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OPINION: Why Nuclear Disarmament Could Still Be the Most Important Thing There Is

In this column, Risto Isomäki, Finnish environmental activist and award-winning writer whose novels have been translated into several languages, describes the practically unimaginable capacity for destruction inherent in the nuclear facilities that currently exist around the world and argues that we have to try the impossible – force nuclear technologies back into the Pandora’s box from which they came.

HELSINKI, Nov 21 2014 (IPS) - At the height of the Cold War the world’s total arsenal of nuclear weapons, counted as explosive potential, may have amounted to three million Hiroshima bombs.  The United States alone possessed 1.6 million Hiroshimas’ worth of destructive capacity.

Since then, much of this arsenal has been dismantled and the uranium in thousands of nuclear bombs has been converted to nuclear power plant fuel.

Risto Isomäki

Risto Isomäki

Future historians are likely to offer some stingy comments on how 20th century governments first used thousands of billions of dollars to laboriously enrich natural uranium to weapons grade uranium with gas centrifuges, and then reversed the process, diluting their weapons grade uranium with natural uranium.

This declining trend has led many people and governments to believe that nuclear disarmament is no longer an important issue.

It is true that the probability of a nuclear war is currently immensely smaller than during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 or during the other hair-raisingly dangerous moments of the Cold War.

In spite of this, it could be a grave mistake to assume that the danger is now over, forever.

We have not really been able to push the evil genie back into the bottle, yet. The remaining U.S. and Russian inventories might still amount to 80,000 Hiroshima bombs. This is approximately forty times less than at the height of Cold War’s nuclear armament race, but still much more than enough to destroy the world as we know it.

“The remaining U.S. and Russian [nuclear] inventories might still amount to 80,000 Hiroshima bombs. This is approximately forty times less than at the height of Cold War’s nuclear armament race, but still much more than enough to destroy the world as we know it”

While the world’s nuclear arsenal has become smaller, the remaining nuclear weapons are more accurate and on average smaller than before.  This might, some day, lower the threshold for using them.

Besides, it now seems that we have seriously underestimated the destructive capacity of all kinds of nuclear weapons.

In both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear bombs ignited large firestorms that burned all the people caught inside the fire perimeter to death.  However, U.S. military scientists regarded fire damage as so unpredictable that for fifty years they concentrated only on analysing the impact of the blasts.

The story has been beautifully documented by Lynn Eden, a researcher at Stanford University, in an important book important book entitled Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge & Nuclear Weapons Devastation.

When, in 2002, the United States was afraid of a nuclear war between Pakistan and India, it warned their governments that a nuclear war in South Asia might kill twelve million people.

The figure was absurdly low because it only took the impact of the nuclear blasts into consideration. According to recent research, the fire damage radii of nuclear detonations are from two to five times longer than those determined by the blast effects.  In practice, this means that the area destroyed by the fire is typically 4 to 25 times larger than the area shattered by the blast.

The Second World War firestorms in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hamburg and Dresden caused very strong rising air currents and hurricane-speed winds blowing towards the fire from the edges of the fire perimeter.

Nuclear detonations in modern cities created even fiercer firestorms because they contain very large quantities of hydrocarbons in the form of asphalt, plastic, oil, gasoline and gas.

According to one study, the firestorm ignited by even a small, Hiroshima-size explosion in Manhattan would produce incredibly strong super-hurricane winds blowing towards the fire at the speed of 600 kilometres per hour. Most skyscrapers have been designed to withstand wind speeds amounting to 230 or 250 kilometres per hour.

The worst-case scenario is a nuclear detonation happening far above the ground.  According to the so-called ‘Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack’ – or EMP Commission for short – of the U.S. Congress, between 70 and 90 percent of the country’s population might die within one year if somebody detonated a megaton-sized nuclear weapon at the height of 160 kilometres above the continental United States.

A nuclear explosion always produces a very strong electromagnetic pulse ­ or, to be more precise, three different electromagnetic pulses, which can fry all unprotected electronic equipment within a line of sight.  From the height of 160 kilometres, everything in the continental United States is within a line of sight. Everything works with electricity and practically nothing has been protected against an EMP.

In other words, a single nuclear weapon could wipe out health care, water supplies, waste-water treatment facilities, agricultural production and the factories and laboratories making pharmaceuticals, vaccines and fertilisers – among many others.

Europe is equally vulnerable and most other countries, including India and China, are doing their utmost to become as vulnerable as the old industrialised countries already are. 

According to the EMP Commission, the cost of electronic equipment would only rise by 3-10 percent if it were hardened against an electromagnetic pulse, and protecting the key 10 percent of everything with electronics would be enough to secure the crucial functions of an organised society. However, in practice, nothing like this has been done, in any country.

We should not forget nuclear disarmament, because it could still be the most important thing there is.

It would probably be wise to utilise the periods of relative calm as efficiently as possible for further reducing our nuclear weapons arsenals and for developing better alternatives for nuclear electricity. Otherwise, tensions between declining and rising great powers may one day again create new nuclear armament races, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The spread of nuclear reactors increases the risks. Every country that acquires the ability to construct a nuclear reactor also acquires the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Nuclear reactors were originally developed for making better raw material for nuclear weapons, and all our reactors are still making plutonium, every second they operate.

The weapons grade uranium used in nuclear bombs is enriched by the same gas centrifuges that produce the fuel for our power-producing nuclear stations.

The stakes will rise higher if we also begin to construct fourth-generation nuclear power plants or breeder reactors.  Breeders need, in one or more parts of the reactor, nuclear fuel in which the percentage of the easily fissile isotopes has been enriched to 15, 20 or 60 percent, or to even higher levels. This kind of fuel can already be used for making crude nuclear weapons, without any further enrichment.

It is often said that when a technology has been developed it can no longer be forced back into the Pandora’s box from which it came.  However, when it comes to nuclear technologies, we just have to try. The long-term survival of our species may depend on this choice. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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  • Nelson A.

    Under the Australia–India uranium trade agreement, India will use Australian yellow cake to diversify its nuclear program. If and when the Japan–India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement is concluded, it will supply the nuclear technology India requires to build its industrial capacity and indirectly enhance its nuclear arsenal. Negotiated almost simultaneously and in coordination, both of these Agreements, together with and following the US–India nuclear agreement, tacitly legitimise India’s nuclear status and assist in its ambitions for greater international influence. Australia and Japan, both NPT and NSG members, have become complicit in India’s nuclear weapons program and partially responsible for increasing the risk of nuclear accident in India, and for potentially aggravating nuclear rivalry in Asia.

lifeng lai