Physicians and Nuclear War

Dr. Beverly Lorraine Ho: "As physicians of the new millenium, we are trained to emphasize the preventative aspects of medicine more than the curative." Dr. Ho was one of 33 international participants in the 2010 IPPNW Biking Against Nukes (BAN) Tour. BAN tour participants biked 750km over 11 days and met with politicians, held public demonstrations and visited the last remaining nuclear weapons base in Germany on their way to the 2010 IPPNW World Congress in Basel, Switzerland.

The first question people often ask about IPPNW is “what is the connection between physicians and nuclear war?”

Physicians first confronted the medical consequences of the use of nuclear weapons in August 1945, when teams of medical personnel struggled to care for the massive casualties in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the late 1950s and early1960s, doctors studied the radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear test explosions. Examinations of the deciduous teeth of American and European children revealed heightened levels of strontium 90.  Other researchers found that after each atmospheric test, radioactive iodine 131 settled on grass on which cattle grazed, and was concentrated in the thyroid glands of children who drank the contaminated milk. Such findings fueled public protests that led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

In 1962, a group of American physicians led by Dr. Bernard Lown and including Drs. Jack Geiger, David Nathan, and Victor Sidel analyzed the medical consequences of a nuclear attack. Calling themselves the “Special Study Section of Physicians for Social Responsibility,” they produced a series of papers, “The Medical Consequences of Thermonuclear War,” which were published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The articles and an accompanying editorial argued that physicians had a special responsibility to help prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

In the early 1980s, escalating threats by the US and Soviet Union that they might attempt to fight and win a nuclear war led to the formation of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. IPPNW physicians engaged in a global education campaign about the medical effects of nuclear explosions and warned the public and the leaders of the nuclear superpowers that the medical profession would be unable to provide effective care in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

In 1981, the American Medical Association echoed IPPNW’s assessment, stating “there is no adequate medical response to a nuclear holocaust.” Other national medical organizations, such as the British Medical Association, published detailed studies about the inadequacies of medical care after nuclear attack. The World Health Organization (WHO), the US Institute of Medicine and others added to the medical knowledge about the unique dangers of nuclear warfare. Climate scientists warned that a superpower nuclear war might cause a “nuclear winter” that could threaten the extinction of the human species.

During the 1990s, IPPNW established an International Commission to Investigate the Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons Production and Testing and worked with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research to document these effects. The Commission produced a series of books including Radioactive Heaven and Earth, Plutonium: The Deadly Gold of the Nuclear Age, and Nuclear Wastelands, a comprehensive study of the health and environmental impact of the global nuclear weapons production complex.

The nuclear dangers of the 21st century have led to a resurgence of physician interest in the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear war in a world where nuclear weapons continue to spread. In October 2007, IPPNW and the Royal Society of Medicine co-sponsored a major conference in London to review the current state of knowledge about nuclear weapons effects. Scientific data about the global climate effects of regional nuclear war presented at that conference became the basis of an IPPNW project on “nuclear famine,”which has been used extensively to make the case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. The climate findings and an updated summary of the medical consequences of nuclear war are available in a new IPPNW publication, Zero Is the Only Option: Four Medical and Environmental Cases for Eradicating Nuclear Weapons.

In recent years, IPPNW and its affiliates have drawn new attention to the health and environmental effects of uranium mining and processing, conducting community health surveys in India and challenging Australia’s plans to ramp up its uranium export industry.

IPPNW has also studied a nuclear danger in the medical profession’s own backyard—the use of highly enriched uraniumin reactors that produce medical isotopes—and has campaigned for the conversion of those vulnerable reactors to non-weapons-grade uranium.

In October 2008, the World Medical Assembly renewed its own decade-long stance for the abolition of nuclear weapons, stating that the medical profession has a duty “to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons.” The WMA requested that all national medical associations “urge their respective governments to work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Red Cross physicians participated in the first relief efforts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called for a ban on nuclear weapons ever since. In April, 2010 the ICRC issued its strongest condemnation in more than a decade, asserting that “nuclear weapons are unique in their destructive power, in the unspeakable human suffering they cause, in the impossibility of controlling their effects in space and time, in the risks of escalation they create, and in the threat they pose to the environment, to future generations, and indeed to the survival of humanity.”

Awarding the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize to IPPNW, the Nobel Committee honored physicians for “spreading authoritative information and…creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare. This in turn contributes to an increase in the pressure of public opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

For more information about the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), contact John Loretz, Program Director.