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Editor’s note: this transcript is a mix of the original text David Krieger prepared and what he actually said. I am grateful to Mr. Krieger for sharing his text with me. The original webcast recording can be found inside: w/?id=hcf. Left-mouse click the local file recording here at – <DPNE-DavidKrieger030115.mp3> – to download the mp3 file to your machine. This presentation of David Krieger was recorded on 1 March 2015 at The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction Symposium, presented by The Helen Caldicott Fondation, at The New York Academy of Medicine.

The Helen Caldicott Foundation Presents
David Krieger
Nuclear Weapons and Possible Human Extinction:
The Heroic Marshall Islanders
Symposium: The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction
The New York Academy of Medicine, 28 February - 1 March 2015

Introduction by Ray Acheson

We’s had two days of fairly grim paintings of history and where we are now and everything in between. This last panel is going to feature three people speaking about things that we can do now to move beyond the threat of nuclear extinction. We have David Krieger, Tim Wright, and of course Helen Caldicott. We’re going to start with David Krieger. He is the Founder of the Nuclear Age Peace FoundaAtion and has served as President of the Foundation since 1982. He has lectured throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia on issues of peace security, international law, and the abolition of nuclear weapons. He’s been involved in many coalitions and networks on nuclear issues including Abolition 2000, the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility, Middle Powers Initiative, and the World Future Council. Today he is going to be talking about the Nuclear Zero Lawsuits, a bold challenge to the 9 nuclear armed nations.

Thank you Ray and a big thank you to Helen Caldicott for bringing us together for two days of amazing discussions [much applause]. This is very important, what’s happened here. It’s very important that we focus attention on extinction. It’s such a difficult concept and yet so critical to our goal of achieving the aboltion of nuclear weapons.

I want to make a few comments about extinction and then I’ll talk about the herioc Marshall Islanders.

Extinction is a harsh and unforgiving word, a word that should make us shiver. Time moves inexorably in one direction only and, when extinction is complete, there are no further chances for revival. Extinction is a void, a black hole, from which return is forever foreclosed. Forever foreclosed. That’s extinction. If we can imagine the terrible void of extinction, then perhaps we can mobilize to forestall its occurrence, even its possibility.

The brilliant American author Jonathan Schell, who wrote The Fate of the Earth and was an ardent nuclear abolitionist, had this insight into the Nuclear Age, “We prepare for our extinction in order to assure our survival.”[1] He refers to the irony and idiocy of reliance upon nuclear weapons to avert nuclear war. He’s talking about deterrence. Deterrence is the way we prepare for extinction.

Nuclear deterrence is what the political, military and industrial leaders of the nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent states call strategy. It involves the deployment of nuclear weapons on the land, in the air and under the oceans, and the constant striving to modernize and improve these weapons of mass annihilation.

Nuclear deterrence strategy rests on the unfounded, unproven and unprovable conviction that the deployment of these weapons, including those on hair-trigger alert, will protect their possessors from nuclear attack. It rests on the further naïve beliefs that nothing will go awry and that humans will be able to indefinitely control the monstrous weapons they have created without incident or accident, without miscalculation or intentional malevolence. In truth, these beliefs are simply that: beliefs, without any solid basis in fact. They are tenuously based, on a foundation of faith as opposed to a provable reality. They are the conjuring of a nuclear priesthood in collaboration with pliable politicians and corporate profiteers. They are seemingly intent upon providing a final, omnicidal demonstration of, in Hannah Arendt’s words, “the banality of evil.”[2]

Nuclear strategists and ordinary people rarely consider the mythology that sustains nuclear deterrence, which is built upon a foundation of rationality. But national leaders are often irrational, and there are no guarantees that nuclear weapons will not be used in the future. There have been many close calls in the past, not the least of which was the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Does it seem even remotely possible that all leaders of all nuclear-armed countries will act rationally at all times under all circumstances? It would be irrational to think so.

In nuclear deterrence strategies there are vast unknowns and unknowable possibilities. Our behaviors and those of our nuclear-armed opponents are not always knowable. We must expect the unexpected, but we cannot know in advance in what forms it will present itself. This means that we cannot be prepared for every eventuality. We do know, however, that human fallibility and nuclear weapons are a most dangerous mix, and this is particularly so in times of crisis, such as we are experiencing now in US-Russian relations over Ukraine.

Such volatility in a climate of crisis deepens the concern regarding the possibility of nuclear extinction. We can think of it as Nuclear Roulette, in which the nuclear-armed states are loading nuclear weapons into the metaphorical chambers of a gun and pointing that gun (or those several guns) at humanity’s head. No one knows how many nuclear weapons have been loaded into the gun. Are our chances of human extinction in the 21st century one in one hundred, one in ten, one in six, or one in two? The truth is that we do not know, but the odds of survival are not comforting.

My colleague in Denmark, physicist John Scales Avery, views the prospects of human survival as dim at best. He writes:

It is a life-or-death question. We can see this most clearly when we look far ahead. Suppose that each year there is a certain finite chance of a nuclear catastrophe, let us say 2 percent. Then in a century the chance of survival will be 13.5 percent, and in two centuries, 1.8 percent, in three centuries, 0.25 percent, in four centuries, there would only be a 0.034 percent chance of survival and so on. Over many centuries, the chance of survival would shrink almost to zero. Thus, by looking at the long-term future, we can see clearly that if nuclear weapons are not entirely eliminated, civilization will not survive.[3]

Here is what we know:

  • First, nuclear weapons are capable of causing human extinction, along with the extinction of many other species.
  • Second, nine countries possess these weapons and continue to rely upon them for their so-called “national security.”
  • Third, these nine countries are continuing to modernize their nuclear arsenals and failing to fulfill their legal and moral obligations to achieve a Nuclear Zero world – one in which human extinction by means of nuclear weapons is not a possibility because there are no nuclear weapons.

We might ask two questions:

  1. What kind of “national security” is it to rely upon weapons capable of causing human extinction?

And, put another way:

  1. How can any nation be secure when nuclear weapons threaten all humanity?

I think these two questions are at the heart of the falacy of the nuclear weapons labs, our politicians, our corporations, our military that support nuclear deterrence.

Certainly, it requires massive amounts of denial to remain apathetic to the extinction dangers posed by nuclear weapons. There appears to be a kind of mass insanity – a detachment from reality. Such detachment seems possible only in societies that have made themselves subservient to the nuclear “experts” and officials who have become the high priests of nuclear strategy. Whole societies have developed a gambler’s addiction to living at the edge of the precipice of nuclear annihilation.

Remember Jonathan Schell’s insight: “We prepare for our extinction in order to assure our survival.” Of course, it is nonsensical to prepare for extinction to assure survival. Just as to achieve peace, we must prepare for peace, not war, we must be assuring our survival not by preparing for our extinction, but by ridding the world of the weapons that make this threat a possibility. We must, as Albert Einstein warned, change our “modes of thinking” or face “unparalleled catastrophe.”

The Victims

There have been many victims of the Nuclear Age, starting with those who died and those who survived the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This year marks the 70th anniversary of those bombings. The survivors of those bombings are growing older and more anxious to see their fervent wish, the abolition of nuclear weapons, realized.

In addition to the victims in the atomic-bombed cities, there have been many other victims of nuclear weapons. These include the people at the nuclear test sites and those downwind from them. They have suffered cancers, leukemia and other illnesses. The effects of the radiation from the nuclear tests have also affected subsequent generations, causing stillbirths and many forms of birth defects. All are victims of the nuclear age and there are many more classes of victims.[5]

Holly Barker gave some important statistics and comments on the Marshall Islanders who certainly qualify as extreme victims of the nuclear age. I want to underline a couple of things that Holly said because I think that they are so important. First, the United States began nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in 1946. We were the only country—the United States was the only country that possessed nuclear weapons at that time. So really, we went to the Marshall Islands to test our weapons, engaged in a nuclear arms race with only ourselves at the time.

The Marshall Islanders lived on pristine Pacific islands, living simple lives close to the ocean waters that provided their bounty. But over a 12 year period between 1946 and 1958 the US conducted 67 nuclear tests in the atmosphere and the waters of the Marshall Islands. The tests had the equivalent power of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs being exploded daily for 12 years. Some of the islands and atolls in the Marshall Islands became too radioactive to inhabit. The people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), who became guinea pigs for the US to study, continue to suffer. They have never received fair or adequate compensation for their injuries resulting from the US nuclear testing program.

On March 1, 1954, the US conducted the most powerful U.S. nuclear test ever on the island of Bikini in the Marshall Islands. The bomb, detonated in a test known as Castle Bravo, had 1,000 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. It contaminated the Bikini atoll and several other islands in the Marshall Islands, including Rongelap (100 miles away) and Utirik (300 miles away), as well as fishing vessels more than 100 miles from the detonation. Crew members aboard the Japanese vessel “Lucky Dragon” were severely irradiated and one crew member died as a result of radiation poisoning. This day is known internationally as “Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Day” or “Bikini Day.” Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum remembers the Bravo explosion as “a jolt on my soul that never left me.”[6] Today is the 61st anniversary of that tragedy for the Marshall Islands.

The Victims as Heroes

The Marshall Islanders have been a great example of heroes in the nuclear age. They've fought for themselves, to be taken care of, not to be abused, not to be treated like second-class citizens which they were by the United States—or third-, or fourth-, or fifth-class citizens. And actually, the Marshall Islands have done something incredibly heroic.

The Marshall Islands is the only country that's taken that action, that's actually filed lawsuits. these lawsuits. They are seeking to have the nuclear-armed states do what is right. They're seeking to have the courts enforce Article VI provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and of customary international law for those nuclear-armed countries that are not parties to the NPT.

On April 24, 2014, after more than a year-and-a-half of planning and preparations, the Marshall Islands filed lawsuits against nine nuclear-armed states in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague and against the United States separately in US Federal District Court in San Francisco. It's important to tell you they seek no compensation in these lawsuits, but rather declaratory and injunctive relief declaring the nuclear-armed states to be in breach of their nuclear disarmament obligations and ordering them to fulfill these obligations by commencing within one year to negotiate in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament.[7]

The Marshall Islands lawsuits referred to obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and under customary international law. Regarding the latter, they relied upon a portion of the ICJ’s 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Illegality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons in which the Court stated: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” [8]

The Marshall Islands is the mouse that roared, it is David standing against the nine nuclear goliaths, it is the friend not willing to let friends drive drunk on nuclear power. Most of all, the Marshall Islands is a heroic small nation that is standing up for all humanity against those countries that are perpetuating the risk of nuclear war and the nuclear extinction of humanity and other forms of complex life on the planet. The courage and foresight of the Marshall Islands is a harbinger of hope that should give hope to us all.

The Current Status of the Nuclear Zero Lawsuits

In the US case, the US government filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against it on jurisdictional grounds. On February 3, 2015, the federal judge, a George W. Bush appointee, granted the motion. The Marshall Islands have announced their intention to appeal the judge’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

At the International Court of Justice, cases are in process against the three countries that accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the court – India, Pakistan and the UK. Both India and Pakistan are seeking to limit their cases to jurisdictional issues. It remains to be seen whether or not the UK will follow suit. Of the other nuclear-armed countries that do not accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the court, none have accepted the Marshall Islands invitation to engage in the lawsuits, but only China has explicitly said that it will not.

An important observation about the lawsuits is that there has been reticence by the nuclear-armed states to have the issue of their obligations for nuclear disarmament heard by the courts. None of the nuclear armed states want to talk about what they've done. They don't want to talk about what's required of them, under Article 6 of the NPT and customary international law. They don't want to talk about their breaches of what's required of them and they don't want the courts to have any say in whether they'll fulfill their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law.

The Lawsuits Are about More than the Law

With regard to the legal aspects of these lawsuits, they are about whether treaties matter. They are about whether the most powerful nations are to be bound by the same rules as the rest of the international community. They are about whether a treaty can stand up with only half of the bargain fulfilled. They are about who gets to decide if treaty obligations are being met. Do all parties to a treaty stand on equal footing, or do the powerful have special rules specifically for them? They are also about the strength of customary international law to bind nations to civilized behavior.

These lawsuits are about more than just the law. They are about breaking cocoons of complacency and a conversion of hearts. They are also about leadership, boldness, courage, justice, wisdom and, ultimately, about survival. Let me say a word about each of these.

Leadership. If the most powerful countries won’t lead, then other countries must. The Marshall Islands, a small island country, has demonstrated this leadership, both on ending climate chaos and on eliminating the nuclear weapons threat to humanity.

Boldness. Many of us in civil society have been calling for boldness in relation to the failure of the nuclear-armed countries to fulfill their obligations to negotiate in good faith to end the nuclear arms race and to achieve complete nuclear disarmament. The status quo has become littered with broken promises, and these have become hard to tolerate. Instead of negotiating in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race “at an early date,” the nuclear-armed countries have engaged in massive programs of modernization of their nuclear arsenals (nuclear weapons, delivery systems and infrastructure). Such modernization of the US nuclear arsenal alone is anticipated to cost a trillion dollars over the next three decades.[9] Nuclear modernization by all nuclear-armed countries will ensure that nuclear weapons are deployed throughout the 21st century and beyond. The Marshall Islands is boldly challenging the status quo with the Nuclear Zero lawsuits.

Courage. The Marshall Islands is standing up for humanity in bringing these lawsuits. I see them as David standing against the nine nuclear-armed Goliaths. But the Marshall Islands is a David acting nonviolently, using the courts and the law instead of a slingshot. The Marshall Islands shows us by its actions what courage looks like.

Justice. The law should always be about justice. In the case of nuclear weapons, both the law and justice call for an equal playing field, one in which no country has possession of nuclear weapons. That is the bargain of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the requirement of customary international law, and the Marshall Islands is taking legal action that seeks justice in the international community.

Wisdom. The lawsuits are about the wisdom to confront the hubris of the nuclear-armed countries. The arrogance of power is dangerous, and the arrogance of reliance upon nuclear weapons could be fatal for all humanity.

Survival. At their core, the Nuclear Zero lawsuits brought by the Marshall Islands are about survival. They are about making nuclear war, by design or accident or miscalculation, impossible because there are no longer nuclear weapons to threaten humanity. Without nuclear weapons in the world, there can be no nuclear war, no nuclear famine, no nuclear terrorism, no overriding threat to the human species and the future of humanity.

The dream of ending the nuclear weapons threat to humanity should be the dream not only of the Marshall Islanders, but our dream as well It must become our collective dream – not only for ourselves, but for the human future. We must challenge the “experts” and officials who tell us, “Don’t worry, be happy” with the nuclear status quo.

The people of the world should follow the lead of the Marshall Islanders. If they can lead, we can support them. If they can be bold, we can join them. If they can be courageous, we can be as well. If they can demand that international law be based on justice, we can stand with them. If they can act wisely and confront hubris, with all its false assumptions, we can join them in doing so. If they can take seriously the threat to human survival inherent in our most dangerous weapons, so can we. The Marshall Islands is showing us the way forward, breaking cocoons of complacency and demonstrating a conversion of the heart.

I am proud to be associated with the Marshall Islands and its extraordinary Foreign Minister, Tony de Brum. As a consultant to the Marshall Islands, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has worked to build the legal teams that support the Nuclear Zero lawsuits. We have also built a consortium of 75 civil society organizations that support the lawsuits. We have also created a way for individuals to add their voices of support with a brief petition. Already over 5 million people have signed the petition supporting the Nuclear Zero lawsuits. You can find out more and add your voice at the campaign website,

I will conclude with a poem that I wrote recently, entitled “Testing Nuclear Weapons in the Marshall Islands.”


The islands were alive
with the red-orange fire of sunset
splashed on a billowy sky.

The islanders lived simple lives
close to the edge of the ocean planet
reaching out to infinity.

The days were bright and the nights
calm in this happy archipelago
until the colonizers came.

These were sequentially the Spanish,
Germans, Japanese and then, worst of all,
the United States.

The U.S. came as trustee
bearing its new bombs, eager to test them
in this beautiful barefoot Eden.

The islanders were trusting,
even when the bombs began exploding
and the white ash fell like snow.

The children played
in the ash as it floated down on them,
covering them in poison.

The rest is a tale of loss
and suffering by the islanders, of madness
by the people of the bomb.


  1. Krieger, David (Ed.), Speaking of Peace, Quotations to Inspire Action, Santa Barbara, CA: Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2014, p. 69.

  2. §
  3. Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,

  4. §
  5. Avery, John Scales, “Remember Your Humanity,” website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation:

  6. §
  7. Krieger, David (Ed.), op. cit., p. 52.

  8. §
  9. See: Victims of the Nuclear Age, by Dr. Rosalie Bertell, The Ecologist, Nov 1999.

  10. §
  11. De Brum, Tony, website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation:

  12. §
  13. Information on the Marshall Islands’ Nuclear Zero Lawsuits can be found at

  14. §
  15. “Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” United Nations General Assembly, A/51/218, 15 October 1996, p. 37.

  16. §
  17. See: “U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs,” Arms Control Association, January 2014; and “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues,” March 18, 2015, archived at Congressional Research Service Reports on Nuclear Weapons, Federation of American Scientists

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