Nuclear Weapons and Public Health


The atom has proven to be the Dionysius of physics: in contrast with the beneficial applications of nuclear science in agriculture, medicine, and environmental studies, atomic weapons inflict bacchic chaos on their possessors and their victims. In this age of nuclear normalcy, the health consequences of nuclear detonation are not foremost in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, the nuclear umbrella under which many nations claim to find security casts a long shadow over our planet that is antithetical to human health.  The following is a case for sustained and increased participation of physicians in the political process surrounding the serious threats to global public health posed by the existence of nuclear weapons.

Despite the intense polarization that surrounds nuclear policy, issues of nuclear disarmament are not partisan when public health concerns are involved. From a health perspective, eliminating the threat of nuclear attack or accident is an imperative, not just an option. Humanity is operating on borrowed time; deterrence, a generous doctrine in its assumption of perfect rationality, is an insufficient safeguard for human security. Even if nuclear weapons are not deliberately detonated by states or non-state actors, the risk of accident is alarmingly high, as any study of Cold War history will indicate. Nuclear disarmament is ultimately the only option compatible with human health.


Nuclear attack

During the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in addition to deaths resulting directly from the explosions,  radiation sickness caused cancer rates to shoot up into the thousands. Immense suffering has already been recorded, but an American physician present in Nagasaki in 1950 speculates that the effects of the bombings will not be fully known until the end of the youngest survivors’ lives1.

Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton of Hiroshima describes the irreversible damage that nuclear detonation causes for its survivors’ mental health: “The most striking psychological feature of this immediate experience was the sense of a sudden and absolute shift from normal existence to an overwhelming encounter with death, an emotional theme that remains with the victim indefinitely2.” In the months following August 1945, survivors watched living bodies disintegrate – their own and those of their loved ones – as radiation claimed more lives. The bombings have lent to hibakusha, the survivors of the bombings, an intimate acquaintance with death that will not abate. Many survivors still cope with chronic health-related anxiety, fearing that every small ailment is a symptom of radiation sickness.

It is also important to remember that nuclear attack leaves healthcare facilities, like all civil infrastructure, completely decimated. Even a fully functional healthcare system is incapable of treating more than a handful of acute radiation victims; even the most resilient of physicians is unable to operate at full capacity while bearing the trauma of a nuclear attack.

Nuclear testing and marginalization

The bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred in the infancy of atomic strategy and under the pretence of military necessity. As nuclear bombs proliferated during the Cold War, weapons testing programs begun, and cancer rates increased. Nuclear powers, seeking to avoid both publicity and consequences, have traditionally carried out testing activities in the vicinity of minority populations or foreign colonies. History is replete with examples. British and French nuclear tests plagued Australia, Christmas Island, Algeria, and Polynesia; indigenous populations in western China, Kazakh territory, and Nevada quietly suffered as nuclear powers sought to demonstrate their supremacy3.

Environmental and agricultural devastation

Nuclear weapons’ destructive effects are not confined to human bodies. Climate scientists have created numerous models to predict the environmental consequences of a nuclear exchange. Although the magnitude of the effect varies in each model, they all predict a “nuclear winter”: a drop in global temperatures due to huge volumes of atmospheric dust.

This scenario would cause global agricultural output to plummet4. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) estimates that over two billion people would be affected by this nuclear famine5. This famine, like others, would likely be accompanied by widespread outbreak of infectious diseases such as malaria, cholera, dysentery, and plague6.Although the environmental consequences are treated as collateral damage in military discussions, even a relatively small regional conflict has the potential to inflict mass starvation on indiscriminately large areas of civilization, which would lead to further political instability7.


Diplomatic negotiations for nuclear disarmament are met with limited success. In these negotiations, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – all nuclear powers – have disproportionate influence, which is regularly used to block all significant disarmament efforts. The key treaty instrument is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which, despite its wide ratification and its noble call for disarmament, seldom enjoys full implementation.

Medical professionals played an important role in the stigmatization of chemical, biological, and toxin weapons, and in the shaping of the conventions to ban their use. A similar opportunity lies ahead with nuclear weapons. Nuclear strategists and disarmament activists cite the magnitude of destruction; physicians understand the magnitude of the suffering. Many groups have led the way. The IPPNW maintains that physicians must prevent what they cannot treat, even on a societal level; the International Coalition of the Red Cross is also a significant advocate for nuclear disarmament. Raising public awareness of the health consequences of nuclear detonation is one role in which medical professionals are invaluable in public discourse due to their ability to provide sound scientific input to disarmament efforts. As expressed in a 1983 Journal of Medical Ethics article,

“Although some may consider such a stance too ‘political’, it is a logical extension of the medical profession’s concern with major public health issues. The current public health campaigns in developed countries are concerned with avoidable sources of morbidity and mortality which are relatively small when compared with the acute and long-term effects of nuclear war7.”

Physician-led activism on issues surrounding nuclear proliferation is central to liberating humanity from the scourge of a weapon whose existence is incompatible with human security, health – and, ultimately, survival.


Emma Hansen is a third-year physics and philosophy student at UofT. Interested in the intersection of science and society, she is involved with the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and has done disarmament-related research and advocacy work with Pax Christi International in Brussels.


  1. Fleming, L. B., & Yamazaki, J. N. (1995). Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician’s Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands. Medicine & Global Survival, 2(2), 101-104. Retrieved from http://
  2. Lifton, R. J. (n.d.). Psychological Effects of the Atomic Bombings. Retrieved from
  3. Makhijani, A. (2005). A Readiness to Harm: The Health Effects of Nuclear Weapons Complexes. Retrieved from
  4. MacKenzie, D. (2007). ‘Nuclear winter’ may kill more than a nuclear war. Retrieved from
  5. Helfand, I. (2013). Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk? Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition. Retrieved from
  6. Loretz, J. (n.d.). Zero is the Only Option: Four Medical and Environmental Cases for Eradicating Nuclear Weapons. Retrieved from
  7. Gleisner, J., Haines, A., & White, C. B. (1983). Nuclear Weapons and Medicine: Some Ethical Dilemmas. Journal of medical ethics, 9, 200-206.

Image: Fessenheim-Demo XIII by Till Westermayer. CC 2.0