Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

An Illusion of Safety: Challenges of nuclear weapons detonations for UN humanitarian coordination and response

UNIDIR has this week published its latest study on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.    An Illusion of Safety: Challenges of nuclear weapons detonations for United Nations humanitarian coordination and response” is now available on the Institute's website.
The new study examines one of the conclusions of an international conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapon detonations held in Oslo, Norway, in March 2013 that it is "unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected. Moreover, it might not be possible to establish such capacities, even if it were attempted.”
UNIDIR’s study was carried out in cooperation with UNDP and OCHA and includes a foreword by Helen Clark and Valerie Amos, the heads of those two UN agencies respectively. The study describes the current humanitarian system, and considers challenges for its activation and operation in the face of a range of plausible, illustrative nuclear weapon detonation scenarios.
As a scoping exercise the study identifies specific issues that warrant further policy and operational attention in order to enhance civilian protection from nuclear weapons. It suggests steps the humanitarian system could take to better plan for such eventualities, and it reinforces the importance of preventing nuclear weapons from ever being used again in populated areas—whether deliberately or accidentally.
Even if the probability of a nuclear weapon detonation event is viewed as low compared with other sudden-onset disasters, it remains a real one. There are as many as 17,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine states, and growing evidence of accidents, mishaps, and near misses since their invention. The prospect of use of single or multiple nuclear weapons by a state, whether deliberately or inadvertently, cannot be excluded. A single nuclear detonation in an urban area by a non-state armed group is another possibility. 
Nuclear weapon detonations could occur in populated or remote areas, with differing implications in terms of harm to human life, infrastructure, and the environment. The consequences of even one nuclear weapon detonated in or near a population centre would be sufficiently disastrous that the United Nations-coordinated humanitarian system could be called upon to assist the victims.
UNIDIR’s study indicates that this would pose a number of serious practical and policy challenges for the humanitarian system. Problems range from the particular characteristics of nuclear detonations such as prompt radiation and radioactive fallout to large numbers of injured people with multiple trauma, serious burn injuries, and radiation-related illness, to widespread fear and disruption, and a low current level of awareness and planning for response. There are inadequate specific procedures and systems appropriate to nuclear weapon detonations compared to preparedness for civil nuclear accidents - from which such detonations differ in significant ways. Protection of humanitarian personnel is highlighted as a particular issue of concern.
In drawing attention attention to the immense challenges of preparedness and response to nuclear weapon detonations in populated areas, the study reinforces previous findings, such as those of the WHO in the 1980s, that the only really effective response to the public health effects of the use of nuclear weapons lies in preventing that use. 

Fuller details of the main findings of UNIDIR’s study will be listed in a separate posting on this site.

An earlier UNIDIR publication, “Viewing Nuclear Weapons through a Humanitarian Lens”  can also be found on the Institute’s website.

John Borrie and Tim Caughley