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Boston physician urges diplomacy to Russian doctors, scientists amid threat of nuclear war

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As Ukraine's president addressed U.S. lawmakers about his nation's deepening crisis, a Boston cardiologist engaged in his own direct diplomacy, delivering a stark message about the specter of nuclear war to a group of Russian physicians and scientists.

In uncensored remarks Wednesday, Dr. James Muller, a Brigham and Women's Hospital doctor and co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), warned the Russian invasion of Ukraine had raised the threat of a nuclear war whose "damage is beyond our imagination."

"While the death and destruction in the Ukraine is a nightmare, an even greater disaster is nearby," Muller said in Russian during his 15-minute speech to members of the prestigious Russian Academy of Science.

"Nuclear weapons have been put on high alert, which threatens to expand the tragedy from the death of thousands to the deaths of hundreds of millions," he added. "While many discount the possibility that any rational person would launch nuclear weapons, the current high alert status increases the odds of a nuclear war beginning by accident, miscalculation or terrorist attack."

The IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for bringing attention to the medical consequences of using nuclear weapons.

On Wednesday, Muller delivered his speech in an online video stream that was also broadcast on a Russian scientific channel. In it, he referenced a 1960s medical account written by his colleague, the late Dr. Bernard Lown, of what a potential nuclear attack on Boston would look like. Muller explained it like this:

Multiple nuclear warheads, each more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, would strike the city. In the center, near the Charles River, there would be a fireball with intense temperatures that would kill hundreds of thousands instantly. Around the center the heat and blast forces would kill and injure hundreds of thousands more. The total deaths in Boston would be 3 million. There would be fierce winds and radioactive fallout. Medical care, even pain relief, would be unavailable because most hospitals, including the Brigham and Women’s where I work, would be destroyed and most health professionals would be killed or injured.

After his speech, Muller said a silence fell between the audience of more than 100 scientists and physicians. Now, he said there are talks about whether the Russian Academy will issue a statement with a U.S. partner calling on world leaders to establish peace in Ukraine and avoid further escalation of the conflict.

IPPNW earlier issued a statement calling on world leaders to "to speed up constructive and effective negotiations to establish peace in Ukraine."

"In a world that has not only suffered from the health consequences of the pandemic, but also the isolation and division among people, families, communities and entire nations, the use of nuclear weapons would be the final threat to healthcare system and for all of humanity," the IPPNW said in its statement. "The time has
come to act now and do everything possible to save lives and find wise way to collaborate."

Dr. Joe Hodgkin, a hospital physician at Mass General and board member of the group Physicians for Social Responsibility, said there was consensus at the meeting that the conflict in Ukraine poses a significant risk of nuclear conflict. He said the discussions at the Russian meeting Wednesday are part of what's known as "scientific diplomacy."

"So when the meaningful engagement is not necessarily happening at the government-to-government level, making those connections at the citizen-to-citizen, doctor-to-doctor, scientist-to-scientist level is what is happening," Hodgkin said.

The Russian Academy of Science invited Muller to speak. Moscow State University professor Sergey Kolesnikov, a member of the Academy, said scientists have a role in urging de-escalation.

"We must call for USA decision makers and Russian decision makers to find the way out of this situation," Kolesnikov said.

Muller said his speech was not restricted in any manner, despite crackdowns in Russia on criticism of the war in Ukraine.

"There were no restrictions on what I could say," Muller said from his Newton home following his remarks. "This is quite different from what people can say in Russia. I'm pleased that I was able to get this message out."

Dr. James Muller, then-secretary of the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, holds a copy of a letter he received from Soviet President Yuri Andropov in his office in Boston on Nov. 2, 1983. The letter, written in Russian, says that the Soviet Union is willing to freeze the production of nuclear weapons and now it is up to the United States. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Dr. James Muller, then-secretary of the IPPNW, holds a copy of a letter he received from Soviet President Yuri Andropov in Boston on Nov. 2, 1983. The letter says that the Soviet Union is willing to freeze the production of nuclear weapons and now it is up to the U.S. (Elise Amendola/AP)

It's a message Muller has tried to get out for years; he first began demonstrating against nuclear weapons as an exchange student in Russia in '60s. Later, he helped create IPPNW and continues to encourage younger scientists and physicians to raise awareness about the dangers of nuclear war.

Some Russian experts say they're not surprised that the scientists publicly discussed their concerns about Ukraine, but it might not have a significant impact. Igor Lukes, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, said it's not likely that the scientists will face any backlash for their remarks.

"There always have been certain privileges allowed to Russian scientists," Lukes said. "Russia, of course, understandably, is very proud of its achievements in the hard sciences. I think scientists have often been treated as a sort of a privileged guest."

Just last month, Muller and a group of Russian physicians presented plans for doctors to work together on the three leading causes of death in both countries: heart disease, cancer and COVID-19. He proposed each country spend $50 million a year on the effort.

Those plans were shelved because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Muller said there no possibility to seek funds for medical collaboration until a ceasefire in the war is declared. He said the conflict in Ukraine highlights the need for global cooperation on nuclear weapons, as well as issues like climate change and disease control.

"We hope the path of reason and peace can be chosen, and we can resume our collaboration with our Russian medical and scientific colleagues on the problems of disease, exploration of space and climate change," Muller said, adding these are "global problems which require a global response unimpeded by violence and threats of nuclear destruction."

This segment aired on March 17, 2022.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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