On June 6th, we at Pressenza premiered our latest documentary film, “The Beginning of the End of Nuclear Weapons”.  For this film, we interviewed 14 people, experts in their fields, who were able to provide insight into the history of the subject, the process which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and current efforts to stigmatise them and turn the ban into elimination.  As part of our commitment to make this information available to the whole world, we are publishing the full versions of those interviews, together with their transcripts, in the hope that this information will be useful for future documentary film makers, activists and historians who would like to hear the powerful testimonies recorded in our interviews.

This interview is with Dr. Ira Helfand, from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, at his home in Massachusetts, on the 24th of September, 2018.

Questions: Tony Robinson, Cameraman: Álvaro Orús.


My name is IRA Helfand, and I’m a member of the International steering group of ICAN, and I’m one of the co-presidents of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the founding partner of ICAN, and I’m also a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) which is the US affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

For how long have you been involved in anti-nuclear activism?

At this point, forty years.  I started working on this issue, in the spring of 1978.  We started the modern version of PSR in the summer of 1978, just 40 years ago, and I’m working on this issue since then.

What was it that led you into anti-nuclear activism?

We were just very concerned as a group about the public health threat posed by nuclear power and felt this was something that physicians had a responsibility to address, but we very quickly became aware of the far greater threat posed by nuclear weapons, and basically I think what drove all of us was this idea that nuclear weapons pose the greatest threat to public health in the history of the world, and that as physicians we have a responsibility to address that problem.  Because all the things that we do for our patients in the course of our daily practice are going to be for naught if the world blows up in a nuclear war, and this has been sort of the guiding motivation throughout the years for our work on this issue.

What is the evidence outlined in “Nuclear Famine: 2 billion people at risk”?

Well, you know, back during the Cold War, we used to think that the only real threat to the world as a whole was a large-scale war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and what we’ve learned in recent years is that even a much more limited nuclear war, one that might involve other nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, would in fact be a threat to the entire world.

The scenario that we looked at examines the consequences of a limited war between India and Pakistan in which each of these countries uses 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs against urban targets in the other country, and that’s a small fraction of their total arsenal and a tiny fraction of the world’s arsenal.

The direct consequences of that kind of a conflict are truly catastrophic.  We estimated in several studies that have been done that up to 20 million people would die in the first week as a result of the fires and the explosions and the short-term radiation effects, but the global consequences come from climate disruption.  A hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs going off over a hundred cities cause 100 fire storms, and they loft about five and a half million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere, which blocks out the Sun, cools the planet, dries the planet because less water evaporates from the ocean when the air is cooled to fall back as precipitation, shortens the growing season, due to other effects, exposes the planet to greater levels of ultraviolet radiation.  As a result of all of these climate effects there’s a profound effect on agriculture, on food production across the entire planet, not just in South Asia, but in Africa, in Latin America, in Europe, in North America, and as a result of this disruption of food production, this limited war in South Asia would, we believe, trigger a worldwide famine that would put up to two billion people at risk of starvation.

We don’t know the precise number of people who would die, but there is good reason to believe that up to two billion people would be at risk.  This is an event unprecedented in human history; the death of 2 billion people would not be the extinction of our species, were it to happen, but it would be the end of civilization as we know it, and no civilization in history has ever withstood a shock of this magnitude, and there’s no reason to think that the very intricate interrelated complex economic system that we all depend on would survive that kind of disruption.

Was this information ever contested in international fora?

I mean to this point no one has really challenged these findings.  We say, ourselves, that they are preliminary.  The climate science, I think, is very sound.  The effect that this kind of a war would have on temperature, on precipitation, and so on, has now been examined by several different climate models.  They all show basically the same results.  The impact on food production: the data is thinner, and we have said this from the outset.  We have been trying to get governments around the world to take this threat seriously and to do more robust studies to confirm or possibly refute the data that we’ve generated about food production, and at the moment there is a group of scientists organized by Alan Robock, who is one of the climate scientists who did the original research with his colleagues on the climate effects. Alan has pulled together a team that will be looking in much greater detail at the effect on food production.  So we hope to have more robust data in a few years’ time, but at this point this is the only data that’s out there, and it’s been in the public domain now for six years, and no one has seriously challenged it, and so I think at this time we need to proceed on the basis of this data.  It’s the best data available and [you know and] when you discover that a medication that’s been released on the market appears to be having terrible consequences, even if the data is preliminary, you pull the medicine until you are able to study it more closely. And we need to get rid of the weapons until we know that this isn’t going to happen, and of course again, this is the most limited of nuclear wars.

A large-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which is a very real possibility, would, we know, have consequences far more catastrophic, and on this there’s essentially no disagreement in the scientific community.

A war between the United States and Russia involving just the weapons which are on alert now, that are deployed now, that are available for use in short order in the course of a war, that war would put enough soot into the upper atmosphere to create a new ice age.  It would happen within a matter of days, it would last for a decade or more, and that would stop most food production on the planet. Under those conditions, I think there’s no one who argues other than that the vast majority of the human race would starve to death, and under those conditions we might become extinct as a species.

You know I think part of this information about the humanitarian impact of nuclear war is a profoundly inconvenient truth for the nine states that want to maintain nuclear arsenals.  They don’t like to talk about this, and, in fact, the Oslo conference in 2013 was the first time that there has ever been an international government-level conference to look at what actually happens if the weapons are used.  Prior to that the conversation about nuclear war was all couched in very abstract terms, sort of game theory. You know, if we have these weapons they’ll have those weapons and we’ll deter each other, and so on, and no one has wanted to talk about what happens if the weapons are actually used, because the only conclusion you can draw, if you look at that data, is that these weapons are too dangerous to exist.  The nuclear-weapons States sort of tried to maintain this myth that they exist only to deter the use of similar weapons by other countries, that they will never be used deliberately.

First of all we know that that isn’t true.  Nuclear-weapons States, especially the United States, have used nuclear weapons in the past and have frequently threatened to use them again, even against non-nuclear countries.  So these are viewed by the military, at least in the United States, and apparently in the other nuclear-weapon States as well, not just as a deterrent, but as war-fighting implements; weapons that can and may be used under various scenarios.  That truth needs to be underlined.  We need to understand that these weapons do not exist simply to deter their use, they exist to be used.  But beyond that, even if you assumed falsely that they only existed to deter their use, they’re not very good at that.

We know of at least six occasions when the world has come within minutes of nuclear war because deterrence failed, because one or another nuclear-weapon State, usually United States or Russia, believed it was under attack and actually began the process of launching its own nuclear weapons, only to stop at the very last minute when the mistake was discovered.  Six times that we know about that this has happened.  This is an insanely dangerous situation. [That we are in]

You know, we have been unbelievably lucky.  Robert McNamara, said after the Cuban Missile Crisis, “We lucked out.”  It was luck that prevented nuclear war, and basically the policy of maintaining these weapons, which is the policy of all nine nuclear-armed States, is really nothing more than a hope for continued good luck, and this is not an acceptable policy.

What are the possible implications of a nuclear detonation near a nuclear power station?

Well, you know, we’ve tended to focus in recent years much more on the climate effects because they are much greater.  I mean, it’s the climate disruption that is going to kill civilization, but it is very appropriate to be concerned also about the radiation effects and the incredible augmentation of that radiation threat that is posed by the existence of nuclear power plants. This, you know, is a major concern during the very tense days earlier in this year in Korea.

There are about 50 nuclear reactors, I believe I have the number right, in Japan, and I think there are 22 of them in South Korea, and in the event of a war in that part of the world many, if not all, of these might suffer catastrophic meltdowns with the release of enormous amounts of radioactivity, and locally in Korea and Japan this would be perhaps the dominant affect. Millions of people would be exposed to lethal doses of radiation, and tens of millions of people would be exposed to doses of radiation that would put them at increased risk for cancer should they survive the immediate post-war period.

So this is an enormous problem and one which is generally ignored completely.

What is the importance of the ban Treaty and what will its impact be?

Well the ban treaty, I think, is an enormous step forward.  It is a statement by the world community as a whole that these weapons are too dangerous to exist and must be eliminated, that we’re not talking anymore about arms control or arms reduction, we’re talking about the absolute necessity of eliminating this class of weapons completely, and when the treaty is ratified by the requisite 50 countries and enters into force this will be international law.

There is the obvious fact that none of the nine nuclear-armed States are part of this treaty process. We’ve understood that from the beginning of the negotiations, but despite that, this treaty, I believe, will put great pressure on them to move in the direction they need to eliminate their arsenals. It will create a new norm about nuclear weapons.  It will stigmatize them, which is a critical step in getting countries to agree to abandon them, and the fact that it is putting pressure on them, I think, is clearly reflected by the ferocity with which the nuclear-armed States have opposed this treaty.

If they did not feel it was putting pressure on them to change their policy they wouldn’t care about it, but they do deeply, and they’ve worked very hard to try to stop this treaty.  So for us now the task is figuring out how to use the treaty most effectively to put pressure on the nuclear-armed States.  I think that’s going to involve work particularly in the “umbrella States” – the countries which have nuclear alliances mainly with the United States and Britain and France – to get them to join this process as well, to further isolate the countries that have nuclear weapons, and we need to start focusing on political activity within the nuclear-armed States as well.  So that, for example, here in the United States, we’ve launched nationally a campaign called “Back from the Brink”: a call to prevent nuclear war which is designed to create a national consensus in the United States that the US needs to fundamentally change its nuclear policy, that it needs to abandon a policy based on the continued maintenance of the nuclear arsenal, and choose instead to actively pursue negotiations with all eight other nuclear-armed States to establish a verifiable, enforceable, time-bound arrangement for eliminating all of the weapons that still remain in the world today, and we need to see work of this sort in the other nuclear-armed States as well, and there certainly is work going on in France, in the UK, not as much visible activity in some of the other nuclear-armed States.

What are the next steps?

Well I think the countries that have signed the treaty need to explore what they can do now to put pressure on the nuclear-armed states.  Can they cut off the flow of capital to the nuclear arms race?  Can they deny transport in their territory and their territorial waters to nuclear armed military conveyances?  Can they force the nuclear-armed States to withdraw their nuclear arms which are stationed outside of their own borders back into their own countries?  And then they need to give whatever support they can to the political movements that are growing within the nuclear-armed States to force them to change their policy.

And when I mentioned that list of countries where there’s a lot of visible activity I neglected India where there is a very vigorous campaign as well. IPPNW has a terrific affiliate in India that is working very hard to build public opposition and they’re doing it with some great allies.  We’re working with Rotary in India and other groups to try to do this.

What is your personal motivation as an anti-nuclear campaigner?

I mean basically I think we face an incredibly dangerous situation.  I think if we don’t get rid of these weapons they are going to get rid of us, and everything that we cherish, you know, our careers, our homes, our children, our families, is going to be destroyed, and it doesn’t have to be.

These weapons are not a force of nature, they’re not an act of God.  We have built these weapons. We know how to take them apart, and it’s really up to us whether we do the right thing and get rid of these weapons or not.  And I think it’s just the most important thing in the world to do.

I’m also somewhat optimistic that we can achieve this.  I can’t guarantee it.  I don’t know if we’re going to be successful, but in the 1980s we were racing towards nuclear war.  There were 60,000 warheads in the world.  The US and the Soviet Union were each adding three thousand more warheads per year to their nuclear arsenals, and they were making active plans to fight a nuclear war in Europe that would have destroyed humanity.

A movement in Europe, in the Soviet Union, here in North America stopped that march to war.  We ended the Cold War arms race.  We reversed the Cold War arms race, and I believe that we saved the world.  I think that there would have been a nuclear war were it not for that political movement.  So what we are asking ourselves to do today is not impossible.  We’re just asking ourselves to do again what we have already done successfully once before, and that sense of possibility that guarded optimism is a very important part of my mind-set as well.

I worry about what’s going to happen if we don’t take action, and I believe that if we do take action we can save the world.  That’s a pretty good thing to do with your life, and it’s a worthwhile thing to do, and I hope that when people are thinking about this.

I mean when I do public speaking you can see people kind of getting, “Oh my god! This is such a huge problem what can I do about it.”  And I think it’s important for us all to understand, that no one of us is going to do this by ourselves, but if each one of us does that part of the job which is ours to do, we can be successful again as we were in the 80s, and we can save the world again, and we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, “Hey okay, I do what I was supposed to do.”