Let's Be Clear. There Is No Surviving a Nuclear War

A student shows the word "No Bomb" written on her palm during a peace rally to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Mumbai, India, August 6. When it comes to nuclear war, prevention is the only responsible course of action, the authors writes. To fully succeed, nuclear weapons must be outlawed and permanently removed from national arsenals. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

"How to Survive a Nuclear War," by Cham Dallas (Newsweek, August 16, 2015) is profoundly disturbing. The suggestion that a Nuclear Global Health Workforce might be effective in responding to nuclear war is both tragic and absurd.

To be clear, the intention to respond as well as possible and to survive a nuclear war is a noble and natural aspiration. It is a testament to human hope in circumstances so dire that they exceed comprehension. But it is a fundamentally misplaced aspiration that creates false hope and diverts effort and resources from the only sensible course of action—that is to prevent nuclear war from occurring.

Dallas implies that human society at large could be well prepared for nuclear war but then goes on to correctly assert that any nuclear weapon exchange will lead to a global public health emergency with the following consequences:

  • Over 90 percent of the doctors and nurses in attacked cities will be killed and injured, meaning local health care response capability would be largely eradicated.
  • Surviving health care workers and facilities would have little to no capability to effectively treat casualties resulting from radiation, thermal burns, lacerations and blast trauma.
  • Large swaths of territory will uninhabitable for decades, with catastrophic impacts on humans, the economy and the environment.
  • Given the destruction of basic infrastructure, effective evacuation of incomprehensible numbers of injured and surviving victims would be impossible.
  • Misinformation, inadequate and confusing orders and delays in releasing information would result in an immediate loss of public trust in the government. Chaos, vigilantism and violence would be widespread.

For decades, we have known that nuclear war would be an unprecedented disaster for human civilization with negative consequences far outweighing any political or military objective that was sought by a decision to employ nuclear weapons in conflict.

It is reasonable to prepare to respond to a single low-yield nuclear detonation in a single city that could result from a nuclear accident or a terrorist attack. But that is a nuclear incident, not a nuclear war.

The reality of nuclear war between nations is that very few nuclear weapons with yields below 10 kilotons would be used: A much more likely scenario would be the use of multiple weapons in the 50-to-500 kiloton range. The result would be a public health emergency for which it is impossible to prepare.

A report released in 2013 by the Nobel Laureate International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and its U.S. affiliate Physicians for Social Responsibility demonstrated that a limited nuclear war involving just 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs—less than 0.5 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal—would be devastating. More than 20 million people would be dead in a week from the explosions, firestorms and immediate radiation effects. But the global consequences would be far worse. The climatic disruption and resulting decline in global food production would put two billion people at risk worldwide.

We could spend the equivalent of the entire U.S. defense budget (estimated to $590 billion annually) on a Nuclear Global Health Workforce and still not be adequately prepared for the consequences of even such a limited nuclear war. Our entire pattern of civilization, including the design of cities, human health resources and food production, would need to be changed to make it resilient to nuclear war. This has been repeatedly and conclusively determined by studies since the 1970s, including the "Medical Implications of Nuclear War" conducted in 1986 by the National Academy of Sciences and cited in Dallas's research.

Civilization as we know it cannot survive a nuclear war that involved the use of even a fraction of the world's nuclear arsenals on multiple cities. Yes, devoting more resources to preparing for a nuclear incident makes sense, but when it comes to nuclear war prevention is the only responsible course of action.

In order to fully succeed in that objective, nuclear weapons must be outlawed and permanently removed from national arsenals.

James E. Doyle is an independent consultant and former nuclear security specialist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Ira Helfand, M.D. is a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.