News & Views from 465 California Street

Avoiding “The Bomb”

Clint Reilly

After a long hiatus, recent events have put the “mushroom cloud” back on the front page.

On August 15, one large Bay Area city is conducting an emergency response to a simulated nuclear attack by terrorists.

There are well-founded fears that terrorists will obtain an illicit nuclear weapon and mount an attack on a large American city.

Also, the specter of a nuclear-equipped Iran has shaken governments around the globe. In some hard-line neoconservative circles, the mere possibility of Iran’s extremist leaders obtaining a bomb warrants a preemptive nuclear strike.

As nuclear proliferation becomes a burning international issue among policymakers once again, I worry that many of us have forgotten the stakes.

Some years ago, I visited New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory – the site of the Manhattan Project – which produced the world’s first atomic bombs. The lab’s museum featured extensive displays on the project, but the lobby’s key exhibit trumpeted Los Alamos’s contribution to mapping the human genome.

I wondered if the passage of time had lulled us into the delusion that the bomb was just another weapon rather than a weapon of incalculable mass destruction.

In 1962, when I was a youth, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. I still remember my sigh of relief after President Kennedy announced that war with the Soviet Union had been averted. The crisis was the last time Americans – or the world – were threatened with imminent fallout from a nuclear exchange.

The threat of an accidental or intentional nuclear strike is far from gone, however. Seventeen years after the end of the Cold War, 2,500 American and Russian nuclear warheads remain on hair-trigger alert for immediate launch.

But after the Cold War melted away and the world was swept up by economic globalization, the bomb faded from the headlines. Today, people casually employ the lexicon of nuclear destruction when discussing military actions, political campaigns and even sporting events. It is as though we have become anesthetized to the horror these weapons produce.

August 6 marked the 63rd anniversary of the world’s first nuclear bombing at Hiroshima, which left 140,000 dead. Three days later, 70,000 more were killed at Nagasaki. No human being has died from a wartime nuclear bomb since then.

But as memories dim of the world’s only use of nuclear weapons, will they be more likely to be employed again – resulting in a cataclysmic loss of life and untold environmental damage to the planet? The mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba, has called upon the next U.S. President to lead an effort to abolish nuclear weapons for the sake of “human survival.”

As the only nation that has experienced the destructive power of nuclear warfare first hand, the Japanese may understand more clearly the chaos that would be unleashed by today’s stash of more than 27,600 weapons, which carry a collective strength hundreds of thousands times greater than Hiroshima.

One account of Hiroshima’s devastation read: “In a few seconds, thousands of human beings in the streets and gardens in the town center, struck by a wave of intense heat, died like flies. Others lay writhing like worms, atrociously burned. All private homes, warehouses, etc. disappeared as if swept away by a supernatural power.”

Jonathan Schell’s 1982 book, “The Fate of The Earth” – a best seller about the deadly consequences of full-scale nuclear war – is still chillingly relevant more than a quarter century later. He mused that nuclear bombs “grew out of history, yet they threaten to end history…were made by men, yet they threaten to annihilate man.

“Yet, in spite of the immeasurable importance of nuclear weapons, the world has declined to think about them very much.”

Perhaps we should.

Comments (3)

  • I heard an interesting interview on NPR recently with a top intelligence official at the Department of Energy, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. Mr Mowatt-Larsese is the man in the U.S. government whose job it is to worry about nuclear terrorism and the discussion centered around al-Qaida. The first question is do they have a nuclear weapon… seems unlikely and the second question is would they use it?

    See link below for the pros and cons of what is believed to be the discussion within al-Qaida and the intelligence the US employs to potentially shape that discussion.

    Posted by: Melinda Maginn | August 12th, 2008 at 4:05 pm

  • how soon people forget the backyard bomb shelters, the Berlin standoff, the Cuban missile crisis and Nikita Kruschev banging his shoe on the lectern shouting “we will bury you!”

    the very existence of these weapons is insane. utterly, completely insane. for most people though, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

    how much of this nuclear material was lost when the USSR dissolved I wonder?

    Posted by: Laradar | August 12th, 2008 at 8:59 pm

  • Anyone recall the Neutron Bomb. Ducking under your desk would have been pointless, I’m referring to what we were told to do at school in case of a nuclear attack . The Neutron Bomb was designed to limit it’s destructive power but with the same radioactive punch as say an “H” bomb. The idea being, leave the infrastructure intact for less clean up and reconstruction costs, but with a comparable casualty rate. Always the bottom line. Kind of shows where their priorities were and most likely the reason they nixed it. Was just a little to obvious. Don’t want the Masses thinking human beings are more disposable than say a Building.

    Posted by: Bob Snider | August 12th, 2008 at 10:21 pm

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