The human cost of nuclear weapons

IRRC No. 899

The human cost of nuclear weapons

Since their first use in 1945, the world has known about the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons. Today, the urgency of the threat of these weapons has faded for many, and while the threat no longer seems as present, paradoxically we know more than ever before about the effects that even a limited nuclear war would have on the environment and the health of human beings. As long as nuclear weapons exist there remains a danger of intentional or accidental nuclear detonation, and we also know that there is a lack of capacity at the national and international levels to effectively respond to such a humanitarian catastrophe. This edition of the Review looks at nuclear weapons from the perspective of survivors, journalists, writers, lawyers, humanitarian practitioners and other experts, to examine the human cost.

Table of contents

  • Editorial: The human cost of nuclear weapons

    It is estimated that approximately 340,000 people died immediately and within the five years following the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. From the day of the bombing to today, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement) has been responding to the needs of victims and has been consistent in its opposition to the use of nuclear weapons.
    Vincent Bernard, Editor-in-Chief

  • After the atomic bomb: Hibakusha tell their stories

    In this issue, the Review has chosen to feature the voices of hibakusha, those who survived the nuclear bombings in Japan.* These three hibakusha have shared their experiences with the hope that our readers will understand the horrors of nuclear weapons use. They have each suffered and witnessed the horrific suffering of others caused by nuclear weapons, and their families may continue to suffer medical problems for generations to come. Each calls for assurances that nuclear weapons will never be used again. These are their stories.
    Dr. Masao Tomonaga, Chairman of the Nagasaki Global Citizen’s Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
    Mr. Sadao Yamamoto, Advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons
    Mr. Yoshiro Yamawaki, Advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons

  • The view from under the mushroom cloud: The Chugoku Shimbun newspaper and the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

    This article, illustrated with pictures taken by the newspaper’s photographer, Yoshito Matushige, will give readers insight into the experience of the Chugoku Shimbun’s staff on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It features the stories of three staff members, photographer Yoshito Matsushige, journalist Haruo Oshita, and Yasuo Yamamoto, manager of the paper’s stenography department. It also describes the Chugoku Shimbun’s efforts to document the experience of Hiroshima’s citizens, notably through the establishment of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center, and the newspaper’s work towards a future without nuclear weapons.
    Tomomitsu Miyazaki, Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

  • Photo gallery: Ground zero Nagasaki

    This selection of photos is meant as an appeal from the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum to remember the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. It was compiled by museum director Akitoshi Nakamura based on the collection at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.1 Readers are invited to visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and spend some time viewing its collection of over 1,000 photographs and remnants from the city at that time to get a sense of what happened before and after the atomic bombing that summer seventy years ago, and how devastating the atomic bomb’s destructive effects were.
    Akitoshi Nakamura, Director of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

  • Seventy years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Reflections on the consequences of nuclear detonation

    In this interview, conducted after their visit to Hiroshima, President Peter Maurer and President Tadateru Konoe reflect on the human cost of nuclear weapons and present the perspective of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on the Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo, Nayarit, Mexico and Vienna, and the challenges ahead for nuclear disarmament.

  • Nuclear arsenals: Current developments, trends and capabilities

    In this article, the highly destructive potential of global nuclear arsenals is reviewed with respect to nuclear force structures, evolution of nuclear capabilities, modernization programmes and nuclear war planning and operations. Specific nuclear forces data is presented for the United States, the Russian Federation, Great Britain, France, China, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. Hypothetical, escalatory scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons are presented, including the calculated distribution of radioactive fallout. At more than seventy years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, international progress on nuclear arms control and disarmament has now nearly stalled, with the emphasis shifting to modernizing and maintaining large inventories of nuclear weapons indefinitely. This perpetuates a grave risk to human health, civil society and the environment.
    Hans M. Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS)
    Matthew G. McKinzie, Program director

  • Pursuing “effective measures” relating to nuclear disarmament: Ways of making a legal obligation a reality

    This paper argues that pursuing negotiations in good faith on effective measures for nuclear disarmament is a legal obligation, not a foreign policy option. Drawing on the New Agenda Coalition paper of April 2014, which identified some pathways by which nuclear disarmament might be pursued, this paper identifies and analyzes international legal issues raised by each of those pathways. The paper concludes by explaining why legal analysis and discussion are important even in the absence of a settled political commitment to nuclear disarmament.
    Treasa Dunworth, Associate Professor

  • The human costs and legal consequences of nuclear weapons under international humanitarian law

    The potential use of nuclear weapons has long been a global concern. This article highlights the principal rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) governing the conduct of hostilities applicable to nuclear weapons, and the issues and concerns that would arise were such weapons ever to be used again, in particular the severe and extensive consequences for civilians, civilian objects, combatants and the environment. In recent years, increased attention has been paid to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Based on what has been learned from extensive research on the humanitarian and environmental effects of nuclear weapons since they were first used in 1945, and the accompanying implications for IHL, it seems appropriate to conclude that the use of nuclear weapons in or near a populated area would amount to an indiscriminate attack and that there should also be a presumption of illegality with regard to the use of nuclear weapons outside such areas.
    Louis Maresca, Legal Adviser
    Eleanor Mitchell

  • Chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear events: The humanitarian response framework of the International Committee of the Red Cross

    Mounting an effective international humanitarian response to a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) event, especially if the response is undertaken on an ad hoc basis, would be extremely difficult and would pose many risks to the responders. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has created a competency-based capacity to respond to at least small-scale CBRN events, including a deployable capability to undertake operational activities. This involves informed assessments of CBRN risks, timely and competent decisions on how to respond, and effectively mobilizing appropriate resources to implement these decisions, through the creation of an emergency roster. In addition to the acquisition of technical expertise and material resources, the creation of such capacity requires the application of central processes, ensuring systematic management of CBRN response (including risk-based decision-making), standing operational procedures, and availability of and access to the necessary resources. Implementation of the ICRC’s CBRN response framework as described in this article should be considered by any agency or other stakeholder preparing for international humanitarian assistance in CBRN events – especially if such events are related to armed conflict.
    Dr Gregor Malich, Formerly the Head of the ICRC’s CBRN Operational Response Project
    Robin Coupland, ICRC’s Medical Adviser with respect to the impact of weapons and violence
    Steve Donnelly, Technical Adviser
    Dr Johnny Nehme, Head of Weapon Contamination Unit at the ICRC

  • The use of nuclear weapons and human rights

    Dr Stuart Casey-Maslen is Honorary Professor at the University of Pretoria. He is the co-editor, with Gro Nystuen and Annie Golden Bersagel, of Nuclear Weapons under International Law, published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. He has participated in diplomatic conferences adopting weapons law treaties for UNICEF (the 1996 Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons), the ICRC (the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention) and Norwegian People’s Aid (the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions), and served as a Legal Adviser to the Swiss delegation in the negotiation of the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty.
    Stuart Casey-Maslen, Head of Research at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

  • The development of the international initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and its effect on the nuclear weapons debate

    This article describes the genesis of the humanitarian initiative and the political context in which it has developed in the course of the joint cross-regional statements and the three international conferences on this issue in Norway, Mexico and Austria. It examines the key substantive conclusions that have emerged as a result of this debate and assesses their relevance for the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. It concludes that these facts and findings warrant an urgent reassessment of the so-called security value of nuclear weapons and a nuclear deterrence-based notion of stability and security.
    Alexander Kmentt, Director

  • Changing the discourse on nuclear weapons: The humanitarian initiative

    This article examines the progress of the humanitarian initiative to reframe the nuclear weapons discourse internationally. The initiative seeks to shift debate away from theories of strategic stability and towards a focus on the impact of nuclear weapons themselves. This effort has now gathered significant support at an international level, and its implications are increasingly recognized by both nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed States. The initiative has been underpinned by the deliberate logic of humanitarian disarmament. A treaty banning nuclear weapons, around which momentum is gathering, would be an achievable, legally coherent and logical next step developing from the initiative.
    Elizabeth Minor, Researcher

  • Protecting humanity from the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons: Reframing the debate towards the humanitarian impact

    The international community has been struggling to reach agreement on the nonproliferation and elimination of nuclear weapons since they were first used in 1945. Encouragingly, recent global debate has, for the first time, focused on the devastating humanitarian consequences that the use of nuclear weapons will have not only for nuclear weapons States but for all humanity. The fact that the risks and overwhelming humanitarian consequences of a nuclear event are so high, combined with the inability of the global community to adequately respond to the needs of victims, has compelled policy-makers to consider new ways to work towards the prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons under international law. This article examines how the "humanitarian initiative" has reframed the nuclear weapons debate away from the traditional realm of State security, deterrence and military utility, and towards the grim reality of the humanitarian impacts that would confront humankind if nuclear weapons were ever used again.
    Richard Slade, Senior Research and Policy Officer
    Robert Tickner, Former Under-Secretary
    Dr. Phoebe Wynn-Pope, Director

  • An African contribution to the nuclear weapons debate

    The current initiative on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons has offered States the opportunity to reinvigorate the disarmament debate. While Africa has taken this opportunity to engage on nuclear disarmament, the impact of its efforts remains to be seen. The purpose of this article is to recall the value of African engagement, and to identify the important role that South Africa could play in leading the African continent in its call for a world free of nuclear weapons.
    Sarah J. Swart, Regional Legal Adviser in Pretoria

  • The humanitarian impact and implications of nuclear test explosions in the Pacific region

    The people of the Pacific region have suffered widespread and persisting radioactive contamination, displacement and transgenerational harm from nuclear test explosions. This paper reviews radiation health effects and the global impacts of nuclear testing, as context for the health and environmental consequences of nuclear test explosions in Australia, the Marshall Islands, the central Pacific and French Polynesia. The resulting humanitarian needs include recognition, accountability, monitoring, care, compensation and remediation. Treaty architecture to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons and provide for their elimination is considered the most promising way to durably end nuclear testing. Evidence of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear tests, and survivor testimony, can contribute towards fulfilling the humanitarian imperative to eradicate nuclear weapons.
    Dr Tilman A. Ruff, Physician

  • Focusing the debate on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons: An Indian perspective

    The participation of nuclear India in the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons conferences has generated curiosity in the global community. The world is bewildered to know that India simultaneously possesses nuclear weapons and participates in the humanitarian impact initiative. Even observers of the humanitarian impact movement often wonder what contribution India makes to the movement. Some historical insight into India’s nuclear policy solves the puzzle. The humanitarian impact aspect of the nuclear debate has been an ingredient in India’s policy because of India’s strategic culture. The components of the Humanitarian Pledge are echoed in India’s nuclear policy, and India maintains that a world without nuclear weapons will be more secure.
    Rajiv Nayan, Senior Research Associate

  • Non-State actors’ pursuit of CBRN weapons: From motivation to potential humanitarian consequences

    This paper discusses non-State actors’ motivation and capacity to develop and use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) improvised weapons in attacks, as well as the possible consequences of such use. Six types of groups have been identified as potential CBRN weapons users that may increasingly be able to acquire relevant CBRN weapons-related knowledge, skills and possibly materials. As technical barriers still form a gap between the theoretical possibility and the operational reality, any potential future CBRN attacks would most likely be crude, low-level attacks, including chemical or radiological materials. CBRN attacks carried out by non-State actors in the future are likely to be more disruptive than destructive.
    Maarten S. Nieuwenhuizen
    Stephanie E. Meulenbelt, Researcher

  • ICRC report on the effects of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima

    The following document comes from the ICRC historical archives. The ICRC archives collect and preserve ICRC documents dating from the organization’s inception to the present day, and make them available for research. The ICRC’s historical archives, run by professional archivists and historians, comprise 6,700 linear metres of textual records and a collection of photographs, films and other audio archives. The ICRC’s public archives represent an essential historical source for surveying, studying and debating contemporary diplomatic history, particularly in the field of humanitarian operations and their impact on States, societies, cultures and armed conflicts or other situations of violence. The public archives cover the history of the ICRC since its foundation in 1863 to 1975, and are available for consultation, by appointment. If you wish to consult the ICRC’s historical archives in Geneva, you may schedule an appointment via email at

  • Bringing the era of nuclear weapons to an end

    Speech given by Mr Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to the Geneva Diplomatic Corps on 20 April 2010.
    Jakob Kellenberger, Former president of the ICRC

  • Nuclear weapons: Ending a threat to humanity

    Speech given by Mr Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to the diplomatic community in Geneva on 18 February 2015.
    Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC

  • What’s new in law and case law around the world? (Summer 2016)

    Biannual update on national implementation of international humanitarian law* January-June 2015.

  • Book review: Nuclear Weapons under International Law

    What are we really looking for in a new text on nuclear weapons? To some extent, it can rightly be said that all the key issues have been canvassed at some length in the (almost) two decades since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) handed down its Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion).1 There have, however, been significant changes in the context against which these issues must be considered. Particularly notable are scientific advances, which have deepened our understanding of the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons (as highlighted at the recent conferences held on the subject), and technological advances, which have focused the legal debate on weapons of the “low-yield” or “tactical” variety.
    Eleanor Mitchell

  • Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and their Means of Delivery

    Imperfections in international arms control agreements are a common outcome of multilateral negotiations. But, they can have significant implications, especially where exceptions are made for specific parties or circumstances, as is the case for the treaty prohibiting chemical weapons. When agreement finally came in late 1992 – after decade-long negotiations – on a Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it contained a special provision for law enforcement. With the use of toxicity as a weapon in armed conflict finally beyond the pale, States retained the right – to a certain extent – to use it against their own citizens.
    Neil Davison

  • Human Rights in Armed Conflict: Law, Practice, Policy

    There seems to be no doubt about the application of human rights in armed conflicts, but until now, how they are applied had been only partially explored. In Human Rights in Armed Conflict, Gerd Oberleitner offers a meticulous analysis and asks profound questions about the “purpose, nature and scope of the whole jus in bello”. Indeed, the book’s main hypothesis is that human rights impact upon and are gradually changing the jus in bello as we know it. This issue, however, is not merely a matter of legal theory, but a confrontation between advocates of a human rights-oriented law enforcement paradigm and advocates of a security-oriented armed conflict paradigm.
    Ezequiel Heffes, Geneva Call

  • New publications in humanitarian action and the law (Summer 2016)

    This selection is based on the new acquisitions of the ICRC’s Library and Research Services