The accident that experts and utility executives claimed could not happen, did happen at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan. The accident followed a major earthquake that registered 9.0 on the Richter scale, which in turn triggered a massive tsunami. Thousands of people died from these forces of nature, thousands more are still missing, and hundreds of thousands have been evacuated from their homes due to radiation releases from the damaged nuclear power reactors and spent fuel pools.
It is too early to know the full extent of the radiation releases, how long people will need to remain outside the recently-extended 19-mile evacuation zone, or even to what extent Tokyo, 150 miles from the damaged plant, will suffer serious effects from the radiation releases. If you think that the release of radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan is bad, you're right; but it would pale in comparison to the effects of the use of nuclear weapons.
What do we know about the effects of nuclear weapons? The starting point for our knowledge comes from the use of these weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. At Hiroshima, one 12.5 kiloton atomic bomb destroyed the city, killing some 90,000 people immediately and 145,000 in total by the end of 1945. At Nagasaki, a slightly larger atomic weapon killed some 40,000 people immediately and 70,000 by the end of 1945.
There are three important lessons from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. First, in each case it only took one bomb to destroy a city and kill and injure a large proportion of its inhabitants. Second, these bombs kill indiscriminately -- men, women and children. Third, the bombs that destroyed these cities were relatively small by today's standards. The average nuclear weapon deployed today is six to eight times more powerful than those early bombs, and some are thousands of times more powerful.
At the height of the nuclear arms race between the US and former Soviet Union, there were 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Today, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, there remain over 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world. These weapons are in the arsenals of nine countries: the US, Russia, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Ninety-five percent of the weapons are in the arsenals of the US and Russia.
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, most people stopped worrying about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Such complacency, in the face of such a significant threat, is an abdication of responsibility. The use of even one nuclear weapon by terrorists could destroy a city anywhere on the globe. Every city in the world is vulnerable to being destroyed by a nuclear weapon. Just as the people in areas surrounding Fukushima must worry about radiation releases, people in cities throughout the globe should be concerned about their vulnerability to destruction by nuclear arms.
Nuclear weapons kill by blast, fire and radiation. Their effects cannot be contained in time or space. A computer simulation of the use of 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons on cities in South Asia found that such a nuclear exchange would put enough debris into the stratosphere to block sunlight from reaching the earth, lowering temperatures to ice age levels. This, in turn, would lead to crop failures and starvation that could claim a billion lives. An all-out nuclear war could end civilization and most life on the planet.
The tragedy at Fukushima Daiichi is a reminder that we humans are not capable of engineering for perfection, even with redundant safeguards. Where people are involved, there is always the possibility of human error. To think otherwise is to tempt fate. This is what we have done with nuclear weapons for more than 65 years. During this time, there have been several close calls, most famously the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The surest way to end the nuclear weapons threat is to negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. Such Conventions already exist for chemical and biological weapons. A Nuclear Weapons Convention is required by international law, but the political leadership to move the treaty forward has been lacking. This means that the people must lead their leaders. It means that all of us need to become engaged in rolling back the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, coming 25 years after the accident at Chernobyl, is our wake-up call not only to the serious and immediate dangers of nuclear power but to the civilization-threatening dangers of nuclear weapons.