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The Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons are among the most dangerous weapons in existence.  The initial blast is far more destructive than any conventional weapons, while the subsequent exposure to radiation and spread of radioactive fallout can cause lasting health and environmental effects. They produce powerful blast waves, intense heat, and release large amounts of ionized radiation. 

The consequences of a nuclear detonation to humanity would be catastrophic. No country or international body is equipped to provide humanitarian assistance in the immediate aftermath or address the long-term effects.  It doesn’t matter if a nuclear detonation is accidental or on purpose—the outcome is the same.

Immediate  Blast Effects

A nuclear detonation in or near a major city would cause catastrophic damage and casualties that would take decades to recover from.  Those closest to the blast site would be instantly vaporized, as would surrounding buildings.  Extending outward several miles, the massive shockwave would cause internal injuries, including damage to lungs and ears, and internal bleeding.  Collapsing buildings and objects turned into projectiles by hurricane force winds lead to further injury.  Extreme heat causes severe burns and widespread fires, which can develop into massive firestorms, sucking all of the oxygen from the air and causing carbon monoxide poisoning.  People would be displaced from their homes, infrastructure would be destroyed.  Communications, transportation, water, and electrical systems, along with hospital, schools, and healthcare facilities would all be damaged or destroyed.  Entire industries could be wiped out.  In the ensuing confusion, it would be extremely difficult for first responders to get to people, while emergency services would be overwhelmed and unable to provide assistance to victims.

Economic recovery could take several decades and severely strain public resources.  The cost of response and recovery, clean-up, and decontamination would be astronomical.  Many key economic sectors are located in cities, leading to economic disruption and the loss of quality educational facilities and advanced healthcare.  Supply-chain disruptions could effect the economy on a global scale.

Health and Environmental Effects

In addition to the initial blast effects, exposure to radiation and radioactive fallout causes severe health effects in both the short and long term.  Exposure to high doses of radiation causes radiation sickness, leading to nausea, vomiting, and death.  Overtime, exposure to low doses of radiation can damage cells and DNA, causing mutations and leading to an increased risk of cancer, particularly leukemia and thyroid, lung, and breast cancer.  Women and children are disproportionately affected.  People can be exposed to radiation from the air, as well as contaminated soil, crops, animals, and water sources.  Radioactive fallout cannot be contained within national borders.


Even a limited nuclear exchange (approximately 100 nuclear weapons) has the potential to cause 2 billion deaths worldwide due to food shortages.  In addition to soil and water contamination, radioactive fallout can lead to a cooling of the atmosphere, causing shorter growing seasons.  Studies conducted in 2012 estimate that a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan could cause an average decline of US corn and soybean production by 10% over ten years.  In China, rice production could decline by 17%, maize production by 16%, and winter wheat by 31% in that same time period [1].  Food shortages are likely to be exacerbated by other factors that could limit food production and distribution, such as fuel shortages and supply chain disruption.

The 1995 International Court of Justice ruling on the Legality on the Use or Threat of Use of Nuclear Weapons determined that in every conceivable scares, the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons violated international humanitarian law.  Nuclear weapons do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, cause unspeakable suffering to all.