UK Politics

Nuclear weapons: expensive and dangerous, apparently

Times cartoonist Peter Brookes was yesterday named Political Cartoonist of the Year. The award was won on the same day that the Times printed the cartoon below, where he presents his take on the Government’s decision to replace Britain’s fleet of nuclear submarines and therefore retain the nuclear deterrent:

Presumably the juxtaposition of the enormous black submarine next to the tiny, tattered raft representing the NHS is supposed to signify that the health service is being starved of resources in order to fund the nuclear programme. It’s a slightly odd argument to make given that the new submarines are expected to cost between £15 and £20 billion over a 17 year period, and bearing in mind the record spending on the health service under this Government, which has raised the NHS budget from £34bn in 1997 to £90.5bn in 2005-06.

Arguably even odder though are the objections made by a group of senior health professionals in a letter today. The signatories – who include Sir Dillwyn Williams, Emeritus Professor of Histopathology at Cambridge University, Professor Adrian Newlans, President of the Royal College of Pathologists, and Dr June Crown, President of Medact and former President of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians – write:

Sir, Today Medact publishes a damning report on the devastating health effects of the nuclear weapons which may be part of a new Trident system, outlined in the government White Paper on Monday.

As health professionals, we have a duty to draw attention to the death and injury that would result from the use of any nuclear weapons, whatever the intended “degree of precision” or “surgical strike”.

A 1kt nuclear explosion will instantly kill everyone exposed to its blast within 800 metres. Within 20 kilometres, many people will be blinded and severely injured by flash and blast and people exposed to the radioactive fallout will experience increased incidences of cancer for decades.

You get the picture: nuclear weapons, if used, are extremely dangerous, and can cause severe injuries and even death. I’m no expert of course, but I thought this was the whole point of having them; a deterrent that’s not dangerous isn’t going to be very effective.

Not that I could say with anything approaching certainty that Britain actually needs nuclear weapons, or predict who precisely they’re supposed to deter, but nor am I remotely persuaded by the argument that we can hardly expect Iran or North Korea to give up their nuclear ambitions while we hang on to ours – the idea that Kim Jong Il, for example, would happily follow our example and abandon his nuclear programme if we did so first strikes me as rather optimistic. Nuclear weapons are horrible, terrifying things, but I suspect that so long as they exist then on the whole I’d probably rather we had some.

PS today’s cartoon is better.