Disarmament Insight


Monday, 4 March 2013

The Oslo conference on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons detonation

Dr. Patricia Lewis from Chatham House (and former UNIDIR Director) addresses the Oslo Conference explaining how nuclear weapon detonations work.

Earlier this month North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear weapon test. Beyond questions about the secretive North Korean leadership's rationale or the geopolitical equation to respond to this latest crisis, the bomb test underlined something else. The world is more interdependent and crowded than when nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. What would be the humanitarian consequences be today of the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a populated area like a mega-city? And could the international community respond effectively to help those affected if it happened?

In 1987, the World Health Organization concluded that the “only approach to the treatment of health effects of nuclear warfare is primary prevention, that is, the prevention of nuclear war.” Since then, these questions have received little in the way of studied attention at the global level.

Existential dread about a civilization-ending nuclear war between the United States and the-then Soviet Union has receded. Instead, when considered at all, the risk of a nuclear weapons detonation is most often seen today through the prism of terrorism. Yet there are a number of other ways in which detonation of nuclear weapons could occur.

One risk is sheer mishap. The litany of accidents, near misses and incidents involving nuclear weapons safety and security is extensive, even based on what the world knows from declassified US military records. And those are only the ones we know of. The actual number is almost certainly higher, and in all the nuclear-armed states.

That large numbers of nuclear weapons are still kept ready to launch on hair-trigger alert more than two decades after the Cold War ended invites the prospect of accidental launch. As an influential 2008 study by the nuclear scholars George Perkovich and James Acton observed, “so long as large ready-to-launch nuclear arsenals exist (and especially if more states acquire nuclear weapons), the risk that these weapons will one day be detonated is not negligible”.

Combined with misperception between nuclear-armed powers during crises, this could result in nuclear weapons detonation. Fatigue, bias and straight-up errors have their parts to play. After the Cold War ended, new information came to light indicating that the world came even closer to nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis than previously thought. In one instance, the exhausted commander of a Soviet submarine surrounded by US warships and running out of air ordered a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo to be made combat-ready. As Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon put it, “restraint is not a pre-determined outcome because one cannot predict how human beings will perform in various hypothetical circumstances.”

North Korea's secretiveness and unpredictability springs to mind here. But there are other situations of concern. For instance, India and Pakistan both have nuclear arsenals. The proximity of their armed forces along disputed lines of control means there might be little scope next time a rapidly escalating crisis occurs for political leaders to contain escalation to regional nuclear conflict.

Recently, Alan Robock and other scientists studied a scenario involving India and Pakistan each attacking each other’s cities with 50 Hiroshima bomb-sized nuclear weapons. Using climate change and other models, some of the human and environmental consequences were estimated. It turns out that this “limited” exchange would be on a par with predictions for death, disruption and nuclear winter predicted during the Cold War for a full-scale nuclear conflict between the two superpowers. These scientists concluded that even if one side’s attack did not meet with nuclear retaliation, radioactive fall-out and other forms of blowback would constitute “self-assured destruction”.

The direct death and destruction of nuclear weapons detonations would be horrific. People would be killed or horribly injured in large numbers. And the destruction of population centers due to the indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons within their very large zones of effect would extend to obliteration of hospitals, clinics, transportation and other infrastructure necessary to treat and care for the many injured or dying and traumatized victims.

Nuclear weapon detonations would also cast radioactive materials into the high atmosphere, with implications for public health outside the bombed zone. Nuclear attacks on urban areas would create huge amounts of airborne soot, blocking sunlight and significantly reducing global crop production for up to a decade. On top of the millions of refugees and internally displaced people possibly created by the bombing, the world could have to contend with mass starvation.

Then there are the challenges of restoring global economic and technological infrastructure. The 2011 Japan earthquake-tsunami-Fukushima reactor disaster offered a foretaste of the problems caused by any kind of sudden global supply chain disruption. Detonation of nuclear weapons would create a situation dwarfing this, with knock-on effects on trade and the livelihoods of people all over the world.

It means that the consequences of a nuclear weapons detonation are a global concern. With this in mind, the Norwegian government decided to convene an international conference in Oslo to begin to discuss how well the international community is prepared (or not). Norway invited all governments, UN humanitarian agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and selected civil society experts, making this a truly global event. 132 governments have confirmed their participation.

The Conference began today, and I blog this from the meeting room itself. It follows a lively civil society forum held this last weekend in Oslo, organized by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Although not connected to the Oslo Conference, that forum underlined the high degree of civil society interest in how the inter-governmental conference gets on.

The Oslo conference is a first step. All governments, including President Obama’s administration, should welcome it as a means to focus minds on the practical risks nuclear weapons pose, and what is required to address these dangers. As Obama himself said in Prague in April 2009,  “One nuclear weapon exploded in one city—be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague—could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be—for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.”

However, the US government - along with China, France, Russia and the UK - has shunned the Conference. They claim it is a distraction.

This looks weak to many. Other nuclear weapon-possessing states (India and Pakistan) are attending the Oslo Conference. And it has handed activists a small victory: they ask why nuclear weapon states claiming to adhere to international rules including humanitarian law don't want to talk about the consequences. It is a good question, indeed, in view of these massively destructive weapons.

John Borrie and Tim Caughley