Nuclear Weapons Are a Health Issue

As a physician-led advocacy group, we consider it our professional responsibility to inform the public and policy makers of the catastrophic human health impacts of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons Lead to Serious Health Problems

Every part of the nuclear system — from mining to development to testing to accidents — endangers human health.

Many nuclear weapon sites in the US have the “potential for significant radioactive contamination,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, exposing surrounding communities to dangerous radiation.

Mining of Radioactive Materials Poisons Water and Costs Lives

Uranium mining poses ongoing significant health risk to workers and surrounding communities: in Vermont, drinking water and soils have been found to be contaminated due to legacy uranium mining waste seepage. Indigenous communities surrounding former nuclear weapons sites such as Hanford in Washington State have suffered disproportionately from cancer and other serious health issues due to contamination of rivers and groundwater with radioactive waste.

Nuclear Testing Threatens Health

Five nuclear scientists were killed in Russia during a nuclear test in 2019. The accident released radioactivity to the surrounding community sufficient to require evacuation of residents.

In the US, those who live downwind from nuclear test sites have been sickened and developed cancer, thyroid disease, and other serious health issues from the radioactive emissions these activities released into the atmosphere. According to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, 2.4 million cancer deaths will ultimately result from exposure to radioactive material from the nuclear tests carried out between 1945 to 1980.

Both the peoples of the Marshall Islands, as well as the US troops involved in those tests, continue to suffer from cancer associated with the 67 nuclear test blasts that were carried out over 12 years in the 1940s and 50s on the islands: if the force of those blasts were averaged over that time, it works out to an estimated 1.6 Hiroshimas per day.

Scientists and Nuclear Experts Warn That We Are Closer to Nuclear Catastrophe Than We Have Been in the Past 30 Years.

The bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were framed at the time as an effective way to stop World War II, launched instead the most intense militarization in human history.

Tensions are rising between nuclear armed countries, and regional conflicts have led to the raiding of unguarded nuclear arsenals and deadly proxy wars. The International Atomic Energy Agency has documented illegal trafficking, loss and theft of nuclear material since 1993.

Thousands of nuclear weapons accidents, near-misses, and miscalculations have brought us to the brink of nuclear war again and again.

Replacing the Entire U.S. Nuclear Weapons Arsenal Diverts Funds from Investment in Public Health

The United States has been spending a planned trillion dollars rebuilding our entire nuclear weapons arsenal. The money stream going to the Department of Energy could instead be directed toward saving human lives. Those funds could subsidize salaries for those who have lost jobs during this pandemic and finance other critical needs such as rebuilding public health infrastructure throughout the country, improving health equity and providing urgently needed housing, clean water, food assistance programs, healthcare and education to our communities.

This program is also creating massive nuclear waste as older weapons are retired, further exacerbating the ongoing crisis of unsafe nuclear waste disposal.

Developing Nuclear Weapons Is a Dead End

The Back from the Brink initiative calls on the US to lead a global campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons by entering into negotiations with the other eight nuclear armed states for a verifiable time bound plan to dismantle their nuclear arsenals.  It also calls on the US to implement four interim measures as these negotiations proceed: to renounce first use of nuclear weapons, to end the sole authority of the President to launch nuclear war, to take our weapons off hair trigger alert and to abandon plans to spend $1.7 trillion enhancing every aspect of the nuclear arsenal.

There is a mistaken belief that nuclear arms protect us and that if we disarm we will be at the mercy of those who haven’t done so. For this reason, our call for nuclear arms abolition is not unilateral: we call on the US to recognize that nuclear weapons are a threat to our security and to negotiate a multilateral agreement with the other eight nuclear armed states. This is the goal of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that went into effect January 22, 2021.

Of the nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, 90% are in the hands of the United States and Russia. Nearly 2,000 are on hair trigger alert, meaning they could be launched within minutes.

Nuclear weapons have not acted as a deterrent to nuclear war. According to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the reason we have avoided nuclear war is not wise leaders or sound policy but because “we lucked out.” We cannot put our faith in luck to avoid nuclear conflict. Back from the Brink pushes back on the false narrative that nuclear weapons protect us–and instead, advocates to protect us from the devastating health impacts of nuclear weapons.

A Nuclear War Could End Life on Earth.

Modern nuclear weapons are up to 50 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single nuclear explosion over a city like Boston would kill hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of minutes, creating an inferno far worse than the apocalyptic wildfires in California and Australia in 2020.

As a GBPSR report documents,  limited nuclear war, as might take place between India and Pakistan, could kill 100 million people in the first week and cause enough climate disruption to trigger a global famine, putting two billion people at risk of starvation. A large-scale war between the US and Russia would devastate every major city in both countries in a single afternoon, killing approximately 200 million people and destroying infrastructure essential to human survival.

Such a war would also put 150 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere, leading to a so-called nuclear winter: temperatures would drop across the globe an average of 14°F. In the interior of North America temperatures would drop 45°F — levels not seen since the last ice age. Ecosystems would collapse, food production would stop, the vast majority of humanity would starve and civilization as we know it would end.

Preventable Deaths

Like the deaths from climate change and COVID-19, the deaths from nuclear weapons development and deployment are preventable deaths. We can eliminate nuclear weapons, as the international ban on nuclear weapons that went into effect on January 22, 2021 requires. We can decontaminate the current and former nuclear sites that create a heavy health burden on local communities. We can commit to creating systems that value and acknowledge the interconnection of all of us. The approval of current treaties between Russia and the US placing limits on the number of nuclear weapons is a hopeful first step. As physicians, scientists, health professionals and community members, we must continue to advocate for the safe and rapid global disarmament of nuclear weapons.

TED Talk by GBPSR Board Member, Dr. Ira Helfand

As health professionals, we recognize that any detonation of a nuclear weapon, whether by accident or design, would cause devastation and suffering almost beyond imagine. Our motto is: “Prevention is the only cure.”  PSR’s Dr. Ira Helfand spoke at TEDx Vail (Jan. 8, 2016) on this threat and what we can do to eliminate it.”

Noam Chomsky: Internationalism or Extinction

Lecture on the twin threats of nuclear war and climate change. (2018)