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caption: The USS Nebraska stationed at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor is part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 
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The USS Nebraska stationed at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor is part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear war in America: Still a possibility

Dr. Ira Helfand said when the Cold War ended, we all began to act as if nuclear weapons had gone away.

In fact, about 15,000 nuclear warheads currently exist in the world, 95 percent of which are held in the U.S. and Russia’s arsenals.

Helfand believes that the reason denuclearization hasn't taken top priority is because of a general belief that nuclear war just won’t happen, or because of the belief that if nuclear war does occur, it won’t be so catastrophic. Then there's the feeling that these weapons make people more secure.

During a talk at Town Hall Seattle, he presented the following scenarios to refute those ideas.

Here’s the first piece of the scary news: Helfand said making a crude nuclear device is pretty easy. It’s getting the materials that’s hard. But they may not be as hard to obtain as we would like to think.

“We know there are fully assembled nuclear weapons in the arsenals of Pakistan, and probably still in Russia, that are not optimally guarded and are potentially subject to theft,” he said.

“And we know that there are about 2,000 tons of fissile material – plutonium and highly enriched uranium – stored in more than 40 countries around the world, much of it with very little security. And it only takes a few pounds of either one of these materials to make a nuclear weapon.”

Besides death and destruction, a terrorist attack would produce untold economic damage to the global economy, Helfand said. And civil rights as we know them would disappear.

“Faced with the fear that there might be another attack using nuclear weapons, I think all of us would tolerate a degree of intrusiveness into our lives that is just unacceptable and unimaginable today,” Helfand said.

At greater risk to the world would be if two smaller nuclear weapon states came into serious conflict.

Helfand gave the example of India and Pakistan, which have gone to war three times since their independence from Great Britain and have come close to war another two times. The two countries also regularly engage in non-nuclear fighting over Kashmir.

Because of India’s stronger military forces, Helfan said Pakistan has developed a military doctrine that will resort to early use of nuclear weapons if attacked.

The fallout of such a war would be devastating. Helfand estimates 20 to 30 million people would be killed in the first week. For perspective, 50 million people died over the entire span of WWII.

The fallout would also set off a string of environmental events which would create a worldwide food crisis and put 2 billion people at risk of starvation. That's about a third of the human race.

“We would have to expect that an event of this magnitude would lead to the end of modern civilization," Helfand said. "There has never been a civilization in human history that has withstood a shock anywhere near this magnitude, and there’s no reason to think that we would either."

In this scenario, everything would be vaporized.

“The upper level of the earth itself would simply disappear,” Helfand said.

“A city like Seattle would probably be attacked given the number of strategic targets around the city by 10,12, maybe 15 warheads – each in the range of 10 to 30 times more powerful than the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima.”

Helfand said the vast majority of the human race would starve to death, and possibly we would become extinct as a species.

It’s a danger we face every day, he said. “Even if we don’t stumble into a war in Ukraine or in Syria, there is the ever-present possibility that there will be a war by accident.”

There have been five occasions that we know about since 1979 in which either the U.S. or Russia prepared to launch nuclear war under the mistaken belief they were already under attack, according to Helfand.

“We have been spectacularly lucky over the last 70 years that there has not been a nuclear war,” he said. “Reliance on continued good luck is simply not an acceptable policy for the future. We have to understand that if these weapons continue to exist, it is only a matter of time until they are used, and that if they are used, they’re going to destroy everything that we hold precious.”

“This is a real and present danger – something which should be occupying our attention all the time," Helfand said.

“While this is the future that will be if we don’t take action, it is not the future that must be. Nuclear weapons are not a force of nature, they’re not an act of God – we have built these with our own hands and we know how to take them apart.”

“The only thing that’s lacking is the political will."

Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He spoke about “Combating the Growing Danger of Nuclear War” at Town Hall Seattle on March 20, 2016.

Jennie Cecil Moore recorded his talk. Produced for the web by Kara McDermott.

Web Exclusive: Listen to the full talk below