Earlier this month, more then 130 governments, UN agencies and the global Red Cross Movement met in Oslo at the invitation of the Norwegian government, to discuss the humanitarian, environmental and developmental consequences of nuclear explosions.
Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International executive director, contributed to a video submission screened to government delegates on behalf of civil society. The video sets out how nuclear weapons represent an unacceptable and uncontrollable risk to us all.
At Greenpeace, we believe that the battle to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons – the first campaign Greenpeace ever engaged in – is as urgent as ever and that we must not rest until we eliminate nuclear weapons from the world altogether. We also believe that civil society has a crucial role to play in the process and support the efforts made by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to bring civil society together for this purpose.
The impacts of nuclear weapons are not abstract or speculative. We know how terrible their impact is. Nuclear weapons have been used twice and have been tested on numerous occasions. And yet the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not put a stop to the race to acquire nuclear weaponry and test it, showing complete disregard to human beings and natural habitats; treating entire populations as guinea pigs.
Take for example the beautiful atoll of Rongelap in the Marshall Islands. In 1985 the residents of Rongelap asked Greenpeace to help them relocate to a new home.
They had no choice. Their islands had been contaminated in 1954 by radioactive fallout from a US nuclear weapons test, codenamed 'Bravo', conducted on the neighboring atoll of Bikini 200 km to the west. For years following the test many of the women exposed to the radiation suffered reproductive problems and many others have developed thyroid and other cancers. During this time the US repeatedly stated that Rongelap was a safe place to live.
The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior then helped the 350 residents leave the island they had populated for thousands of years and relocate them to another island. In the early 1990s the US acknowledged the damage cause to the Rongelapese and after long legal battles agreed to pay some compensations. Nearly 30 years later, the Ronglapese still live in exile.
In 2009 a minimal 'clean up' was conducted and pressure was put on them to return, but many of them believe that the Island is still too contaminated. Even if they do return, they will be restricted in where they can gather food and will be heavily reliant on imported tinned food. The damaging legacy of the nuclear test nearly 60 years ago continues to be felt today.
This is what makes nuclear explosions truly monstrous: their impacts cannot be cleaned or erased – the contamination created by radiation will impact not only those living in the region now, but also future generations. There are no technologies capable of effectively cleaning up radiation. It persists over a long period of time and clean up is a dangerous, costly process, with only limited effect.
Much of what we know about radiation we learnt from accidents in the nuclear power sector. It has become clear that nuclear energy conceals inherent dangers, in some aspects, even greater than atomic weapons: the radiation release from one reactor in Chernobyl exceeded the radioactive contamination caused by the atomic weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by one hundred times.
Around Chernobyl, more than 25 years after the disaster, a vast area still remains uninhabitable despite billions beings spent and hundreds of thousands of people working on the very risky clean up, many of them paying with their lives or health. Contamination does not disappear overnight. Radiation has disastrous and long-term implications on health.
There is another painful parallel between the impacts of nuclear weapons and nuclear disasters: social disruption. Like in Chernobyl, the Fukushima nuclear accident two years ago has left vast areas around the reactors radioactively contaminated. The human suffering continues. And like the stigmatisation of the Hibakusha (people exposed to the effects of the bomb) after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, people in Fukushima region are now being stigmatised with some media reports and websites suggesting that Fukushima women are 'damaged goods'. The stigmatisation has now hit several generations.
When talking about impacts, we must not forget the environment. The production of nuclear weapons has polluted vast amounts of soil and water at hundreds of nuclear weapons facilities all over the world. Many of the substances released remain hazardous for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years.
When, in a thousand years from now, future archeologists would dig up what we have left behind, what would they find? Do we really want our existence on earth to be marked by the remains of nuclear reactors, missiles, ships, submarines, fuel and other waste? Do we want to leave behind plutonium (that takes around 250,000 years to become lead), uranium, strontium, caesium, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls, mercury and cyanide?
No, this is not what I want to leave behind. Do you?
Nuclear weapons lead humanity on a path towards collective suicide. For the sake of our children, and for the sake of future generations, we must stop our governments from continuing along this path, choosing a peaceful, greener future instead.
Jen Maman is Greenpeace International peace adviser.
The post was compiled with input from Dr. Rianne Teule, a radiation expert and Greenpeace nuclear campaigner and Bunny McDiarmid Executive Director Greenpeace New Zeland/Aotearoa