The use of nuclear weapons would be the ultimate development catastrophe. Apart from destruction by blast and fire, the radiation effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the subsequent atmospheric and underground nuclear tests, and the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents give an indication of the scope of environmental damage that would ensue from even a limited use of nuclear weapons. The damage to the earth’s ecosystem would be severe, and the economic and human impact colossal. If a limited nuclear attack were to lead to a massive exchange or a generalised nuclear war, all life on earth could be endangered.
Radiation causes damage to DNA and may lead to the development of abnormal cells which then form a cancer. At higher levels of exposure to radiation, cell death results. Cells may not be replaced quickly enough and tissues fail to function. Exposure to radiation of the foetus can increase the risk of cancer and of inadequate brain development.
Contamination and waste
During the Cold War, the US and Soviet armed forces – and the other nuclear states – produced enormous amounts of hazardous wastes. As a result of naval accidents there are at least 50 nuclear warheads and 11 nuclear reactors littering the ocean floor.
Heavily irradiated large sites as Chelyabinsk, La Hague, Yucca Mountain, Hanford, Sellafield and Murmansk are likely to be condemned in perpetuity on account of the huge amounts of nuclear materials (and especially waste) they contain.
Another problem are nuclear accidents such as those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. However there have been many other nuclear ‘incidents’ giving rise to serious concern. And not everything is reported.
The implications for development can only be assessed very indirectly, but at the least we can say that there will be costs due to additional medical care, and loss of productive employment, as well as the costs of environmental clean-up. These are particularly important in relatively poor societies like Kazakhstan and the Pacific Islands.
The full cost for the total dismantlement and destruction of nuclear weapons, disposal of fissile material and cleanup of nuclear sites is impossible to determine, and depends on a number of policy decisions including the speed of destruction, the types and complexity of verification systems and the method of fissile material disposition. There is also the close inter-connection with nuclear energy production. Regardless of the cost, it will be cheaper to embark on a complete nuclear disarmament program than maintain current programs of nuclear weapons maintenance and modernisation, which merely delay these costs into the future and add to the bill for extra weapon dismantlement and clean-up.
The nine Nuclear Weapon States (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, India) continue to spend about $105 billion annually on their arsenals. This includes stockpile maintenance, research and development.
For a summary of 75 years of activism (1945-2020), download a presentation by IPB’s Arielle Denis here.
The Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) bans nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in space. It was signed and entered into effect in 1963. The prohibition does not include underground tests.
The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions whether for military nor for peaceful purposes. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996 and was signed by 71 States in the same year. As of February 2012, the Treaty has 176 signatory states, of whom 125 have ratified. Unfortunately, the CTBT has still not entered into force because ratifications of some nuclear weapon States are pending, notably the USA.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. Its objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, to achieve total nuclear disarmament and to promote cooperation in the use of nuclear energy. It has built into it provisions which authorise any state to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, while forbidding the production of atomic weapons. However, as is clear from the ongoing crises over Iran’s and N. Korea’s programmes, it is extremely difficult for the IAEA inspectors to determine whether a clandestine weapons programme is indeed being pursued.
Several civil society campaigns have been working on a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) which bans the nuclear weapons and ensures their elimination. The NWC would prohibit the development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons as well as the production of fissile material. A Model Nuclear Weapons Convention was published in 1977, but so far none of the nuclear weapons-possessors have shown willingness to negotiate such an instrument.
Another important initiative was the World Court Project, initiated in 1992 by IPB in conjunction with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and the International Organization of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA). This project was a world-wide campaign that resulted in an historic opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in July 1996. The ICJ ruled that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally illegal, and that states have an obligation to conclude negotiations on their elimination. The Advisory Opinion was a milestone in the struggle to abolish nuclear weapons, since its specific arguments lend powerful support to the existing moral and political arguments for total nuclear disarmament. The Advisory Opinion has significantly eroded the legitimacy of the nuclear arms race.
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, UK
Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP)
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation Organization (INESAP)
International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility
International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA)
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)
Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs (Gensuikin)
Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo)
Middle Powers Initiative (MPI)
Mouvement de la Paix
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, USA
Reaching Critical Will
Western States Legal Foundation (WSLF), USA
World Court Project, UK
World Information Service on Energy (WISE), The Netherlands