The Forgotten Nightmare: Global Cooling

While global warming dominates the headlines a more urgent danger threatens life on earth. Global warming could make the planet uninhabitable by the end of the century. Global cooling – the “Nuclear Winter” that would follow nuclear war – could achieve the same result in days or weeks.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a disturbing complacency has set in. It is as if the threat imposed on us all by the hair-trigger readiness of thousands of intercontinental nuclear-armed missiles no longer exists. Perhaps this is understandable with the political and media discussion of the issue focussed almost entirely on the potential danger posed by non-state terrorism and so-called “rogue” states.

The selective finger pointing, fear mongering and drum beating only serves to distract attention from the chilling reality: the US and Russia still possess 97% of the world’s nuclear weapons and neither has any genuine commitment to nuclear disarmament. It is they and the other 7 established nuclear weapon states that pose the greatest threat to humanity and all other species on the planet.

If even a tiny fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenal were unleashed catastrophic climate change would follow. For example, a “small” nuclear war employing 100 bombs of the size that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki would pour millions of tons of smoke into the stratosphere. The smoke would come from the raging firestorms consuming cities, industries, neighbourhoods and people. As the smoke spread around the globe it would reduce the sunlight and destroy much of the protective ozone layer. Temperatures would drop and food production would plunge due to shortened growing seasons. Hundreds of millions of people, possibly a billion, would starve to death. [1] Think of Hiroshima. Imagine 100 times Hiroshima. (3) And this can quite accurately be described as a “small” conflict because it would be equivalent to less than half of 1% of the explosive power of US and Russian high-alert nuclear weapons. [2] That figure bears repeating: less than half of 1%.

A large conflict involving all of the Russian and US high-alert nuclear weapons would pour 50 million tons of smoke into the stratosphere, blocking the sunlight and dropping global temperatures by 4°C. [1] Think of Hiroshima. Imagine 79,000 times Hiroshima. (4)

Now consider a war involving the entire world operational nuclear arsenal. Think of Hiroshima. Imagine 177,000 times Hiroshima. (5) 150 million tons of smoke would rise into the stratosphere enveloping the planet, absorbing the sunlight, reducing global temperatures by 8°C; creating another Ice Age.

Climate change from global cooling would occur not in decades or years but in weeks or days. Survivors would have no time to adapt. [1] Until they died off from the lethal radioactive fallout they would be left with razed cities, destroyed infrastructure, horrific injuries, birth deformations, cancers, disease epidemics and mass starvation. Perhaps the tens of millions or hundreds of millions instantly vapourised or incinerated would be the lucky ones.

The potential for a catastrophic mistake is enormous, particularly in the case of a suspected submarine launched attack. Russian and US “Launch on Warning” systems” would give their presidents only 2 to 3 minutes to decide whether or not to retaliate. [6] Typical warheads have 20 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb. Typical nuclear missiles carry 8 or more of these independently programmed to destroy multiple targets. Think of Hiroshima. Imagine 160 times Hiroshima – from one missile.

With this spectre hovering over humanity it is difficult to understand how anyone, least of all an environmental luminary like James Lovelock, could advocate nuclear power as a solution to global warming. [7] This solution sidesteps the health, environmental and security dangers associated with building and operating at least a thousand nuclear reactors; the increased environmental and security risks associated with mining, transportation, processing and storage of vastly increased quantities of uranium and deadly radioactive waste; and the fact that high grade, low cost uranium deposits consumed even at the present rate will be exhausted in fifty years. [8]

More importantly, it overlooks the enormous danger posed by more leaders of more nuclear weapons states (that would inevitably emerge) with their fingers on more doomsday buttons. While there are nuclear reactors, there will be nuclear weapons. While “peace-loving” countries like Australia mine and export uranium they are complicit in keeping the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Here in Australia, advocates of uranium mining and export claim that this gives us a more credible voice in the world arena than we would otherwise have. They say our position as the largest source of uranium and the second largest exporter after Canada makes us more effective in preventing nuclear proliferation than we would otherwise be. In other words, by selling the stuff from which nuclear weapons are made, we are helping to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

This absurd reasoning extends to the so-called “safeguard” agreements – essentially book-keeping entries – that supposedly track every morsel of “Australian Obligated” uranium during its travels around the world, including its reprocessing and on-selling. We can rest assured that Australian uranium won’t be used to make nuclear weapons – or free up other uranium for that purpose – because we say it can’t and the buyer nations say it won’t.

History tells a different story. Of about 60 countries that have nuclear power or research reactors more than 20 have used their “peaceful” facilities for covert nuclear weapons research or production or both. India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and North Korea have all developed nuclear weapons under cover of “peaceful” nuclear programs. Other countries have made considerable progress before ending their programs. (South Africa is the only state to eliminate its nuclear weapons.) [8]

Egypt, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Romania, South Korea, Taiwan, and the former Yugoslavia, all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), have violated their agreements by conducting forbidden weapons-related activities or not meeting their reporting requirements to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). [8]

North Korea has withdrawn from the treaty; India, Pakistan and Israel were never members. The “declared” nuclear weapons states – the US, Russia, the UK, France and China – have all violated their NTP obligations and shown by their actions that they have no intention of abandoning their nuclear superiority. [8]

The belligerence and blatant double standards demonstrated by the “big five,” who also hold the five permanent seats and veto power on the UN Security Council, provides motivation and “justification” for other states – some repeatedly threatened with attack, including nuclear attack (“all options are on the table”) – to develop a nuclear “deterrent” of their own. “Peaceful” nuclear programs are the obvious way for them to develop the necessary expertise and facilities and to acquire the technology and essential raw material: uranium.

Five years ago Australia’s uranium exports had already produced about 80 tonnes of plutonium – enough for 8,000 nuclear bombs. The Beverly Four Mile mine in South Australia recently approved by the current government has the capacity to produce enough plutonium for 4,500 more. [9]

It seems the straight-faced hypocrisy of successive Australian governments is boundless: joining in the vilification of the latest designated nuclear “rogue” states, worrying over nuclear terrorism and mouthing non-proliferation platitudes on the one hand while allowing exports of the raw material for nuclear proliferation on the other. If Australia were sincere it would leave its uranium in the ground.

In December, representatives from about 170 countries will meet in Copenhagen to negotiate an international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012. Hopefully, amidst the media circus and political theatre they will commit to the carbon emission reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Hopefully, too, the world will awake from its nuclear slumber in time to prevent the other climate change nightmare: global cooling.

(3) Hiroshima yield 15,000 tons x 100 = 1.5 million tons
(4) [2] Yield 960 million tons/15,000 tons
(5) [2] yield 2,225 million tons/15,000 tons
[8] Climate Change: Nukes No Solution
[9] Arena Magazine, August/September 2009

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