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The Harmful Risk of Nuclear Weapons

Asheville Citizen Times, August 15, 2019 Guest Column,
Terry Clark MD Chairman Western NC Chapter PSR

The Harmful Risk of Nuclear Weapons

August is a month of remembrance of the risk for catastrophic harm of nuclear weapons. It is essential to remind ourselves what can happen from the use of nuclear weapons and to deal realistically with the threat.

We saw the effects of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two relatively small yield nuclear weapons promptly killed more than 100,000 people. Yet, 74 years later, we face an increased risk of the use of nuclear weapons. Progress has been made, perhaps best typified by the collaborative work approximately 30 years ago between the United States and Russia. Their work led to the reduction of the combined number of nuclear warheads from 50,000 to the current count of 14,000 warheads. The key to this accomplishment was the trust built between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan.

Currently there is an erosion of trust, accompanied by an increase in threatening rhetoric that implies that several nations, including the United States, consider the use of nuclear weapons as a reasonable option. The current US defense policy relies more on threats and punishments rather than informed and skillful diplomacy.

There is an increased risk of the use of nuclear weapons today due to threats of their use in conflicts between nations, decision making systems that rely on world leaders with questionable judgment and the misinterpretation of computerized warning systems Frighteningly, these weapons have been close to use due to errors of misinterpretation of radar signals, on one occasion mistaking a weather satellite and another time, flock of geese, for incoming missiles.

We have hundreds of nuclear weapons sitting in silos in the Midwest, vulnerable to an all-out attack by Russia. It may be difficult in the few minutes allocated for the president to decide if a warning is a computer glitch or a real attack. The decision to fire is solely made by the United States president.

In addition to the effects of the explosive power, fire storms and radiation, recent studies have established that the use of even 100 nuclear weapons in a regional conflict, such as between India and Pakistan would kick up massive amounts of dust into the atmosphere, blocking the sun, causing crop failures for several years and starvation and death of millions of people.

There has been a large number of close calls of the use of nuclear weapons over the years. In spite of this, the public and elected officials predominately have a flat response to the threat of their use.

Nuclear weapons are one of the three types of weapons of mass destruction, the others being chemical and biological, both of which are illegal and which the public consider abhorrent. This discrepancy is being addressed by the establishment of the 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty is based on the devastating humanitarian consequences of the detonation of nuclear weapons. The treaty was signed by 122 of the non-nuclear weaponized nations, so far the nuclear weapons possessing states have shunned the treaty.

At the current pace, we are leaving this mess for our children and grandchildren. Each of us needs to overcome our denial as a first step and urge legislators to take meaningful action to decrease the risk of nuclear weapons. The Western North Carolina Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility calls upon on congress to lead this effort to prevent nuclear war by: 

-Renouncing the option of using nuclear weapons first;
-Ending the sole, unchecked authority of any president to launch a nuclear attack, except in the scenario that the United States is attacked with nuclear weapons;
-Taking United States nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert;
- Canceling the trillion dollar plan to replace our entire arsenal with enhanced weapons; and
- Actively pursuing a verifiable agreement among nuclear-armed nations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

There would be no meaningful medical response to nuclear war thus we must prevent what we cannot cure.

Terry Clark, MD

Dr. Clark is the Chairman of the
Western North Carolina Chapter
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Mission Statement

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.