Nu­clear ter­ror, still a threat af­ter 72 years

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Su­san Southard

To­day is the 72nd an­niver­sary of the atomic bomb­ing of Na­gasaki. At 11:02 a.m. Aug. 9, 1945, a five-ton plu­to­nium bomb ex­ploded a third of a mile above the city. Its blast winds tore through the city at 21⁄2 times the speed of a Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane.

Two-year-old Masao Tomon­aga was asleep in his home while his mother worked in an­other room. Within sec­onds of the blast, their house im­ploded on top of them. Re­mark­ably, both sur­vived. At 1.7 miles from the bomb’s hypocen­ter, they were out of reach of its most in­tense in­frared heat rays, which in­stantly car­bonized hu­man and an­i­mal flesh and va­por­ized the in­ter­nal or­gans of those di­rectly be­neath the bomb.

Tomon­aga’s mother pushed her way through the rub­ble to find him. They had min­utes to es­cape to a hill­side shrine be­fore fires sped through their neigh­bor­hood, leav­ing their flat­tened home in ashes.

Six weeks ago, 74-year-old Tomon­aga, now a lead­ing spe­cial­ist on long-term ra­di­a­tion ef­fects on the hu­man body, flew to New York as Na­gasaki’s of­fi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive in sup­port of a break­through in­ter­na­tional nu­clear weapons ban treaty, adopted at the United Na­tions on July 7.

Backed by 122 na­tions and with strong sup­port from civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions across the globe, the ac­cord is the world’s first com­pre­hen­sive treaty ban­ning the use, threat of use and pro­duc­tion of nu­clear weapons. It places nu­clear weapons on the same le­gal foot­ing as all other weapons of mass de­struc­tion — in­clud­ing chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons, land­mines and clus­ter mu­ni­tions, which have long been out­lawed.

The treaty was not an act of naiveté. Its pro­po­nents knew that nu­clear-armed and nu­clear-de­fended na­tions — in­clud­ing Ja­pan — would ve­he­mently re­ject the ban, de­fend­ing their po­si­tion that nu­clear weapons pre­vent nu­clear war. The ban was ne­go­ti­ated too with clear un­der­stand­ings of the cur­rent height­ened ten­sions be­tween the United States and Rus­sia, be­cause of North Korea’s nu­clear weapons de­vel­op­ment and test­ing, and Pres­i­dent Trump’s nu­clear pos­tur­ing.

The strat­egy — as was suc­cess­fully im­ple­mented with land­mines — is to dele­git­imize and ul­ti­mately elim­i­nate the most de­struc­tive and in­hu­mane weapons made. Af­ter treaty rat­i­fi­ca­tion in Septem­ber, the next step is to con­vince first one, then other nu­clear-armed or de­fended na­tions to abide by it. Sim­i­lar treaties ban­ning weapons of mass de­struc­tion have re­sulted in pol­icy changes even by coun­tries that haven’t signed them — in­clud­ing the United States, which now fol­lows the land­mines ban without hav­ing signed that treaty.

Tes­ti­mony like Tomon­aga’s can only help. Us­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence as a sur­vivor, ra­di­a­tion sci­en­tist and physi­cian who has treated hi­bakusha (atomic bomb-af­fected peo­ple) for nearly 50 years, Tomon­aga gave a state­ment be­fore the United Na­tions that coun­tered vague im­ages of nu­clear war with de­tails of its ter­ri­fy­ing acute and long-term hu­man con­se­quences.

Within weeks of the Hiroshima and Na­gasaki bomb­ings, adults and chil­dren be­gan ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mys­te­ri­ous and ex­cru­ci­at­ing symp­toms: vom­it­ing, fever, dizzi­ness, bleed­ing gums and hair loss. Pur­ple spots be­gan ap­pear­ing all over their bod­ies — the ef­fects of high-dose, whole-body ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure. Many died within a week of the first symp­toms.

Over the next nine months, preg­nant women whose fe­tuses had been ex­posed in utero suf­fered spon­ta­neous abor­tions, still­births and in­fant deaths. Many new­borns de­vel­oped phys­i­cal and men­tal dis­abil­i­ties.

By 1948, child­hood and adult leukemia rates be­gan in­creas­ing among hi­bakusha — and these rates re­mained high for decades. At high­est risk were chil­dren un­der 10 within a mile of the bomb­ing, who de­vel­oped leukemia at a rate 18 times greater than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

By 1955, nu­mer­ous other can­cers also ap­peared at rates far higher than for non

hi­bakusha. Even to­day, the bomb’s ra­di­a­tion con­tin­ues to rav­age the bod­ies of ag­ing sur­vivors, now in their 70s and 80s, who are de­vel­op­ing a spe­cial type of leukemia, MDS (Myelodys­plas­tic syn­drome). Sci­en­tists are still study­ing sec­ond- and third­gen­er­a­tion hi­bakusha for ge­netic ef­fects po­ten­tially passed down from their par­ents and grand­par­ents, re­mind­ing us how much we still don’t un­der­stand about the in­sid­i­ous na­ture of ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure on the hu­man body.

The use of a nu­clear weapon, de­signed to in­flict cat­a­strophic harm to vast num­bers of peo­ple, would vi­o­late in­ter­na­tional law, which pro­hibits the tar­get­ing of civil­ians dur­ing wartime. Yet al­most 15,000 nu­clear weapons still ex­ist in the world to­day; more than 4,000 are ac­tively de­ployed across the globe. Whether by in­ten­tional mil­i­tary choice, a nu­clear ac­ci­dent or an act of ter­ror­ism, we risk far worse hu­man­i­tar­ian and en­vi­ron­men­tal disas­ters than Na­gasaki and Hiroshima.

Af­ter decades of mon­u­men­tal ef­forts to cham­pion Tomon­aga’s vi­sion of a world free of nu­clear weapons, this treaty fills the le­gal gap in the pro­hi­bi­tion of such weapons and puts us on the path to their to­tal elim­i­na­tion. Per­haps now there is a chance that af­ter a 72-year reign of nu­clear ter­ror, the nar­ra­tive of nu­clear war that started in 1945 will come to a close.

Su­san Southard is the au­thor of “Na­gasaki: Life Af­ter Nu­clear War,” which was the re­cip­i­ent of the Lukas Book Prize and the Day­ton Lit­er­ary Peace Prize.

AFP/Getty Im­ages

THE SEC­OND U.S. atomic bomb ex­ploded over Na­gasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.

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