Skip to main content

A nuclear threat far greater than Iran

By Ira Helfand
updated 1:21 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
The consequences of a limited nuclear war, such as a conflict between India and Pakistan, would put 2 billion people's lives at risk.
The consequences of a limited nuclear war, such as a conflict between India and Pakistan, would put 2 billion people's lives at risk.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ira Helfand: Focus has been on stopping Iran nukes, but world has 17,000-plus warheads
  • He says even limited nuclear war with existing warheads could put 2 billion lives at risk
  • He says ensuing devastation would cause sharp decline in food and global famine
  • Helfand: How to prevent even accidental launch? Eliminate all nuclear weapons

Editor's note: Ira Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a past president of the organization's U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility. He is the author of the report "Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?"

(CNN) -- The world is focused on forging a durable agreement to prevent Iran from developing a single nuclear weapon. While critically important, these efforts ignore a far greater danger: the thousands of weapons that already exist.

There are today more than 17,000 nuclear warheads, an ongoing existential threat to human survival that has largely been ignored since the Cold War ended two decades ago. And, unlike Iran, there are no comparable negotiations under way to deal with these far more dangerous arsenals.

In fact, the humanitarian consequences of even a limited nuclear war, such as a conflict in South Asia between India and Pakistan, involving just 100 Hiroshima-size bombs -- less than 0.5% of the world's nuclear arsenal -- would put 2 billion people's lives and well-being at risk.

The local effects would be devastating. More than 20 million people would be dead in a week from the explosions, firestorms and immediate radiation effects. But the global consequences would be far worse.

Ira Helfand
Ira Helfand

The firestorms caused by this war would loft 5 million tons of soot high into the atmosphere, blocking out sunlight and dropping temperatures across the planet. This climate disruption would cause a sharp, worldwide decline in food production. There would be a 12% decline in U.S. corn production and a 15% decline in Chinese rice production, both lasting for a full decade. A staggering 31% decline in Chinese winter wheat production would also last for 10 years.

The resulting global famine would put at risk 870 million people in the developing world who are already malnourished today, and 300 million people living in countries dependent on food imports.

In addition, the huge shortfalls in Chinese food production would threaten another 1.3 billion people within China. At the very least there would be a decade of social and economic chaos in the largest country in the world, home to the world's second largest and most dynamic economy and a large nuclear arsenal of its own.

Rouhani: Nukes contradict our convictions
Breaking down Iran's nuclear deal

A nuclear war of comparable size anywhere in the world would produce the same global impact. By way of comparison, each U.S. Trident submarine commonly carries 96 warheads, each of which is 10 to 30 times more powerful than the weapons used in the South Asia scenario. That means a single submarine can cause the devastation of a nuclear famine many times over.

The United States has 14 of these submarines, plus land-based missiles and a fleet of strategic bombers. The Russian arsenal has the same incredible overkill capacity. Two decades after the Cold War, nuclear weapons are ill-suited to meet modern threats and cost hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain.

There is a growing global movement to prevent such a catastrophe. In 2011, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement called for its national societies to educate the public about these humanitarian consequences and called for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Seventeen nations issued a joint statement in May 2012 on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons that called for their total elimination. By this fall the number rose to 125 nations.

The international community should continue to take practical steps to prevent additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. But this effort to prevent proliferation must be matched by real progress to eliminate the far greater danger posed by the vast arsenals that already exist.

Simply put, the only way to eliminate the threat of nuclear war or risk of an accidental launch or mishap is to eliminate nuclear weapons.

This past year the majority of the world's nations attended a two-day conference in Oslo, Norway, on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The United States and the other major nuclear powers would not attend this meeting. There will be an important follow-up meeting in Mexico in February. America should lead nuclear weapons states in attending and embrace the call to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ira Helfand.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT