Presentation during the ECOSOC Humanitarian Segment

Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will

17 July 2013

Discussing the humanitarian consequences of one or several potential nuclear detonations is not a new issue. It has been raised since 1945, when the devastating effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki unfolded. The use of nuclear weapons would cause massive destruction, death, disease and long-term harm to human society and the environment. 

Reaching Critical Will put together the publication “Unspeakable suffering – the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons” to increase the awareness of these issues in advance of the Oslo conference. It has chapters on health, environment, nuclear famine, economy, development, law and preparedness.

Today, I want to focus a bit more on the impact on health, environment and development that a nuclear detonation would have.

Nuclear weapons early direct effects include blast, heat causing burns and igniting massive fires, initial radiation, induced radioactivity, radioactive fallout, and electromagnetic pulse.

The numbers of casualties and injured of course depends on the size and numbers of explosions, the height of the explosion, and distance of subject from ground zero. These variables makes it difficult to come up with exact estimates of the effects.

In Hiroshima, 90,000-160,000 were dead by 2-4 months after the bombing from immediate effects, and later effects of burns, radiation and related disease. In Nagasaki, the corresponding numbers were 60,000-80,000.

A nuclear detonation can also cause long-term effects on health. A few years after the US nuclear bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first signs of long-term health effects were shown. Rates of leukemia were growing and continued to elevate until reaching a peak around 1955-1960 in both cities, showing a four to five times higher rate than a control population not exposed to radiation.

While recorded cases of leukemia started to decline in 1960s, solid cancer incidents then started to elevate in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such as lung, breast, stomach, liver and skin cancer. This increase reached a peak around 2000, and has plateaued since then.

Many survivors have also been reported to suffer significant psychological effects, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, the nuclear tests carried out for over four decades around the world have also had a detrimental impact on the humanitarian, social and economic situation of the population and the environment in those places.

In addition to the immediate and the long term human suffering caused by exposure to radiation, a nuclear explosion would also cause an environmental catastrophe, as the local surroundings would be severely impacted by both radiation (fallout) and non- radiation (fire, blast, shock). Animals would suffer from similar fates as humans, such as burns, radiation sickness, and cancers. There would also be a genetic impact on plants and animals that could be compounded as radioactive residue makes its way along the food chain.

And if we look at a scenario with a limited exchange of nuclear weapons, such as a regional nuclear war, studies have shown that it could cause significant climate disruption worldwide and through shorten growing seasons, lead to a serious decline in agricultural production, especially for corn and rice production, and could lower the annual production with up to 10% for over a decade.  These kind of declines in rice and corn production could potentially resulting in catastrophic food shortages on a global scale and massive starvation at a time when the world is already particularly vulnerable for a major decline in food production. It would have major consequences for the world’s already vulnerable populations.

But a nuclear detonation, or indeed a nuclear war, would also mean that national, regional and perhaps even global development would face significant challenges.

Any significant disasters affect the achievement of development goals through loss of lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure, but also through the diversion of funds from development to emergency relief and reconstruction and broader effects on the economy.

A nuclear weapons detonation can wipe out decades of progress and development in just a few seconds. The impact, both in terms of deaths and economic losses, would be increasing dramatically over time. While such a disaster will not discriminate between rich and poor, the long-term impact will.

Globally, it has been documented that people furthest down the economic ladder live disproportionately in the most food-scarce areas; that the overwhelming majority of people affected by climate-related disasters live in developing countries, and that disaster-related deaths occur disproportionately in low and medium human development countries.


The world looks very different today than it did in 1945, and similar sized bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would produce vastly different consequences in today’s interconnected world.

It is impossible to make a precise estimate of the impact of a nuclear weapons detonation. The total number of casualties from a nuclear explosion will depend on many factors such as the population density in the area, the weather conditions and whether the explosion is in the atmosphere or on the ground. Also, the ultimate number of casualties resulting from a nuclear explosion does not only depend on the explosion itself, but also on the capacity of the health care system to respond to the emergency.

Unfortunately, being a non-nuclear weapon state, even being a part of a nuclear weapon free zone, does not guarantee adequate protection against such impact. The long-term impact of a nuclear weapons explosion could have devastating effects on development, enjoyment of human rights and economic and political conditions. Such larger impact will not stop at borders and can reach global dimensions, thereby disproportionally affect already vulnerable communities and people furthest down the economic ladder.

Looking at these broader and far-reaching consequences, it becomes obvious that all states, in particular non-nuclear weapon states, have a responsibility to make further progress on the elimination of nuclear weapons, to protect their own people.

The international community has negotiated conventions to eliminate certain types of weapons that cause unacceptable harm to people and the environment, such as biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions.

Although the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons is many times greater than that of these and all other weapons, they are not yet subject to a global prohibition. Banning and eliminating nuclear weapons is therefore a necessary part of a broader struggle for genuine human-centered security founded on respect for basic rights, including rights to education, health care, decent work and a clean environment.