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Nuclear weapons threaten our health


Citizen-Times, Sunday, 10/01/2017  Pag.E06

We all have recently witnessed that President Trump is quite willing to use or threaten to use conventional weapons. What is concerning is his seeming lack of understanding of the hard-fought nuclear regime that the nuclear weapon states have laboriously negotiated over the last three decades and the very nature of these weapons themselves.

Beginning with the Reagan-Gorbachev summits in the late 1980s when they sought the total abolition of nuclear weapons, through the New Start Treaty of 2010, there has been a reduction from 60,000 to 15,000 weapons in the arsenals of Russia and the U.S. This represents only a small reduction in the great danger that we face from them. Trump, even before his inauguration, tweeted that the U.S. should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and “since we have a nuclear triad why can’t we use it.” He has also voiced the wish to be “unpredictable” with these weapons.

It is no wonder that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in mid- January moved its Doomsday Clock half a minute closer toward catastrophe. This is the closest it has been since 1953. Hopefully we will work closely with China to prevent a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula and an escalation to involve Japan not to mention a U.S. base in the western Pacific, Hawaii or our West Coast.

Before we allow President Trump and our profit-oriented political-military- industrial complex to lead us into a new arms race with Russia or possibly China, we should all understand what the consequences of nuclear war would be. In the nearly three decades since the end of the Cold War, many do not seem to understand what a catastrophe this would be.

Consider first the weapons. The U.S and Russia each have about 1,500 actively deployed nuclear weapons as well as reserves. The weapons are deployed as a triad on land-based intercontinentalmissiles, on submarines and on airplanes. The destructive power of these weapons is measured in kilotons. Each kiloton is equal to the explosive power of 1,000 tons of TNT. The 12.5-kiloton bomb that exploded over Hiroshima killed 100,000 people and leveled the city. Compared to the 300- to 800-kiloton bombs that are deployed in today’s arsenals, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was a baby-bomb. The other nuclear weapon states have smaller numbers of bombs but just as deadly.

When one of these hellish devices explodes, here is the cascade of effects: the initial blast wave, the thermal wave and the radiation burst, destroying and incinerating everyone and everything for many miles around. The feeling has been expressed that it would be better to perish immediately than to suffer painful life-threatening burns, if you happened to be on the periphery of the zone of incineration, for there would be no medical response. The fallout would be carried downwind causing many more deaths from radiation sickness including damaged immune systems and subsequent fatal infections. In the even darker scenario, if as few as 100 bombs exploded over densely-populated cities, soot from fires would enter the upper atmosphere causing global cooling for years and so compromise food production that up to two billion people, already on a subsistence diet, could starve. A larger exchange with Russia would result in the end of civilization and life as we know it. These facts are scientifically validated. Nuclear war poses a grave and present danger to all of us.

In the U.S. only the president has authority to order a nuclear strike and yet the Constitution gives Congress alone the power to declare war. Since a nuclear first strike is an act of war our policy must change. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Ted Lieu of California have introduced legislation [Senate Bill 3400-HR Bill 669] that would not allow the president to launch a first strike without a prior declaration of war by Congress. This change would be a small but critical step toward sane management of nuclear weapons leading to ultimate elimination. The U.S. and Russia must renew diplomatic efforts, stop plans to further enhance their arsenals at a cost of a trillion or more U.S. dollars, take their weapons off dangerous high-alert status and not do stupid things like falling over a nuclear cliff.


Bert Crain, M.D. is a member of Western North Carolina Physicians for Social Responsibility. For more see and


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PREVENTING WHAT WE CANNOT CURE: Physicians for Social Responsibility is the medical and public health voice working to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and the toxic degradation of the environment.