Humanitarian Approaches to Nuclear Weapons Detonations and Nuclear Testing: Consultation Paper

By James Bergus

Earlier this year La Trobe Law School, through Global Change, Peace and Security, a journal published by Routledge in association with the School,supported a a workshop that took place in Melbourne in late 2015. The event is part of a series of workshops hosted by Chatham House on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons testing. These workshops, held under the ‘Chatham House Rule’ of non-attribution, bring together a diverse range of expertise, engaging officials and experts from a broad set of backgrounds, particularly those representing civil society and humanitarian organizations in developing countries. The workshops aim to inform those working in the humanitarian sector about the medical, environmental and cultural impacts of nuclear weapons use and testing, so they can effectively engage with decision-makers, grassroots NGO’s and individuals on nuclear policy.[1]


The effects of nuclear weapon use – whether deliberate, accidental or in the form of testing – span far beyond the conditions of war. While the most immediate severe impacts are apparent, the cumulative knock-on effects of nuclear weapons have not fully been discussed at a policy-making level. The humanitarian impacts and potential use of nuclear weapons has been a topic of scarce international discourse over the decades since their conception. In 2010 a call by Member States during the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference reaffirmed ‘deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons…and the need…to comply with applicable international law’.[2]

The Humanitarian Approaches to Nuclear Weapons Detonations and Nuclear Testing workshop aimed to contribute to the humanitarian framework for understanding nuclear weapons use in the modern age through a scenario based on factual and scientific analysis of the consequences of a multiple nuclear weapon detonation. Specifically, the workshop focuses on the risks associated with the use of nuclear weapons, the procedures and policies currently in place, the capacity of humanitarian organisations to respond and the knock-on effects that nuclear weapons use would have on humanitarian assistance in other areas.

Nuclear Testing and Nuclear Weapon Detonation

 The United States, United Kingdom and France conducted nuclear tests between 1946 and 1996, when they signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Despite this, the effects of nuclear testing have been felt on the environment in the long-term. Nuclear test explosions conducted during this period in the Pacific have caused contamination, the displacement of local communities and loss of land; serve health problems and loss of heritage. The workshop discussed cases of nuclear testing during the Cold War and the impact of these on the wider Australian population. The Aboriginal community arguably suffered the greatest effects of these tests, however, inadequate record keeping within the Pacific broadly has left the true extent of the effects of these tests unknown.

Erosion of Social Cohesion and Loss of Cultural Heritage

The impact of nuclear testing and detonation extends far beyond severe health effects. The protection of cultural heritage has become an increasing issue of concern in armed conflict with terrorist organisations targeting cultural property in times of conflict. The nuclear tests that occurred in Maralinga, for instance, were populated with Aboriginal communities. Maralinga, a remote region of South Australia, was the home of the Maralinga Tjarutja, a southern Pitjantjatjara Indigenous Australia people. Aboriginal identity roots a strong spiritual, cultural and physical connection with the land.

Beyond the widespread health issues that were suffered by these communities, this nuclear testing displaced local communities, erasing the collective memory attached to the land.[3] Further, these events left local communities highly distrustful of the Australian government, with compensation never being adequately established, and any instances being distributed to a very small number of individuals. There are currently no provisions in international treaties that cover the victims of nuclear testing.


Participants discussed a hypothetical scenario of two simultaneous nuclear weapons explosions in Pine Gap, Alice Springs and Telegraph Line Historical Reserve; and the Royal Australia Air Force (RAAF) Base Darwin. Further, the explosions created regional EMP effects (i.e. disrupting and disabling vital communication systems), causing disruptions in the medical sector and the erosion of social cohesion. The participants discussion was facilitated through a series of questions, such as the humanitarian impact of nuclear tests and nuclear explosions, and the feasibility of an adequate humanitarian response; the primary objectives for humanitarian organisations in the event of nuclear weapon explosions and whether the response would be similar to any other type of emergency response.

Participants of the workshop compared the current responses to natural disasters; however, it was argued that due to the lack of certainty surrounding whether the explosion was a ‘deliberate attack’ or an accident, humanitarian organisations would be reluctant to take action. Further, participants argued that any current emergency plans would fall short in a nuclear incident, as they would not be implemented as they are in the case of a nuclear catastrophe given the magnitude of the situation. It is not currently known if the Australian government has any formal response plan for the event of a nuclear weapon detonation; however, the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) has been actively pursuing a nuclear disarmament campaign.

 James Bergus is studying a Bachelor of Law (Graduate Entry) at La Trobe University and has previously completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in Molecular Biology and Biomedical Science and a Bachelor of Forensics majoring in Forensic Biology and Toxicology.


[1] Chatham House, Humanitarian Approaches to Nuclear Weapons Detonations and Nuclear Testing, Consultation Paper (2016) 1.

[2] Final Document Volume I, Part I: Review of the operation of the Treaty, as provided for in its article VIII (3), taking into account the decisions and the resolution adopted by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference and the Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference, Conclusions and Recommendations for follow-on actions, Part II: Organisation and work of the Conference’, 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, New York, 2010, P. 19 (Art. X, I. A-v).

[3] Chatham House, Humanitarian Approaches to Nuclear Weapons Detonations and Nuclear Testing, Consultation Paper (2016) 4.

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