A safer and healthier world without nuclear weapons
By Bjorn Hilt
[An address by the Chair of IPPNW’s Board to the 2010 Nobel Laureates Summit in Hiroshima, Japan.]
Dear Nobel peace price laureates, representatives of organizations that have been awarded the Nobel Peace Price and distinguished friends. Thank you for letting me use a few moments of your time this morning to tell you why we medical doctors feel so helpless and are so scared when we are facing the horrible effects of nuclear weapons and the threat that they pose. We have been afraid ever since doctor Sasaki of Hiroshima and doctor Junod from the Red Cross were among the first doctors to witness and describe the horrible scenes right after a nuclear attack and also were the first doctors who felt the professional impotence when they faced the overwhelming human suffering of the victims without being able to help. Medical doctors from more than sixty countries have later joined together in International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in order to contribute to the prevention of such a disaster ever again.
But first let me also devote attention to the fact that we are now gathered here in the city of Hiroshima where humankind for ever will be reminded of the disaster that happened here and in Nagasaki sixty-five years ago. Sincere thanks and deep respect go to the Hibakusha, who will never let us forget, to the children of Hiroshima with their suffering and drawings of the disaster that make such impression when shown all over the world, and to Mayor Akiba and all the other mayors who have joined him in Mayors for Peace in the call for nuclear abolition before 2020.
Even though we say that nuclear weapons must never be used again, I am sorry to say that in my mind nuclear weapons are used every day by the nuclear weapons addicted states when they continue to threaten others with extermination, when they terrorise humans who with good reason are afraid of nuclear weapons, and when this minority of states hold the rest of us hostage with the threat of complete and final genocide. And you heard me right, as a medical doctor I am used to put diagnoses to conditions, and I find it correct to call the states that still possess nuclear weapons for nuclear weapons addicted states. That is because their leaders from some strange reason seem to believe that these weapons are so indispensible for their security that they cannot live without them, while the only thing they lead to is insecurity both for their own countries and for others. Addiction to nuclear weapons is a very serious and lethal condition where the only cure is to get rid of the problem. It is established medical knowledge that if you really want to quit an addiction you must do it right away and not perhaps in some remote future.
The only special thing with nuclear weapons is their effects, capable of total devastation of whole cities and of killing thousands and thousands of civilians in the matter of almost no time. In that sense nuclear weapons are not comparable to any other weapons we know of. Nuclear weapons kill indiscriminately and destroy instantly by the blast, by the heat, and by ionizing radiation. If we only take the heat, everything ignites instantly from heat radiation within kilometres from the explosion. I don’t recommend you to try to find out on your own skin how warm it is when something ignites from heat radiation, because burns are the most painful wounds and very hard to treat. In case of a nuclear explosion there is no capacity anywhere to treat the vast numbers the serious burns that will occur. In the whole US they only have a few hundred hospital beds for treatment of serious burns and the situation is the same or worse all over. Then there is the ionizing radiation, which is both a short term and long term killer when nuclear weapons are used. Acute radiation disease develops within hours to weeks after exposure with dramatically reduced blood cell counts and bleedings from every opening of the body and under the skin without doctors being able to do anything about it. For the carcinogenic long term effects of ionizing radiation there is no safe lower limit of exposure, as has been demonstrated in the tragic full scale experiment that the Hibakushas are victims of, and that has contributed such bad empiric knowledge that we could well have been without.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War has also documented the impacts of nuclear weapons testing and nuclear energy production on communities in Australia, India, Africa, Russia, Europe, and the Americas, where uranium mining and processing have expropriated and contaminated scarce drinking water and added to the disease burden of vulnerable people. Decades of nuclear testing had tragic impact on the health of marginalized people – the poorest of the poor – in the South Pacific, Siberia, and the American Southwest. The radioactive contaminants that linger in the atmosphere from the days of above-ground nuclear testing are still causing too many new cases of thyroid cancer. We call these late effects of the nuclear testing “destruction without detonation.”
Another serious effect of nuclear weapons that we became increasingly aware of due to meteorological research during the eighties, was the so called nuclear winter where it was unveiled that a major nuclear exchange with strategic weapons would lead to such changes in the atmosphere that most parts of the world would become uninhabitable not only from radioactive pollution, but also from cooling. Today we have the results of recent research that shows that even a limited regional exchange of about one hundred small Hiroshima sized weapons, and please excuse me for calling Hiroshima sized weapons small, but that is the cruel reality of today, would lead to such amounts of fast spreading soot and particulate matter in the atmosphere that within a few weeks would lead to a long lasting global fall in temperature of about ten degrees Celsius, with dramatic consequences for our ability to grow sufficient amounts of food. Doctors have of course limited knowledge of meteorology, but we know too well the global limitations that we already have in food supply, and our immediate vulnerability in case of shortages. The new research shows that such a situation after a limited nuclear exchange would probably lead to global famine with starvation deaths of as many as one billion people with the heaviest burden, as always, on countries in the global south. These results have been published in scientific journals, and will be extended in a paper that will soon occur in a top ranked medical journal called The Lancet. I would be happy to provide you with all necessary literature references.
Distinguished friends, the addiction to nuclear weapons that some states still suffer from is a lethal one that is too dangerous for all of us to be allowed to continue, and therefore has to come to a halt. Let us be inpatient to help and force the states that still cling to their weapons of mass extermination to get rid of their burden and to become nuclear weapons free. Let us walk out hand in hand with the Hibakushas and today’s children of Hiroshima and all other children in the world, and the Mayors for Peace, trade unions, churches, doctors, lawyers, artists, other professional groups and NGOs and demand an immediate ban for all nations on the development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use, and the threat of use of nuclear weapons; namely a badly needed Nuclear Weapons Convention. Together with a vast majority of states, we, the people, can achieve our vital goals of a safer and healthier world without nuclear weapons, and that even in our lifetime.