Hiroshima and the bomb - what now?

MAPW National President Dr Margaret Beavis has written the following article for Australian Doctor. The article was published on Friday 14th August 2015. 

Hiroshima and the bomb- what now?

Why is it, 70 years after the appalling destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we still have a nuclear threat hanging over us? The human cost of these weapons was clearly illustrated last week in Australian Doctor. More than 200,000 people were killed, the vast majority of them civilians. Many more were injured, and many lives destroyed by the long term impacts.

Decades of promises to disarm have failed, but now there is new momentum for an effective ban.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPTi) has long promised the elimination of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the world’s nuclear arsenal has shrunk from over 50,000 warheads to 16,000, but in reality the weapons we have now are many times more powerful. This year’s round of NPTi negotiations again failed to produce any concrete steps to disarm.

Existing disarmament measures have steadily lost credibility. After US President Obama and then Russian President Medvedev signed the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the US congress only ratified the Treaty when US$85 billion was allocated to nuclear weapons modernisation. This subsequently more than quadrupled to US$355 billon to be spent in the coming decade1.  Just imagine what these vast funds could achieve in healthcare, education and foreign aid.

Nuclear weapons are the ultimate “weapon of mass destruction”. They obliterate whole cities in a moment.  Less known is their potential for devastating impact on our climate, and subsequent mass starvation.  Even a limited nuclear war – perhaps a breakdown in the tense standoff between Pakistan and India - would create a particulate cloud resulting in a decade-long worldwide nuclear winter2. Detailed modelling of corn, rice and wheat crop yields find lasting reductions, putting up to 2 billion people at risk of death by starvation3.

The International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has declared there is no possible humanitarian response. The doctors, nurses and hospitals are destroyed. As a result they support the only possible approach, which is to work for their elimination.  A ban would be a two-step process. Once made illegal, countries would then work out the nuts and bolts of stockpile destruction and verification.

There is new momentum for a ban. We Australians can feel very proud that ICANi (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) started in Melbourne, conceived by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) and launched in 2007. Prompted by ICANi, three international conferences in the last 2 years have highlighted the appalling human impacts of nuclear weapons. At the most recent conference in December, the South African delegation likened the current situation to that of apartheid; where a minority (the 9 nuclear weapons states) are dominating the majority (the 185 nuclear weapons-free states), and creating global oppression. So far this year 113 countries (and counting) have signed a pledge to ban these weapons.

Also encouraging is the AMA federal council’s support for nuclear weapons abolition. Recently they unanimously supported a resolution for the World Medical Association conference in Russia later this year. Medical advocacy on this important issue is very important.

We have had many, many near misses. Accidents and human errors have been legion. In 1962 there was the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1983 a computer failure signalled a major nuclear attack on the USSR, and only the cool composure of the officer in charge, Stanislav Petrov, delayed retaliation and potentially averted the start of world war three. In 2012 three pacifists, including an 82 yo nun, demonstrated the risks of nuclear weapons theft, by breaking  into the new heavily protected Oak Ridge atomic complex in the US, which stores highly enriched uranium sufficient for thousands of weapons4.

Regardless of arguments as to whether atomic bombs were the only way to stop the Japanese in 1945, the current rise of extremism highlights nuclear weapons’ folly. The aptly named doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) is premised on both sides having some sense of rationality. For suicide bombers and rogue states deterrence makes no sense. Failure to disarm heightens the risk that other countries will acquire nuclear weapons.

As doctors we need to support this movement. We need to “immunise” the world against nuclear war, and the only way is disarmament. We were told we would never get a ban on cluster munitions or land mines, but we did. Please consider supporting ICAN’s work- the next two years are critical. http://www.icanw.org/australia/  Or join us at MAPW.  

As in many areas of medicine, prevention is the best option; in this case it is the only option.


1. Sanger D.G., Broad W.J.  2014 U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms New York Times 21 September 2014 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/us/us-ramping-up-major-renewal-in-nuclear-arms.html accessed 3/8/2105

 2. Toon, O. B., Turco, R.P., Robock, A., Bardeen, C., Oman, L., Stenchikov, G.L.,2007: Atmospheric effects and societal consequences of regional scale nuclear conflicts and acts on individual nuclear terrorism. Atm.Chem.Phys., 7, 1973-2002.

3. Helfand, I. 2013: Nuclear Famine: Two billion people at risk.  Physicians for Social Responsibility.

4. Broad, W.J. 2012 The nun who broke into the nuclear sanctum. August 10 2012 New York Times https://www.google.com/search?q=The+nun+who+broke+into+the+nuclear+sanctum&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8 accessed 3/8/2105