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The Urgent Need For Complete Abolition Of Nuclear Weapons

By John Scales Avery

08 February, 2016

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 in the morning, an atomic bomb was exploded in the air over the city of Hiroshima in an already-defeated Japan. The force of the explosion was equivalent to twenty thousand tons of T.N.T.. Out of a city of two hundred and fifty thousand people, almost one hundred thousand were killed by the bomb; and another hundred thousand were hurt.

In some places, near the center of the city, people were completely vaporized, so that only their shadows on the pavement marked the places where they had been. Many people who were not killed by the blast or by burns from the explosion, were trapped under the wreckage of their houses. Unable to move, they were burned to death in the fire which followed.

As Suano Tsuboi, one of the survivors of the Hiroshima nightmare, remembered later, “I had entered a living hell on earth. There were people crying out for help, calling for members of their family. I saw a scchoolgirl with her eye hanging out of its socket. People looked like ghosts, bleeding and trying to walk before collapsing. Some had lost limbs. There were charred bodies everywhere, including in the river. I looked down and saw a man clutching a hole in his stomach, trying to stop his organs from spilling out. The smell of burning flesh was overpowering.”

Three days later, Nagasaki was also detroyed. The motive for the nuclear bombings seems to have been, not so much to defeat Japan, as (in the words of the Manhatten Project's military commander, General Leslie Groves) “to control Russia”.

A few days after the terrible events of 6 and 9 August, 1945, the French writer Albert Camus commented: “Our technical civilization has just reached its greatest level of savagery. We will have to choose, in the more or less near future, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of our scientific conquests. Before the terrifying prospects now available to humanity, we see even more clearly that peace is the only battle worth waging. This is no longer a prayer, but a demand to be made by all peoples to their governments - a demand to choose definitively between hell and reason.”

Even if the horrible nuclear destruction of the two Japanese cities had been justified as a means of ending the war quickly, even if Japan had not already been sueing for peace, the end does not justify the means. In Gandhi's words, “The means may be likened to a seed, and the end to a tree; and there is the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.”

Mahatma Gandhi's assertion that the end achieved iinevitably reflects the means used to achieve it is confirmed particularly clearly by the history of nuclear weapons. The terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was tragic in itself, but even more disastrous is the nuclear arms race which followed. It continues to cast an extremely dark shadow over the future of human civilization and the biosphere.

In 1946, the United States proposed the Baruch Plan to internationalize atomic energy, but the plan was rejected by the Soviet Union, which had been conducting its own secret nuclear weapons program since 1943. On August 29, 1949, the USSR exploded its first nuclear bomb. It had a yield equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT, and had been constructed from Pu-239 produced in a nuclear reactor. Meanwhile the United Kingdom had begun to build its own nuclear weapons.

The explosion of the Soviet nuclear bomb caused feelings of panic in the United States, and President Truman authorized an all-out effort to build superbombs using thermonuclear reactions - the reactions that heat the sun and stars. The idea of using a U-235 fission bomb to trigger a thermonuclear reaction in a mixture of light elements had first been proposed by Enrico Fermi in a 1941 conversation with his Chicago colleague Edward Teller. After this conversation, Teller (perhaps the model for Stanley Kubrick’s character Dr. Strangelove) became a fanatical advocate of the superbomb.

After Truman’s go-ahead, the American program to build thermonuclear weapons made rapid progress, and on October 31, 1952, the first US thermonuclear device was exploded at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It had a yield of 10.4 megatons, that is to say it had an explosive power equivalent to 10,400,000 tons of TNT. Thus the first thermonuclear bomb was five hundred times as powerful as the bombs that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lighter versions of the device were soon developed, and these could be dropped from aircraft or delivered by rockets.

The Soviet Union and the United Kingdom were not far behind. In 1955 the Soviets exploded their first thermonuclear device, followed in 1957 by the UK. In 1961 the USSR exploded a thermonuclear bomb with a yield of 58 megatons. A bomb of this size, three thousand times the size of the Hiroshima bomb, would be able to totally destroy a city even if it missed it by 50 kilometers. Fall-out casualties would extend to a far greater distance.

A 15 megaton thermonuclear device, detonated by the United States at Bikini Atol in the Marshall Islands in 1954, caused fallout that produced radiation sickness and fatalities on the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon, which was 130 kilometers distant from the explosion. In England, Prof. Joseph Rotblat, a Polish scientist who had resigned from the Manhattan Project for for moral reasons when it became clear that Germany would not develop nuclear weapons, was asked to appear on a BBC program to discuss the Bikini test. He was asked to discuss the technical aspects of H-bombs, while the Archbishop of Canterbury and the philosopher Lord Bertrand Russell were asked to discuss the moral aspects.

Rotblat had became convinced that the Bikini bomb must have involved a third stage, where fast neutrons from the hydrogen thermonuclear reaction produced fission in a casing of unenriched uranium. Such a bomb would produce enormous amounts of highly dangerous radioactive fallout, and could be made arbetrarily large with little expense because of the use of unenriched uranium. Rotblat became extremely worried about the possibly fatal effect on all living things if large numbers of such bombs were ever used in a war. He confided his worries to Bertrand Russell, whom he had met on the BBC program.

After discussing the Bikini test and its radioactive fallout with Joseph Rotblat, Lord Russell became concerned for the future of the human gene pool if large numbers of such bombs should ever be used in a war. To warn humanity of the danger, he wrote what came to be known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.

On July 9, 1955, with Rotblat in the chair, Russell read the Manifesto to a packed press conference. The document contains the words: “Here then is the problem that we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war?... There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”

Lord Russell devoted much of the remainder of his life to working for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Here we see him speaking to a CND demonstration at Trafalgar Square. Image source: mueralainteligencia.com

Lord Russell devoted much of the remainder of his life to working for the abolition of nuclear weapons, as did Joseph Rotblat. In 1995, 50 years after the tragic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joseph Rotblat was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his lifelong efforts to abolish both nuclear weapons and war itself. He shared the prize with Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an organization which had been established as a consequence of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto.

In his acceptance speech, Sir Joseph (as he soon became) emphasized the same point that had been made in the Russell-Einstein Manifesto - that war itself must be eliminated in order to free civilization from the danger of nuclear destruction. The reason for this is that the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons can never be forgotten. Even if they were eliminated, these weapons could be rebuilt during a major war. Thus the final abolition of nuclear weapons is linked to a change of heart in world politics and to the abolition of the institution of war.

The testing of hydrogen bombs in the Pacific half a century ago continues to cause cancer and birth defects in the Marshall Islands today. Fallout from the bombs contaminated the island of Rongelap, one of the Marshall Islands 120 kilometers from Bikini. The islanders experienced radiation illness, and many died from cancer. Even today, half a century later, both people and animals on Rongelap and other nearby islands suffer from birth defects. The most common defects have been “jelly fish babies”, born with no bones and with transparent skin. Their brains and beating hearts can be seen. The babies usually live a day or two before they stop breathing.

The environmental effects of a nuclear war would be catastrophic. A war fought with hydrogen bombs would produce radioactive contamination of the kind that we have already experienced in the areas around Chernobyl and Fukushima and in the Marshall Islands, but on an enormously increased scale. We have to remember that the total explosive power of the nuclear weapons in the world today is roughly half a million times as great as the power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What is threatened by a nuclear war today is the complete breakdown of human civilization.

Besides spreading deadly radioactivity throughout the world, a nuclear war would inflict catastrophic damage on global agriculture. Firestorms in burning cities would produce many millions of tons of black, thick, radioactive smoke. The smoke would rise to the stratosphere where it would spread around the earth and remain for a decade. Prolonged cold, decreased sunlight and rainfall, and massive increases in harmful ultraviolet light would shorten or eliminate growing seasons, producing a nuclear famine. Even a small nuclear war could endanger the lives of the billion people who today are chronically undernourished. A full-scale war fought with hydrogen bombs would mean that most humans would die from hunger. Many animal and plant species would also be threatened with extinction.

Today, the system that is supposed to give us security is called Mutually Assured Destruction, appropriately abbreviated as MAD. It is based on the idea of deterrence, which maintains that because of the threat of massive retaliation, no sane leader would start a nuclear war.

Before discussing other defects in the concept of deterrence, it must be said very clearly that “massive nuclear retaliation” is a form of genocide and is completely unacceptable from an ethical point of view. It violates not only the principles of international law, common decency and common sense, but also the ethical principles of every major religion.

Having said this, we can turn to some of the other faults in the concept of nuclear deterrence. One important defect is that nuclear war may occur through accident or miscalculation, failures of computer systems, misinterpretation of radar signals, insanity of a person in charge of the weapons, uncontrollable escalation of a conflict, or because of terrorism. This possibility is made much greater by the fact that, despite the end of the Cold War, 2,000 missiles are kept on “hair trigger alert” with a quasi-automatic reaction time measured in minutes. There is a constant danger that a nuclear war will be triggered by an error in evaluating the signal on a radar screen.

Incidents in which global disaster is avoided by a hair's breadth are constantly occurring. For example, on the night of 26 September, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, a young software engineer, was on duty at a surveillance center near Moscow. Suddenly the screen in front of him turned bright red. An alarm went off. It's enormous piercing sound filled the room. A second alarm followed, and then a third, fourth and fifth, until the noise was deafening.

The computer showed that the Americans had launched a strike against Russia. Petrov's orders were to pass the information up the chain of command to Secretary General Yuri Andropov. Within minutes, a nuclear counterattack would be launched. However, because of certain inconsistent features of the alarm, Petrov disobeyed orders and reported it as a computer error, which indeed it was. Most of us probably owe our lives to his brave and coolheaded decision and his knowledge of software systems. The narrowness of this escape is compounded by the fact that Petrov was on duty only because of the illness of another officer with less knowledge of software, who would have accepted the alarm as real.

Narrow escapes such as this show us clearly that in the long run, the combination of space-age science and stone-age politics will destroy us. We urgently need new political structures and new ethics to match our advanced technology.

Modern science has, for the first time in history, offered humankind the possibility of a life of comfort, free from hunger and cold, and free from the constant threat of death from infectious disease. At the same time, science has given humans the power to obliterate their civilization with nuclear weapons, or to make it uninhabitable through anthropogenic climate change. The question of which of these paths we choose is literally a matter of life or death to for ourselves or our children.

Will we use the discoveries of modern science constructively, and thus choose the path leading towards life? Or will we produce more and more lethal weapons, which sooner or later, through s technical or human error, or through uncontrollable escalation of a conflict, will result in a catastrophic nuclear war? The choice is ours to make. We live at a critical moment of history, a moment of crisis for civilization. No one alive today asked to be born at a time of crisis, but history has given each of us an enormous responsibility to future generations.

Of course we have our ordinary jobs, which we need to do in order to stay alive; but besides that, each of us has a second job, the duty to devote both time and effort to solving the serious problems that face civilization during the 21st century. We cannot rely on our politicians to do this for us. Many politicians are under the influence of powerful lobbies. Others are waiting for a clear expression of popular will. It is the people of the world themselves who must choose their own future and work hard to build it. No single person can achieve the changes that we need, but together we can do it.

The problem of building a stable, just, and war-free world is difficult, but it is not insoluble. The large regions of our present-day world within which war has been eliminated can serve as models. There are a number of large countries with heterogeneous populations within which it has been possible to achieve internal peace and social cohesion, and if this is possible within such extremely large regions, it must also be possible globally.

We must replace the old world of international anarchy and institutionalized injustice by a new world of law. We also need a new ethic, where loyalty to one's family and nation is supplemented by a higher loyalty to humanity as a whole.

We know that war is madness. We know that it is responsible for much of the suffering that humans experience. We know that war pollutes our planet and that the almost unimaginable sums wasted on war prevent the happiness and prosperity of mankind. We know that nuclear weapons are insane, and that the precariously balanced deterrence system can break down at any time through human error or computer errors or through terrorist actions, and that it definitely will break down within our lifetimes unless we abolish it. We know that nuclear war threatens to destroy civilization and much of the biosphere.

The logic is there. We must translate it into popular action. The peoples of the world must say very clearly that nuclear weapons are an absolute evil; that their possession does not increase anyone's security; that their continued existence is a threat to the life of every person on our planet; and that these genocidal and potentially omnicidal weapons have no place in a civilized society.

Modern science has abolished time and distance as factors separating nations separating nations. On our shrunken globe today, there is room for one group only - the family of humankind.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at [email protected]


1) A. Osada, “Children of the A-Bomb, The Testament of Boys and Girls of Hiroshima”, Putnam, New York (1963).
2) R. Jungk, “Children of the Ashes”, Harcourt, Brace and World (1961).
3) J. Hersey, “Hiroshima”, Penguin Books Ltd. (1975)
4) .R. Rhodes, “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”, Simon and Schuster, New York, (1995)
5) With the help of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org), the Republic of the Marshall Ilands is suing the 9 nations that currently possess nuclear weapons for violation of their leagal obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970.
6) R. Falk and D. Krieger, “The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers”, Paradigm Publishers, (2012). https://www.wagingpeace.org/shop/the-path-to-zero-dialogues-on-nuclear-dangers/
7) O. Toon , A. Robock, and R. Turco, “The Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War”, Physics Today, vol. 61, No. 12, p. 37-42 (2008). https://www.nucleardarkness.org/

8) J.S. Avery, “Flaws in the Concept of Nuclear Deterrence”, Cadmus. April 12, (2012). http://cadmusjournal.org/article/issue-4/flaws-concept-nuclear-deterrance
9) J.S. Avery, “The Arms Trade Treaty Opems New Possibilities at the UN”, Cadmus, May 17, (2013), http://cadmusjournal.org/article/issue-6/arms-trade-treaty-opens-new-possibilities-un
10) J.S. Avery, “Remember Your Humanity”. Eruditio, March 23, (2015), http://eruditio.worldacademy.org/issue-6/article/remember-your-humanity
11) J.S. Avery, “Crisis 21: Civilization's Crisis in the 21st Century”, Chapter 6. Danish Peace Academy, (2008). http://www.learndev.org/dl/Crisis21-Avery.pdf
12) D. Ikeda, “Peace Proposal, 2105”, http://www.daisakuikeda.org/assets/files/peaceproposal2015.pdf
13) Helfand “Can We Prevent Nuclear War”, Ted Talk, (2016). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUm82W7B2BY





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