Skip to main content

No such thing as a safe number of nukes

By Ira Helfand and Alan Robock, Special to CNN
June 20, 2013 -- Updated 1055 GMT (1855 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama will seek cuts with Russia of up to one-third of nuclear weapons
  • Writers: No such thing as "acceptable" level; even lesser amount could obliterate humanity
  • Writers: 300 warheads would kill 100 million; the rest would die from starvation, poisoning
  • We cannot maintain nuclear arsenals indefinitely and still avoid a nuclear war, they say

Editor's note: Ira Helfand is a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Alan Robock is a distinguished professor of climate science at Rutgers University and a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union and American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of the Reviews of Geophysics, a geosciences journal.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, President Obama took a meaningful step toward reshaping our nuclear arsenal in line with the reality of 21st-century security priorities. Standing at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, he announced that he would seek negotiated cuts with Russia of up to one-third of strategic nuclear weapons as well as address the issue of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe.

But we must understand that these proposed reductions are significant only if they are part of an ongoing effort to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. If they serve to legitimize the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons at an "acceptable" level, the specter of nuclear catastrophe will continue to haunt humanity, for arsenals of this reduced size would still inflict unimaginable destruction across the planet.

A study by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PDF) showed that if only 300 warheads in the Russian arsenal got through to targets in American cities, 75 million to 100 million people would be killed in the first 30 minutes by the explosions and firestorms that would destroy all of our major metropolitan areas, and vast areas would be blanketed with radioactive fallout.

Ira Helfand
Ira Helfand
Alan Robock
Alan Robock

In addition, the entire economic infrastructure, on which we depend to sustain our population, would be destroyed. The transportation system, the communications network, the public health and banking systems, the food distribution network -- all would be gone. In the months after this war, it is probable that the vast majority of the American population who were not killed in the initial attack would die of starvation, exposure, epidemic disease and radiation poisoning.

Even with Obama's proposed reductions in nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia would each continue to possess more than triple the nuclear weapons required to cause that devastating scenario

But as unimaginable as these direct consequences would be, the effects throughout the world would be even worse.

A recent study by Robock, Oman and Stenchikov (PDF) showed that a nuclear war, even with the reduced numbers Obama has proposed, would cause catastrophic global climate disruption (PDF). The firestorms started by these nuclear explosions would loft 50 million to 100 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere, blocking out the sun. In a matter of days, temperatures around the world would plummet by as much as 20 degrees centigrade -- 36 degrees Fahrenheit -- in the agricultural regions in the interior of continents. The result would be a catastrophic failure of crops throughout the world and a global famine that could claim a majority of the human population.

Obama goes informal during Berlin speech

The existential threat to human civilization that nuclear weapons would still pose does not mean these proposed reductions are not useful. On the contrary, they are a critically important step to reduce the nuclear danger, and it is essential that we implement them as rapidly as possible.

But we can't stop there. This effort must lead to multilateral negotiations involving all nuclear weapons states, negotiations that will produce a nuclear weapons convention banning these weapons once and for all. These negotiations will not be easy, and the treaty they produce will have to be a hard-nosed agreement that establishes mechanisms to verify and enforce compliance. But we don't have an alternative.

Some say it is unrealistic to think we can eliminate nuclear weapons. But in truth, it is unrealistic to think we can maintain nuclear arsenals indefinitely and still avoid a nuclear conflict.

The Cuban Missile Crisis 51 years ago brought us to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Further, we know of at least five occasions since 1979 when either Washington or Moscow prepared to launch a nuclear war in the mistaken belief that they were themselves under attack. The most recent near miss that we know about was in January 1995, a full five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On each of these occasions we were incredibly luck and a national security strategy based on luck is not a wise course of action.

As long as there are arsenals of nuclear weapons, we are living on borrowed time. We owe it to our children to eliminate them from the world, and we should start by implementing the modest proposals made by Obama in Berlin this week.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ira Helfand and Alan Robock.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT