The Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons have a unique and horrifying humanitarian impact. The only natural events to which a nuclear explosion can be compared are massive earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and similar disasters that result in thousands of casualties and cause catastrophic environmental damage. Unlike natural disasters, however, the consequences of nuclear weapons use—including lethal harm from radiation and climate disruption to millions of people who are not party to the conflicts in which they are used—are the result of human decisions. They can be prevented by a human decision to eliminate nuclear weapons and to ban them from ever being produced again.

The Medical, Environmental, and Humanitarian Facts

Why are nuclear weapons are in a class by themselves, and why do we have to consider them separately from other weapons that kill and destroy on a large scale?

  • First, even a single nuclear explosion over a city can kill tens of thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of people immediately. The casualties of a nuclear war in which even a small fraction of today’s arsenals are used would reach into the tens of millions.
  • Second, nuclear weapons eradicate the social infrastructure required for recovery from conflict. Roads and transportation systems, hospitals and pharmacies, fire fighting equipment, and communications would all lie in rubble throughout a zone of complete destruction extending for miles.
  • Third, nuclear weapons explosions have extreme and long-lasting environmental consequences, including disruption of the Earth’s climate and agricultural productivity.
  • What makes nuclear weapons uniquely abhorrent is the ionizing radiation they release as a result of the uncontrolled chain reaction of fissile materials. Exposure to ionizing radiation causes both acute (immediate) and long term health effects.
  • Finally, there are numerous ways in which nuclear weapons cause extensive harm to health and the environment even if they are not used in war. The front end of the nuclear chain—the mining and processing of uranium that provides the fuel for nuclear weapons—has devastating health consequences for those who work in the mines and mills and for their families. There is also an enormous diversion of resources into the research and development, production, and deployment of warheads and their delivery systems, at the expense of real human and social needs that are inexcusably underfunded. World spending on nuclear weapons surpasses $100 billion every year.

By contrast, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has estimated that it would take $135 billion to fully achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Instead, each of the nine nuclear-weapons states is engaging in large, expensive programs to modernize its nuclear forces and to ensure that they will continue to endanger us all for decades to come.

The Diplomatic Context

At the five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010, the NPT member states said repeatedly that failure to act on nuclear disarmament risked “catastrophic humanitarian consequences.”

In November 2011, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement also referred to catastrophic humanitarian consequences when it adopted a new resolution condemning nuclear weapons and calling for international agreements to prevent their use and to ensure their elimination. The resolution cited the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, which concluded that “The destructive power of nuclear weapons cannot be contained in either space or time. They have the potential to destroy all civilization and the entire ecosystem of the planet.”

In 2012, the humanitarian grounds for eliminating nuclear weapons became a focal point for States determined to accelerate the pace of disarmament. A group of 16 States submitted a ground-breaking joint statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament” at the NPT PrepCom in Vienna. Later in the year, 35 States, including the original 16, told the UN First Committee: “Nuclear weapons have the destructive capacity to pose a threat to the survival of humanity and as long as they continue to exist the threat to humanity will remain. This, in addition to the perceived political value and prestige attached by some States to these weapons, are factors that encourage proliferation and non-compliance with international obligations. Moreover, it is of great concern that, even after the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation remains part of the 21st century international security environment.”
Support for a humanitarian-based approach to abolition has continued to grow.

At the UN General Assembly in October 2013, 130 countries signed a new joint appeal stating that “the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons affect not only governments, but each and every citizen of our interconnected world. They have deep implications for human survival; for our environment; for socio-economic development; for our economies; and for the health of future generations. For these reasons, we firmly believe that awareness of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons must underpin all approaches and efforts towards nuclear disarmament.”

An unprecedented series of intergovernmental and civil society conferences has laid the foundation for a political process that could finally break the gridlock on disarmament in the NPT and the UN Conference on Disarmament. Norway hosted the First Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in March 2013 in Oslo. A follow-up Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was held in Nayarit, Mexico in February 2014. IPPNW speakers at both conferences described the medical and environmental consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, and joined with other ICAN partners and colleagues in the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement in calling for effective steps to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons. A Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons took place in Vienna in 2014.