The dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima 70 years ago this week was a terrible, seminal moment in human history. The justification for the decision including the likely large loss of life on both sides if the war continued have been endlessly debated. But what is clear is that Truman’s reluctant ‘rain of ruin from the air’ began the nuclear age with all its horrors and fears.
Such was the scale of destruction that accurate figures on casualties have not been possible. But it is estimated that as many as 60,000 people died either instantly from the blast or over the next few hours. As many again died from their injuries or radiation poisoning in the weeks and months which followed.
None, of course, who developed that first bomb or gave the decision to use it knew for certain about either its immediate destructive power or its longer-term damage to human life. This is not, however, an excuse our generation can use.
We now know not only from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the second bomb was exploded three days later, but also from decades of nuclear testing across the world of the appalling consequences of radiation. Kazakhstan, more than a generation since the Semipalatinsk test site was closed, is still suffering the long-term health and environmental impact of the nearly 500 nuclear explosions that took place above and under our territory.
Our collective knowledge has sadly not prevented countries developing nuclear devices thousands of times more powerful than those exploded over Hiroshima. Even after the reduction in warheads in recent years, we still possess enough warheads to destroy the human race many times over.
The memory of the destruction caused in August 1945 has, however, so far proved an extraordinarily powerful barrier to their military use again. Historical record shows how close we have come to nuclear disaster over the last seven decades. But even in the tensest of times or when technological failure has falsely raised the fear of a nuclear attack, political and military leaders have stepped back from the abyss. They understood the use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for our world.
We would be very foolish to rely on reason and humanity to always protect us. But the threat to our survival from nuclear weapons has been made more dangerous with the rise in recent years of violent extremist groups with no regard for human life. They are actively trying to acquire the knowledge, technology and raw materials to build weapons of mass destruction. If they succeed, they will not hesitate to use them to take as many lives as possible.
It is why we must use this sombre anniversary to dedicate ourselves to reducing and, eventually, eliminating the threat from nuclear weapons. This means strengthening non-proliferation and stepping up security measures to prevent dangerous materials falling into the hands of extremists groups. Ultimately, our ambition must be a world in which nuclear weapons have no place.
These are all goals, of course, which have helped define Kazakhstan from its earliest days as an independent country. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s decision to give up the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal and close the Semipalatinsk test site was driven by our first-hand knowledge of the impact of nuclear weapons.
For the same reason, Kazakhstan has campaigned tirelessly for a universal ban on nuclear testing. Given the shared history, it is fitting that Japan and Kazakhstan are to jointly chair the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Conference to see how this ambition can be realised. Kazakhstan has also used its experience of working with other countries to dispose of its nuclear warheads and secure nuclear material and sites to urge new safeguards are put in place to counter the threat of extremist groups.
But it was not political or military leaders but thousands of ordinary citizens who were the victims of the attack on Hiroshima. It is the collective voice of their counterparts around the world which can be the most powerful force for change. Through The ATOM Project, which Kazakhstan launched, they are being provided the opportunity to urge their leaders to take the steps necessary to end nuclear testing permanently and legally and move towards a world in which nuclear weapons belong to history.
The 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb will rightly be marked across the world. But the best memorial to those who lost their lives is to step up our efforts to ensure that no other place or people suffer the fate of Hiroshima.