Imagine Haiti with Radiation Sickness and Burns: Why We Must Disarm

If we wish never to see a "nuclear Haiti," nuclear abolition must happen and it is up to all of us to maintain the pressure on our leadership until it does.

If you want to know what the aftermath of a nuclear attack might look like, go to Haiti today. Then picture those same hundreds of thousands -- and possibly several million -- of already suffering people also enduring radiation sickness and severe burns. 'No thanks', I hear you say, 'it's bad enough already'.

Quite right. It is. Which is why the prospect of nuclear war is always bracketed with the words "unimaginable horror;" except of course it is not "unimaginable" since the United States already inflicted such a nightmare on the people of Hiroshima and Nagaski.

The seismic shock that hit Haiti was so great that, according to Roger Musson of the British Geological Survey, the energy released was equivalent to a half-megaton nuclear bomb -- or about 38 Hiroshima bombs.

Unfortunately, the prospect of an accidental or even deliberate nuclear attack is well within the scope not only of our imagination but of reality. And, like Haiti, the target country could be one -- or even two -- of the poorest in the world, densely populated and impoverished and equally ill-equipped to cope with such an abrupt tragedy. That is because a nuclear conflagration today is more likely between India and Pakistan -- already at daily unofficial war and armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons -- than between Russia and the United States which are back at the negotiating table.

How likely is it? Not quite as likely as it used to be, according to the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who on January 14 turned back their famous Doomsday Clock by one minute, from five minutes to midnight to six. They wrote: "For the first time since atomic bombs were dropped in 1945, leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to vastly reduce their arsenals and secure all nuclear bomb-making material."

However, tensions between India and Pakistan -- estimated to have around 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs each -- have eased little, if at all. And the rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan raises the specter that a nuclear attack could come, not from a nation state, but from terrorists armed, if not with an actual nuclear missile then with nuclear materials to be used in a "dirty bomb" that would disperse radiation, killing thousands immediately and many others later.

Nor has the danger of nuclear weapons coming into the possession of terrorists been mitigated by the "elephant in the room" that the arms control community rarely acknowledges and refuses to touch: the spread of nuclear power technology. Permitted under the flawed Article IV of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, countries that agree never to develop nuclear weapons are awarded "the inalienable right" to develop nuclear energy programs instead. This, not surprisingly, provides the materials, personnel, technology and know-how to develop nuclear weapons anyway, even clandestinely, which is exactly how India and Pakistan got theirs in the first place. Today, at least 40 countries possess enough materials from their civilian programs to transition to nuclear weapons. Much of the Middle East is attempting to add itself to that list.

If India and Pakistan were to use their nuclear arsenals against each other, the disaster that is Haiti today would be greatly magnified and the repercussions would be felt far across the planet. According to a group of scientists -- some of whom worked with Dr. Carl Sagan on the original nuclear winter findings and who researched such a scenario in two 2007 studies -- the smoke plume pathways from the resulting fires would result in a nuclear winter-like effect, destroying agriculture and altering the climate far from the point of conflict. Global agriculture would thus be decimated causing widespread and catastrophic famine.

Agricultural collapse is an often cited consequence of climate change as well. Indeed, the twin catastrophes of the climate crisis and of nuclear war share some similar outcomes. However, nuclear weapons have the capacity to bring on global tragedy far faster than climate change, while allowing little or no time for adaptive or even preventive measures to be taken.

Opportunities to disarm in 2010 abound. The U.S. is expected to finally ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as pledged by President Barack Obama. He and Russian president, Dimitry Medvedev, are due to finalize a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference will take place at the United Nations in New York in May, preceded by a Global Nuclear Security Conference in Washington, DC in April.

The presence, proliferation and potential use of nuclear weapons remain, arguably, the number one threat to our planetary survival. Our leaders have the opportunity to act. Nuclear abolition -- if we wish never to see a "nuclear Haiti" -- must happen and it is up to all of us to maintain the pressure on our leadership until it does.

Linda Gunter is co-founder of Beyond Nuclear.
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