On the occasion of the Asian Peace Conference that took place on the 3rd of April 2022, Pressenza editor, Tony Robinson gave an intervention on the subject of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in Asia and the need to eliminate them. The text of that intervention is published below for our readers.
Many thanks to the organisers of this event for inviting me to speak today. Greetings to the other panellists and to everyone who has joined online to hear these hopefully interesting and thought provoking interventions.
As has been said in the introduction I am an activist for peace through the path of active nonviolence and I have spent well over 30 years of my life on this path.
In the year 2006, this activism became focused on one particular topic, namely the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need to eliminate them.
I grew up in the English countryside in the 1980s, it was the height of the Cold War and we were terrified by the prospects of nuclear war in Europe. Anyone who saw the film Threads in 1984 which depicts the impacts of nuclear detonations on the city of Sheffield, one and a half hours north by car from where I lived, was traumatised by the images. It was a similarly themed film, The Day After, which was set in the states of Kansas and Missouri in the USA that convinced President Reagan to start talking to President Gorbachev about nuclear disarmament, and in Iceland in 1986 there was almost an agreement to dismantle all nuclear weapons completely. If that had happened, I wouldn’t be on this panel now.
Sadly that didn’t happen.
Nuclear weapons in Asia
We are now 77 years since the first nuclear bombs were detonated on the Asian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 210,000 people as a result of the force of the explosions and the fires (almost 50% of the official populations of those cities at the time), with up to half a million more people dying over the following decades as a result of radiation sickness and various forms of cancers. This includes the children and grandchildren of those initial survivors. Now, the survivors of those atrocities are fewer and fewer every year. The youngest witnesses to those events are over 90 years old. All but a few survivors and anti-nuclear activists now understand the full horror of nuclear weapons.
Yet there are nine countries in the world who possess nuclear weapons. Six of these are located on or straddle the Asian continent: Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Although there are no certain figures because governments refuse to be transparent about their ability to mass-murder civilians in their millions, what the experts at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found in 2021 is that these 6 countries have between them: 7056 nuclear weapons unequally distributed between Russia (6255), China (350), Israel (90), India (156), Pakistan (165), and North Korea (40).
Each and every one of these bombs has a strength greater than those dropped in 1945. Remember: those two small bombs on two relatively small cities, killed half of the population instantly.
The Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons
However, we don’t need to have a nuclear war in order to understand intellectually what nuclear weapons would do in today’s world, because friends from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War published an alarming study in 2012 and updated it one year later in 2013. The report was titled “Nuclear famine: two billion people at risk” and it described the effects of a hypothetical nuclear conflict between two small nuclear powers: India and Pakistan.
Their scenario imagines that a conflict between these two countries goes nuclear and that both sides use 50 missiles of a similar power to those used in Japan, targeted at each other’s major cities. Remember: they don’t make missiles that small anymore!
It is estimated that one hundred missiles on one hundred cities causes 100 firestorms. 20 million people would die in the first week as a result of the explosions, the fires and radiation sickness. This of itself is horrifying enough, but that’s just the start.
The firestorms would launch an estimated 5.5 million tonnes of black soot into the atmosphere. This blocks out the sun, cools the planet, dries it out because there’s less precipitation because less water evaporates, and shortens the growing season. On top of that, the ozone layer would be damaged allowing dangerous UV radiation to reach the Earth’s surface.
The impact on the growing season will have a profound effect on food production all over the globe. Not just in South Asia, but in Africa, Latin America, China, Russia, the USA and Europe. The world’s wheat fields, rice fields, corn fields, and everything else within one year are producing significantly less of the food they were producing before.
Corn and soybean production in the USA drops by 10%. Chinese rice production drops by 20%. Chinese wheat drops by 50%, the list goes on. There are currently just under 1 billion people on the planet who are malnourished, consuming less than 1750 calories a day. These people have the least power to control their own destinies and access food. Immediately these people are at risk of starvation and they will starve. But with these types of drops in food production, hundreds of millions more are dumped into malnutrition, fighting for survival.
As a result of this, the limited war would trigger a worldwide famine putting up to 2 billion people at risk of starvation. This is unprecedented in history!
It is the end of civilization as we know it. Everything that we hold dear, everything that we love and cherish is gone. What value will money have in such a situation? Can you eat it? What value will other human beings have for you when you’re hungry? Who will respect the rule of law when you don’t know if you’re going to eat tomorrow? Who is going to stand in line patiently to pay for groceries at the market?
Take a moment, and think about what you would do the moment you hear that a nuclear war has broken out in any part of the world…
And if you’re living close to where one of these bombs has been detonated, you’re completely screwed. Your mobile phone won’t work anymore, because the electro-magnetic pulse that was unleashed by the explosion will bring down electricity and telecommunication grids. You’ll be in the dark and in silence, literally, not knowing what is happening in the outside world, not knowing if any kind of humanitarian relief will come.
And in reality, there will be no humanitarian relief. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported to the 2013 conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in Oslo, Norway that there is no possible humanitarian response that can be given.
In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 90% of medical facilities were destroyed by the two bombs. In Hiroshima, out of 300 doctors in the city, 270 of them were killed along with 1600 out of 1700 nurses. Which countries will send humanitarian relief? What facilities will they work in? How will they be able to protect their workers from the fallout which will cover everything in radioactive dust? How will they access the power to run their machines? How will they be able to bring food for their own sustenance knowing that those they treat will not have access to it?
The whole thing is unthinkable and it must be stopped from ever happening.
Nuclear power stations
But this is not even close to the end of the horror that will be unleashed.
Including the whole of Russia, Asia is home to 174 operable nuclear power stations: China 53, Russia 37, Japan 33, South Korea 24, India 23, and Pakistan 5. On top of this there are smaller scale research reactors in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Iran and Israel. With others in development in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Nuclear power stations are dependent on an unceasing supply of electricity to keep water pumping in order to keep the whole thing cool enough. As previously mentioned, the disruption to electricity grids as a result of electro-magnetic pulses from the bombs themselves will cause those power stations to be without electricity from the grid. They all have back-up systems which will allow operators to keep their facilities cool for a short time, but eventually those power stations that go offline will not be able to keep the reactors cool enough and there will be meltdowns and explosions.
Each one of the 174 operable power stations is another Chernobyl, another Fukushima waiting to happen. In this case though, there is no one coming to risk their lives to cover the melted nuclear fuel as those brave Soviet and Japanese technicians, soldiers, fire-fighters and engineers did in their day. Radiation will be spewed into the atmosphere. A typical power plant generating 1000 MWe contains 100 tonnes of uranium.
To put that into context, the Hiroshima bomb, which was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths through radiation poisoning in the weeks and months after the bombing contained only 64 kilograms of uranium.
Even one nuclear power station going out of control like this has the potential to make the whole planet radioactive. As a reminder for those who may not know because of the distance in time and geography, there are parts of Scotland, 1700 miles away from Chernobyl, that for years were unable to be used for food production because of the heightened levels of radioactive isotopes in the soil.
This is not fiction or scare-mongering. A few weeks ago in Ukraine, alarm was caused when electricity supply problems affected the Zaporizhzhya power station with 2 functioning nuclear reactors. It was estimated that there were enough back-up systems in place to keep the plant safe for 3 weeks. For those who may have lost interest, there is still a war being waged in the Ukraine. Ukraine has 15 operable nuclear reactors. Damage to any one of them, either accidental or intentional, will be an absolute catastrophe.
As I was writing this yesterday, and re-reading this section, I became nervous that I might be scaring this audience with this information, but in reality we should all be afraid. Nuclear technology is dangerous and obsolete. It would be dangerous enough even in a world in which all countries are at peace with one another. In this world, nuclear technology is utterly foolhardy.
In the 1980’s a peace movement made up of millions of terrified people on both sides of the Berlin Wall was able to mobilise and bring the superpowers of the time together to bring an end to the Cold War and a massive reduction in nuclear weapons from over 70,000 weapons down to 13,000. But as I have just explained, 100 nuclear weapons targeted on cities will bring an end to civilization. Of course, an exchange of hundreds of weapons in the hands of the USA and Russia will bring all forms of life on the planet to a terrifying and painful end.
Did evolution really take us from a bunch of amino acids in our primeval seas to the levels of consciousness exhibited by human beings, for us to end it all like this?
However, now for the better news. Oblivion for the human race in a nuclear holocaust is not our predetermined destination. There is hope for a better future. Those signs of hope are very weak at the moment, but they are there.
At an international and diplomatic level, a growing number of countries around the world are waking up to the dangers. As I mentioned before, in 2013 a conference in Oslo started to look at the most up-to-date information there exists on the impacts of nuclear weapons. It was followed up by other conferences in Mexico and Austria and as a result of that, in 2017 122 members of the United Nations agreed on the text of a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons use and the threat of their use was already illegal under the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law which have been in force for decades, but the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons categorically and explicitly states that nuclear weapons are banned. It was a turning point in nuclear weapon diplomacy. Of course, the nine countries with nuclear weapons refused to participate, neither did most of their allies in military alliances, yet a message was sent and the nine nuclear weapons states complained loudly and bitterly about it.
These 122 countries took the first steps in making nuclear weapons taboo and stigmatised them. Public opinion has been changing similarly with survey after survey showing that nuclear weapons should be abolished, even and especially, in those countries that claim the need for them for their national security doctrines. Financial institutions have been moving their money from companies that allow nuclear weapons manufacturers to operate. There is slowly a momentum growing to eliminate nuclear weapons, although it remains to be seen what the effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine will be on public opinion.
The Peace Movement going forward
But the work of the peace movement has to be in moving governments with nuclear weapons to give them up and to phase out their nuclear power. This will only happen through raising awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons. And thus this World Humanist Forum in Asia is very welcome because it is only through reaching out, networking, and educating ourselves on important issues such as this that we will be able create the change in human consciousness that is urgently required if we are to avoid nuclear winter.
Let’s be clear, the paradigms of the global system in which we live have created the situation we’re in now, and it will not be until those paradigms changed that we have the chance to change the course of human civilization.
But what is the central paradigm on which our global society is based? I’m sure you all know it: the most important value in this society is money. The difference between having it and not having it is literally the difference between living and dying.
This is the only reason why nuclear weapons exist. We have taken money from being a simple tool for exchanging goods and services, and we have turned it into something that must be accumulated at all costs: all costs to our own wellbeing, but more importantly to the wellbeing of every other human being and life form on the planet. In order for some to be able to acquire offensive amounts of money, amounts that it would take thousands of lifetimes to spend, they must have access to the strongest forms of violence in order to impose their will on others.
This violence comes in many forms: economic, psychological, sexual, etc., but the worst form is the physical violence. And the worst form of physical violence, today, is nuclear weapons.
This forum focusing on the Asian region, if it is going to make a useful contribution to the peace movement, has got to work on changing the paradigms on which our societies are based.
And what we will find in the process is that all the myriad forms of social activism that exist in the world today are all expressions of the same discontent with the overriding paradigm on which our society is based.
Women’s emancipation, poverty, environmental destruction, climate change, peace, children’s rights, the fight for sexual diversity and different sexualities, the list goes on and on. All of these themes are calling for the same thing: put human life as the central value, and return money to being the benign tool that it has been for the vast majority of human history.
We don’t have much time to change the course of history. The climate is changing at a rapid pace and countries are not doing even a fraction of what they could to stop it.
I wish this forum the best of success, I look forward to hearing from the other panellists, and I will be happy to take questions if time allows.