An Ounce of Prevention…is Worth a Kiloton of Cure

January 8, 2018 | 1:14 pm
David Wright
Former Contributor

As part of its ongoing online training system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has scheduled a webinar later this month titled “Public Health Response to a Nuclear Detonation.”

The description of the webinar on the CDC website says: “While a nuclear detonation is unlikely, it would have devastating results and there would be limited time to take critical protection steps. Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness.”

(Source: CTBTO)

On the one hand

This makes some sense. With global stockpiles of more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of nine countries around the world, thinking through the consequences of their use is the responsible thing for the CDC to do instead of pretending the world will make it through another few decades without someone detonating a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear use is a particular concern now given the flare-up of tension between North Korea and the United States and the bombastic threats by Kim Jong-un and President Trump (not to mention their recent boasts about their “nuclear buttons”).

Perhaps even more likely is a nuclear war by accident. The United States keeps hundreds of missile-based nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert with the option of launching them very quickly if early warning sensors report a Russian attack. Russia is believed to do the same. But technical and human mistakes over the past decades have led to a surprising number of cases in which one or the other country thought an attack was underway and started the process to launch a nuclear retaliation. How long until one of those mistakes doesn’t get caught in time?

The use of nuclear weapons could have horrific results. Many US and Russian warheads have explosive yields 20 to 40 times  larger than those of the warheads that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Because North Korean missiles are not very accurate, it would need to aim its nuclear weapons at large targets, namely big cities. While the United States does not intentionally target cities, many of its warheads are aimed at military or industrial targets that are in or near major population centers. The same is true for Russian targets in the United States.

In addition, a nuclear detonation could have world-wide consequences. Studies have shown that even a relatively limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan for example, could eject so much soot into the atmosphere that there would be significant global cooling for a decade. This “limited” nuclear winter could lead to widespread starvation and disease.

So, on the other hand…

A key message of the CDC briefing will hopefully be that the role public health professionals can play following a nuclear attack is relatively small, and the only real option is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in the first place. This is a case where an ounce of prevention is worth much more than a kiloton of cure.

Given that reality, there are several steps the United States should take to reduce the risk of nuclear use, including:

  1. Pursuing diplomacy with North Korea, with the immediate goal of reducing tensions and the risk of military attacks, and a longer term goal of reducing Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made clear repeatedly that he would like to do this. President Trump should get out of his way and let him.
  2. Eliminating the option of launching nuclear weapons on warning of an attack and taking all missiles off hair-trigger alert.
  3. Changing US policy so that the only purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter, and if necessary respond to, the use of nuclear weapons by other countries. Under this policy, the United States would pledge to not use nuclear weapons first.
  4. Scaling back the $1.2 trillion plan to rebuild the entire US nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years.
  5. Starting negotiations on deeper nuclear cuts with Russia and taking steps toward a verifiable agreement among nuclear-armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.