International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
Carlos Umaña is President of IPPNW Costa Rica. A former health manager with the Costa Rican Ministry of Health, his medical background includes work in primary care and specialized care as a resident in obstetrics and gynecology. Aside from his medical background, he has also studied Fine Arts at the University of Costa Rica and currently works as a medical translator and visual artist. Dr. Umaña has worked closely with the Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with other local, regional and global organizations for nuclear disarmament.
The interview was recorded in Spanish, but in the youtube settings you can watch with English subtitles.
Tell us about the effects of a nuclear bomb
Well, a nuclear bomb is a pretty unique weapon. It’s not like a conventional bomb and it has effects that are short term, medium term and long term. In the short term we are going to have effects for basically four things:
The expansive wave that, depending on the size of the bomb, will be hurricane-force winds that destroy everything in their path and turn everything, even human bodies, into projectiles. So it is a massive destructive wave.
Then a heat wave is produced in the order of millions of degrees Celsius. Whatever is closest to or within the hottest parts of that wave evaporates, vaporizes. There is something called the nuclear shadow and that is the only thing left of some victims, it is the shadow from when the bomb vaporized them. But then it also generates several fires, which either by the fire itself or by the depletion of oxygen produced by the fires, kill all life in a large radius of action. That is to say, in these zones even the shelters to protect against weapons would be useless because all those zones would also be without oxygen. And these burns they produce, the people who survive with these burns… are insidious burns, very difficult to treat, they are not like any other burns, but burns that are also contaminated by radiation, which is the third effect that these bombs cause, contamination by radiation.
The effect on people, there are two types of effects. The effect that depends on the dose of radiation and the effect that depends solely on exposure to gamma radiation. In the case of a large enough exposure, the effects can last for hours or even days. There is massive destruction of internal organs, the digestive tract, the nervous system, especially the central nervous system and the blood system.
Then Setsuko T. said, for example, that she saw a ghostly parade of people holding their eyes. That her own four-year-old nephew died a frightful death where his abdomen exploded and his intestines came out. It is a very painful death, the death from a high dose of radiation.
At medium doses, this sickness – if it doesn’t kill you – it can take months or years to recover from injuries to the digestive tract, the blood system, the skin and the central nervous system. That’s if you recover. And if you manage to recover, then we’re talking about the chronic effects. That would be a much higher incidence of various types of cancer, especially leukaemia, thyroid cancer, breast cancer. These people are going to have a greater risk of suffering from diseases in general, because their immune system is weakened, infectious diseases and obviously suffer from cancer. One of the things that one of the survivors said is that every time they got sick with something, even if it was just a simple flu, they thought that that illness, that episode, was what was going to kill them.
The other thing they also produce, well that is now much more relevant than it was 75 years ago, is an electromagnetic wave. Nuclear bombs emit electromagnetic waves that would interrupt electronic communication. That would affect international travel, it would affect a lot of the devices on which we currently depend. Especially in hospitals. The remaining hospitals, that needs to be said as well. In Hiroshima for example, 90% of the doctors and health workers died or were completely disabled after the bomb. Whatever is left working, the hospitals that remain and the doctors that remain will not be able to operate well, precisely because the equipment will not work because of the electromagnetic wave. Neither are emergency teams going to be able to enter the destruction zones without putting their lives in danger because of the very high radioactive contamination. And then the entire infrastructure of the city would be destroyed or seriously compromised.
Finally, there is also the effect on the people who survive. These people will go through what is now known as post-traumatic syndrome. They will have seen their cultural heritage and natural heritage turned into a nuclear desert and will pass a stigma throughout their lives. In Japan, there is a social stigma, in the sense that no one wanted to hire these people because of their propensity to get sick. They had a hard time finding a partner too, because of their propensity to produce children with deformities.
That these are the great effects that nuclear weapons also have and it must be said that this effect proportionally affects women and children, because children are developing and their organs are more vulnerable. And women, apart from having a higher proportion of fat tissue and other things, makes them especially vulnerable to the effects of nuclear weapons. And if we are talking about social stigma, it is precisely women who suffer most from this social stigma because, in conservative societies, women depend on their ability to marry in order to have a life. And if they have a stigma that they are not going to be able to marry because their ability to bear children was affected, to have healthy children is affected, then they have a hard time. And it is also the women who are in charge of taking care of the sick relatives, it is also the mothers who have been precisely in charge of being, of having that role.
Today, because of the nuclear tests, we also see a lot of these effects. We see a lot of people being born with congenital malformations in the Marshall Islands, for example, in Kazakhstan. People who have a very high incidence of cancer, life expectancy falls very much in these areas especially. But precisely because of the very high incidence of various types of cancer not seen elsewhere.
Tell us about the Cities Appeal
Of course, the idea behind the campaign is to use the civil movement through the municipalities. That the municipalities have enough power, and nuclear weapons, as they are such big weapons and it’s something so political, are a decision that is almost always left to central government. So, people feel very disconnected from this issue, although many people are not very aware of the threat they represent, the risk they represent, and even those who are aware often do not feel empowered to act.
The idea of the campaign is to give people tools so that, through their municipalities, they can come to change what their countries say. And also that their municipalities, there are so many things that can be done as well and there are so many ways in which this nuclear hegemony can be weakened. Not only through national decisions, but also through a personal decision and a municipal decision.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was negotiated last year, is precisely how it works. It works to weaken the moral, legal, political and economic mechanisms that maintain nuclear weapons, which maintain this nuclear hegemony.
So one of the things is called stigmatization and one of the ways in which it worked was for example in 2016 when the US closed its last cluster munitions factory without ever having signed the convention against cluster munitions.
What happened? The rest of the world, many countries, did sign it. So these factories are left without buyers, they are left without investors and there is a global condemnation of these weapons. That is the same mechanism that is currently happening with nuclear weapons.
There are so many people who are investing their personal pension funds in financial institutions, in banks that invest in nuclear weapons. So what we want, for example, is to generate an awareness of the personal link that exists with this nuclear hegemony. The link that municipalities also have with this, because public funds have to be invested responsibly, people can demand that their municipalities act responsibly.
The idea is that cities support the treaty banning nuclear weapons and do everything possible in terms of divestment, in terms of education to promote the signing of this treaty, to promote this paradigm shift that is taking place. Because nuclear disarmament, the treaty, is a very powerful tool, but nuclear disarmament is not going to come with the signing of the treaty.
To get rid of nuclear weapons and to free ourselves from this threat of nuclear annihilation, by the way, we are now much closer than we were many, many years ago. To do that, we need a global movement. We need people to understand, to raise awareness across the board. This is not done simply by signing treaties and cities are very important in general to support this global movement. That’s what this campaign is all about.
What is your personal motivation?
Yes, it’s true, because sometimes it’s very frustrating, really, and sometimes I want to say ‘enough’ because, well, when you have to make agreements with people you have to knock on doors and they close them in your face, that’s demotivating, I’m not going to say it isn’t.
And many times… I’ve been doing this for six years, and from the beginning I’m saying, “Here it ends, I’m off…” hahahaha…
But, I don’t know. Hope for me, what motivates me is hope. The hope that change can be made and the conviction that it has to be done, that things have to be done, that this is not right.
Initially, what moved me was a certain feeling of guilt, I’ll tell you honestly. When I heard about the consequences of nuclear weapons, I once imagined that I was waking up in a world where a nuclear catastrophe had happened and that I had done nothing about it to prevent it, and could have done something about it to prevent it. Then, that was my driving force, a little like Catholic guilt, hahahaha, but, in reality, what moves me the most is not so much this, obviously, I want to avoid that. But it is the hope, the hope of being able to get everyone to agree, that everyone wants to protect the world, to eliminate nuclear weapons.
It’s one of the things. Billions of dollars are being invested every year. Currently 120 billion dollars a year. 120 billion dollars is a large part of the budget of the UN Agenda 2030, in other words, we are using a lot of money, the money with which we could be ridding the world entirely of famine, giving primary education to absolutely everyone. In other words, to improve the lives of absolutely all the inhabitants of planet Earth.
We are using those resources to threaten us all with annihilation and to increase the risk of that happening. That there’s a chance that we’ll agree and things will be done well, that’s really what motivates me.