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UNITED NATIONS, Aug 27 2013 (IPS) - When the United Nations commemorates the International Day Against Nuclear Tests later this week, the lingering question in the minds of most anti-nuclear activists is whether or not the existing moratorium on testing will continue to be honoured – or occasionally violated with impunity.
John Loretz, programme director at International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, told IPS that since the 1990s the moratorium has been honoured by most states with nuclear weapons.
The exceptions, he pointed out, have been India and Pakistan, both of which tested nuclear weapons in 1998, but have not done so since then, and North Korea, which has conducted three very small tests since 2006.
When Pyongyang conducted its third test last February, the 15-member U.N. Security Council condemned the test as “a grave violation” of its previous resolutions and described North Korea as a country which is “a clear threat to international peace and security.”
And when the council adopted its third resolution, immediately following the third test, it expressed a determination to take “significant action” in the event of a “further” nuclear test by North Korea.
The annual International Day Against Nuclear Tests – observed on Aug. 29 but being commemorated at the U.N., with a seminar and an exhibition, on Sep. 5 – is an important way to raise awareness about nuclear weapons, said Loretz, and specifically “the continuing threat they pose to our health and survival and the imperative that we rid the world of them”.
Asked if the growing new rift between the United States and Russia will have a negative impact, Loretz admitted, “The rift is problematic, but I have no reason to think either country would resume nuclear testing as a result of a presumably temporary souring of the relationship.”
He said both countries are modernising their arsenals, however, and current problems could increase political pressure to do so further.
Currently, there are five declared nuclear weapon states – the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China, which are the five permanent members (P-5) of the Security Council – along with three undeclared nuclear weapon states – India, Pakistan and Israel.
But it has still not been determined whether North Korea should be designated a nuclear power.
Dale Dewar, former executive director of Physicians for Global Survival, told IPS the world has somewhat successfully eliminated atmospheric and deep underground testing of nuclear weapons, although North Korea did the latter just a year ago.
The United States has embarked upon a plan for “subcritical nuclear testing” where no self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction can occur, she said. The behaviour of plutonium, an important component of nuclear weapons, can be observed during these tests.
The costs of the tests and testing facility are exorbitant. A single test costs around 20 million dollars, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and preparation for the test costs upwards of 100 million dollars.
Dewar said Physicians for Global Survival sees these costs as monies removed from health care, education and social services – taxpayer money that has been diverted for military and in this case theoretical science fictional future use.
“Were the bombs for which these tests are conducted ever used, the lives and health of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, would be affected. There is no justification for continuing to possess such weapons, much less test them,” she asserted.
Tilman A. Ruff, associate professor at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne, told IPS an estimated 2,061 nuclear test explosions, conducted by eight or nine nations since 1945, have been used to develop nuclear weapons, fuelling the greatest immediate threat to global survival and health.
Test explosions themselves also exact a substantial and persisting environmental and human toll, he said.
“Every person and living thing contains strontium-90 in their teeth and bones, cesium-137 inside their cells, carbon-14, plutonium-239 and other radioactive materials dispersed worldwide,” said Ruff, who is also co-chair of the International Steering Group and Australian Board member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
He said a study by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) found that at least 430,000 people died of cancer by the year 2000 because of this radioactive fallout, and over time, more than 2.4 million people will die of cancer caused by nuclear test explosions.
“In almost every case, nuclear test sites have been forced upon indigenous, minority and colonised peoples, and downwind communities and test site workers have suffered most,” he noted.
At every nuclear test site, he pointed out, a long-term radioactive and toxic legacy remains along with yet unmet needs for clean-up and remediation, long-term environmental monitoring, and care and compensation for those affected.
These responsibilities rest with the governments that undertook the tests.
While underground nuclear tests disperse much less radioactive fallout into the atmosphere than above-ground tests, they shatter the surrounding rock and pose a long-term hazard for future generations of radioactive leakage into the environment and groundwater, Ruff declared.
Loretz told IPS the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted in 1996 but has not yet been ratified by enough states to enter into force.
The United States has signed but not ratified it, and a commonly shared opinion is that U.S. ratification, which is a necessity, would tip the balance and lead to the other ratifications required for entry into force, he said. “That’s one big thing that remains to be done.”
“Many of us have come to believe that CTBT ratification, while important and useful, is now secondary to the comprehensive treaty for which the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is campaigning.”
A global ban as the opening act to eliminating actual nuclear weapons would include a prohibition against testing, he added.
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