Nuclear weapons are described today as the most destructive, inhuman and indiscriminate weapons ever created. First tested in July 1945 by the United States, these weapons have only ever been used twice in warfare. Both times were by the United States on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War 2. The bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people both from immediate blast-related injuries, as well as radiation-related illnesses.
Since 1945, 2,056 nuclear tests have been carried out by at least eight nations in 60 sites around the world leaving behind a legacy of human and environmental harm. Today, nuclear weapons continue to pose an existential threat to civilization as we know it. The small number of nuclear armed states are expanding or modernizing their nuclear programs despite the known harmful consequences and international obligations to work for disarmament. Disconcertingly, most of today’s nuclear weapons being produced are many times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nine countries, the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea possess all of the nuclear weapons stockpile. Another 26 countries around the globe are under a nuclear umbrella meaning they also endorse the use of nuclear weapons. Canada is one of these nuclear umbrella states that allows the potential use of nuclear weapons on our behalf as part of NATO.
While most countries do not possess nuclear weapons and are committed to nuclear disarmament, the mere existence of any such weapons is extremely problematic and worrisome due to their potential catastrophic harm.
Nuclear explosions release large amounts of energy in the form of blast, heat and radiation and cause a large and powerful shockwave reaching speeds of hundreds of kilometers an hour leveling buildings for kilometers. The heat resulting from the explosions is so intense that almost everything close to the point of detonation is vaporized. Fires spontaneously erupt and coalesce into a fireball. Those who survive the initial destruction and fires face slow and painful deaths from radiation poisoning.
The use of nuclear weapons also comes with long-term negative effects on communities. Nuclear weapons produce ionizing radiation, which can kill or sicken people who are exposed to it by causing cancer, birth defects or other genetic damage. Nuclear weapons also cause environmental damage. Areas in Australia, Algeria, Kazakhstan, the United States, the South Pacific, and Russia continue to see high levels of contamination with radiation after nuclear weapons tests. It is estimated that using less than one percent of the nuclear weapons available in the world could greatly disrupt the global climate, while the thousands of weapons that are possessed by the U.S. and Russia could cause a nuclear winter. If used again, intentionally or accidently, nuclear weapons could induce a worldwide famine, straining all existing disaster relief resources in the world, and create a refugee crisis larger than ever experienced.
Nuclear weapon testing, also, causes humanitarian harm. Physicians predict that some 2.4 million people worldwide will eventually die of cancers due to atmospheric nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1980. Included among those impacted by nuclear weapon testing are an estimated 700 former Canadian military personnel who participated in up to 29 American and British nuclear weapon tests to simulate nuclear wars between 1946 and 1963. As a result, many endured direct radiation exposure and developed reproductive problems and cancers. The atomic veterans of Canada only recently received recognition and compensation for the harm caused by their dangerous assignments.
Due to the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, a coalition of several hundred non-governmental organizations formed the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, (ICAN). ICAN is working towards the goal of prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. The adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on 7 July 2017 took a large step towards accomplishing this goal. The Treaty entered into force on 22 January 2021 and made nuclear weapons illegal in all respects under international law. Those states who join the Treaty agree to never develop, test, produce, acquire, stockpile, transfer, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. The Treaty also requires countries to provide appropriate assistance to all victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, as well as take measures for the remediation of contaminated areas. Currently, there are 86 signatories and 54 state parties of the treaty. The TPNW aims to advance the process of the elimination of nuclear weapons by helping to delegitimize the need for nuclear weapons during warfare and the need for states to possess such dangerous weapons.
Like climate change, nuclear weapons are an existential threat to humanity. In 2014, Mines Action Canada hosted an event on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons where speakers outlined the links potential impacts of nuclear weapons on the climate. Since then states have negotiated the Paris Accord and the TPWN. If we can end the existential threat from nuclear weapons, more resources can be made available for addressing the climate crisis.
Canada remains outside the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons but you can help fix that. See how you can Act today.