Hiroshima Memo: British citizens, a key to nuclear disarmament

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

The other day, I had the opportunity to speak about nuclear issues with a dozen or so junior high and high school students from England who were visiting Hiroshima for a short-term study program. After an A-bomb survivor shared with the students his devastating experience of the bombing 63 years ago, I talked to them about the current state of nuclear weapons in the world. I also told them that there are people in the U.K. who have been exposed to radiation from such sources as nuclear testing.

“Which countries besides the U.K. possess nuclear weapons?” “What places did the U.K. conduct its nuclear testing?” “How many nuclear warheads does the U.K. currently have and what means would be used to launch them?” Because the students probably had had little opportunity to learn about nuclear issues, they were largely unfamiliar with such conditions even in their own country.

In 1952, the U.K. became the third nuclear power after the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, conducting a series of atmospheric and underground tests in the Australian desert or on islands in the Pacific Ocean. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, it built up an arsenal of more than 400 nuclear warheads. The U.K. ostensibly began developing nuclear weapons to defend itself from the nuclear threat posed by the former Soviet Union, but after the collapse of that country in 1991, there was no longer a compelling reason for it to continue possessing nuclear weapons.

Today, the U.K. still possesses nearly 200 nuclear warheads. Though this store of weapons has decreased by half from its peak, the current pace of reduction is very slow. These warheads are now deployed on four nuclear submarines, which are considered hard to attack. According to the British government, each submarine carries ballistic missiles on which 48 nuclear warheads are mounted and one of the submarines is always on patrol in the ocean.

“What do you think is the explosive power of each warhead mounted on those missiles?” I posed to the students. I then explained to them that a single explosion would equal 100 kilotons (100,000 tons) of TNT, a force roughly 7 times more powerful than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, at 15 kilotons. Having visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where they encountered the devastating consequences of a nuclear weapon through A-bomb artifacts and photos, and then hearing an account of the bombing directly from a survivor, the students could now imagine the awesome power of such warheads. The potential force of each of Britain’s nuclear-powered submarines is thus a staggering 320 times more powerful than the destructive energy unleashed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

I found the students full of empathy and I believe, by grasping the true extent of the damage nuclear weapons can wreak, they will begin considering how to eliminate the threat these weapons pose, which casts a pall over their own futures like a dark shadow.

The U.K. has a long history of citizens campaigning for nuclear disarmament and abolition, such as efforts by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and other organizations. In Scotland, an NGO called “Faslane 365” was named after the Faslane nuclear submarine base there and members of the organization continue to be engaged in various protest activities, including sit-ins and distributing leaflets. Though the protesters have maintained a stance of non-violence action, many have been arrested.

On October 27, when the U.N. launched disarmament week, several hundred people gathered for a large, non-violent blockade of a nuclear facility located in the city of Aldermaston, where nuclear weapons are researched and developed. Dr. Rebecca Johnson, founding director and editor of “The Acronym Institute,” an NGO working for nuclear disarmament, was among those calling for participation in the campaign. She believes that public awareness of the need to pursue a nuclear-free world is rising.

Dr. Johnson also took part in a symposium held in Hiroshima in August of this year, which was jointly organized by the Hiroshima Peace Media Center and the Hiroshima Peace Institute. “If the campaign opposing nuclear weapons can gain momentum in the U.K., the British government will ultimately abandon the idea of nuclear deterrence and the deployment of new nuclear missiles,” she said in her address at the symposium. “The U.K. can then play an important role in encouraging the world to disarm.”

As the threat of nuclear terrorism grows, leading political figures and former high-ranking officials in the U.K., including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have voiced a willingness to move toward nuclear disarmament. However, this does not mean that the U.K. government has made a policy change of pursuing nuclear disarmament unilaterally. At the same time, nuclear-related industries and other organizations are pushing back to protect their own interests.

“Although the U.K. appears to hold its own nuclear policy, it is effectively controlled by the U.S.,” Tony Benn, a former Labor Party veteran and a cabinet minister, once told me. As evidenced by the nation’s support for the U.S. in the Iraq War, wishing that the British government would feel free to keep its own nuclear policy while the Bush administration is in power would be expecting too much.

However, with Barack Obama assuming leadership of the U.S., and publicly expressing his commitment to abolish nuclear weapons, the U.K. will find more opportunity to shift its policy to support nuclear disarmament. And public opinion against nuclear weapons plays an important role in persuading governments to work toward this end. Among the nuclear powers, British citizens have shown themselves to be the most active in calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons and could consequently spearhead the world in such a movement.

The British youth who came to Hiroshima will no doubt continue to demonstrate interest in nuclear issues even after they have returned home. “Please make every effort to eliminate nuclear weapons from your country,” the A-bomb survivor and I urged them, placing our hopes for nuclear disarmament on their young shoulders.

(Originally published on November 3, 2008)

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