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Reducing risks of nuclear war—the role of health professionals

Editorial in multiple international health journals

Note: A signer of this editorial, Ira Helfand, past president of the International Physicians to Prevent Nuclear War, asked Ann Suellentrop of Physicians for Social Responsibility-KC and PeaceWorks-KC to publicize this editorial.

In January 2023, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward to 90 seconds before midnight, reflecting the growing risk of nuclear war.1 In August 2022, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is now in “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”2    The danger has been underlined by growing tensions between many nuclear armed states.1,3  As editors of health and medical journals worldwide, we call on health professionals to alert the public and our leaders to this major danger to public health and the essential life support systems of the planet—and urge action to prevent it.

Current nuclear arms control and non-proliferation efforts are inadequate to protect the world’s population against the threat of nuclear war by design, error, or miscalculation. The Treaty on the  Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) commits each of the 190 participating nations ”to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.4 Progress has been disappointingly slow and the most recent NPT  review conference in 2022 ended without an agreed statement.5 There are many examples of near disasters that have exposed the risks of depending on nuclear deterrence for the indefinite future.6 Modernisation of nuclear arsenals could increase risks: for example, hypersonic missiles decrease the time available to distinguish between an attack and a false alarm, increasing the likelihood of rapid escalation.

Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for humanity. Even a “limited” nuclear war involving only 250 of the 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world could kill 120 million people outright and cause global climate disruption leading to a nuclear famine, putting 2 billion people at risk.7,8 A large-scale  nuclear war between the USA and Russia could kill 200 million people or more in the near term, and potentially cause a global “nuclear winter” that could kill 5-6 billion people,  threatening the survival of humanity.7,8   Once a nuclear weapon is detonated, escalation to all-out nuclear war could occur rapidly. The prevention of any use of nuclear weapons is therefore an urgent public health priority and fundamental steps must also be taken to address the root cause of the problem—by abolishing nuclear weapons.

The health community has had a crucial role in efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war and must continue to do so in the future.9 In the 1980s the efforts of health professionals, led by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), helped to end the Cold War arms race by educating policy makers and the public on both sides of the Iron Curtain about the medical consequences of nuclear war. This was recognised when the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the IPPNW.10(http://www.ippnw.org).

In 2007, the IPPNW launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which grew into a global civil society campaign with hundreds of partner organisations. A pathway to nuclear abolition was created with the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, for which ICAN was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.  International medical organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the IPPNW, the World Medical Association, the World Federation of Public Health Associations, and the International Council of Nurses, had key roles in the process leading up to the negotiations, and in the negotiations themselves, presenting the scientific evidence about the catastrophic health and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. They continued this important collaboration during the First Meeting of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which currently has 92 signatories, including 68 member states.11

We now call on health professional associations to inform their members worldwide about the threat to human survival and to join with the IPPNW to support efforts to reduce the near-term risks of nuclear war, including three immediate steps on the part of nuclear-armed states and their allies:   first, adopt a no first use policy;12 second, take their nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert; and, third, urge all states involved in current conflicts to pledge publicly and unequivocally that they will not use nuclear weapons in these conflicts. We further ask them to work for a definitive end to the nuclear threat by supporting the urgent commencement of negotiations among the nuclear-armed states for a verifiable, timebound agreement to eliminate their nuclear weapons in accordance with commitments in the NPT, opening the way for all nations to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The danger is great and growing.  The nuclear armed states must eliminate their nuclear arsenals before they eliminate us. The health community played a decisive part during the Cold War and more recently in the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We must take up this challenge again as an urgent priority, working with renewed energy to reduce the risks of nuclear war and to eliminate nuclear weapons.

  1. Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists .  A time of unprecedented danger: it is 90 seconds to midnight.  2023 Doomsday Clock Statement. Jan 24, 2023.  (https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/  (accessed June 1, 2023).
  2.  UN. 2022. Future Generations Counting on Our Commitment to Step Back from Abyss, Lift Cloud of Nuclear Annihilation for Good, Secretary-General Tells Review Conference, Press Release Aug 1, 2022  SG/SM/21394 (https://press.un.org/en/2022/sgsm21394.doc.htm accessed 10 July 2023)
  3. Tollefson J. Is nuclear war more likely after Russia’s suspension of the New START treaty? Nature 2023; 615: 386.
  4. UN. 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). May 2–27, 2005. https://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2005/npttreaty.html (accessed June 2, 2023).
  5. Mukhatzhanova G. 10th NPT Review Conference: why it was doomed and how it almost succeeded. Arms Control Association. October, 2022. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2022-10/features/10th-npt-review-conference-why-doomed-almost-succeeded (accessed June 2, 2023).
  6. Lewis P, Williams H, Pelopidas, Aghlani S. Too close for comfort, cases of near nuclear use and options for policy. Chatham House Report. April, 2014. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2014/04/too-close-comfort-cases-near-nuclear-use-and-options-policy  (accessed June 1, 2023).
  7. Bivens M. Nuclear famine. IPPNW. August, 2022. https://www.ippnw.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/ENGLISH-Nuclear-Famine-Report-Final-bleed-marks.pdf (accessed June 1, 2023).
  8. Xia L, Robock A, Scherrer K, et al. Global food insecurity and famine from reduced crop, marine fishery and livestock production due to climate disruption from nuclear war soot injection. Nat Food 2022; 3: 586–96.
  9. Helfand I, Lewis P, Haines A.  Reducing the risks of nuclear war to humanity.  Lancet 2022; 399: 1097–98. 
  10. Nobel Prize Outreach AB. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War—facts. 1985. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1985/physicians/facts/ (accessed June 1,  2023).
  11. UN Office for Disarmament Affairs. Treaties Database. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, status of the Treaty. 2023. https://treaties.unoda.org/t/tpnw (accessed  June 1, 2023.
  12. Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. No first use: frequently asked questions. 2023.  https://armscontrolcenter.org/issues/no-first-use/no-first-use-frequently-asked-questions/  (accessed  June 2, 2023).

Authors:

Kamran Abbasi, Editor-in-Chief, British Medical Journal; Parveen Ali, Editor-in-Chief, International Nursing Review; Virginia  Barbour, Editor-in-Chief, Medical Journal of Australia; Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, Editor-in-Chief, JAMA; Marcel GM Olde Rikkert, Editor-in-Chief, Dutch Journal of Medicine; Andy Haines, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Ira Helfand, Past President, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet; Bob Mash, Editor-in-Chief, African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine; Arun Mitra, Past President, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; Carlos Monteiro, Editor-in-Chief, Revista de Saúde Pública; Elena N. Naumova, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Public Health Policy; Eric J. Rubin, Editor-in-Chief, New England Journal of Medicine; Tilman Ruff, Past President, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; Peush Sahni, Editor-in-Chief, National Medical Journal of India; James Tumwine, Editor-in-Chief, African Health Sciences; Paul Yonga, Editor-in-Chief, East African Medical Journal; Chris Zielinski, University of Winchester, World Association of Medical Editors.

Correspondence: czielinski@ippnw.org

This Comment is being published simultaneously in multiple journals. For the full list of journals see:  https://www.bmj.com/content/full-list-authors-and-signatories-nuclear risk-editorial-august-2023

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