The beginning of the end of nuclear weapons?

Experts have told us for decades that pandemics happen and will continue to occur.

As a result, the advent of COVID-19 has created a new respect for science and the evidence and truth that it brings, in the face of opposing ideological baggage. Similarly, experts warn of the ongoing risk of nuclear war. It may be a small risk on any given day, but as things stand it is inevitable over time. (Ruff 2020)

Nuclear weapons have been described as by far the most evil, destructive and indiscriminate weapons ever created. This description results from both the scale of the destruction they cause and their uniquely persistent, genetically damaging radioactive fallout, seen following the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. More than 210,000 people died by the end of that year and many more were injured following the blasts, including long lasting genetic damage. (WHO 1984; WHO 1987; Shapira et al. 1986)

The initial blast, heat and radiation from a single nuclear bomb detonated over a large city today would kill millions. Most nuclear weapons today are much bigger than those used in 1945. The use of less than 1% of global stockpiles would cause massive firestorms after the initial detonations.

Consequently, vast amounts of soot would be lofted high into the stratosphere, too high to be shifted by rain and clouds. The globe would be blanketed in darkness, cooling the climate and rendering the planet agriculturally unsustainable for decades, putting billions at risk of starvation.

Additionally, radiation, which transcends borders and generations, has permanent effects – increasing the risk of cancer, chronic disease and genetic damage (WHO 1984; WHO 1987; Shapiro et al. 1986; ICAN Australia 2019, Ruff 2019; WHO 1993)

Up to this day, the lack of political will from nuclear armed states to disarm has also heightened the likelihood of countries acquiring more nuclear weapons. Nine countries possess over 13,000 nuclear weapons: Russia, France, US, India, North Korea, UK, Pakistan, China and Israel. The US and Russia keep about 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high alert, ready for launching within minutes. Most are many more times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. (WHO 1984: WH0 1987; ICAN Australia 2019; MAPW 2020)

While there may be a resolution of the COVID-19 crisis in time, after a nuclear war there will be no answers. There will be no health system available for people to turn to and no staff, as hospitals and health workers are destroyed. The massive climate change will be instantaneous. The only solution to nuclear war is to prevent it. (Ruff 2020)

The Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was founded by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War in Melbourne in 2007. ICAN has engaged and worked alongside a broad range of groups including the Red Cross and like-minded governments to ban nuclear weapons. (ICAN Australia 2019; MAPW 2020; ICAN 2020A)

In July 2017, 122 nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) at the United Nations. Later that year, ICAN was recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts towards world peace through raising awareness of the devastating humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and ICAN’s instrumental role in the TPNW negotiations (ICAN Australia 2019; MAPW 2020; ICAN 2020 A).

On 25 October 2020, the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons reached a critical milestone – 50 countries had signed and ratified the treaty. Under the terms of the treaty, it will enter into force in 90 days, on 22 January 2021. (ICAN 2020 B)

For the first time ever, nuclear weapons will be illegal under international humanitarian law. The entry into force of the TPNW not only impacts the countries who have ratified the treaty, but will also influence other states’ behaviour, as was seen with non-signatory states of other treaties such banning land mines and cluster munitions. Could this be the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons? (ICAN 2020 B)

Earlier this year, the hands of the iconic Doomsday Clock were set at an unprecedented 100 seconds to midnight, where ‘midnight’ means the end of civilisation brought about by the use of nuclear weapons (Australian Broadcasting Commission 2020)

The current Australian Government has expressed concern over rising nuclear risks and made vague promises on risk reduction. However, its official policies on the TPNW are obstructive, and the government is firmly opposed to signing the treaty, riding on the tailcoats of US policy. In contrast, the ALP has a clear policy commitment to sign and ratify the TPNW (ICAN, 2019).

When Australia eventually signs the treaty, it will be of considerable importance in influencing other countries to sign. Risk reduction measures – such as agreement to no first use, increasing leadership decision-making time, increased diplomacy and resuming communication and data sharing – also need to be recognised as important measures in the process of mitigating potential nuclear conflict and as necessary tools for reductions in global stockpiles.

In the meantime, until nuclear weapons are eradicated, actions to reduce the danger of their use are vital. What can each of us do to get our country on the right side of history by embracing, rather than opposing, the treaty?

The ICAN Cities Appeal

ICAN has launched the Cities Appeal, a commitment by cities and towns to show support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and call on their governments to join.

This Cities Appeal has now been endorsed by 32 councils around Australia.

By talking to your local councillors about a resolution and encouraging conversations with your friends and colleagues to do the same, you can make a big difference and be part of the solution.

For useful information on how to speak with your council visit the ICAN Australia website –

Or contact the author:

We clearly need to work together to get rid of nuclear weapons, before they get rid of us.

Tilman A Ruff 2020  Covid 19 and Nuclear Weapons  (Accessed Oct 2020)
Switzerland. World Health Organisation (WHO). 1984. Effects of Nuclear War of Health and Health Services. Geneva: United Nations.
Switzerland. World Health Organisation (WHO). 1987.  Effects of Nuclear War on Health and Health Services. Geneva: United Nations.
Shapiro, C, Harvey, T.F., and Peterson , K.R. 1986. Radioactive Fallout, In Solomon, F. and Marston R.Q. (eds). The Medical Implications of Nuclear War. Washington (DC): National Academies Press.
ICAN Australia 2019 Choosing Humanity: Why Australia must join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (Accessed Jan 2020)
Tilman A. Ruff 2019 Nuclear Weapons and our Climate (Accessed Jan 2020)
Switzerland. World Health Organisation. 1993. Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons. Geneva. United Nations.
MAPW 2020.  (Accessed Jan 2020)
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN A) 2020 (Accessed Jan 2020)
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN B)  2020  The Significance of the Entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (Accessed Sep 2020)
Australian Broadcasting Commission 2020 (Accessed Jan 2020)

Dr Amanda J Ruler RN, BA (Hons), MACN, Grad Dip Gerontological Nursing, PhD, is the SA Branch Convenor and National Vice President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW)

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