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No way to deliver assistance in the event of a nuclear explosion

04-03-2013 Interview

The ICRC warns that, as things stand, there is no effective way of delivering humanitarian assistance to victims of a nuclear blast. The stark message was given to delegates at an international conference organized by the Norwegian government in Oslo on 4-5 March, to consider the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Gregor Malich, an ICRC expert on the operational response to nuclear disasters and similar events, is attending the meeting. He gives the background to the issues and explains what the ICRC is trying to achieve.

Gregor Malich, an ICRC expert on the operational response to nuclear disasters and similar events, is attending the meeting. He gives the background to the issues and explains what the ICRC is trying to achieve.

What are the effects of nuclear explosions on human beings?

In 1945 in Hiroshima, the ICRC came to assist the people affected by the nuclear explosion and ICRC doctor Marcel Junod later provided a detailed account of effects never observed on such a scale before. What is known now is that a nuclear explosion may result in immediate and long-term health consequences depending on a number of factors including the construction of the device, its destructive power, and the location of the explosion in relation to the affected people. As nuclear devices are designed to produce huge explosive forces, many victims will suffer effects of heat, blast waves and the accompanying high-speed winds. In addition, the release of ionizing radiation and radioactive fallout also has the potential to cause death and severe injury. The chances of survival will depend primarily on the extent of exposure to these phenomena with many of those in the vicinity at the time of the explosion likely to die immediately or within the following days or weeks. Of the survivors, many will show acute symptoms of injury but may also suffer less obvious long-term health consequences such as cancer and birth defects. These effects are aggravated by the devastation of the living and non-living environment, be it in terms of physical destruction, loss of ecosystem functions, or the displacement of populations also because of radioactive contamination which may make large areas unsafe for human habitation for many years to come - in itself likely to have serious humanitarian consequences for the population. Obviously, all of this can severely disturb a society’s overall ability to function which would complete the catastrophe.

In such a scenario, is it possible to provide effective assistance?  

Today’s strategic nuclear weapons are of a much greater yield than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hence, the potential impact of their explosion is far greater, in terms of the extent of death and injury, destruction of civilian infrastructure and radioactive contamination of the environment. Many thousands of victims could potentially require humanitarian assistance in areas where the infrastructure would be destroyed or severely damaged. In addition, the risk to responders from exposure to ionizing radiation would severely limit their ability to operate. As highlighted in a 2009 assessment conducted by the ICRC, there is currently no effective way of delivering humanitarian assistance to victims following the use of such weapons.

Haven’t some governments developed such capacities domestically?

During the Cold War, many governments invested money and effort in civil defence activities in case nuclear weapons were used against them. Although such efforts were generally scaled back after the end of the Cold War, some States have increased preparedness in response to the concerns over the possible use by non-state actors of “non-conventional weapons”, including nuclear weapons. However, this response has mainly focused on the use of improvised devices (e.g. dirty bombs) with much smaller potential impact than would be the case in the event of the use of larger nuclear weapons. Furthermore, these efforts have focused on domestic response, or in other words, response within the boundaries of their respective countries. There has been very little progress made thus far on international assistance mechanisms for victims of nuclear weapons in situations of conflict.

What is the ICRC doing?

The ICRC is looking at possible ways to bring assistance to victims of events which involve the release – deliberate or accidental – of nuclear, radiological, biological or chemical (NRBC) agents. This obviously also includes consideration of scenarios of a nuclear weapon explosion. But while we have  begun to build some capacities to respond to at least small-scale NRBC events – and these capacities have in fact already shown their value in a number of contexts during the past few years – there is no illusion that we would be anywhere near an effective response if such a scenario came true. The complexity of a response and the limitation of resources available to any organisation that is engaging in preparing for such events dictate that networks amongst potential responders be established. And for the capacities available within these networks to be effective, they need to be based on at least a similar understanding of what is required. The ICRC is promoting the establishment of such networks accordingly.

Given this background, what is the ICRC position on the use of nuclear weapons?

ICRC’s concerns as to nuclear weapons are primarily related to the impacts they can have which raise serious questions about the compatibility of these weapons with international humanitarian law. These concerns led the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement's Council of Delegates to conclude in 2011 that "it is difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the requirements of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of distinction, precaution and proportionality". This view is similar to that taken by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 Opinion, in which it concluded that the 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".