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Russia: U.S. Physicians Tout Dangers Of Accidental Nuclear Attack

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 30 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. non-governmental agency made up of doctors and medical experts says an accidental nuclear attack against the U.S. by the Russians could kill more than six million Americans and expose millions more to potentially lethal doses of radiation.

The Physicians For Social Responsibility made the comment Wednesday at a press conference in Washington to release their new report "Accidental Nuclear War: A Post-Cold War Assessment."

The report, which will be published today in The New England Journal of Medicine, creates a hypothetical situation where a single Russian submarine accidentally, or without authorization, launches 16 nuclear missiles against eight U.S. cities.

The report explores the devastating medical consequences as a result of such an attack and the plausibility of such an accident occurring.

The report says that although many people believe that the threat of a nuclear attack largely disappeared with the end of the Cold War, there is still "considerable evidence" to the contrary.

The report says that both the U.S. and Russia continue to have thousands of nuclear warheads poised at high alert. These massive arsenals, combined with the "progressive deterioration" of the Russian nuclear control systems, post a real risk of accidental nuclear war, warns the report.

Says the report: "Since the end of the Cold War, Russia's nuclear command system has steadily deteriorated. Aging nuclear communications and computer networks are malfunctioning more frequently, and are deficient early-warning satellites and ground radar and more prone to reporting false alarms. The saga of the Mir space station bears witness to the problems of aging Russian technical systems."

The report also quotes former Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov as acknowledging last year: "No one today can guarantee the reliability of our control systems....Russia might soon reach the threshold beyond which its rockets and nuclear systems cannot be controlled."

An unauthorized or accidental nuclear attack could be triggered by a number of factors, including the launch of a missile due to a technical malfunction or a false warning, says the report.

The likelihood of this occurring in Russia is growing, says the reports, as budget cuts have severely reduced the training of nuclear commanders and therefore their proficiency in operating the nuclear weapons safely. Elite nuclear unites suffer pay arrears and housing and food shortages, the report adds, all which contribute to low morale and disaffection.

The report warns that the safeguards against a nuclear attack will be further degraded if the Russian government implements its current plan to distribute both the unlock codes and conditional launch authority down the chain of command.

Says the report: "Indeed, a recent report by the [U.S.] Central Intelligence Agency, which was leaked to the press, warned that some Russian submarine crews may already be capable of authorizing a launch."

But the report says that an accidental attack could come from the U.S. as well, citing two well-known false warnings that occurred in 1979 and 1980 when human error and computer-chip failures resulted in indications of a massive Soviet missile strike.

The report says the medical consequences of such a nuclear attack would be catastrophic.

According to the hypothetical scenario created by the report, an accidental launch by a single Russian submarine would likely result in the immediate deaths of 6,838,000 persons from the explosion and fire storms alone. Millions more would be killed by radiation.

Transportation, communication and energy networks would be completely disrupted, says the report, making timely delivery of outside medical help practically impossible. Hospitals would be destroyed and numerous doctors and medical workers killed. Surviving medical personnel would likely be unwilling or afraid to approach target areas because of the danger of radiation exposure.

Overall, there would simply not be enough hospitals or medical personnel to handle the enormous number of patients with severe burns and other critical injuries resulting from the attack, says the report.

The report concludes that therefore, the only effective medical response to such an attack is prevention.

The best prevention, explains the report, would be a bilateral, verified agreement between the U.S. and Russia to remove all nuclear missiles from high-level alert status and eliminate the capability of a rapid launch.

Says the report: "Until the abolition of nuclear weapons reduces the annual probability [of an accidental attack] to zero, our immediate goal must be to reduce the probability of a nuclear accident to as low a level as possible. Given the massive casualties that would result from such an accident, achieving this must be among the most urgent of all global health priorities."