Time to Banish the Threat of Nuclear Weapons

by SALLY ATRILL, Mercury August 7, 2017 12:00am

HIROSHIMA Day is again upon us.  The Japanese city of Hiroshima of around 350,000 people, was the first city to be attacked with a nuclear weapon when a single bomb was dropped by the USA on August 6, 1945 towards the end of World War 2.

The bomb and its firestorm destroyed two-thirds of the city, with an estimated 70,000 ordinary people killed immediately and a similar number over the next five years. These deaths resulted from the immediate explosion, burns, radiation and cancers. The city was devastated with destruction of most buildings. Photos appear to show a scene from hell with the city burned out, and civilians with horrendous burns and injuries.

Nuclear proliferation has ensued internationally since then, with an estimated 19,000 nuclear weapons now in existence, all much more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The threat of nuclear war was strongly present throughout the Cold War, and is again rising today. The cost of nuclear weapons is enormous with an estimated $40 billion spent annually by the US alone.

Countries known to possess nuclear weapons are Russia, USA, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — not necessarily all reliable international citizens whom we would trust to have a finger on the nuclear trigger, particularly in view of recent inquiries confirming that unreliable information led to the recent war in Iraq with ongoing consequences.

Some countries such as Australia without nuclear weapons choose to be under the US “nuclear umbrella”.

Today, the use of nuclear weapons would result in extraordinary numbers of immediate deaths, devastation of medical facilities to care for those injured, and destruction of infrastructure of a city on a much larger scale than seen in Japan. It is also predicted that the atmospheric debris from a limited regional nuclear war could cause global cooling and prolonged worldwide famine. 

The good news is that a new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been adopted by the United Nations in July this year. This treaty prohibits states from developing, testing, possessing, transferring or deploying nuclear weapons under any circumstances. This treaty was passed by 122 nations, unfortunately not Australia, as our government decided not to attend these discussions. Unsurprisingly, those countries with nuclear weapons are also non-participants.

Nuclear weapons will now join the list of banned weapons such as chemical and biological weapons and cluster bombs, which seems highly appropriate given that they are designed primarily to indiscriminately cause death to massive numbers of civilians. In a recent poll about 75 per cent of Australians support nuclear disarmament.

Our government believes that the US nuclear umbrella provides protection for Australia.

Australia’s official view is that a “building block approach” is required towards improving global nuclear weapon safety, with the initial step being increased transparency regarding nuclear stockpiles among those possessing them, which seems highly unlikely to happen given the secrecy surrounding military matters.

Somewhat ironically, international nuclear weapon treaties until now have made it legal for those signatories with nuclear weapons to continue to have them, but illegal for non-nuclear countries to manufacture or buy them.

The current international situation with escalating conflict between North Korea and the US and their respective leaders, illustrates what a precarious situation the world is in with the threat of nuclear weapons being used again very real. There is also the possibility of terrorist groups gaining nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are abhorrent to a civilised society. Whilst in existence they are a threat to all.

Their cost is enormous. The existence of nuclear weapons cannot enhance international safety The only winners in the nuclear arms race are the arms manufacturers. Australia still has an opportunity to participate in this current UN nuclear abolition treaty, and truly make our country — and our planet — safer.

Sally Atrill is Tasmanian GP and the Tasmanian convener for the Medical Association for Prevention of War.

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