December 13, 2017

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Calculate the global fallout from nuclear weapons

The Korean War is still not over. People need to remember this if they are planning a trip to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

No doubt to undermine the success of those 2018 Games, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems intent on focusing international attention on his half of the peninsula, divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone and relying on a shaky 64-year-old armistice to keep the peace.

But tantrums that are amusing in a child and irritating in an adolescent are frightening in a leader of a country whose national virility is measured by long-range missiles and nuclear weapons tests.

Match him with a U.S. president who seems cavalier about “nuclear footballs” and is prone to launch barrages of tweets at 5 a.m. — or cruise missiles during dessert at state dinners — and there is even more reason to worry. When U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to “rain fire and fury” on North Korea, it makes the North Korean missile program seem prudent, rather than paranoid.

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The Korean War is still not over. People need to remember this if they are planning a trip to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

No doubt to undermine the success of those 2018 Games, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems intent on focusing international attention on his half of the peninsula, divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone and relying on a shaky 64-year-old armistice to keep the peace.

But tantrums that are amusing in a child and irritating in an adolescent are frightening in a leader of a country whose national virility is measured by long-range missiles and nuclear weapons tests.

Match him with a U.S. president who seems cavalier about "nuclear footballs" and is prone to launch barrages of tweets at 5 a.m. — or cruise missiles during dessert at state dinners — and there is even more reason to worry. When U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to "rain fire and fury" on North Korea, it makes the North Korean missile program seem prudent, rather than paranoid.

All these antics push the nuclear doomsday clock even closer to midnight. We have lived with that clock for 70 years, however, so dire warnings have little or no effect on the situation. Both nuclear technologies and nuclear weapons seem immune to common sense; instead, they are promoted by nearsighted enthusiasts or applauded by irresponsible leaders.

In a heartbeat, nuclear technologies and nuclear weapons could cause more devastation worldwide than all of our other efforts to destroy ourselves combined. As we are pummelled by hurricanes, shrivelled by drought or scorched by forest fires, as we poison the air and contaminate the oceans and the water we drink, we need to remember this nuclear reality as a clear and present danger.

To those who would claim that nuclear weapons have "kept the peace" since 1945, it depends on what you mean by "peace."

Certainly the money spent on those weapons alone — instead of on health, education and development — has brought the world closer to the brink of ecological and human catastrophe. From the perspective of the millions of victims whose lives have been shattered or ended by the myriad conflicts of the past several decades, moreover, "peaceful" is the last adjective they would use to describe their experience.

To those who say there have been no casualties from nuclear weapons since Nagasaki, it means they have forgotten to count the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were shortened by radioactive exposure — from the uranium mines, through weapons production and especially the atmospheric testing that took place until the early 1960s in North America, and even later elsewhere.

Even Winnipeg, along with southern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, was directly in the track of fallout from the American tests, quite apart from the additional radioactivity that circled around the planet every time a bomb went off.

Nor is that the only local threat from radioactive contamination. The Whiteshell nuclear reactor at Pinawa, which ceased operation in 1985, is slated for decommissioning "in situ." In other words, it is to be capped with concrete but not removed, burying underground for (hopefully) hundreds of years what will be unsafe to handle for thousands of years. Although the proposal by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories says the dosage of radioactive leakage from the site would be as miniscule as 1/10,000th the legal allowable level, some people fear contamination of groundwater is a possibility, perhaps long before the outside cap deteriorates.

Getting back to North Korea, however, there is a threat of a different order. Somehow, as a sign of institutional insanity, military strategy and tactics continue to include the use of nuclear weapons. Despite the realization that it would take very few bombs going off, wherever, to induce a nuclear winter that would plunge the whole planet into a Manitoba January for years and therefore kill most of the life on Earth — quite apart from the direct effects — nuclear weapons remain an option.

Contemplating their use, under any circumstance, is unacceptable. History’s lessons are clear: it is easy to start a war, but impossible to predict how it will unfold. Nor do we know what the world will look like once the fighting stops.

Just over 100 years ago, arrogant and irresponsible leaders ignored all of this. But after four years of fighting, four global empires were gone, two others were damaged beyond repair, and Japan and the United States strutted onto the world stage, unhindered, to set the stage for the Second World War in the Pacific.

A nuclear replay would create an unthinkable future for us all.

Peter Denton is adjunct associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada. He chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.

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