What did the World Hearth Organization say about nuclear weapons?

World Health Organization, 1987

After a nuclear war "famine and diseases would be widespread; social, communication, and economic systems around the world would be disrupted...It is obvious that the health services in the world could not alleviate the situation in any significant way."

Press Release WHO/69 - 12 September 1995

Speaking today at the Forty-sixth session of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Regional Committee for the Western Pacific in Manila, the Philippines, Dr Hiroshi Nakajima, WHO Director-General, addressed the issue of testing of nuclear weapons.

"Within the framework of the United Nations, WHO has consistently supported nuclear disarmament, the non-proliferation treaty, and the nuclear test ban treaty currently under negotiation", said Dr Nakajima. "WHO is firmly opposed to the production, testing, stockpiling, transport or use of nuclear weapons. This position is implicit in the WHO Constitution which opposes any common danger or risk to the attainment of Health for All. WHO has carried out extensive studies on the effects of nuclear war on health and health services, as well as the health effects of nuclear accidents particularly at Chernobyl. At the request of the World Health Assembly (Resolution WHA46.40 of 14 May 1993) and the UN General Assembly (Resolution 49/75K of 15 December 1994), the question of the lawfulness of the use of nuclear weapons has been referred by WHO and the UN to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where the matter will be before the Court in November this year".

It is evident that besides the immediate catastrophic effects in terms of death, casualties and material damage, the use of nuclear weapons will cause long term human suffering and environmental disturbance beyond our capacity to accurately predict. As WHO stated some ten years ago, "the only approach to the treatment of the health effects of nuclear explosions is primary prevention of such explosions, that is the prevention of atomic war".

In 1991, a WHO Management Group* noted that "with the positive changes in the world situation it was the peacetime uses of atomic energy that had become the greater cause for concern". Nevertheless, nuclear weapons are still being produced, tested and stockpiled; therefore the potential danger of the consequences of their use has not yet been eliminated, and there are significant costs and dangers associated with their transport, testing and disposal.

Although most of the information concerning the health and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons comes from the two bombings that took place in 1945, other investigations are under way based on retrospective analysis as well as simulation of nuclear tests underground and in the atmosphere. We know that nuclear detonation produces three major sources of death and injury: blast, heat wave and release of radiation. Exposure to instantaneous radiation (gamma rays and neutrons) causes sickness and, possibly, death. At relatively low doses, it damages blood cells. At higher doses, damage occurs to the gastrointestinal tract, and at very high doses injury to the brain. Suppression of the body's immune system is recognized as a consequence of radiation over-exposure.

Long-term effects such as cancer induction and genetic damage result from instantaneous radiation exposure during the explosion and the longer-term contamination of the environment. Long-term psychological effects continue to be noted among the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

An account of the health effects of nuclear weapons must also include consideration of the production cycle of these weapons including mining and production of materials, fuel enrichment, development, manufacture, testing, stockpiling, maintenance, transport, dismantling, storage and disposal. Each of these stages presents direct risks to the health of the personnel involved and the general population. The costs of safe disposal often exceed those of development.

At least 1950 nuclear tests have been carried out since 1945. Testing can be carried out in space, in the air, on the earth's surface or under water (all called "atmospheric"), or underground, the latter being the only method used at the present time. To date, it is reported that approximately 1420 underground tests have been conducted in different parts of the world. Simulation technology for nuclear explosions has been developed to such an extent that renewed tests for more advanced weapons would be totally unnecessary if the simulation technology were shared among states.

Resumption or continuation of underground tests is of particular concern especially in the case of "shallow" tests. Not only does this entail the risk of instantaneous leaks of short-lived and long-lived radioisotopes to the ground, to water and air, but it may trigger potential long-term effects that are not immediately apparent. Changes to the structural integrity of the ground, temperature and stress are likely to increase the number and size of crevices in the surrounding rock or ground. Such crevices would provide paths for long- term exchanges with the surroundings, in particular ground water, rivers and oceans, in ways that are difficult to predict.

Isotopes likely to dominate long-term radioactivity are Caesium-137, Strontium-90, Plutonium -239 and Americium-241. Furthermore, Caesium-137 and Strontium-90 are known to be transported by water and remain in the food- chain. As for Plutonium-239 and Americium-241, their most significant potential exposure route is by inhalation. In addition to the possible release of these radionuclides, radioisotopes from previous tests which had already settled or lodged in the rock are feared to be freed by the new tests.

"In short, there is no such thing as a "fail-safe" nuclear weapon testing, and we cannot be assured that testing will be without risk to present and future generations. The best way to ensure human health and peace, is for all nations of the world to share knowledge about nuclear energy, and to forswear the production, testing and use of nuclear weapons. The World Health Organization, and I as its Director-General, stand for a "nuclear-weapons-free world. Greater transparency on the part of nuclear powers would certainly help", said Dr Nakajima.

For further information, please contact Valery Abramov, Health Communications and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Tel (41 22) 791 2543. Fax (41 22) 791 4858.

* Established by the Director-General in 1983 to follow up Resolution WHA 36.28 "Effects of nuclear war on health and health services". The Group consists of six international experts appointed by the Director-General.

See also:
a) Radiation Effects Research Foundation
b) Japan Confederation of A and H Bomb Survivors (Hidankyo)
c) Physical effects of a nuclear weapon blast (FAS)