Past and Present Dangers of Atomic Weapons

70 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki
August 16, 2015 Updated: August 16, 2015

The basic murder victim of war is the truth. Thereafter, the morticians of public policy proceed to embalm human reasoning. It is a militant aggression against the spiritual existence of any creature’s right to hope that there can be life without assault. The weapon of choice by war practitioners is deceit, because history shows us once you get a people to believe an outrageous lie, you can get them to perform acts of outrageous moral and social criminal destruction.

Secretary of War (the title was more honest back then) Henry Stimson, said: “In the State Department there developed a tendency to think of the bomb as a diplomatic weapon. Some of the men in charge of foreign policy were eager to carry the bomb as their ace-in-the-hole… American statesmen were eager for their country to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip.”

Man, to be politically correct, has a particularly unique drive—absent in other animals, but an authentic hunger in man—this desire to industrialize all he can. Show a man a firecracker, and within a reasonable period of time he will show you an anti-tank explosive.

Nuclear energy is explosive—the biggest anti-everything explosive ever imagined. It was born in an endless chain of power egotism, and it was introduced during a war so there could be no argument about it being the right thing to do.

The crime itself may be conceptual; just to conceive of such a mass homicide device, let alone use it, and to execute the plan to use it for unheralded mass civilian bombing, is an assault on human evolution. What’s more, to industrialize this ticking, infectious, destructive device, which bleeds toxic radioactivity, as a means of industrial energy profiteering, when solar and wind power are there to develop, would appear to be spiritual suicide. 

Paul Tibbets was the pilot of the plane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, the plane was a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a four-engine, propeller-driven, heavy bomber that was flown primarily by the United States during World War II.

Epoch Times Photo
The atomic explosion above Nagasaki, Aug. 9, 1945. (Public domain).

It was one of the largest aircraft operational during World War II and featured a pressurized cabin, all dual wheeled, tricycle landing gears, and a remote electronic fire-control system that controlled four machine gun turrets. A manned tail gun installation was semi-remote. Designed for high-altitude strategic bombing, the B-29 also excelled in low-altitude nighttime incendiary bombing missions. These missions created the phenomenon known as the “fire storm,” a hurricane of intense fire that implodes all before it.

Asked at age 87 if he would do it again, Tibbets said: “Oh, I wouldn’t hesitate if I had the choice. I’d wipe ’em out. You’re gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we’ve never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn’t kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: ‘You’ve killed so many civilians.’ That’s their tough luck for being there.”

The B-29 Superfortress was the Enola Gay. Paul Tibbets named the plane after his mother. 

An Interview with Denise Duffield

Denise Duffield serves as associate director for Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. She directs PSR-LA’s peace and security program, which focuses on protecting public health from nuclear threats. The group provides nuclear policy issue education, including for physicians and other healthcare professionals.

SB: August 6 marked 70 years to the day of remembrance of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Denise, what are the first thoughts that come to mind on this occasion?

Denise Duffield: Shelley, the first thoughts that come to mind are not thoughts at all, but are feelings. Sorrow, for the over 200,000 people killed and thousands more injured, most of whom were civilians—women, children, and the elderly. Horror, that such tremendously destructive weapons were ever used at all, and, by their continued existence, remain a constant threat to humanity. And incredulity, that we continue to develop and possess instruments that are capable of annihilating our species and the planet.

It is not logical to believe that because we have managed to avoid a nuclear war for 70 years, that we will continue to do so. This year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hand on its allegorical “Doomsday Clock” further to 3 minutes before midnight, citing weapons modernization programs, stalled arms reductions, and international tensions. Our security is an illusion, yet we behave as if nuclear weapons are relics of the past. This thinking must change, if we are to survive. 

SB: Why is it is important that we take pause to remember and reflect on these events?

DD: We often hear the word “unthinkable” or “unimaginable” used when referring to a potential nuclear attack. But it is not unthinkable, and we must imagine it. Reflecting on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and listening to the hibakusha, those who survived the attacks, helps us do so.

When we look into the faces of hibakusha, now aged and many infirm, when we hear their stories of loss, illness, and hardship, we must also see ourselves. The hibakusha ask that we remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki for one reason—that nuclear weapons are never used again. It is in our own interest that we heed their call.

Epoch Times Photo
A woman’s skin is burned in the pattern of a kimono after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. (Public domain)

Today’s nuclear weapons are far more powerful than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thousands remain on hair-trigger alert, able to be launched in minutes. Control systems are vulnerable to being hacked. Indeed, numerous instances of equipment failure, accidents, and miscommunication have been documented in which nuclear catastrophe was barely averted.

There is enough nuclear material in the world to destroy it many times over, and the material is not uniformly well guarded. As we reflect upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must also contemplate our future and what we can do to better protect ourselves.

SB: Tell us about your organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. How does it function, and what goals does it want to accomplish?

DD: PSR-LA is the largest local chapter of the national organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the American recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace prize awarded to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Our organization was founded by physicians who realized that there is little meaningful medical response to nuclear war and, therefore, they must work to prevent it. We have grown to address other critical threats to health and survival, as well, such as climate change, air pollution, and toxic chemicals. PSR-LA is also committed to social justice and addressing health inequities often experienced by low-income communities of color.

Nuclear threats to health are distinctively dangerous. Physicians are uniquely suited to articulate the risks, whether from a nuclear bomb detonation or from exposure to highly toxic and long-lived radionuclides. By framing nuclear policy debates in terms of health, we seek to increase awareness and help engage healthcare professionals and the public to advocate for protective policies.

Locally, we are also working to ensure the full cleanup of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, site of a partial nuclear meltdown just 30 miles from Los Angeles. The site remains highly contaminated with toxic pollutants that migrate and put nearby communities at risk.

SB: How is the aftermath of the bomb itself reflected, in that it produced atomic energy on the planet—how is that atomic energy affecting the health of the planet?

DD: Nuclear power can impact public health in many ways. Harmful radionuclides are routinely released in nuclear reactor operations. The consequences of nuclear reactor accidents can rival that of a nuclear bomb. For example, the 1989 Chernobyl accident released 400 times the radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The ongoing triple nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima have resulted in millions of tons of radioactive water continuing to pour into the Pacific Ocean. Given its high toxicity, radioactive waste must be separated from the environment for as long as 500,000 years. Yet no credible, long-term storage solution exists.

Exposure to radiation can cause cancer in organs or in the blood or lymph systems. These cancers can take years or decades after the exposure to manifest. If radiation damages genetic material in reproductive cells, genetic defects can occur in subsequent generations. Even exposure to low levels of radiation carries risks.

The National Academy of Sciences states that all doses of radiation, no matter how small, increase the risk of cancer to some degree. The long-term health of the planet depends upon us transitioning away from both fossil fuels and nuclear power and into truly renewable, clean, energy sources. 

Finally, it must be said that nuclear power is inextricably tied to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Each operating nuclear power plant produces enough plutonium a year to create 100 atomic bombs. The recent Iran nuclear deal is a good one, as it reduces their stockpile of uranium by 98 percent, which is not even a fraction of what is needed to make a nuclear weapon, and allows for verification mechanisms. That said, no country can have nuclear power without increasing proliferation risks.

SB: There is much talk about the productivity of a nuclear weapons ban. How would this work and what would be the best of all situations we could hope for?

DD: Most of the nuclear weapons states are already bound by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to move in good faith toward complete disarmament. But given stalled progress on that obligation, an increasing number of nations and advocates are looking to other vehicles for nuclear abolition.

A nuclear weapons ban has gained favor, as it has precedence in similar bans on biological and chemical weapons, land mines, and other indiscriminate weapons of war. An international ban treaty would help stigmatize the possession of nuclear weapons and build pressure for their elimination in a verifiable and irreversible manner.

Momentum for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is growing. At the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in May, 159 countries—that’s 82 percent of all nations—delivered a Joint Statement demanding that the nuclear-armed countries agree to totally eliminate their arsenals.

Over 110 countries have signed the “Humanitarian Pledge” to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. The best situation we could hope for is that Americans and Russians, whose countries possess 95 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, pressure their governments to participate and lead these efforts for a nuclear weapons free world.

SB: Denise, with profound respect to you I say that these are just words, but these words are important because the planet may be at stake. 

DD: Shelley, it is not hyperbole to say the planet is at stake. Let’s look at some numbers. A recent report by IPPNW and PSR shows that even a limited nuclear war, involving just 100 Hiroshima sized bombs—less than half a percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals—would disrupt climate and agriculture enough to produce a global famine that could kill 2 billion people.

Another PSR report examined the consequences of a larger scale nuclear war, showing that if only 300 Russian warheads got through to targets in the United States, up to 100 million people would die in the first 30 minutes and the rest would perish in the following months from starvation, exposure, disease, and radiation poisoning. Statisticians estimate a range between 10 to 30 percent chance of a nuclear war in the next 10 years.

But if we eliminate nuclear weapons, that chance will fall to zero. It can be done. Over 50,000 nuclear weapons have been eliminated since the height of the Cold War. We now must take care of the rest. The U.S. plans to spend $348 billion over the next 10 years and $1 trillion over the next three decades to maintain and modernize its nuclear arsenal. Imagine what we could do if those resources were instead invested into human needs such as hunger, healthcare, education, and addressing climate change?

The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is an opportunity to reflect on our priorities, to remember the horrific devastation caused by nuclear weapons and to recommit ourselves to creating a world without nuclear weapons. 

Shelley B. Blank has worked with major national and international newspapers as a journalist as well as a corporate executive. He has produced programs for Public Radio and lectured on modern multimedia communications and technology.