2018 Vermont Law Top 10 Environmental Watch List

Nuclear War: The War Our Planet Won’t Survive

On Sept. 11, 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to impose new sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions were a result of North Korea’s recent nuclear tests. After the Security Council adopted this United States-drafted resolution, the tension between North Korea and the U.S. only got worse when President Trump gave his first UN speech on Sept. 19. More recently, a senior North Korean official has issued a warning to the world that North Korea’s threat to test a nuclear weapon above ground should be taken “literally.” People in the U.S. have a general knowledge that a nuclear war between countries could cause a horrific chain of events. But how much environmental harm would it cause to our planet, and what is the U.S. government doing to make sure this harm would be minimal?

Nuclear War

Click on the photo to watch a video on this issue with article co-author Edward Kim.

Fourteen thousand nine hundred. This is the estimated number of nuclear warheads around the globe, as of early 2017. Currently, there are nine countries that have nuclear weapons: the U.S., Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China, which are the “legacy nuclear states,” and also Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Although the Cold War ended more than 25 years ago, these countries continue to develop and maintain their arsenals. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed by the United States and Russia in 2011, limits these two countries to only 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads each deployed on 700 long-rage delivery systems. However, this treaty also triggered a new nuclear arms race, with modernization of nuclear weapons on both sides. To make up for the reduction in its strategic forces under the treaty, the U.S. plans to upgrade its remaining arsenal with an estimated budget of $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years.

The aftermath of a nuclear war would be completely devastating. It would not only cause many millions of immediate deaths through its initial blast, but the combined effects of blast, fire, and radiation would cause injuries requiring medical attention that would not be available. The climate disruption and impacts on agriculture would further increase the number of victims. A nuclear war between two countries using as few as 100 nuclear weapons could launch 6.6 million metric tons of black carbon aerosol particles into the atmosphere to shade the earth for years. An initial drop of 1.25 degrees Celsius in global average surface temperatures would result in the coldest global temperatures in the last millennium, and even greater cooling over North America and Europe. A potential 20 to 50 percent ozone loss over populated areas, and decrease in global precipitation, would cause a nuclear famine. U.S. corn and soybean production would decrease by an average of 10 percent. With growing seasons shortened by 10 to 40 days, Chinese middle-season rice production would see a 10 to 20 percent decrease, along with an average 31 percent decrease in winter wheat production. This decline in agricultural production might cause the death by starvation of a billion people, and the resulting conflicts and disease around the world would affect hundreds of millions more.

In 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to make the federal government “use all practicable means and measures” to protect environmental values. Section 102(2)(C) of NEPA requires responsible officials of all agencies to prepare a “detailed statement” covering the impact of particular planned actions on the environment, the environmental costs that might be avoided, and alternative measures that might alter the cost-benefit equation. Section 102(2)(D) of NEPA goes beyond the “detailed statement” and requires all agencies to “study, develop, and describe appropriate alternatives to recommended courses of action in any proposal which involves unresolved conflicts concerning alternative uses of available resources.” Both sections of NEPA seek to ensure that each agency takes into proper account all possible approaches to a particular federal action that would alter the environmental impact and the cost-benefit balance. So why has the U.S. government so far failed to perform the required analysis for its nuclear arsenal?

NEPA clearly instructs all federal agencies to comply with its requirements. In 1976, in Concerned About Trident v. Rumsfeld, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided that the Department of Defense (DOD) must comply with NEPA’s requirements and prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) just like all the other federal agencies. In 1981, however, in Weinberger v. Catholic Action of Hawaii/Peace Education Project, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to order the Navy to prepare an EIS for construction of a “nuclear capable” weapons facility near Honolulu. The court held that the Navy might be obligated to prepare an EIS “solely for internal purposes.” But because the public disclosure requirements of NEPA are governed by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the public’s interest in ensuring that federal agencies comply with NEPA must give way to the government’s need to preserve military secrets. Whether the Navy had complied with NEPA, the Supreme Court concluded, was therefore “beyond judicial scrutiny.”

It is no secret, however, that the U.S. has thousands of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, and that it has plans to use them under certain circumstances. What is unknown is whether DOD has complied with NEPA by preparing an EIS for their use. While the contents of such an EIS presumably would be classified, the public deserves to know, at a minimum, that environmental impacts have been taken into account in planning for a nuclear war.

Although all nations hope that there will never be a nuclear war, rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have left many worried. A new nuclear arms race triggered by modernization of nuclear weapons won’t help reduce the environmental catastrophe that a nuclear war would cause. But careful consideration of the environmental consequences might prompt a far more aggressive search for alternatives, as NEPA requires.