LONDON – On August 6, 1945, the first uranium bomb was exploded above Hiroshima with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT. A total of 140,000 people died that year as a result of the blast and fireball that engulfed the city, falling debris, and the radioactive fallout. Three days later, Nagasaki was shattered by a plutonium bomb that matched the design of a bomb that the United States had tested in the New Mexico desert three weeks earlier.
The success of that test prompted the Manhattan Project’s lead scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, to reflect that he had become a “destroyer of worlds.” Over the next 40 years, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China) amassed roughly 70,000 nuclear weapons, with a combined explosive force of 15 million tons of TNT.
This October will mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev managed – by luck as much as judgment – to pull back from the brink of nuclear war. Miscalculation and saber rattling led to several more near-misses before activism by civil-society groups triggered a cascade of nuclear-arms reductions, reinforced by the Cold War’s end.
In the 1980’s, joint studies by US and Soviet scientists showed that a full-scale nuclear war between the Cold War’s superpowers would cause environmental devastation so severe that the ensuing “nuclear winter” could extinguish life on earth. These studies, along with public pressure, motivated Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to reach out to US President Ronald Reagan in 1986, resulting in some of the most comprehensive arms-control proposals in history.
Nevertheless, on Hiroshima’s 67th anniversary – and more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – thousands of nuclear weapons still endanger life on earth – a fact that most people prefer to ignore. Moreover, the threat of further proliferation from countries like Iran and North Korea have shifted the public and official attention from existing stockpiles.
To be sure, Iran’s accelerating uranium enrichment program and associated nuclear- and missile-related activities warrant concern. Indeed, whether or not Iran chooses to weaponize, its nuclear capabilities could transform the Middle East, not least because of its nuclear-armed neighbors – Pakistan, India, and Israel – which, together, might possess 300-400 weapons. Still, Iran has no nuclear weapons, and the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called them haraam (religiously forbidden under Islam).
The majority of nuclear weapons – nearly 19,000 – belong to the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While all-out nuclear war may be less likely now, these arsenals – and the doctrines and operations attached to their deployment – threaten to inflict serious long-term damage on the global environment, which would be true even if their deployment were confined to one region.
Indeed, new research finds that 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear bombs dropped on urban centers in India and Pakistan would jeopardize more than one-seventh of the world’s population. In the short term, the fireballs, resulting firestorms, and widespread radioactive fallout would kill tens of millions of people. Moreover, the explosions would propel millions of tons of sooty smoke into the upper atmosphere, causing skies to darken, temperatures around the world to fall by an average of 1.25 degrees centigrade, and rainfall to be disrupted.
These effects would persist for a decade, causing a global famine affecting more than one billion people. Infectious epidemics and further conflict would exact an additional toll. According to the Red Cross, if nuclear weapons were used today, survivors’ needs would utterly overwhelm global humanitarian-aid capacities.
This limited regional scenario (accounting for 0.04% of the total explosive power of today’s arsenals) recognizes the fallibility of nuclear deterrence, as well as the possible recurrence of the risk factors that led to the Cuban missile crisis, including miscalculation, miscommunication, military escalation, and, potentially, rogue commanders. Growing “cyber warfare” capacities in many countries add an extra dimension of volatility to an already dangerous mix.
These studies clearly demonstrate that even a limited, regional nuclear war would have unprecedented health and humanitarian consequences worldwide – including for people living in “nuclear-weapons-free zones,” such as Africa, Latin America, Central and Southeast Asia, and the Pacific.
On Hiroshima’s 67th anniversary, world leaders should remember the devastation wrought by two relatively small nuclear bombs, and recognize that a comprehensive treaty banning nuclear weapons is urgent, necessary, and achievable. As long as countries hold on to these inhumane weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and nuclear threats will persist. Complacency is not an option; negotiations must begin now.