Lessons from an atomic catastropheAug 6th, 2009 | By editor | Category: Featured Articles, Opinion, Viewing News
A photo dated September 1945 of the remains of the Prefectural Industry Promotion Building, which was later preserved as a monument, after the bombing of Hiroshima.
Sixty four years ago on this fateful day, on August 6, 1945 at 8-15 a.m., Brigadier Paul Tibbetz of the U.S. Air Force flew over in a B-29, named Enola Gay after his mother, and dropped a 16-kiloton uranium fission bomb on an unsuspecting Japanese city of Hiroshima. A parachute opened, a flash of light and blasts followed, and suddenly all hell broke loose. The eyes of young girls watching the parachute melted and their faces became bloated blisters. Ferocious fires raged through the city and temperatures rose to 4000 degrees, melting iron and vaporising human bodies. Skin dangled from the fingernails of extended hands seeking help. Houses were reduced to rubble by the enormous blast and people trapped inside were burned alive. Within seconds, thousands perished. The toll rose to 140,000 within a year. Three days later another bomb, named ‘Fat Man,’ was dropped on Nagasaki, which suffered a similar fate.
Years after the bombing, survivors (called ‘hibakusha’ in Japanese) continue to suffer from radiation poisoning and cancers. Traumatised by the horrific experience and emotionally shattered, they live in constant fear of disease and death. The experience of living makes them envy the dead.
The atomic bombing was touted as an extraordinary technological and military achievement. It was called “a great moment of history.” The officially sanctioned American view was that bombing was a necessary act in a just war, and it saved a million lives. Subsequent historical accounts, however, reveal that the bombing was in fact unnecessary, as the Japanese were willing to surrender much earlier. President Dwight Eisenhower confirmed this in a 1963 interview to Newsweek.
Soon after the bombing, many Americans expressed guilt and revulsion. The Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, said in November 1945 that the bomb was used against “an essentially defeated enemy.” He characterised the bombs as “weapons of aggression, of surprise and of terror,” which could give nations a “sleazy sense of omnipotence.”
The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not seem to have taught the world’s political and military elite any lessons. The nuclear age ushered in over four decades of the Cold War and an arms race. At its peak, the nuclear-weapon states had accumulated over 70,000 warheads which possessed the explosive power to destroy a million Hiroshimas, or the earth itself 50 times over.
Despite efforts made to control the numbers of nuclear weapons, prevent their spread, prohibit their use and seek their elimination, little headway has been made to reduce the risk of nuclear annihilation. The number of nuclear weapons today is estimated at 20,000. Of these, some 10,000 remain deployed and many are on hair-trigger alert. Over 90 per cent of these weapons are in the U.S. and Russia.
Humankind has been able to avoid a nuclear catastrophe over the past 64 years, probably as much because of good fortune as any special effort to prevent it. There were more than a few near-misses, however. These include the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; the accidental loading of a simulated attack in the U.S. warning system by a technician at Omaha; a Soviet warning error in 1983 showing the launch of five U.S. missiles against them; and misinterpretation of a rocket launch from Norway by the Russian early warning system in 1995. On August 29-30, 2007, six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were flown across the U.S. in a U.S. Air Force aircraft by mistake, and for 36 hours no one knew that they were missing.
Apart from the risks of human error there are other real dangers lurking. Terrorists are looking for nuclear materials and technical knowledge; and there can be little doubt that they will use the weapon if they can get one. The arcane theories of nuclear deterrence will not work with them because their ‘rationality’ is different from that of state actors. Growing cyber-terrorism poses risks for states’ nuclear command and control systems, with disastrous consequences.
Nearly 40 countries have nuclear weapons materials and not all of it is secure. With globalisation and the information revolution, the wherewithal to build weapons is relatively easy to access today. The number of nuclear- weapon states may grow in the years to come, as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime is seen to be inequitable, and powerful incentives for weaponisation continue to exist. Even 15 or 20 nuclear-weapon states will make the world a truly dangerous place. States developing nuclear energy will also gain materials and knowledge to produce nuclear weapons, posing a further danger.
The world maintains these dangerous arsenals at a heavy cost. A recent study by Stephen I. Schwartz and Deepti Choubey finds that the U.S. alone spent a minimum of $52.4 billion on nuclear weapons and programmes in 2008. This does not include the cost of air defence, anti-submarine warfare, classified programmes and nuclear weapons-related intelligence programmes. The U.S. spends nearly $29 billion, which exceeds India’s annual defence budget, to upgrade and maintain its nuclear weapons. The development of nuclear arsenals in the world has consumed trillions of dollars so far and nearly $110 million is spent each day on their upkeep and readiness.
If the world goes down this road, eventually nuclear weapons will be used again, by mistake or design. A U.S. bipartisan panel recently warned that the world can expect a nuclear or biological terror attack by 2013, unless urgent preventive measures are taken.
Even the Cold Warriors of yesteryear have recognised the imperative of complete elimination of nuclear weapons. But this goal can be realised only with a strong political will and leadership.
The measures required have been outlined earlier, but they are not being vigorously implemented in a time-bound manner. The first essential steps are an unequivocal commitment by nuclear-weapon states to the goal of complete elimination, and a reduction of the salience of nuclear weapons in the countries’ security doctrines. These should be followed by an agreement among nuclear-weapon states on “no first use” of nuclear weapons and a legally binding agreement on non-use against non-nuclear-weapon states. Other important measures, including for effective verification and enforcement, will be required.
Since Independence, India has consistently pursued the goal of global disarmament based on the principles of universality, non-discrimination and effective compliance. At the special sessions of the United Nations General Assembly on Disarmament, India put forward a number of proposals, the most important of which was the Rajiv Gandhi Plan for the total elimination of weapons of mass destruction. The 2010 Non-Proliferation Review Conference offers yet another opportunity to convert the recent calls for disarmament into a binding action plan.
On this day of Hiroshima’s devastation, humankind needs to heed what an aging hibakusha had to say: “There is only one way to end this threat and that is to abolish these weapons. Either nuclear weapons must be eliminated or human beings face the threat of extinction by weapons of their own creation.”
(N.S. Sisodia is Director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.)