terribly vulnerable? This incident came amid an intense national debate about the stability and judgment of a major party candidate for president who may end up with control of the nuclear codes after the election this fall.

Even before these latest reminders of the immense dangers posed by nuclear weapons, fears of the growing threat of nuclear war had fueled a robust global movement, largely ignored here in the United States, to eliminate these weapons once and for all.

The governments of states that do not possess nuclear weapons are reacting with alarm to the increasing danger that these weapons will be used and will cause what the Red Cross calls catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

The rising tension between the US/NATO and Russia, the increasingly unstable situation in Korea, and the ever present danger of war between India and Pakistan have all contributed to this growing sense of a world at risk to a degree we have not seen since the end of the Cold War.

Combined with this realization that nuclear weapons might actually be used, a growing body of scientific and medical research has shed new light on just how catastrophic the effects of these weapons would be. Studies by several teams of climate scientists have shown that a large-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would not only kill hundreds of millions of people in those countries but would plunge the world into a decade-long nuclear winter.

Temperatures across the planet would drop an average of 13 degrees Fahrenheit. In the northern hemisphere there would not be a single day free of frost for three years: the temperature would drop below freezing for at least some part of every day. Under these conditions food production would stop and the vast majority of the human race would starve.

Equally alarming, their studies show that even a very limited nuclear war, as might take place between India and Pakistan, would cause similar, though less intense, global climate disruption. The cooling and drying that would follow such a limited war would not cause a full scale nuclear winter, but it would disrupt food production around the world and trigger a “nuclear famine” that would put some 2 billion people at risk and destroy modern civilization as we know it.

Faced with this existential threat, a strong majority of the UN member states voted last year to set up an Open Ended Working Group to recommend new legally binding measures to help achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons.

I had the privilege of leading the OEWG’s discussion on the medical consequences of nuclear war this May in Geneva, where a majority of the states declared their support for a new treaty to prohibit the possession of these weapons. It is expected that the final session of the working group, meeting now in Geneva, will affirm that position and recommend that the UN General Assembly establish a forum to negotiate such a treaty when it meets in New York in the fall.

We should encourage our government to change course. The U.S. should abandon the trillion dollar nuclear spending spree that it is planning. Instead, we should support and lead this effort to ban nuclear weapons as the next step towards a nuclear weapons convention among the nuclear weapons states that sets up a detailed, enforceable, verifiable process to eliminate them, and the threat they pose to all humanity.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki have shown us what nuclear weapons will do. We have been warned. Whether we heed that warning is up to us.

Dr. Ira Helfand of Northampton is past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. He practices medicine at the Family Care Medical Center in Springfield.




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