news feature
September 19, 2008




Two experts relate the grim realities of nuclear weapons
by Bruce Rodgers

We live in scary times — Wall Street financial meltdown, global climate change, terrorism, environmental degradation, the list is long. One threat of total annihilation has remained with us since 1945 — nuclear war.

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard and Dr. Ira Helfand reminded an audience of fifty or so on Sept. 18 at the Kansas City, MO Central Library that the world remains awash in nuclear weapons, and that the threat of a nuclear conflict — accidental or intentional — remains. As Gard put it, “Don’t underestimate human frailty.”

Gard is chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation ( The organization seeks to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles, help enforce provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and maintain a ban on nuclear weapons testing.

The mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan on Aug. 9, 1945. The cloud rose 11 miles above the hypocenter after the bomb was exploded at 1,650 feet. The death toll within one mile of the hypocenter was 96.7%, (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Helfand is co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility (, which describes itself as a “medical and public health voice working to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.”

The program at the Central Library was co-sponsored by the International Relations Council and the Park University International Center for Civic Engagement. It was a sober presentation that could leave one asking if humanity’s six-decade avoidance in using nuclear weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from blind luck or thoughtful human determination — or, for the religious, grace from the Divine.

Gard began his talk by recounting the number of nuclear weapons thought to exist today — 18,000 in Russia, 10,000 in the United States of which 3,000 are deployed, and some 2,000 on high alert. China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel hold a few hundred each, said Gard, with Pakistan and India having less than one hundred down to North Korea, thought to have eight nuclear devices.

The enrichment of uranium that goes with producing nuclear power for energy production, said Gard, can be enhanced to make weapons-grade material. “Thirty to forty countries have the capacity to develop this in a short manner of time,” he said.

With this capacity comes the concern that such material will be obtained by a terrorist group. Gard said that in 1993 Osama bin Laden tried to obtain weapons-grade material from Sweden and that in 1998 pronouncements from radical Muslim religious leaders stated it was a “religious duty” to use nuclear weapons against non-believers.

Material to make a nuclear device is scattered in 140 locations around the world, Gard said. “Some 50 metric tons in about 40 countries, enough for more than 2,000 weapons,” he said.

Helfand reinforced Gard’s point by noting bleakly, “I doesn’t take a superpower to destroy the world.”

The effects on the food and water supply would increase the death toll beyond just a nuclear strike. Helfand used an example of 100 warheads dropped on South Asia. “Those warheads would cause massive destruction of the climate by the debris (thrown up into the atmosphere); it would drop the (world’s) temperature for up to ten years,” he said.

Such a temperature drop would affect the growing season, leading to food shortages and what Helfand predicted as “one billion dead.”

“That’s the real danger that does not get the attention it deserves,” continued Helfand. “Our job is to inject this into the public dialogue.

“We’ve got to get rid of the weapons all together. It’s not that difficult. The only thing lacking is political will.”

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have promised to “strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” if elected president. Gard and Helfand agree that such a strengthening in needed. (McCain and Obama’s positions on nuclear arms control can be found at

Gard pointed out that the George W. Bush administration reversed decades of U.S. policy on the use and spread of nuclear weapons.

“If you assumed our government would be taking action to remove nuclear weapons, you would be wrong,” said Gard.

“Bush reversed the policy of (President) Carter in being against the ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons. Now the world sees us of shifting from nuclear deterrence to first use. What message does that send to others in seeking that they not use or obtain nuclear weapons?”

Gard acknowledged the threat posed by North Korea and Iran but criticized the Bush negotiating style directed at both countries, which he characterized as seeking the desired outcome before even agreeing to talk with the nation’s representatives. “That doesn’t take us very far,” he said.

Gard or Helfand don’t advocate unilateral disarmament by the United States. “We ask that America help negotiate a disarmament process,” said Helfand.

“Nuclear weapons are useful for deterring others from using them on you — that’s the best you can say about them,” said Gard.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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