BOSTON - In the 1980s, many medical organizations identified the prevention of nuclear war as one of the medical profession's most important goals. An assessment of the current danger now offers a radically changed context in our post-Cold War era.
A review of recent literature on the status of nuclear arsenals and the risk of nuclear war revealed startling facts leading to the conclusion there is a very high probability there may be a nuclear event of catastrophic proportions.
U.S. and Russian nuclear-weapons systems remain on high alert. This fact, combined with the aging of Russian technical systems, has recently increased the risk of an accidental nuclear attack.
As a conservative estimate, an accidental intermediate-sized launch of weapons from a single Russian submarine would result in the deaths of 6,838,000 persons from firestorms in eight U.S. cities.
Millions of other people would probably be exposed to potentially lethal radiation from fallout. An agreement to remove all nuclear missiles from high-level alert status and eliminate the capability of a rapid launch would put an end to this threat.
The risk of an accidental nuclear attack has increased in recent years, threatening a public health disaster of unprecedented scale. Physicians and medical organizations should work actively to help build support for the policy changes that would prevent such a disaster.
[Bruce G. Blair, Ira Helfand, George Lewis, Theodore Postol, Victor Sidel, Barry S. Levy, Herbert Abrams, and Christine Cassel also contributed to this story that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine 1998;338:1326-31.]