09/27/2009 11:32 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Iran's Nuclear Program Threatens Human Health

As news of Iran's nuclear program made headlines today and nuclear tensions increase, we must remind ourselves that nuclear war is not 'winnable,' and that only steps towards zero nuclear weapons will make America safe.

President Obama opened his talk at the G-20, according to the New York Times, with some very tough words for Iran: their secret nuclear plant "represents a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime." This regime will be the cornerstone of any international efforts to reduce the nuclear threat we face today, and Iran's action could greatly weaken it.

Legally within this regime Iran, like all other non-nuclear weapon state parties, has the right to a peaceful nuclear power program, one that produces nuclear energy. It does not have the right to a nuclear weapons program. Experts can determine if a facility is set up to produce nuclear fuel for a reactor or bomb grade material for a nuclear weapon, based on its configuration. Unfortunately, as President Obama pointed out this morning, "the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program." Once completed, Iran's new facility could produce enough weapons grade material for the core of a nuclear weapon in one year.

Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) joins President Obama in calling on Iran to take the international community's demands seriously: engage in negotiations and immediately halt all military aspects of the program. PSR is working hard to support President Obama's policy of strengthening the nonproliferation regime by taking multilateral action at the United Nations to engage Iran and halt any military aspect of Iran's program.

PSR staunchly promotes nuclear non-proliferation, since physicians, medical practitioners, public health experts and their supporters understand this basic public health fact: nuclear war would have catastrophic health effects. Since our founding in 1961, PSR has always grasped the importance of preventing what we cannot cure. A new nuclear weapon state in the Middle East could lead to many more nuclear weapon states and greatly increase the chance of nuclear war.

PSR published a study in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) explaining the horrific aftermath of a nuclear attack on Manhattan. If an adversary dropped one Hiroshima-sized bomb on New York City, 52,000 people would perish immediately, more than 17 times as many fatalities as the 9/11 attacks caused. About 1/4 million people would be exposed to radiation, 44,000 would develop radiation sickness, and an additional 10,000 people would die from the effects of radiation.

President Obama called for steps to free the world of nuclear weapons when he spoke at the United Nations on Wednesday, Sept. 23. Hailing the importance of "nonproliferation and disarmament," he said that "today the threat of proliferation is growing in scope and complexity." To reduce this threat to America he added that we "must stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the goal of a world without them." To combat the nuclear threat, he laid out steps towards strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime and working towards nuclear disarmament.

As the truth about Iran's near-nuclear weapon capability come to light, some Americans may try to blame Iran for increasing the nuclear threat, but history reminds us that the nuclear arms race was started over 50 years ago by a few states, including our own. The United States a few other countries first engaged in this dangerous games.

It is time for Americans to realize that our nuclear weapons do not make us safer, but in fact, much less secure. Our nuclear arsenal encourages other countries, like Iran, to develop nuclear weapons programs. We must spread the message that no one wins in a nuclear war and support President Obama's steps towards zero, since prevention of a nuclear war remains the only cure.