Hiroshima Memo: Nuclear weapons development given priority over dangers of radiation exposure

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

Regardless of the political system, the nations that have sought nuclear arms have invariably resorted to secrecy and deception. By the same token, secrecy and deception have long been a hallmark of conditions in which human beings and the environment are affected by radioactive materials, one repercussion of nuclear weapons development.

On September 6, 1945, one month after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, people were still dying in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki due to their exposure to the radiation emitted by the bombs. Yet Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, who was deputy commander of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort which produced the atomic bombs, told reporters following Allied Forces in Tokyo that the death toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would rise no further and that no one in either city was suffering from radiation.

Mr. Farrell’s remark was intended not only to prevent the world from clearly seeing the inhumanity of the use of these weapons and head off further criticism of the United States. In order to sustain that nation’s program involving the development of nuclear arms, the impact of radiation exposure had to be concealed from the public, including Mr. Farrell’s own compatriots.

At the same time, the United States was nevertheless intent on gaining an accurate understanding of the impact of radiation on the human body through health surveys of A-bomb survivors. The establishment of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC, and now, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation) in 1947 clearly reflected the wish of the U.S. military. They explained that the aims of ABCC’s research involved supporting the well-being of the survivors and contributing to the peaceful use of nuclear power. But, at least through the 1950s, the fact remains that military purposes were given the highest priority.

In 1952, ABCC began conducting an independent survey on the impact of residual radiation on people who entered Hiroshima shortly after the atomic bombing. They made direct inquiries of medical doctors and other healthcare practitioners in Hiroshima to learn if some of those who entered the city after the blast had developed A-bomb-related diseases. They also sent questionnaires to the mayors of area municipalities and medical doctors in Hiroshima Prefecture and obtained case reports. This survey, however, was discontinued the following year. The reason was not made public.

One thing certain is that the U.S. military and the Atomic Energy Commission (now, the Department of Energy) hoped to obtain data on the effects of direct exposure to a high level of radioactivity rather than the effects of exposure to radioactive fallout (the so-called “ashes of death”). In the fierce competition over supremacy and nuclear weapons development with the former Soviet Union, which succeeded in staging a nuclear test in 1949, they assumed the outbreak of nuclear war was a distinct possibility.

Remarks made by the renowned American physicist and chemist Dr. Linus Pauling (1901-1994) could provide a clue to grasping the state of affairs involving nuclear arms during that era. Dr. Pauling pointed out the dangers of radioactive contamination from atmospheric nuclear tests and strongly urged that nuclear tests be banned. When I interviewed him in the month before his death, he told me that the Atomic Energy Commission held a greater concern for the catastrophe that could be caused by a nuclear attack if they were to stop building up the nation’s nuclear forces than they were by the dangers of releasing a “slight” level of radiation.

Physicist Edward Teller (1908-2003), who developed the hydrogen bomb, later advocated “clean bombs” that would emit no radiation. Dr. Teller continued to pursue his tests, maintaining that if the tests were brought to a halt, the possibility of developing these “clean bombs” could not be realized.

Though they all knew nuclear war would produce no winner, they still clung to the illusion that they could somehow triumph and survive. This is the dangerous sort of mindset that people of that time fell victim to. Yet who can say that we have rid the world of this perilous way of thinking? Secrecy and deception involving the development of nuclear weapons continues to this day, along with a growing number of nations making use of radioactive materials.

(Originally published on January 16, 2012)