Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. We are the Hibakusha, survivors of the nuclear bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and people harmed by years of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific and Kazakhstan. It is our hope that never again will anyone suffer the catastrophic humanitarian consequences caused by the use of nuclear weapons.
With nine countries now possessing 19,000 nuclear weapons, it appears that the world is in danger of forgetting the appalling and irrevocable harm caused by nuclear weapons. We listened with horror as we heard about the testing of nuclear weapons by North Korea. This brings the potential use of nuclear weapons closer.
A humanitarian catastrophe
Most of today’s nuclear weapons are much bigger than the nuclear bomb that incinerated Hiroshima in 1945. The nuclear weapon used in Hiroshima was around 13 kilotons and it killed 118,661 people instantly, seriously injuring over 78,000 more people. By the end of 1945, a further 140,000 people had died. Most of these deaths and injuries were due to the immediate effects of the massive fireball that rose into the sky. The flash of intense white heat burned people where they stood, imprinting their shadows on walls and setting fire to most of the city. The blast tore people’s clothes and melted flesh from their bodies. It turned homes, shops and offices to rubble, killing and trapping people. Then came the fires, which were quickly whipped into a vast firestorm, burning and suffocating thousands more. This was followed by radioactive fallout, leaching out of the great mushroom cloud as greasy black rain.
After some of the atmospheric tests in the Pacific islands, the radiation fell like white fluffy snow. Children got excited and played in it. Islanders, like the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fell sick and died from radiation poisoning, from breathing, eating, drinking and absorbing the invisible radioactivity that contaminated our homes. Children lost their hair. Their skin erupted in cancerous kheloids. Women miscarried or gave birth to “jellyfish babies”, dead before they could draw breath.
This also happened to downwinders near the US and Soviet test sites, denied and covered up for decades.
The Soviet Union conducted more than 450 nuclear weapons tests at its Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in eastern Kazakhstan, including 120 in the atmosphere. The total power output of those tests was equal to 2,500 bombs dropped on Hiroshima. The tests caused deaths and illnesses to an estimated 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan and contaminated huge swaths of land with radiation. Consequences of nuclear tests still negatively affect the locals, as 70 percent of survivors are the descendants of second and third generations born to exposed parents.
Now we know that even microscopic amounts of radioactively contaminated material can cause genetic damage and many types of cancer. These effects pass down through generations.
No one is safe
After a single nuclear explosion, the dust clouds darken the skies for days, with deep crimson sunsets. If there were a nuclear war using a hundred bombs – a fraction of today’s arsenals – the soot and dust from incinerated cities would circulate, causing much of the earth to become much darker and colder than normal. This global freezing could last for many years, disrupting rainfall and the seasonal cycles, and causing crops to fail. It is estimated that up to a billion people might starve to death in the first decade after a ‘limited nuclear war’. Many of these nuclear famine Hibakusha would come from regions like Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America, which have regional nuclear weapons free zones in place. The Red Cross and other humanitarian assistance organisations would be quickly overwhelmed, unable to provide an adequate response.
No one on this planet would be safe if any of the nine nuclear-armed countries decided to detonate any of their nuclear weapons. How can we prevent such a humanitarian catastrophe from taking place in our lifetimes? The Red Cross argues that to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again, the nations of the world need to “pursue in good faith and conclude with urgency and determination negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons”.
It’s time to act
On 4-5 March, over a hundred governments will gather in Oslo, Norway for the first ever global meeting of states, civil society and UN agencies that is focused on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. By considering the humanitarian consequences and the impossibility of providing effective humanitarian assistance to survivors, governments must realise that a ban on nuclear weapons is needed to ensure that these atrocities are never carried out again.
We appeal to governments and civil society leaders: don’t wait for another nuclear catastrophe to occur before you ban these weapons of mass suffering. Our pleas are borne out of our experience. The time to prohibit nuclear weapons is now.
Ms Setsuko Thurlow, Hibakusha
Mr Kenneth McGinley, Christmas Island Nuclear Test Veteran
Mr Karipbek Kuyukov, Atom Project Honorary Ambassador
Mr Roland Oldham, Président de Moruroa e Tatou