On December 10, ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its groundbreaking work that led to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Ratification of the treaty began September 20, and the treaty takes effect when 50 nations ratify it. Though the U.S. and other nuclear nations have boycotted the process, it comes at a time when Americans are aware that our policy of nuclear deterrence and bullying has done nothing to stop North Korea from becoming the ninth nuclear nation. The best way to protect ourselves and the planet is by working toward global nuclear disarmament, and in the U.S., by electing members of Congress who support the prohibition treaty.
North Korea successfully tested a missile last month that experts believe could reach the U.S., and before that its largest bomb, 250 kilotons. The United States came close to an agreement with North Korea to halt the development of its nuclear weapons program in 1994 during the Clinton administration. Negotiations began to unravel when Republicans took charge of Congress in 1995, according to Robert Alvarez, who traveled to North Korea in 1994 for the Energy Department. Congress “threw roadblocks in the way, interfering with fuel oil shipments to North Korea and the securing of the plutonium-bearing material located there. After George W. Bush was elected president, the Bush administration replaced the Clinton administration's efforts with an explicit policy of regime change. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush declared North Korea a charter member of the 'axis of evil.' In September, Bush expressly mentioned North Korea in a national security policy that called for preemptive attacks against countries developing weapons of mass destruction." Efforts to find a diplomatic solution continued after that. In August 2003, the "six nations" talks in Beijing commenced. But on Oct. 9, 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon, and in December 2011, Kim Jong Un took over leadership of North Korea. Now there is a fundamental impasse as the U.S. position is that North Korea must renounce its nuclear weapons, while North Korea wants recognition that it is a nuclear power.
The U.S. has 7,000 nuclear weapons. North Korea has 30 to 60. Of the U.S. weapons, 900 are on hair-trigger alert, able to be launched within minutes. Once launched, they cannot be recalled. The U.S. also has begun a 30-year, $1.7 trillion program to make our nuclear weapons more lethal, accurate, and in some minds, more usable. Despite being able to destroy the planet many times over, we cannot bully North Korea back to its pre-nuclear state. At a time of threatened cutbacks in social services, education and health care, this is dangerous and a colossal boondoggle.
If the U.S. did use even conventional bombs against North Korea, there is the possibility that Kim Jong Un might retaliate. The use of just one 100-kiloton nuclear airburst directed against Seoul would take an unimaginable toll: 1.6 million casualties. (See NUKEMAP, Alex Wellerstein.) If the U.S., China or Russia entered the fray, the death toll would skyrocket. At some point, civilization would be threatened. There are estimates that a regional war between India and Pakistan, for example, with 50 small Hiroshima-sized weapons launched on each side, would kill millions of people outright. The war would loft enough soot and debris into the atmosphere to drop temperatures in the northern hemisphere, causing a nuclear winter that would reduce crop production and possibly lead to the starvation death of two billion people.
In Hiroshima, a small 15 kiloton bomb killed 150,000 people. Ninety percent of the doctors and 88 percent of the nurses were either dead or too injured to help. People died from traumatic injuries, severe burns and acute radiation without pain medication, doctors or nurses to aid them during their unspeakable misery.
The humanitarian consequences of our nuclear past extend beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the U.S., Navajo uranium miners died of respiratory diseases and lung cancers. The fallout from Nevada testing caused an estimated 49,000 thyroid cancers and 11,000 cancer deaths across the U.S. Children on Rongelap in the Marshall Islands became acutely ill from radiation after they played with flakes that fell from the sky, mistaking fallout from a 15-megaton nuclear explosion for snow. Still displaced, traumatized and impoverished, the rich culture of many Marshall Island residents has been destroyed, and many islands contaminated. French testing harmed the Polynesians, and British testing caused displacement, injury and death to indigenous people in southern Australia. Soviet testing contaminated the Arctic.
Now North Korea has joined the nuclear club.
"In 2005, Dr. William Carter, of the Australian Medical Association for the Prevention of War, convinced his colleagues to launch a campaign to outlaw nuclear weapons just as chemical, biological weapons, land mines and cluster bombs had been outlawed. They founded ICAN. Focusing on the humanitarian consequences as described briefly above, ICAN brought together a worldwide network of groups that today number over 400 from 101 countries including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent and the Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War." In 2013 and 2014, Norway, Mexico and Austria hosted a series of conferences attended by 150 countries. The United Nations agreed to take up the issue in the General Assembly and approved the convening of a work group to write a draft treaty. On July 7, 2017, 122 members of the U.N. signed the document prohibiting development, manufacture, testing, use or threatened use of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, nuclear nations shunned this process. They should renounce their weapons and ratify the prohibition treaty. This will happen only when citizens find leaders who understand that nuclear weapons are unusable and will destroy civilization if they are used. We celebrate ICAN, which has given humanity the means to abolish nuclear weapons and empowered civil society. We must use every opportunity we have to contact our members of Congress and let them know that it is time for a fundamental change in our nuclear policy, from deterrence to disarmament. Instead of finding situations where our military might be willing to use these weapons, we must work to delegitimize, stigmatize and finally to prohibit their use. Your congressperson needs to hear from you. ICAN has taught us that the solution is in our hands.
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