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 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT