Stone-Age Politics

Nuclear Weapons : an Absolute Evil

Anne Baring

Most of the Planet’s inhabitants, even those who are highly educated and working in governments and organisations like the United Nations have very little awareness of what an exchange of nuclear weapons would be like or what its immediate and long-term effects would be in terms of the massive number of civilian deaths and the rapid deterioration of the planetary environment. This is the lacuna that Professor John Scales Avery’s book—‘‘Nuclear Weapons : An Absolute Evil’’—sets out to fill in an admirably clear and compressive way, enriching it with photographs and quotations from men who have from the outset, expressed their opposition to nuclear weapons.

The first chapter, ‘‘The Threat of Nuclear War’’, explores the important subject of how existing ethical principles about avoiding the bombing of civilians were eroded during the Second World War with the carpet bombing of cities by German and British air forces, culminating in the incediary raids on Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden that destroyed those and other German cities and many thousands of their helpless inhabitants. Not long after these, in August 1945, came the horrific obliteration of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the first atom bombs, together with most of their civilian inhabitants. It is not-worthy that the First and Second World Wars cost the lives of 26 million soldiers but 64 million civilians. People live, Professor Avery comments, in an age of space-age science but stone-age politics.

Instead of drawing back in horror from the evil it had unleashed, America and then the Soviet Union embarked on an arms race that has led, step by step, to the current existence of nine nuclear nations and some 17,000 nuclear weapons, with the greater part of these situated in the United States and Russia. Thousands of these are kept on permanent ‘‘hair-trigger’’ alert. 200 of these nuclear bombs are situated in Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, available for use by NATO and placed there by the United States principally to deter a Russian attack. The danger of the launch of one of these weapons in error is a constant possibility and would precipitate a genocidal catastrophe.

His first chapter also addresses the important concept of nuclear deterrence and shows how, according to the historic 1996 decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, this was declared to be not only unacceptable from the standpoint of ethics but also contrary to International Law as well as the principles of democracy.

The basic premise of this chapter and indeed, the entire book, is that nuclear weapons are an absolute evil and that no defence can be offered for them, particularly the defence that they act as a deterrent. He brings evidence to show that the effects of even a small nuclear war would be global and all the nations of the world would suffer. Because of its devastating effects on global agriculture, even a small nuclear war could result in a ‘nuclear winter’ and in an estimated billion deaths from famine. A large-scale nuclear war would completely destroy all agriculture for a period of ten years. Large areas of the world would be rendered permanently uninhabitable because of the ‘nuclear winter’ and the radioactive contamination affecting plants, animals and humans.

To believe that deterrence is a preventive to their being used is to live in a fool’s paradise. It only needs one inadvertent mistake, one misreading of a computer, one terrorist nuclear bomb to unleash unimaginable horror on the world. There have already been several near disasters. Governments claim to protect their population by holding these weapons. Instead, they offer them as hostages to the greed and will to power of the giant corporations, of arms manufacturers such as BAE and the Military-Industrial Complex in general. Professor Avery refers to the greed for power that drives each of these as ‘‘The Devil’s Dynamo’’.

In subsequent chapters, ‘‘Lessons from the Two World Wars’’, ‘‘The Social Responsibility of Scientists’’ and ‘‘The Illegality of Nuclear Weapons’’, Professor Avery expands on the different aspects of the danger that nuclear weapons present as well as the concerted efforts of many individuals and nations to eliminate them, culminating in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that was passed by 122 nations in the United Nations General Assembly in July 7, 2017. ‘‘Today’’, he writes, ‘‘War is not only insane but also a violation of international law’’.

Many people are not aware that the illegality of war was established in 1946 when the United Nations General Assembly unanimously affirmed ‘‘The principles of international law recognized by the Chapter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgement of the Tribunal’’. These set out the crimes that henceforth were punishable under international law. It is obvious that the nine nuclear nations, in developing and holding their weapons, have ignored and violated these principles.

Israel (which has still not acknowledged that it holds them), India and Pakistan have not signed the Treaty—NPT—and North Korea, having originally signed, withdrew in 2003. Pakistan, a dangerously unstable country, presents the very real danger of nuclear technology or bombs falling into the hands of Islamic Fundamentalists. The 2015 meeting of the NPT ended in disarray with no agreement reached on further commitments to disarm.
Professor Avery draws attention to the significant fact that NATO’s nuclear weapons policy violates both the spirit and the text of the NPT. An estimated hundred and eighty US nuclear weapons, all of them B-61 hydrogen bombs, are still on European soil with the air forces of the nations in which they are based regularly trained to deliver the US weapons. These nations are Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands as well as the United Kingdom with its Trident submarines. Turkey, one of the 29 nations that have joined NATO holds about 50 hydrozen bombs at a US base.

In another most important chapter ‘‘Against Nuclear Proliferation’’ Professor Avery draws attention to the danger of nuclear reactors, a danger that is very rarely reflected on by the governments who have committed vast sums to building them and is virtually unknown to the general public. Nuclear reactors constructed for ‘‘peaceful’’ purposes to generate electricity nevertheless constitute a danger in that they generate fissionable isotopes of plutonium, neptunium and americium and are not under strict international control. Since 1945, more than 3,000 metric tons (3,000,000 kilograms) of highly enriched uranium and plutonium have been produced, of which a million kilograms are in Russia, where they are inadequately guarded. A terrorist could create a simple atom bomb, capable of killing 100,000 people if he were able to access a critical amount of uranium. He notes that ‘‘no missile defence system can prevent nuclear weapons failing into the hands of terrorists since these weapons can be brought into a country via any one of the thousands of containers loaded onto ships whose contents cannot be exhaustively checked’’. This fact as he says, undermines the argument in favour of deterrence.

More specifically, the danger lies with the fact that reactors can be used to manufacture both uranium and plutonium from the fuel rods that are an intrinsic part of every reactor and these elements can be used by anyone with sufficient expertise to create a nuclear bomb. Because this is such an important subject and largely unknown to the layman, it is worthwhile quoting his exact words:
‘‘By reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods, a nation with a power reactor can obtain weapons-usable Pu-239 (a fissionable isotope of plutonium that was used to create the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). Even when such reprocessing is performed under international control, the uncertainty as to the amount of Pu-239 obtained is large enough so that the operation might superficially seem to conform to regulations while still supplying enough Pu-239 to make many bombs... Fast breeder reactors are prohibitively dangerous from the standpoint of nuclear proliferation because both the highly enriched uranium from the fuel rods and the Pu-239 from the envelope are directly weapons-usable... If all nations use first breeder reactors, the number of nuclear weapons states would increase drastically.... If nuclear reactors become the standard means for electricity generation [as is planned in Saudi-Arabia, for example] the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons might ultimately be as high as 40’’.

At the movement, there are no restrictions pertaining to the control of the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of fuel rods in the reactors throughout the world. In Professor Avery’s view, this is a very dangerous situation which invites the manufacture of nuclear weapons by default.

The Effects of Radiation
There were 2053 nuclear tests that took place between 1945 and 1998, the majority by the United States and the Soviet Union. All of them emitted radiation. The United States used the Pacific chain of islands as the site of 67 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958. Of those the hydrogen bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll in 1954 was 1300 hundred times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It gave rise to devastating radiation that affected and still affects the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, 120 miles from Bikini. They experienced radiation sickness and deaths from cancer and women still give birth to babies who do not resemble humans and have no visible life.

In addition to the radiation emitted by nuclear testing there has been the radiation emitted by the Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) disasters. At Fukushima, between 300 and 400 metric tonnes a day of this radioactive water has been and still is flowing into the Pacific, contaminating the fish, algae and the birds who feed on the fish—and ultimately affect humans. Contaminated fish have already been found off the coast of Alaska and the west coast of America. According to a report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, the initial breakdown caused ‘‘the largest single contribution of radio-nuclides to the marine environment ever observed’’.

Summing up the effects on the world of a nuclear war, Professor Avery writes:
‘‘The danger of a catastrophic nuclear war casts a dark shadow over the future of our species. It also casts a very black shadow over the future of the global environment. The environmental consequences of a massive exchange of nuclear weapons have been treated in a number of studies by meteorologists and other experts from both East and West. They predict that a large-scale use of nuclear weapons would result in fire storms with very high winds and high temperatures [similar to what happened in Hamburg and Dresden].... The resulting smoke and dust would block out sunlight for a period of many months, at first only in the northern hemisphere but later also in the southern hemisphere. Temperatures in many places would fall far below freezing and much of the earth’s plant life would be killed. Animals and humans would then die of starvation’’.

In subsequent chapters, Dr Avery draws attention to the colossal sums that are spent on weapons and preparations for war on the part of the Military-Industrial Complex and how these impoverish the nations that are committed to them and impoverish the people of the world as a whole. ‘‘War’’, as he says, ‘‘creates poverty’’. If even a small fraction of these sums were directed by an organisation such as WHO or UNICEF towards improving health, eradicating disease, providing education and technical assistance such as basic hygiene, access to water and electricity in the poor parts of the world, the lives of billions could be immeasurably improved. $1.7 trillion dollars is currently spent by the richest nations on armaments. An enormous river of money, he says, buys the votes of politicians and the propaganda of the media that continually announces the existence of a new enemy and the defensive preparations needed to counter-act its menace.

Vol. 50, No.38, Mar 25 - 31, 2018