EDITOR’S NOTE: These remarks were first delivered at the conference “Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Is it Legal? Is it Constitutional? Is it Just?” held at Harvard University on November 4. The majority of the talks from this conference are now available on Public Books.
Among the things we know about nuclear weapons, two features are our focus today.
The first is the spectacular level of injury that nuclear weapons can inflict on the earth and all its inhabitants, human, animal, and plants. On our ground and on our sky.
Recent work on nuclear winter shows that if even a tiny fraction of the worldwide current arsenal is used—not 1 percent but 3/100th of 1 percent of the total blast power—20 million people will die on the first afternoon and 1 billion in the first months. That research, by scientist Alan Robock, has appeared in leading science journals.
It is for this reason that the International Committee of the Red Cross has said that, if even a single city is hit, its worldwide resources will not be sufficient to help.
Every study reaches the same conclusion. Even if the weapon should be still smaller—reduced so that it is 3/10,000 of 1 percent of the total nuclear blast power available today, the injuries will be beyond our reach. A study in the Netherlands showed that a single small nuclear weapon arriving in Rotterdam will kill 70,000 people. Ten thousand survivors will be severely burned. Yet in all of Netherlands there are only 100 burn beds. If the discrepancy between the number burned and the number of treatment beds seems uncivilized, recognize that Mass General, a leading hospital in Boston, has seven burn beds.
As the size of the weapon increases, so too do the injuries. According to a report by Steven Starr, Lynn Eden and Ted Postol in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, if an 800-kiloton weapon should be detonated above Manhattan, the center of the blast will be four times the temperature of the sun and within “tens of minutes,” a firestorm will cover 90 to 150 square miles.
So the first feature is the unconscionable level of injury, injuries that cannot be repaired. Only injuries that have not yet happened can be undone. Once they have happened it is too late to be indignant.
Even more central to our discussion: The second feature of the nuclear arsenal is that this capacity for unthinkable levels of injury resides in the hands of a solitary person, or a small handful of persons, in the United States as well as in the other nuclear states. Nuclear weapons strategy in the United States is designed around “presidential first use,” an arrangement that enables one man, the president, to kill and maim many millions of people in a single afternoon.
The key features of nuclear architecture are, then, this unthinkably magnified level of injury at one end of the weapon and at the other end of the weapon, an unthinkably small number of men who determine our collective fate and the fate of the planet.