Nuclearism: Converging Disasters

Image by Agustín Lautaro.

Converging disasters: Unprecedented climate emergencies, methane leak from Nord Stream gas lines, interrupted energy supplies, wars — Kyoto-exempt military is the largest single global emitter of greenhouse gases, Ukraine nuclear reactors in the battle zone. Shock doctrine response: more nuclear reactors, more coal.


When do you know that too many people have died?

Did you know that in 1946, the UN, which was mandated to end the scourge of war, concentrated the authority for the legitimate use of force in the Security Council (UNSC) and that the Charter specified that parties to any dispute ‘shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation,, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their choice (Article 33). And if nations fail to settle the dispute on their own, “they shall refer it to the Security Council”. The reasons for these limits are moral: self-defense can justify the taking of life only where demonstrably necessary to save life. The law only allows self-help where there is no time to seek a collective peaceful solution. Aggression is the supreme crime. [4, 7]

Far from ending war, in 1950 the UNSC permanent members engaged in the Korean War, leading to the death of an estimated 2 ½ million people. The US at the time considered using nuclear weapons.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed the dignity of every human being, including “freedom from fear and want” – not freedom to do whatever you want. Nuclear weapons bring fear and terror, and even a limited nuclear war could produce enough fallout to block out the sun and cause multi-year nuclear winter and the end of agriculture, worldwide starvation.

In 1996, the International Court of Justice declared that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” The threat to use nuclear weapons is thinly veiled by Obama, Trump, Putin, and Netanyahu, as in “all options are on the table”.

After decades of global citizen action demanding the end to nuclear weapons testing, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was finalized and open for signatures in 1996. The Treaty has not been ratified by nuclear-armed U.S., China, Israel, India, Pakistan, or North Korea.

Twenty days after former US president Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize and spoke about his commitment to nuclear disarmament, he allocated just over $1tn to upgrade the US nuclear arsenal.

No NATO or nuclear-armed country has signed the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and the permanent Security Council members refused to participate in drafting this treaty.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set up to promote and protect nuclearism, its public funding and private profits. In 1956 the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that “the health of future generations is threatened by increasing development of the atomic industry and sources of radiation.” The IAEA effectively gagged information and the WHO agreed to ‘consult the IAEA’ before issuing statements on anything in which the IAEA might have an interest. “The WHO has released no critical statements about ionizing radiation since the agreement was signed in 1959.” [3] p. 21]. In 2005m the National Academies of Science issued their seventh report Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII), stating there is no safe level of radiation and that even background radiation is a cause for cancer.” [5] p. xiii, 21, 97]

Some Answers

Since the end of the Cold War, the ‘end of history’ signifying the dominance of the militarized neo-liberal New American Century, there has been extensive deception about life-threatening global conditions. Fortunately, this hasn’t prevented crucial, impressive research and investigative reporting.

Forewarnings of nuclear disaster have long come from many, including investigative journalists John Pilger and Amy Goodman, from physicists , Theodore Postol, Noam Chomsky and Dan Ellsberg who said that under current conditions nuclear war is not a matter of “if” but “when”. Nuclear weapons are on hair-trigger alert and since Trump there are no well-established avenues of communication between adversaries. The most alarming threat right now is Putin’s announcement that Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia will be formally incorporated into Russia, and that nuclear retaliation is justified if these now-Russian areas were attacked.

Historian Robert A. Jacobs has written a comprehensive investigation of nuclear weapons testing, reactor accidents, waste disposal leaks, and mining. Jacobs concludes that weapons testing during the Cold War was so destructive and extensive that it marks the post WWII decades as nuclear weaponized WWWIII.

Jacobs clarifies the difference between external and internal radiation. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs killed an estimated 250,000 people, mainly due to the massive explosive force and heat of the explosions. Any type of nuclear bomb or reactor produces over 200 new radioactive elements (radionuclides or radioisotopes) that never existed before the nuclear age. Many of these are highly unstable and emit radiation, categorized as gamma, alpha, and beta, as well as neutrons. Internal exposure refers to inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the breaks in the skin, of these radionuclides. These disrupt the molecular building blocks. Mining for the uranium required exposes workers to incorporation of uranium and its radioactive decay products. Fallout from weapons tests or reactor accidents exposes all forms of life to internal radiation. Many of the newly created radioactive elements essentially masquerade as naturally-occurring elements required for life, such as calcium, potassium, and iodine, and may be concentrated in particular organs. Resulting tissue damage and inflammation, and altering of molecular signals within cells, can cause immune dysfunction and various cancers. Any mutations in cellular DNA may be passed on to future generations indefinitely. “Plutonium-239, one of the key fissile materials, remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Jacobs writes that the first nuclear weapons scientists from the Manhattan Project knew about these two differing effects of nuclear weapons: 1) blast and heat 2 ) alpha and beta radiated particles from fallout. The 1946 weapons tests in the Marshall Islands “articulated a clear understanding of the military utility of radioactive fallout as a primary weapon effect.” “Test Baker (1947) gave evidence that the detonation of a bomb in a body of water contiguous to a city would vastly enhance its radiation effects by the creation of a base surge whose mist, contaminated with fission products, and dispersed by wind over great areas, would have not only an immediately lethal effect, but would establish a long-term hazard through the contamination of structures by the deposition of radiological particles.” [5]p. 189]

In 1954, the US military conducted a series of 6 thermonuclear weapon tests in the Marshall Islands, bombs one thousand times more powerful than the Japan bombs. Natives were evacuated on the second morning and studied for health effects from radioactive fallout during the test series. The radiobiologists’ initially reported that “within hours of exposure to radiation, approximately two-thirds of the Rongeclap people who were approximately 152 km from the blast, felt nauseated and one tenth of the group had vomiting and diarrhea,” followed by skin lesions. The atolls were considered uninhabitable. These thermonuclear weapons could spew 5000 sq miles of lethal fallout clouds and send radioactive ‘debris’ into the stratosphere where they circled the Earth before deposition, linking “all living creatures as participants in nuclear weapon testing.”[5,p. 43]

All the nuclear weapons states tested weapons in the atmosphere, exposing military personnel, colonized subjects, and citizens within their territories to these tests: the US, atmospheric and underground tests included Nevada and Utah downwind from Navajo reservations, the Marshall Islands and the Aleutian Islands; the USSR test sites in Kazakhstan; the Chinese test site in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and on the Mongolian and Tibetan plateaux; the French in Algeria and French Polynesia; the British in Australia and Kiribati. Chinese medical doctor and Xinjiang native Enver Tohti and Japanese physicist Jun Takada calculated that atmospheric testing may have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths in China.[5,p 176] The Soviets conducted 224 nuclear detonations on Novaya Zemlya including Little Ivan with a yield of 50 megatons [5, p.159]. When the French eventually withdrew from the Sahara test site, they did little to clean up the contamination or to even mark or warn the local population. DeGaulle ordered a test in French Polynesia, knowing it was irradiating the nearby downwind populations.

A report to the European Parliament states that “there is now enough convincing data to prove that Israel has repeatedly used depleted uranium weaponry. Such was the case in the large-scale massacre that took place in the Gaza Strip in August 2014.These weapons cause cancers and foetal malformations in the populations affected, which may take on epidemic proportions. In Iraq, in the city of Fallujah, where these bombs were launched in industrial quantities by the International Coalition led by the United States, 52% of children today are born with deformities.” There are 270 metric tonnes of radioactive waste worldwide. There is no safe way to dispose of radioactive waste. High rates of childhood leukemia have been found near German and U.S. nuclear reactors. The largest nuclear power plant accidents at the USSR Mayak reactor, UK Windscale (Sellafield), Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima have spread radioactive fallout.

More inconvenient truths: Small nuclear reactors (SNRs) are unsafe. “… few studies have assessed the implications of SMRs for the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. The low-, intermediate-, and high-level waste stream characterization presented here reveals that SMRs will produce more voluminous and chemically/physically reactive waste than LWRs” ( Light Water Reactors).

More duplicity: privatizing legislators, toothless regulators, and investor-owned Pacific Gas and Electric are again supporting a 20 year extension of the Mt Diablo nuclear reactor. Initially, PG&E maintained there were no earthquake faults within the site. There are thirteen active interconnected faults in the reactor’s range. PG&E refused to provide information about an embrittled nuclear reactor vessel, claiming ‘proprietary information’, but three engineers and a Nuclear Regulatory commissioner stated that this is entirely untrue.

More questions

Why, and How has it happened that people are treated as disposable, deplorable, superfluous eaters, collateral, super predators? Liberal democratic leaders like Obama call people ‘elements’ who are ‘taken out’ in ‘decapitating strikes’, laws justify ‘lesser evil’, and one nation-state leader can push the nuclear button? The disregard for human life and apparent comfort in killing hundreds of millions of people comes from states across the political and ethnic spectrum: it is found in fascism, liberal democracies, socialist and communist states, in ethnic/religious identified states, in states and institutions led by women as well as men, and from academic departments and think tanks.

The Rule of Law? The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Military Treaty (ABM) in 2002, paving the way for its missile defense program and shift in strategy from Cold War mutually assured destruction (MAD) to a pre-emptive first strike capability and belief that a nuclear war is winnable. Since then the US also withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, allowing nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert to be stationed in Europe and aimed at Russia. The US has violated the UN Open Skies Treaty by establishing its Space Force.

The nuclear arms race was driven by the US. The first U.S. nuclear chain reaction was in 1942; the USSR followed suit in 1946. The U.S. detonated the first atomic bomb in 1945, the USSR in 1949. The first ballistic-missile-launching submarine was launched in 1960 by the U.S., then in 1968 by the USSR. Penetration aids were placed on U.S. missiles in 1964; none were ever done on Soviet missiles before 1982. The accelerated buildup of strategic missiles by the U.S. in 1961 was followed by the USSR in 1966. Multiple warheads on missiles (MIRVs) were first introduced by the U.S. in 1964; by the USSR in 1973. Computerized guidance on U.S. missiles came into existence in 1970; in 1975 on Soviet missiles.

Novelist Marilynn Robinson writes that she is “angry to the depths of my soul that the earth has been so injured…” She became aware of the indifference to the human lives irradiated by the Windscale/Sellafield waste dump disasters causing a massive release of bomb-grade plutonium, and kept secret. She identifies an entrenched, smug, legalized absence of concern for others as dating from the English Poor Laws of the 14th century, 1834, and 1948: when “the need to withhold charity, considered the great source of moral corruption of the poor and therefore the great source of poverty”, and “..the social history of Britain has never reflected any sense of the unconditional value of human lives…” [10] p.39]

Jonathan Schell, who dedicated his life to the abolition of nuclear weapons, wrote that nuclear exterminism did not come from 20th century totalitarian regimes, but that “the most radical evil imaginable – the extinction of the human species— [was] first placed in the hands of a liberal republic…. A graver suspicion was that the United States and its allies did not build these weapons to face extraordinary danger, but because of “an intrinsic element of the dominant liberal civilization itself – an evil that first grew and still grows from within that civilization rather than being imposed from without.”[11]

Historian Clifford D. Conner [1] writes about the “explosive birth of big science”, when during WWII atomic energy was joined at the hip to the nuclear weapons program. After the war, Nazi scientists were brought to the U.S. by Operation Paperclip and “was undeniably a major factor driving the Cold War militarization of American science.” Conner documents the contributing U.S. ‘Megadeath intellectuals”, a Nuclear Boys Club, and how ‘big science’ also shaped medical experiments, chemical warfare, torture, and germ warfare. Werther von Braun NASA’s first director,was a high ranking officer in the SS. Conner writes of the ‘megadeath intellectuals’, the Nuclear Boys Club under Edward Teller, Herman Kahn, and John von Neumann, and the dominating influence of John Nash at the Rand Corporation. Dominating U.S. nuclearization and military warfare strategy were Herman Kahn (Dr. Strangelove) and Jonathan Nash from the Rand Corporation. Nash, an extremely disturbed mathematician, contributed mathematical models used in strategizing nuclear war: a zero-sum game in which one player’s gain equals another player’s loss, where rationality demands that all players consider each other to be absolutely untrustworthy and in which trickery, backstabbing, and blunt force are winning strategies. Conner writes that military strategy based on game theory “is perhaps the single most consequential example of mathematical malpractice.”

There are other contributions to this invisibility, the disposability of people: Robert J. Lifton examines the genocidal mentality linking nuclear scientists, Rand, and Nazis; C. Wright Mills describes the post WWII takeover by the managerial mentality; Lewontin and Levins describe the bio-genetic erasure of human psychology.

Indefensible is post-modern intellectual Jacques Derrida who in 1984 proclamation that nuclear war “has never occurred, itself; it is a non-event.” Jacobs comments: “In reducing war to a techno-scientific construct and ‘non-event’, Derrida was dismissing it to a generation of humanities and cultural-theory scholars…. All of these intellectuals could not see what strategists from the nuclear weapon states had structurally cloaked: the subaltern status of the actual nuclear victims.”

Less defensible is the strong support of nuclear power by socialist Matt Huber in Jacobin Magazine. He argues that nuclear reactor workers are unionized (20,000 membership), and that a ‘pro-nuclear’ climate politics ‘might’ have a chance at building solidarity with actually existing electrical unions. He argues for a logic that assumes electrical unions are part of the proletariat and that “ the proletariat was the only class that could deliver liberation for humanity as a whole” — ergo support any electrical unions even if what they produce is deadly to wide swaths of the world population (see Joshua Frank’s Atomic Days)? The climate emergency cannot wait for the ‘long duree’ of building a worldwide solidarity movement from scratch. American labor unions have an uneven record in supporting social justice[2, 9]. There are different change agents for particular problems: American mothers prompted the prohibition of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, and an international group of women accomplished the TPNW; indigenous communities worldwide stop nuclear waste depositories and uranium mining in their territories, minus support of electric power unions.

Jeffrey St. Clair, in his otherwise excellent column on nuclear reactors, singled out James Hansen and George Monbiot for special opprobrium due to their pro-nuclear reactor views, a small part of their otherwise key contributions. If Hansen’s 1988 congressional testimony and his subsequent findings were understood, there would be no climate crisis. Instead, there is widespread ignorance about amplifying feedbacks and the complex interactions within the climate system, and duplicity in setting inexplicably inconsistent targets and baselines for emission reductions. Monbiot’s 2006 book Heat is one of the few that looks at all areas of the economy and examines the feasibility of 90% emission reduction in industry, transportation, agriculture. Monbiot incisively critiqued the Stern Report support of aviation expansion and showed it was based on the monetary value of saving a rich person’s time. Monbiot and Hansen are rare in their attention to children; Monbiot wrote of the 15,000 child deaths and in Indonesia due to smoke inhalation from burning tropical forests for biofuel plantations.

Conclusion: Question authority. Strive for accuracy.


[1]Clifford D. Conner, The Tragedy of American Science: from Truman to Trump 2020 Haymarket Books Chicago. –

[2]Mike Davis Prisoners of the American Dream: politics and economy in the history of the U.S. working class. 1999 Verso London

[3]Dale Dewar, Florian Oelck for Physicians for Global Survival From Hiroshima to Fukushima to You; a primer on radiation and health. Between the Lines, Toronto 2014

[4]Richard Falk and David Krieger ed. At the Nuclear Precipice: catastrophe or transformation? Palgrave Macmillan New York 2008

[5]Robert A. Jacobs, Nuclear Bodies: the global Hibakusha Yale. New Haven 2022

[6]Robert J. Lifton and Eric Markusen, The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat. Basic Books, New York 1988.

[7]Michael Mandel How America gets away with Murder Pluto. London 2004

[8]George Monbiot Heat: how to stop the planet from burning. Doubleday 2006 Canada

[9]Kevin Skerrett, Johanna Weststar, Simon Archer, Chris Roberts The Contradictions of Pension Fund Capitalism 2017 Labor and Employment Relations Association Urbana-Champaign

[10]Marilynne Robinson Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare state and nuclear pollution Farrar, Straus & Giroux New York 1989

[11]Jonathan Schell (2001). The Unfinished Twentieth Century: The Crisis of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Verso.  P. 32-47.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at