Britain’s New Nuclear Weapons – illegal, indiscriminate, and catastrophic for health

In the foreward to the White Paper on ‘The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent’  presented to Parliament on December 4th the Prime Minister says he ‘is confident that [the resulting] debate will only confirm that maintaining our nuclear deterrent is in the best interests of the country’s future security’. Medact fundamentally disagrees. Our briefing ‘Britain’s New Nuclear Weapons: Illegal, Indiscriminate and Catastrophic for Health’ outlines why. It details the terrible health effects that even a one-kilotonne weapon would cause to reveal any nuclear weapon for what it is: indiscriminate and therefore illegal.


Since the first deployment of its Trident nuclear weapon system in 1994, the UK has upgraded it by developing low yield warheads which may be as low as I kilotonne (1kt). It is most likely that any replacement of Trident will have the same flexibility,1 with the same implication that this weapon would therefore be ‘smart’ and cause fewer civilian deaths and less injury. This briefing challenges the very basis of these developments from a public health perspective. By detailing the consequences of a 1kt nuclear explosion it shows that no nuclear weapon, however low its yield, could ever be discriminate and so is illegal under international law. It exposes the myth of the possible ‘surgical’ use of a low yield nuclear weapon, and shows why the development of small nuclear weapons by a nuclear weapons state is likely to have dire consequences for nuclear proliferation.

This briefing describes why doctors, nurses and other health professionals have consistently opposed nuclear weapons – because any nuclear explosion would be a health catastrophe. It details the effects from blast, heat, initial and residual radiation and the health hazards of the nuclear cycle. Medact concludes that the UK carries significant responsibility for the way it influences events.

Firstly, renewing Trident will remove any moral authority the UK may have in trying to persuade non-nuclear weapon states not to acquire nuclear weapons. Secondly, it will contribute to a new arms race which will bring with it all the dangers of the old: attempted justification of pre-emptive strikes, escalating retaliation scenarios, misinformation about the ‘smartness’ of some weapons, misinformation about the perceived ‘enemy’, blurring of the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, and a massive diversion of resources. The result is the renewed threat of death, injury, sickness and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

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