26| The Role of Physicians in the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (excerpt)

I believe those groups concerned with abolition of nuclear weapons should broaden their agendas to include abolition of depleted uranium weapons and other weapons, such as anti-personnel land mines, that are indiscriminate and inhumane.

Victor W. Sidel, MD

The Work of PSR and IPPNW

In 1961 a group of Boston physicians, led by the renowned cardiologist Dr. Bernard Lown, analyzed in detail the potential medical consequences of use of the then newly-developed thermonuclear bombs.

While the physicians in the group had for years been individually concerned about the medical consequences of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the implications of the use of these weapons for the future, this concern was intensified by the development during the 1950s of much more powerful nuclear weapons. These new weapons, using nuclear fusion rather than nuclear fission and called hydrogen bombs or thermonuclear bombs, could produce an explosive force over one-thousand-fold greater than the bombs used in 1945.

When the energy distribution of these new weapons was published in the open literature in the late 1950s, the group in Boston, of which I was privileged to be a member, analyzed the potential medical consequences if these weapons were to be detonated over cities in the United States. This analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1962,1 concluded that the use of thermonuclear weapons would be so destructive to human health, to the environment, and to medical personnel and facilities that attempts at response by health professionals after the bombs had fallen would be almost entirely futile.

The report argued that physicians, because of their special knowledge of the medical effects of these weapons and because of their special responsibility to protect the health of their patients and their communities, had a special responsibility to help prevent the use of nuclear weapons. The report gained worldwide attention and contributed to the rapid growth of a group formed by the authors and other health professionals, Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has worked for over one-third of a century for the prevention of the use of nuclear weapons.2

The report documented both the short-term and the long-term health effects caused by the enormous blast energy, heat flux and ionizing radiation produced by nuclear weapons. The blast wave would cause severe trauma by collapse of buildings, flying debris and the throwing about of humans. The immediate radiation of enormous heat and the ignition of conflagrations and fires would cause severe burns and lung damage. The neutron and gamma ray flux from the initial detonation and alpha, beta and gamma radiation from short-range and long-range fallout of the radionuclides produced by the detonation would cause damage to tissues and organs. There would also be severe psychological damage to the survivors, both in the short-term and the long-term.

We pointed out that the use of nuclear weapons is likely to cause greatest injury to those most vulnerable—infants, the elderly and the infirm—a direct violation of one of the fundamental principles of international law. We also noted that the radioactive fallout, carried by the prevailing winds, would inevitably cross national boundaries and cause radiation injury among the population of neutral nations, another direct violation of a fundamental principle of international law.


The full text of this chapter is available in the book, Metal of Dishonor. Link here for order information.




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