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Why are Nuclear Weapons
Uniquely Objectionable?

In the aftermath of the South Asian nuclear blasts, there has been much enthusiasm in Indian strategic analyst circles about nuclear deterrence, weaponization and command system development, and tactical weaponization in particular in the context of the wide range of Indian devices tested. In the process, the peculiarly unpleasant scientific realities about nuclear weapons, particularly as they apply to the subcontinent, are in danger of being glossed over and forgotten. There is a pressing need for these to be reemphasized, since the great difference between having a nuclear 'capability' and having real nuclear weapons is the huge increase in the chance of actual use.

Everybody, including the strategists [of both the party and the defence varieties] agrees that nuclear weapons are 'weapons of mass destruction'. The meaning of the phrase, however, is either not understood or not remembered. The enormous destructive capabilities of a nuclear weapon are frequently dismissed by some 'defence experts' as the inevitable ugliness associated with any weapon of war. In fact, this is part of a more general argument that nuclear weapons are simply another mode of waging war, and that they should not therefore be singled out for condemnation. This entire argument is fallacious and perverted, for two major reasons.

Blast quantity precludes target selectivity

The first and relatively smaller reason is connected to the 'advantage' of a nuclear weapon over a conventional one; - which is that it packs more of a 'punch', since it uses subatomic binding energies which are far stronger than the interatomic binding energies used in a conventional explosive. A kilogram of fuel material can yield a blast equivalent to the explosion of thousands of tons of TNT. But this advantage becomes less and less significant as the size of the explosion becomes less and less, since conventional explosives become more and more practical for smaller sizes of blasts. Nuclear weapons would thus hold no decisive practical advantage over non-nuclear explosives in the ton range [which marks most battlefield weapons]. Therefore, nuclear weapons would be most 'useful' in strategic parlance mainly for destruction of very large targets, - in other words, civilian ones such as cities. This makes nuclear weapons more and more 'attractive' as they get larger and larger; - a state of affairs directly opposite to notions governing warfare such as distinctions between combatants and bystanders and civilian versus military targets.

It is then no surprise that most nuclear weapons tested fall in the megaton [meaning million tons] category, where the electromagnetic pulse energy released by the blast can break windows eight hundred miles away, as in the 1962 atmospheric US nuclear tests. It can be estimated that most people would be injured or killed in a radius of three to thirty miles by nuclear bombs between 10 kilotons and 10 megatons. Small or large, all nuclear blasts create fireballs with temperatures exceeding 300,000 degrees celsius, shock waves that blow down everything in their path for many kilometres around, hurricane winds and secondary firestorms over large areas. It is unconscionable to suggest that such weapons either have been developed as or can ever be 'selective' weapons.

Release of radioactivity from nuclear weapons

However, the second and overwhelming reason for rejecting the notion that nuclear weapons are simply another way of waging war is that every nuclear explosion, big or small, releases both conventional and radioactive energy, contrary to assertions in a section of the 'strategic' brotherhood of 'clean' weapons . There are a number of ways that a nuclear weapon releases radioactivity. One, only a small part of the highly radioactive fuel material is actually converted into explosive energy during a nuclear blast. Both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, for example, used up less than 20 percent of the nuclear fuel available. While the efficiency of use has increased, it has not done so, nor can it ever do so, to the extent that ALL radioactivity will be converted to blast energy. In other words, the bulk of the radioactivity of a nuclear weapon is likely to be dispersed over the blast area as intensely radioactive particles. It is said that 'small', battlefield nuclear weapon are 'strategically' feasible for a 'limited' nuclear war. However, smaller nuclear weapons are even less efficient than large ones and will therefore scatter large amounts of unused radioactive fuel.

Radioactivity from a nuclear blast comes in two broad forms. The first is an immediate radioactivity pulse, which can kill people where they stand if the dose is high enough. However, this pulse dissipates rapidly, and this fact of dissipation is used by strategic hawks to claim that radioactivity release by a nuclear blast is no special evil, but is simply another way of getting a bomb to do what it is designed to do. However, the second form of radioactivity release is persistent radioactivity, partly from unused fuel as argued in the previous paragraph, partly from intermediate radioactive decay products of the fuel generated during the explosion, and in some part from 'induced' radioactivity generated in surrounding non-radioactive material by the immediate radioactive blast. All of these together constitute so-called radioactive 'dust' or 'fallout'. After the blast itself has dissipated, this radioactive dust hangs in the atmosphere, is spread by wind and rain, contaminates water and air, is taken up by plants and enters the food chain right at the bottom. The radioactive life span of many components of this dust is very long; - plutonium 239 has a 'half-life' of twenty four thousand years, meaning that it takes that long for the radioactivity output of the plutonium to come down by one-half. Radioactive dust thus impregnates soil, air and water for long years to come. The nuclear accident at Chernobyl and nuclear test sites are 'living' evidence of this.

All nuclear weapons release harmful radioactivity

A defensive argument used by 'nuclear hawks' is that plutonium 239 emits only alpha particle radioactivity, which cannot even penetrate thick paper particularly well. This is true and would be a reasonable point if this plutonium was kept well away from people. But as plutonium oxide in the radioactive dust permeating the post-nuclear environment it can enter the lungs and the gut and cause local radiation damage as well as be absorbed in quantities small but sufficient to cause havoc in the body. In fact, such local radiation deep within the body is even more likely to cause extensive damage to health than strong external irradiation pulses.

Another argument made is that thermonuclear, fusion or 'H-' bombs [such as the one that India is dubiously supposed to have tested in May 98] emit almost no radioactivity and have no fallout. This is disingenuous, since the fusion reaction is set off by a regular nuclear fission reaction which has the normal radioactivity and fallout consequences to be expected. Thus, while it is true to say that the amount of radioactivity released by a fusion bomb is less than would be released by a fission bomb, the distinction is of no practical relevance given the enormity of the consequences of even a one-kiloton nuclear fission explosion. It is even less relevant given some H-bomb designs where a 'fission shell' is actually used again to enhance the effects of the fusion explosion.

Damage due to radioactivity is indiscriminate in space and time

What sort of damage does such radioactivity cause? Radioactivity is an energy pulse and therefore damages what it passes through. This includes the DNA, - the blueprint, - of the cells of the body. Apart from the immediate effects caused by such cell death, damage to the cells that act as the 'progenitors' of cell types such as skin, or the gut lining or blood cells can lead to cancers of these tissues. Apart from such easily identified disease states, there is documentary evidence that many more subtle malfunctions of the body leading to ill-health are induced by nuclear weapon radiation exposure. Finally, radiation damage to the cells involved in reproduction, - the sperm and egg, - can cause stillbirths and congenital abnormalities, leading to the gene pool of the species being altered in violent and chaotic fashion.

To put some numbers to these abstract notions, it is useful to remember that a 'small', one- kiloton nuclear bomb will emit enough immediate radiation to kill in an area of a kilometre in diameter, and a radiation dose of about 30 rads per hour, which will reach killing levels in overnight exposure, can be reached over a 25 square mile region. These are the immediate killing effects. The statistical risks of genetic damage are far wider. Consider only one striking example. Taking x-ray pictures of the mother's belly in pregnancy, - doses of less than a rad, - is likely to increase the risk for the baby of developing cancer before adulthood by two-fold. A fallout dose of one rad per hour will be reached, - and last for years, - in an area of over one hundred square kilometres by a 'small' one-kiloton nuclear bomb.

There are no effective medical or civil defences against nuclear weapons

What can be done in civil defence against the effects of nuclear weapons, and how are the medical problems treated? There is much talk of 'bomb-proof' shelters and protected food and water supplies for civil defence, and of 'chelating agents' that would rapidly remove radioactive material from the body or 'anti-oxidants' that would obviate some of the secondary physiological effects of radiation. However, in an atmosphere impregnated with radioactive particles that are going to be active for thousands of years, any such emergency measures are puerile; - there is no effective civil defence against nuclear blasts, nor is there any preventive or curative medical treatment for their effects even in the unlikely event of the best possible medical facilities being available in the aftermath of a bomb blast.

Thus, unlike any conventional weapons of warfare, the damage caused by nuclear weapons is not limited either in space, or, even more devastatingly, in time. Nuclear weapons will leave effects transcending generations; - not only innocent people but their unborn children will be deeply damaged, as will be the world around them, by even a 'small' nuclear weapon. There is no way of ensuring that damage will not be done to bystander civilians, nor to limit the time for which damage will be caused. The damage by nuclear blast radiation is likely to be at least as grave if not more for the environment, where there will be violent and chaotic genetic alterations resulting for every life form on earth. The degradation of the local environment, with both short-term and long-term debilitating effects on the human communities, is likely to be even more drastic and less predictable than with the commoner man-made causes of such degradation.

Therefore, nuclear weapons are weapons that by their very nature are expected to target the innocent, and as such are quintessential terrorist instruments.

High risks of 'unintended' use of nuclear weapons

All of this is true if nuclear weapons are used. A second argument used by the pro-nuclear lobby is that they are intended only to 'scare people into good behavior', and that they will never in fact be used. So what is the likelihood that they will be used? It is a matter of common sense that having nuclear weapons, having deployed them, having so-called strategic command systems set up for them, steadily increases the chance that they will be used; - somewhat similar to the increase in the chance that windows will be broken if children [or men] in the house who don't have a ball are given one to play 'quietly' with.

A major part of the argument showing the futility of nuclear weapons as deterrence is technological. Given that more than one 'side' have nuclear weapons, watch systems need to be designed to warn for incoming missiles carrying nuclear weapons. Such surveillance systems are not and can never be fool-proof, and mistaken identification of all sorts of events as incoming nuclear missiles has occurred repeatedly in the past and will no doubt continue to occur. Between the two erstwhile 'global nuclear superpowers', the warning time has been in the vicinity of 30 minutes, during which time much confirmation, cross-checking and diplomatic conversation could and can be attempted. Between the new South Asian 'nuclear superpowers', the time lag is likely to be about one to three minutes. This means that no confirmation can be sought, no diplomacy can intervene, and a decision to retaliate 'just to be on the safe side' [whatever being safe in such a situation means] becomes immensely more likely. This increases manifold the chances of an 'inadvertent' nuclear exchange in South Asia.

Anti-nuclear 'defence' does not protect against nuclear weapons

In any actual, 'intended' exchange, the mutual targets, - civilian or military, - would certainly include nuclear installations, treaties notwithstanding, enhancing the potential for release of radioactivity still further. In fact, even if incoming nuclear missiles were to be 'successfully' intercepted and 'brought down' by defensive anti-missiles, this is quite likely to spread unexploded [and therefore heavily radioactive] nuclear weapon fragments over the subcontinental countryside. The South Asian subcontinent is an integral whole in many ways [political jingoism notwithstanding], which means that there is not a great deal of difference between 'us' hitting 'their' targets and 'them' hitting 'our' ones or simply both intercepting each other's missiles; - given the integrated vagaries of weather patterns across Pakistan and North India, the radioactive fallout is equally likely to spread indiscriminately over both nations.

Nuclear weapons are unrelated to science and technology

In both India and Pakistan, there has been much national hubris over these 'glowing achievements of cutting-edge science and technology'. It is a sorry comment on the scientific establishments of both countries that the copying of fifty-year-old technology available in the public domain for decades to produce demonstration prototype s needs to be propped up as a major claim to fame for subcontinental science, since neither technological nor conceptual innovation has been involved in building these nuclear weapons. The point and purpose of innovative science is to comprehend our world and hopefully, our selves, - and that of innovative technology is to use the comprehension [and perhaps wisdom?] gained to improve the quality of life of all human beings, everywhere. Nuclear weapons do not fit this bill. Instead, they foster a misleading and perverted view of science and technology as conquering and heroic activities in the aggressive macho militaristic mode that is so inimical to social justice and equity. Such macho nuclear weaponization decreases the transparency with which science and technology are pursued, and this is inevitably accompanied by a fall in quality in these pursuits, to the detriment of society.

Ever since it discovered exactly what nuclear weapons can do, the bulk of the scientific community the world over [including those who developed the first nuclear weapons] has consistently argued that it is irrational to be steadily increasing the chances of use of weapons that 'cannot' be used, and has been in sustained and vehement opposition to nuclear weaponry. There is every reason for the scientists and technologists of India to join their voices to those of their global communities and urge their fellow-citizens to reject the acquisition of nuclear weapons; - not because somebody compels us, but because reason impels us.