NUCLEAR WEAPONS 101
Given their devastating force and long-lived toxicity, nuclear weapons can cause death, injury and illness on a cataclysmic scale. The health and environmental impact of nuclear weapons production, testing, and waste causes disproportionate harm to women, children, and people of color. Learn more below.
Nuclear Weapons 101
The extraordinarily devastating force and deadly toxicity of nuclear weapons sets them apart from all other weapons. The detonation of a single nuclear bomb can kill hundreds of thousands and cause injury and illness for many more. A limited nuclear war can kill up to 2 billion through climatic effects that cause global famine. A full scale nuclear war threatens humanity itself.
Nuclear weapons are ill equipped for the security challenges of the 21st century, but instead of complying with our obligation through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to eliminate them, the U.S. is pursuing plans to replace its entire arsenal. Proponents, which include defense contractors who profit handsomely from weapons production, argue that nuclear weapons are needed to deter adversaries from attacking the U.S. In fact, nuclear deterrence is myth. Over the decades there have been numerous instances where equipment failure, accidents, and miscommunication have nearly caused a nuclear war. It is only luck that saved us. Luck is not a good nuclear security strategy because eventually, it runs out. In the case of nuclear war, the consequences are catastrophic and irreversible.
In addition, deterrence theory relies upon rational state actors – leaders who are not given to impulse or tantrums, who understand that the consequences of launching a nuclear attack include a devastating retaliatory response. Unfortunately, this is not the case today. The bottom line is that nuclear weapons do not keep us safe, they are a tremendous threat to our security. This is why Back from the Brink is calling upon the U.S. to lead a global effort to prevent nuclear war by adopting our five policy solutions.
What exactly makes nuclear weapons so destructive? How many nuclear weapons exist in the world? How much do these cost? Answers to these questions and more can be found in these resources from nuclear weapons experts.
The US Nuclear Arsenal, web feature by Union of Concerned Scientists. “Our interactive tool visualizes every bomb and warhead in the US nuclear arsenal.”
How Do Nuclear Weapons Work? Article by Union of Concerned Scientists. “At the center of every atom is a nucleus. Breaking that nucleus apart—or combining two nuclei together—can release large amounts of energy. Nuclear weapons use that energy to create an explosion.”
Status of World Nuclear Forces by Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda from Federation of American Scientists.
NTI Educational Tutorials: NTI, in partnership with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, has developed this set of educational tutorials to build understanding among a new generation of experts and leaders on these often complex issues.
“Nuclear weapons activities, which range from mining, milling, production, testing, storage, and use disproportionately affect communities of color and women.”
State Representative, Oregon
Back from the Brink resolution adopted June 2019
Nuclear Deterrence is a Myth, and a Lethal One at That David P. Barash in The Guardian
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety book by Eric Schlosser
Closer than ever: It is 100 seconds to midnight – 2020 Doomsday Clock Statement by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Health & Environment
Nuclear weapons are uniquely harmful to our health and environment. Radioactive materials released into the environment during nuclear weapons production and use are exceedingly toxic and remain so for a very long time. Dangerous radionuclides such as strontium-90 and cesium-137 remain harmful for centuries, while plutonium-239/240 is dangerous for millennia. There is no safe level of exposure to radiation; risk increases with the amount of exposure and can result in illnesses such as leukemia, cancers, and birth defects, and death. Girls are especially vulnerable – a recent study found that girls exposed to ionizing radiation are 10 times more likely to suffer cancer at some point in their lives than predicted by “Reference Man,” a hypothetical average person used in radiation safety research.
Nuclear weapons are made from uranium or plutonium, which is derived from uranium. Uranium mining has caused severe health impacts such as tuberculosis and lung cancer among miners and in communities near mining sites, which in the U.S. are primarily Native American. Nuclear weapons testing has created generations of “downwinders” or people who became ill from living downwind from testing areas such as the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico and the Nevada Test Site. Workers in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex also became ill from exposure to radiation or harmful chemicals. Compensation programs for downwinders and nuclear workers are inadequate and elusive; many who apply have their claims denied.
Nuclear contamination in soil and groundwater is very difficult and expensive to clean up, and there is still no demonstrably safe long term storage solution for nuclear waste. This puts nearby communities at risk and jeopardizes vital ecosystems. Meanwhile, workers at nuclear weapons production, waste, and clean-up sites continue to be subject to dangerous conditions.
Yet these serious health and environmental impacts pale in comparison to the mass casualties and injuries that would result from a nuclear attack or a nuclear war. Hospitals, clinics, and medical supplies would be destroyed, with health professionals among the dead and wounded. Fires and radiation, along with shattered communication and transportation systems, would impede first responders brought in from out of the area. In an urban target such as New York, Los Angeles, or Washington DC, millions would have to evacuate to avoid radiation exposure, which would be challenging in any situation let alone nuclear war.
A limited or regional nuclear war would have global consequences. A PSR study found that a limited nuclear war using less than half a percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals could result in the deaths of as many as 2 billion people due to famine caused by climatic changes. A full scale nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would put enough soot in the upper atmosphere to cause an ice age that would last for a decade or more, killing off most of humanity if not our entire species.
We owe it to the memory of those lost and injured by nuclear weapons, and to future generations to come, to end this apocalyptic threat by eliminating nuclear weapons.
“As a member of the Hanford Clean Up Board, the intergovernmental body overseeing the clean up of the most toxic contamination site in the Western Hemisphere, I have witnessed first-hand the difficulty and extreme cost that nuclear storage and decontamination efforts incur. We are still attempting to deal with today, the lingering residue of the nuclear decisions of our past, and it is literally costing us billions of dollars.”
State Representative, Oregon
Co-Sponsor Back from the Brink resolution
adopted June 2019
Nuclear Famine: Two Billion at Risk? report by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibly
Catastrophic Humanitarian Harm report by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
The Cold War’s toxic legacy: Costly, dangerous cleanups at atomic bomb production sites article by William J. Kinsella, The Conversation
For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining’s Deadly Legacy Lingers – NPR
The Unequal Impacts of Nuclear Weapons fact sheet by Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility
Nuclear weapons exist within the systems of racism and colonialism. Decisions about where nuclear weapons are owned, created, tested, and used have historically and presently been made by those who already hold power and privilege. Justice for nuclear weapons harm is inextricably linked with racial justice.
In order to rectify the harm caused by our racist nuclear legacy, we must first confront the actions of the U.S. government in enabling it. The uranium used in U.S. nuclear weapons was mined both by forced labor in Belgian-occupied Congo, as well as by Navajo miners, who were neither informed of nor protected from the health effects of working in radioactive mines. To this day, it is extremely difficult or impossible for these victims to get compensation.
Additionally, nuclear armed-nations, including the U.S., often tested these weapons in their colonies or in areas that were inhabited by ethnic minorities in their respective countries. Over the course of nearly two decades, the U.S. conducted over 100 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and surrounding areas, known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. Inhabitants of these islands were forcibly removed from their homes, but the safeguards were insufficient, and many residents experienced acute radiation poisoning and long-term health consequences from this exposure. Furthermore, the U.S. government was actively conducting biological and radiation exposure tests on Marshall Islanders, adding insult to injury. To this day, the U.S. government refuses to provide Medicaid to those affected.
Testing also occurred on the U.S. mainland. In fact, the Trinity Test, which was the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon, occurred in South Central New Mexico in July of 1945, in an area populated with communities of color (including indigenous and latinx communities). Due to the secretive nature of the Manhattan Project, these communities – called Trinity downwinders – were neither informed nor protected from the effects of this explosion, and have still not been included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
The colonial nature of nuclear weapons continues today, with the U.S. using these weapons to threaten other countries and bully the world into submission, rather than working to improve diplomacy and build real trust. Until we all understand our shared humanity and begin to treat other countries and all peoples with trust and respect, we cannot achieve either nuclear abolition or justice for communities impacted by nuclear weapons production and testing.
“John is a savage, but a happy amendable savage. John is mayor of Rongelap Atoll. John reads, knows about God and is a pretty good mayor.”
50’s era newsreel clip about Marshall Islanders who were brought to the U.S. for radiation health tests after their islands and people were devastated by repeated U.S. nuclear weapons tests.
The Racist Foundation of Nuclear Architecture by Elaine Scarry, Boston Review
Nuclear testing as a form of colonization – Salt Lake City Tribune article by Danielle Endres
‘Now I Am Become Death’: The Legacy of the First Nuclear Bomb Test – New York Times article by Maria Cramer
They Did Not Realize We Are Human Beings – Politico article on Marshallese communities in the U.S. Midwest
Reflections on Injustice, Racism, and the Bomb by Vincent Indonti, Arms Control Today
Climate change and nuclear weapons are inextricably linked. Like with climate change, working class communities of color would likely bear the brunt of a nuclear attack against the U.S., as weapons are designed to be used against urban areas, which contain higher proportions of communities of color. If even a small fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenals were to be used at the same time, the soot and smoke released from the damage caused would block sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface for years, drastically reducing average global temperatures and leading to famine that would kill billions of people worldwide.
Additionally, climate change drastically increases the likelihood of a nuclear weapon being used, as resource scarcity is a main driver of political instability, forced migration, and conflict. As regimes around the world attempt to grasp onto power in these unstable times, the temptation to develop nuclear weapons of their own in order to demonstrate their strength will only increase.
Our plans to store radioactive waste from nuclear tests and production are incompatible with the realities of climate change. Nuclear waste can remain hazardous for tens of thousands of years, a timeframe well beyond our ability to adequately contain or safely store it. A poignant example of this would be the Runit Dome, where 31 million cubic feet of nuclear waste is currently being stored after collecting all the waste from the site of numerous nuclear weapons tests over the course of 12 years. This waste is now considered extremely vulnerable to climate change, as sea level rise threatens the low-elevation islands, causing many to fear that the radioactive waste will begin leaking into the surrounding waters. This disturbing reality is a stark reminder of the disproportionate impacts of both climate change and nuclear weapons on the most vulnerable communities.
Finally, both issues are existential threats to humanity, requiring us all to work together to mitigate the damage caused and to prevent further harm. No one country can tackle these issues alone, but the U.S., as both the only user of nuclear weapons in war, and as the largest greenhouse gas contributor in history, should lead efforts on the international stage to reduce and eliminate these threats and to address the harm that was caused by our actions.
“As the effects of climate change place increased stress on communities around the world and intensify the likelihood of conflict, the danger of nuclear war grows..”
Alderperson, Ithaca, NY
Back from the Brink resolution adopted October 2018
Climate Change & Nuclear Weapons Use Physicians for Social Responsibility Wisconsin
How Rising Temperatures Increase the Likelihood of Nuclear War – Nation article by Michael T. Klare
How the U.S. Betrayed the Marshall Islands, Kindling the Next Nuclear Disaster– LA Times article by Susanne Rust
Morality & Ethics
The Back from the Brink campaign was launched in the aftermath of the adoption of the 2017 U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) with the aim of bringing U.S. nuclear weapons policy into greater alignment with this growing international norm and finally eliminating nuclear weapons through negotiations among the nine nuclear weapon states.
The success of the TPNW was driven by the moral argument about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons powerfully illustrated by the experiences of Hibakusha and other survivors of nuclear weapon use, testing, and production. Through their heart-wrenching testimonies, they conveyed the appalling humanitarian, health, and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons. In doing so, they disrupted the traditional consequentialist nature of disarmament diplomacy in which nuclear weapon states might consider reducing the role and value of nuclear weapons, yet continue to justify possession and threats to use them because of the perceived military utility of deterrence.
In contrast, Hibakusha and other survivors entered the discourse from the deontological end of the ethical spectrum with a moral narrative that universally and completely rejected the legitimacy of nuclear violence because of the unacceptable harm and suffering resulting from use, and by extension, threat of use, and indeed the very existence of nuclear weapons, based on the view that the only guarantee that they will not be used again is through complete elimination. It seems entirely unlikely that the new legal framing of the TPNW would have been possible without this new moral framing embodied by the lived experience of Hibakusha and other survivors.
As legal expert Nobuo Hayashi shared during the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, “Law stands on hollow ground where a solid moral conviction is absent.” The moral advocacy of Hibakusha and other survivors grew into a movement and has come to reflect the moral perspectives of a broad range of civil society actors, including faith leaders and communities from East to West. For example, in his 2009 nuclear abolition proposal issued in advance of the 2010 NPT Review, Japanese Buddhist thinker Daisaku Ikeda reiterated his long-standing rejection of nuclear deterrence, stating:
If we are to put the era of nuclear terror behind us, we must struggle against the real “enemy.” That enemy is not nuclear weapons per se, nor is it the states that possess or develop them. The real enemy that we must confront is the ways of thinking that justify nuclear weapons; the readiness to annihilate others when they are seen as a threat or as a hindrance to the realization of our objectives.
Similarly, at a conference held at the Vatican following the adoption of the TPNW on November 10, 2017, “Perspectives for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament,” Pope Francis delivered a landmark address in which he rejected deterrence with nuclear weapons, condemning “the threat of use” and “their very possession.” He stated:
They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity. Essential in this regard is the witness given by the Hibakusha, the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, together with other victims of nuclear arms testing. May their prophetic voice serve as a warning, above all for coming generations!
This growing moral conviction from Hibakusha and other survivors, faith communities, academics, scientists, civil society groups, and campaigns like Back from the Brink is vital for the success of the long-term project of convincing states that possess nuclear weapons that they are unacceptable. It offers a solid moral foundation to an ongoing process of delegitimizing nuclear weapons by undermining the legitimacy of valuing them regardless of their perceived military utility, and in doing so, provides a necessary corrective to a discourse that has been one-sided in its privileging of a step-by-step and building block approach favored by nuclear-armed states. When a multilateral agreement for the complete and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons is achieved, it will be indebted to the moral courage of Hibakusha and other survivors whose testimonies have reframed nuclear weapons discourse around humanitarian consequences.
“Nuclear weapons have always been immoral. Now they are also illegal. Together, let us go forth and change the world.”
Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor)
Nuclear Abolition Advocate
Faith communities call for the elimination of nuclear weapons at NPT PrepCom – Religious News Service
The Real Cost of Nuclear Weapons – video by Pax Christi International
Advocacy on Nuclear Weapons – United Church of Christ
Buddhist Leader Calls for Nuclear Weapons Free Security – Pressenza International News Agency