Report on the Fourth Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons

By Ray Acheson and Allison Pytlak | Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
20 June 2022

The fourth conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (HINW) took place in a context of fear, but also of hope. Fear, because of recent threats of nuclear weapons use alongside continuing modernisation and expansion of nuclear arsenals, but also hope because of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). As noted by Izumi Nakamitsu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, this fourth conference follows in the proud tradition of the first three HINW conferences, which led ultimately to the negotiation and adoption of the TPNW in 2017.

A common thread throughout the conference was that the only way to eliminate the risk of nuclear weapons is to eliminate nuclear weapons. This refrain was repeated by panelists and participants throughout the day’s discussions, driving home both the necessity, urgency, and practicality of abolishing nuclear weapons. The data on impacts of past use and testing made the case for abolition most clearly: the consequences of nuclear weapons are horrific in the immediate and long-term. The models of potential future use are almost superfluous in this context, as are the wargaming scenarios to posit risk. The risks are clear enough from the very real and explicit threats and the lived experience of the nuclear age. As Zia Mian said in his closing remarks, the only rationale response to the grave dangers of nuclear weapons is to demand what is alleged to be impossible.

Opening ceremony

The opening ceremony included statements from Alexander Schallenberg, Federal Minister for Europe and International Affairs of Austria (video); Izumi Nakamitsu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs; and Dr. Mohamed Elbaradei, Director General Emeritus of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

A common theme across all speakers was the complete and utter unacceptability of nuclear weapons and need for their elimination. Schallenberg described recent threats of use of nuclear weapons as irresponsible, and as bringing home that as long as these weapons exist, the possibility of their use remains. He stressed that the logic that nuclear weapons can provide security is a fundamental error and that “deterrence” theory implies a readiness to use nuclear weapons and inflict mass destruction.

Nakamitsu reminded that nuclear weapons have the potential to end all life on earth, and that use in any populated area would unleash a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. Elbaradei quoted extensively from notable scientists and politicians to demonstrate the breadth of concern about the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons. He additionally noted that a concept of peace based on the colonial premise that some people or states are more equal than others, or a logic of “my security is more important than yours,” are not only unjust but unsustainable. Elbaradei also urged that the time has come to cultivate a new mindset, where peace and security are approached in theory and in practice as a collective endeavour.

Nakamitsu stated that while the fourth HINW conference is an input to the First Meeting odf States Parties (1MSP) to the TPNW, the discussion about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons should not be confined to the TPNW states parties and supporters. She observed that an important factor in the success of the first three HINW conferences was their focus on scientific research and lived experiences of the survivors, which injected scientific and human reality into diplomatic discourse on nuclear weapons, and referenced the upcoming Tenth Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 

Testimonials of survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing speakers

The conference heard testimony of three survivors.

Kido Suechi, Secretary-General of Nihon Hidankyo, recounted his experience of the bombing of Nagasaki. He described how “everything in the city seemed as if it had disappeared or turned black” and recalling seeing bodies piled up and people begging for water. He noted as well that most people died without the ability to say farewell or reflect on their lives and their legacy and asked if we call this kind of death a human death. He explained that Nihon Hidankyo was formed in 1956 to conduct surveys and research about what the atomic bomb means for humanity. It has concluded that that this is a weapon of inhumanity and evil which does not allow us to live or die as human beings. Suechi questioned why the Japanese government has not signed or ratified the TPNW, despite overwhelming public support for the Treaty, and reiterated that the hibakusha refuse to accept use of force as means to resolve conflict and call instead for dialogue.

Suzuka Nakamura of Know Nukes Tokyo is a third general survivor from Nagasaki. Her maternal grandmother was eight years old at the time of the atomic bombings of Japan. She had been evacuated to the countryside a few days before the bombing but returned to Nagasaki to check on her house and was exposed to radiation. Nakamura noted that if her grandmother had not been evacuated, then she would not be here today. Referring to recent threats by Russian president Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons, Nakamura explained that hibakusha feel that fear more than anyone else and hopes that no one else will become a hibakusha. While Nakamura has been commissioned by the Japanese government to convey the reality of the atomic bombings and she is grateful for this opportunity, she regrets that the government will not participate in the 1MSP.

Danity Laukon started MISA4ThePacific in 2017 as a student. She had realised how little she and others knew about the history of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands and the Pacific region. Laukon described the physical effects of burns, forced displacement, cancers, miscarriages, and radioactive fallout. She is concerned about the health of her people, noting a rise in cancer rates at home but also among Marshallese overseas, and also about the intergenerational effects. She urged a focus on victim assistance in the upcoming discussions on TPNW implementation.

Session I—What we Know: Key Facts on Humanitarian Consequences and Risks of Nuclear Weapons

“Nuclear weapons are like no other weapons,” said Cordula Droege of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in her initial remarks to Session I. Describing the ICRC’s experience in Hiroshima, she reiterated the key finding from earlier HINW conferences that while the destructive power of nuclear weapons has increased dramatically, the ability to assist victims have not, and there is no effective capacity to provide appropriate assistance to survivors. The core calls from the ICRC are for states to look at nuclear weapons through the lens of humanity, in order to drive efforts on nuclear disarmament; for research on effects to continue, including with the involvement of affected communities; and for states to realise that perceived national security concerns cannot be used to delay risk reduction and disarmament measures.

James Revill of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) outlined findings from UNIDIR’s 2014 report, Illusion of Safety, which describes the physical impacts of a nuclear detonation and the health, economic, social, and logical consequences. Drawing upon lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, Revill noted underfunding, inconsistencies, inequalities, misinformation, lack of trained personnel—and safety for them—and lack of coordinated global leadership as key challenges to responding to a nuclear detonation. He argued that confidence in the ability to effectively respond “is the prerogative of the ignorant.” 

Patricia Lewis of Chatham House offered some examples of the near use of nuclear weapons, ultimately arguing that our survival in each of these cases has come down to individuals. The personalities of those making decisions matters—and these are not political leaders, they are just doing their jobs. After each crisis, she noted, it takes years for this information to be revealed. But also, after each crisis, the human response is to say, deterrence worked—even though in reality, the systems failed and individuals saved our lives. While it’s impossible to determine the probability of the use of nuclear weapons, we do know the risks are high, and that in crises they get even higher. The thing that dominates in a crisis is uncertainty. 

Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) noted that the information we have now on how survivors were impacted by radiation is derived from people the United States subjected to studies without offering medical assistance. She explained that nuclear colonialism is responsible for disproportionate impacts on Indigenous people, that children’s cells more likely to be damaged because they are rapidly growing, and that girls and women are more likely to develop cancer at some point in their lives.

During a moderated discussion with Ambassador Alexander Kmentt (Austria), Ambassador Steffan Kongstad (Norway, retired) described the history of the humanitarian initiative and explained how it moved from the abstract to the concrete and brought survivors into discussions. He also highlighted the key role of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to engage the public and lead as a dynamic civil society movement. He noted that as with climate change, we must overcome ignorance in order to take action. Picking up from this point, Ambassador Kmentt noted that scientists warned about climate change for decades, but no actions were taken until islands began sinking and rainforests started to burn. He warned we cannot do the same with nuclear weapons.

During this discussion, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu noted the combination of the humanitarian approach and taking risks seriously will add renewed energy to nuclear disarmament. She said the end point must be the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Droege of the ICRC likewise said the value of the humanitarian approach is that it is realistic, that it “brings realism back into the room.” She outlined how the ICRC tries to do this for all weapons by assessing their impacts, but they are often told that some weapons can be more precise, save lives, etc. Since these arguments cannot realistically be made for nuclear weapons, the abstraction goes even further, and we are told these weapons guarantee peace. Of course, this is also absurd: as long as these weapons exist, there is a risk they will be used.

During the Q&A, participants highlighted the framework that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has provided for starting to respond to some of the harms have been caused by nuclear weapons, including through its victim assistance and environmental remediation provisions. During this discussion, the Droege called for attention to be paid to the gendered dimensions of the social and psychological impacts of nuclear weapons, while Olson called for further research into the physical gendered impacts as well as impacts for other species and the planet.

Address by John C. Polanyi

An address by Nobel Peace Laureate John C. Polanyi offered a scientific reflection on the role of disarmament in safeguarding our common future. He observed that this conference contemplates the consequences of nuclear war, from which we have been saved over the last 70 years by “no more than a notional taboo. However, the legislation now exists to transform that taboo into law” and that legislation is the TPNW.

Session II—Impact of nuclear weapons on people and the planet: new developments and findings 

This session highlighted new findings on the impact of nuclear weapons on humans, climate, food security, the environment, health, and communities.

At the start of his presentation, Moritz Kütt of the University of Hamburg explained that his research has been premised on recent speculations by news commentators about what the effects of using “small” nuclear weapons, prompted by recent statements by Russia in relation to the war in Ukraine. While efforts by nuclear-armed states to develop smaller and “more usable” nuclear weapons are not new, there is a renewed interest in this topic. He concluded that there are actually no small nuclear weapons—their known effects are not small and there are unknown effects whose scale we cannot predict. He observed that if anything, most bombs today are larger and more devastating than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also encouraged more research about what the psychological and social impacts would be if there was a nuclear incident, in a digitally connected world.

Michael J. Mills of the National Center for Atmospheric Research presented his research on the impacts of nuclear war on global climate and ozone loss. He explained that even a regional nuclear war, such as between India and Pakistan, would have global impacts on climate. Smoke from the firestorms that occur after a city is bombed rise high into different levels of the atmosphere, which block sunlight and cause a decrease in temperature on earth but also heats the stratosphere. The dramatically cooled temperatures would affect food supply by eliminating agriculture and leading to mass starvation, creating a “nuclear winter” particularly in the event of a larger nuclear war between Russia and the United States. 

The presentation from Kim Scherrer from the University of Bergen further examined how nuclear war could disrupt the global food system. Building on some of the environmental impacts identified in the previous presentation, such as temperature cooling, darkening, and less precipitation on land and sea, her presentation outlined how global food security would be compromised. Scherrer has used global crop models to estimate the impact on food production, which anticipates an average decline in food production of 11 per cent in five yeas, and that existing reserves would be exhausted within a few years. She noted however there are limitations to this analysis, but that even a regional nuclear war would lead to these impacts.

Alexander Glaser of Princeton University delivered a presentation on behalf of Sébastien Philippe of Princeton University and Sciences Po Paris, which illustrates Philippe’s recent research into assessing the radiological impact from past nuclear tests. After providing a brief overview of nuclear weapons testing, Glaser explained that Philippe’s research provides a modelling framework to understand the radiological impact of several of those tests. The framework is based on open-source software and that some of the tools and data which were used in this study are also used in research to study climate, which builds synergies with that area of work. There were many partners in this research project, including journalists. The first case study produced focused on the French testing in the Pacific and the impact on French Polynesia (the Moruroa Files). Glaser highlighted the findings, which demonstrated a combination of factors led to more people and areas being exposed to radiation than from any other test in the region.

The final presentation in this session came from Togzhan Kassenova with the Center for Policy Research, SUNY Albany who looked the continued legacy of Soviet nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. A core message of her presentation was around the importance of the “human component” being part of the conversation whenever nuclear policy discussions are happening. “We have data and the facts on the ground. People are paying the price of nuclear testing and the minimum that can be done is to not forget them when high-level debates are happening in nice capitals, in abstract and disconnected ways” she said. Kassenova described the efforts to understand the full impact of Soviet nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk area of Kazakhstan. While any harm to people or the environment was denied by the Soviet government, this is false and in fact, the Soviets were very interested in understanding these effects as part of their military strategy. She described that assistance to victims is lacking and is hopeful about articles 6 and 7 of the TPNW. Justice and fairness needs to also be pursued.

Rebecca Jovin, Chief of Office of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) at Vienna moderated the session. During the discussion, speakers reflected on if the different dimensions of impact and related research can come together. Kütt reflected that these impacts are all interconnected and reinforcing of one another but that it is not necessary to study them together, because “there is no combination of effects that make the weapon usable.” Mills echoed this point and Scherrer pointed out that there are also interactions we have not talked about.

Questions from the floor and online were about what the development and use of open-source software on impacts means for the need for government data; technical questions about some of the research findings that were presented; and if there is existing research about the impact of globally destabilising events like the pandemic on economic supply.

Session III—The Risks of Nuclear Weapons, the Threat of Use, and Nuclear Deterrence 

The final session of the day focused on the risks posed by the threats of use of nuclear weapons and by nuclear deterrence theory.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists gave an overview of nuclear arsenals and rhetoric of doctrines. He noted that since the end of the Cold War the size of arsenals has been drawn down, but argued that numbers are poor indicators in terms of risk. Stockpiles are being modernised and expanded, and nuclear rhetoric, including threats of use, have increased and become more bellicose and specific. Conversations about “low-yield” nuclear weapons are coming back, even though the idea of use of such weapons was ruled out in previous decades. 

Tytti Erästö of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) outlined some of the challenges to nuclear weapons posed by technological evolution, which increase uncertainties and could even motivate first use of nuclear weapons. The assumption that technological advances increase the reliability of nuclear weapon systems is not correct; they has instead created new vulnerabilities. Many of the developments, which focus advancement of weapon accuracy and speed through remote sensing and digital information given rise to arms races and fears of preventative attack that could create a “use it or lose it” pressure that leads to first strikes. Erästö said the only way to eliminate risk is to eliminate nuclear weapons, and in the meantime, we need serious risk reduction measures and reductions of arsenals.

Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association highlighted that Russian President Putin’s threats have raised a spectre of use of nuclear weapons that we haven’t experienced in the post-Cold War era. However, he also drew parallels between the Russian and US nuclear doctrines, wherein nuclear weapons could be used in response to non-nuclear threats in both cases. Theories that nuclear war can be limited are just theories, said Kimball. Once nuclear weapons are used, there is no guarantee that it will not quickly become nuclear conflagration. He also argued that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine underscores the fact that nuclear weapons don’t prevent wars; they facilitate wars and make them more dangerous. He said that 1MSP is an important opportunity to reinforce norms against use and threat of use, as is NPT Review Conference.

Eva Lisowski of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network presented a report about under what conditions might nuclear weapons be used in Northeast Asia, which covers 27 variants of “use cases”. The key policy lessons in the report include exercising patience, separating international relations from domestic policy concerns, anticipating potential breakdowns in communications, insulating key systems from electronic bursts, and better understanding current and evolving military doctrines. She urged states to work to prevent these “uses cases” from happening even if they are perceived as unlikely.

Zia Mian of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security described the risks of the nuclear situation in South Asia, explaining how history and geography matter. Pakistan and India have never been allies, while even the US and Russia have been in the past. They have an unresolved dispute over Kashmir. Both are modernising and expanding their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. The time it takes to attack each other’s capital city is less than 5 minutes; between the US and Russia this is about 30 minutes. Command and control is meaningless in 5 minutes, he noted, and stories that run through your mind matter in those moments. Mian also talked about the language South Asian leaders use, highlighting the role of nuclear blackmail and coercion and the illusion of control.

“Our fundamental problem in nuclear age is the problem of the state,” argued Mian. States make wars. Wars make monsters of people. No state has ever asked its people if it wants to be defended by mass murder. Public opinion seeks a world free of nuclear weapons even in the nuclear-armed states. Thus, nuclear weapons are a problem of the structure of power and lack of accountability. But we never know when or how things will change, and so we must “demand the impossible today.”