ORONO, Maine — Though they come from vastly different walks of life, a physician and a retired Air Force colonel agree on one thing: The continued existence of nuclear arms not only threatens the existence of the United States, it also endangers all of humanity.
Given that the U.S. and Russia are poised to sign a new nuclear arms treaty Thursday, the next few months will be critical if that danger is to change.
That was the message brought to Maine this week by nuclear arms experts Col. Richard Klass and Dr. Ira Helfand. The two spoke Tuesday at the University of Maine as part of a two-day, six-city speaking tour through Maine that began in Portland on Monday.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for ridding the world of nuclear weapons is that nukes could bring an end to the world as we know it by causing catastrophic environmental and economic damage that could lead to the extinction of numerous species, including humans.
To illustrate that point, Helfand cited a 2002 study that predicted what would occur if a terrorist set off a small nuclear bomb on a cargo ship in New York Harbor, off the coast of Manhattan Island.
The initial blast and firestorm would kill an estimated 50,000 people immediately. Another 250,000 or more would be sickened or killed by exposure to radiation.
The economic effect also would be vast, he said, pegging the damage at between $2 trillion and $10 trillion.
It’s a scenario that could happen because such a device could be detonated before it could be detected by national security measures, he said.
The effect of larger bombs would be even worse, causing enormous destruction on a global scale, he said. If Russia were to launch 50 nuclear warheads at the U.S. between 20 million and 30 million people would be dead within a week. The same thing would happen in Russia as a result of the U.S. counterattack, he said.
The aftereffects would kill even more people, he said. Temperature and precipitation levels would drop for as long as 10 years, leading to drastic drops in food production, which in turn would drive up prices and result in hoarding. Hardest hit would be nations that import much of their food supply.
“This data has enormous implications for nuclear policy,” Helfand said, apologizing for his message of gloom and doom.
“I’ve placed on you an enormous burden because now that you know about this, you have to do something about it,” he said, adding, “I view this as a very special gift. We have been given the opportunity to save the world.”
On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are slated to sign their countries’ most significant nuclear reductions treaty in two decades.
The New START Treaty would succeed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 1991 and which expired last December.
It aims to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russia, which the experts said hold 95 percent of the world’s stockpiles. The two nations have seven years to achieve the new limits.
Once signed, the treaty still is subject to ratification by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate, a step that Klass noted would require bipartisan support, particularly from Republicans, including U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who have yet to take an official position on the treaty.
“We are at a unique point in history,” said Klass, who heads the Washington-based Veterans’ Alliance for Security and Democracy.
If the U.S. fails to go along with the treaty, it will lack the moral authority to compel other nations to reduce their use of nukes or to prevent non-nuclear countries from obtaining them, he said.