Experts frighten with nuclear what-ifs

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Right away, the blast and the following fires would kill 50,000 people and 10,000 more would die soon from lethal radiation exposure, with more likely if the winds blow wrong.

That’s how Dr. Ira Helfand began his presentation Monday at Bates College, standing in front of a slide of mushroom cloud.

Then, he got really gloomy.

The expert on the medical effects of nuclear weapons painted the effects of bigger bombs, describing the zones where people and buildings might vaporize, the cataclysmic winds and firestorms that would follow and how a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan might so effect the global climate that the third world might plunge into a famine and kill a billion people.

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“You scare the hell out of me, personally,” said the Rev. Doug Taylor, who leads Lewiston’s Jesus Party ministry.

Helfand smiled.

“I think it’s good you’re scared,” Helfand said. “I think it’s important to be scared.”

Perhaps fear will encourage people to help things change, said the doctor, a co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a leader with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Helfand and retired Air Force Col. Richard L. Klass stopped at Bates College as part of a two-day, six-city tour of Maine, speaking at colleges and libraries in an effort to raise awareness about nuclear weapons and drum up support for new arms initiatives.

First on the list: a treaty to be signed Thursday by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The treaty, which would lower the number of nukes in the U.S. and Russian stockpiles, will need to be ratified by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate.

Helfand and Klass hope to get Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to support this treaty, perhaps even taking leadership roles among Republicans.

“We’re at the beginning of a nuclear spring,” said Klass, the executive director for the Washington-based Veterans’ Alliance for Security and Democracy. “You’re going to be hearing a lot more about this over the coming months.”

The pair also wanted to make sure people know that the threat of nuclear war persists, even with the end of the Cold War.

Accidents can happen.

Helfand highlighted the 1995 incident when a U.S. rocket gathering data about the northern lights spooked the Russians as it swept over Scandinavia. Advance information from the U.S. hadn’t reached all the needed Russian defense workers.

To them, it looked like the start of an attack.

Russia’s launch infrastructure swung into operation. Then-President Boris Yeltsin had to decide whether to do nothing or launch a counter-strike, Helfand said.

“Somehow, the right decision was made,” he said.

Though new safeguards were put into place in the aftermath, the likelihood of an attack seems more real today,” Helfand said. That day, Jan. 27, 1995, preceded 9/11, the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and bombs hidden in shoes.

“It was basically a good day, a peaceful day,” Helfand said. “And we basically came within five minutes of blowing away the whole planet.”

If the current treaty is ratified, the U.S. and Russia would have seven years to lower their numbers of nuclear weapons to 1,550 in seven years, Klass said. The U.S. currently has a little over 2,100 and Russia has 2,600.

The treaty would also boost safeguards, perhaps even giving both sides on-site, visual verification of each warhead.

“Uncertainty is not what we want with nuclear weapons,” Klass said.

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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