On 25th November 2014 at the UCL Institute of Global Governance, Thomas Nash, Director of Article 36, joined Eric Schlosser, investigative journalist and author of ‘Command and Control’, for a discussion on the enduring threat to humanity posed by nuclear weapons.

Highlighting how the current international initiative to examine the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons invites a change in thinking about the issue, Nash discussed what the effects of using of a nuclear weapon would be. The example of a 100 kiloton nuclear weapon detonation over Manchester was used to illustrate this: this would kill 81,000 and injure 212,000. Mounting a meaningful humanitarian response to a nuclear weapon detonation would be virtually impossible. Given the humanitarian effects of any nuclear detonation, deliberate or accidental, Nash argued that a treaty banning nuclear weapons – as advocated for by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – is necessary. This achievable step, even without the nuclear-armed states, would address an anomaly in international law, provide a basis for mobilisation by civil society and governments, and would hit investment in nuclear weapons production. The debate within the UK on the renewal of the Trident programme would also be significantly altered against the backdrop of a ban treaty endorsed by the majority of the world’s countries.

Schlosser’s book, ‘Command and Control’, looks at the dilemmas faced by states in maintaining nuclear arsenals whilst avoiding accidental or unauthorised detonations, thefts, or sabotage of the weapons. Using declassified documents and interviews with individuals involved, Schlosser sets out past ‘near misses’ and analyses the continuing risk the maintenance of these weapons pose. At this event, Schlosser discussed the trade-off between military requirements for reliability and civilian need for stringent safety and the avoidance of accidents. He highlighted the anomaly that nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction that are not banned. Schlosser also proposed the irrelevance of ‘nuclear deterrance’ to preventing armed conflict in an increasingly economically interdependent world.

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Following conferences in Oslo in 2013 and Narayit in early 2014, the latest meeting to discuss the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons involving states and civil society was held in December 2014 in Vienna. This resulted in a pledge by Austria to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. Article 36 has analysed the effects of nuclear weapons under international law, publishing a briefing paper to coincide with the Vienna conference.

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