The Key to a World without Nuclear Weapons

Inhumanity of nuclear weapons must be repeatedly stressed prior to negotiations for nuclear ban treaty

by Kyosuke Mizukawa and Yumi Kanazaki, Staff Writers

The use of nuclear weapons is immoral. Regarding the inhumane nature of these weapons, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has emphasized, based on the actual conditions created in Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, the indiscriminate destruction of medical institutions and the difficulty involved in relief efforts because of the radiation to which medical personnel would be exposed. Meanwhile, the latest scientific findings warn that a regional nuclear war could impact the world’s climate and produce widespread famine. In the run-up to the U.N. negotiations that will begin on March 27 to discuss a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons, the Chugoku Shimbun focuses on their extreme inhumanity by looking back on the A-bomb attack of 72 years ago and the simulation of a future day that must never come to pass.

Nuclear abolition now at a crossroads

In April 2010, Jakob Kellenberger, then president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Switzerland, released a statement that said: “The suffering caused by the use of nuclear weapons is increased exponentially by the devastation of the emergency and medical assistance infrastructure.” Mr. Kellenberger also demanded that any use of nuclear weapons be banned by the international community.

In 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the use of nuclear weapons was generally contrary to international law, but could not judge its illegality in an extreme case of self-defense, when the very survival of a nation was at stake. Mr. Kellenberger’s statement sought to close this loophole completely by establishing a new legal framework from the perspective of their inhumane nature.

In 2012, sixteen nations including Switzerland released a joint statement which declared that nuclear weapons are inhumane and illegal. Since then, each time this joint statement has been updated, the number of nations endorsing it has grown. When the Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons were held on three occasions, in 2013 and 2014, government representatives from nations around the world took part in these gatherings and gained a deeper understanding of the inhumane nature of nuclear arms based on the appeals from A-bomb survivors and the results of the latest scientific analysis.

The United States and the United Kingdom, two nuclear superpowers, participated in the third conference, but they expressed opposition to a ban on nuclear weapons. The Japanese government has been calling for the leaders of the world’s nations to visit the A-bombed cities to gain a better understanding of the inhumanity of nuclear arms, while continuing to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella to maintain its security. However, as long as Japan remains under the nuclear umbrella, the divide between Japan and the non-nuclear nations, which seek to prohibit all functions of nuclear weapons, will only grow wider.

To some degree, the momentum for nuclear abolition has benefited from the call for a world without nuclear weapons that was made by Barack Obama, the previous president of the United States, the nuclear superpower. But the advent of the new administration led by President Donald Trump, who has touted the aim of strengthening that nation’s nuclear arsenal, could stymie that momentum. The effort to eliminate nuclear weapons is now at a crossroads.

Devastation to medical care in A-bombed Hiroshima

Teruko Ueno, 87, a resident of Nishi Ward, Hiroshima, still carries the regrets she felt at the time of the atomic bombing. Ms. Ueno said, “All I could do was pick out the maggots slithering in the wounds of the patients’ bodies and cover the wounds with gauze dipped in disinfectant.” She was a student nurse, helping with relief efforts at the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, which was located 1.5 kilometers from the hypocenter (now part of Naka Ward). She worked there for about two months in the aftermath of the bombing, without a break.

Back then, Ms. Ueno was a second-year student in the hospital’s nursing program. Though she was in a wooden dormitory building that collapsed in the A-bomb blast, she was able to survive. When the hospital’s main concrete building was threatened by flames, she fled the building with a patient on her back.

Over 50 members of the hospital’s staff, including five doctors, were killed in the atomic bombing. Amid the devastation in the city, the injured began flooding to the hospital soon after the attack. Over the next three weeks, the number of patients rose to a total of around 31,000. Nursing students like Ms. Ueno were involved in their care, day and night.

The patients were suffering from a number of acute symptoms of radiation sickness, including bleeding, purple spots, and hair loss. Because the hospital’s supply of drugs and medicine quickly ran out, the patients were unable to receive proper treatment. Ms. Ueno recalled, “Each of us cared for about 30 patients. At one point, a patient called out to me in pain. When I went there, the person was dead.” Seven or eight of the patients under her care died nearly every night. Day by day, the bodies of the dead were cremated in an empty lot nearby.

When Marcel Junod, a doctor from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), came to the hospital in early September 1945, he was reportedly at a loss as he surveyed the damaged facility and equipment. In a memoir entitled The Hiroshima Disaster, he wrote that when he wanted to perform a blood transfusion, he was unable to find suitable supplies to conduct a simple blood test.

Based on data from the Hiroshima City Medical Association, 225 doctors lost their lives in the atomic bombing. A survey by Hiroshima Prefecture, which was carried out in the aftermath of the bombing, indicated that 90% of the doctors and nurses living the city of Hiroshima were affected. In addition, many doctors from outside the city, who entered Hiroshima to support the relief efforts, also became exposed to the bomb’s residual radiation. Expressing her concern, Ms. Ueno said, “Back then, we didn’t know about the impact of radiation. After the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, there was such chaos. If a nuclear weapon is used again, I don’t think anyone will be able to handle the awful consequences.”

Risks to human health linger for a lifetime

The two-kilometer radius from the hypocenter was completely destroyed and razed by fire as a result of the blast and heat rays unleashed by the atomic bomb. The death toll in the area within 500 meters of the hypocenter was 96.5%, according to a joint survey carried out by the United States and Japan in November 1945. Some argue, however, that the true mortality rate was even higher. By the end of December 1945, when the acute symptoms of radiation sickness, including hair loss and bleeding, had mostly subsided, the bomb had claimed the lives of about 140,000 people.

Radiation damages human genes and the survivors’ exposure to the A-bomb radiation has posed risks to their health throughout their lives. Ten years after the bombing, there was a spike in the number of cases of leukemia. According to research conducted by Masao Tomonaga, the honorary director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Genbaku Hospital, and other researchers, the incidence of leukemia among A-bomb survivors was four to five times higher than the general public during this peak. And if these statistics are limited to children, the rate was 20 or 30 times higher.

“That pitiful building can convey the horror of the atomic bomb to the world forever,” wrote Hiroko Kajiyama in her diary, referring to the Industrial Promotion Hall, which came to be preserved as today’s A-bomb Dome. Ms. Kajiyama experienced the atomic bombing when she was just one, then died of leukemia at the age of 16. Sadako Sasaki, a girl who was born one year earlier than Ms. Kajiyama, and became the inspiration for the Children’s Peace Monument, died of leukemia at the age of 12. After the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing was observed, it was learned that an increase of Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a disease likely to turn into leukemia, was seen among the aging A-bomb survivors.

Solid cancers in survivors’ organs showed a rise in incidence 10 years after the bombing, and this rate has remained high ever since. A recent epidemiological study by the Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, at Hiroshima University, has found that the survivors who were exposed to residual radiation after entering the city center soon after the atomic bombing, by August 8 in particular, have a higher risk of mortality due to solid cancer.

Dangers of “nuclear winter” must be gravely considered

In the event of a nuclear conflict, 20 million people could be killed as a direct consequence. Additionally, five million tons of ash, rising into the sky as a result of massive fires, could reach the stratosphere, coat the earth, and destroy the ozone layer. With light from the sun unable to penetrate to Earth’s surface, the drop in temperature would be the worst ever experienced over the past millennium. Major crop-growing regions, such as corn and wheat in China and the United States, would yield poor harvests.

These conditions are part of the predicted nuclear winter, if India and Pakistan were to engage in a nuclear conflict involving 100 Hiroshima-type bombs (of 16 kilotons each). These two nations, non-members of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), possess nuclear arsenals and are involved in a volatile dispute over their shared border. This scenario of nuclear winter is based on multiple simulations performed by meteorologists and geophysicists in Western nations.

In 2013, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which pursued this research, issued a report concluding that 2 billion people could ultimately face the threat of nuclear famine. Alan Robock, 67, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University in the United States, was involved in the IPPNW research. He said that the detailed simulation was created through advanced weather forecasts using a super computer and progress made in the climate change model.

Mr. Robock is a leading expert in meteorology and one of the main authors of a report compiled by the Working Group for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body established by the United Nations. He has argued that the inhumanity of nuclear weapons should be given attention from the point of view of not only contamination from radioactive materials but also in terms of the potential damage to Earth’s environment.

Nuclear winter first became a prominent issue in the 1980s, when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had generated a total of about 70,000 nuclear weapons. Today, the estimated number of nuclear weapons in the world is around 15,000. However, Mr. Robock warns that tremendous damage would still be done if even less than one percent of these nuclear weapons were to be used. He added that the possibility of nuclear winter should again be a matter of serious concern because the risks of accidental use, a terrorist attack, or a cyber attack on weapons systems, as well as escalating conflicts among nations, are recently on the rise.

Frightening simulation of a nuclear explosion

It is estimated that there are about 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. In all, there are nine nations that hold these weapons, including the United States and Russia, the two nuclear superpowers; India and Pakistan, where tensions continually run high; and the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, and North Korea. In recent years, cases involving accidents with nuclear weapons, such as bombs falling from the aircraft carrying them, have become known in greater detail from documents made public after being declassified. Experts also point out the risk of terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. A growing number of people now recognize that the presence of only a single nuclear weapon in the world can pose a significant danger, let alone an all-out nuclear war.

What would happen if one nuclear bomb exploded in the rebuilt city of Hiroshima today? The city government once pursued such a study to estimate the impact. In 2007, a committee of experts (chaired by Hiromi Hasai, an honorary professor at Hiroshima University), under the auspices of the city’s civil protection council, prepared their findings.

Based on the national census data from the year 2000 (the population of Hiroshima was 1,126,000), the study simulated the conditions that would arise if Hiroshima’s urban area was attacked with a nuclear weapon during daytime hours on a weekday. Even though the concrete buildings raised since the A-bombing in 1945 are more robust than the buildings back then, the study estimated that the death toll in the initial phase (three to four months after the bombing) would come to 66,000 in the event of a Hiroshima A-bomb-type explosion of 16 kilotons, and 372,000 in the event of a hydrogen bomb of 1 megaton, which is 60 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

In the event of a hydrogen bomb blast, the study also concluded that an additional 460,000 people would be injured, and that most of the injured would die in the massive conflagration that would break out in the area within a radius of 7.9 kilometers from the hypocenter. In addition, the study analyzed the higher incidence of leukemia and cancer that could occur due to radiation exposure and estimated another 13,000 victims.

The committee’s report came to the conclusion that the only solution to prevent such destruction is the total abolition of these weapons. When the Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons took place in 2014, the estimated damage for a city of one million people was discussed and this discussion was based on the Hiroshima study. At the conference, Setsuko Thurlow, 85, an A-bomb survivor of Hiroshima who now lives in Toronto, Canada, made the appeal that prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons was our urgent moral obligation for future generations.

(Originally published on March 14, 2017)