One month short of the seventy-second anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, one hundred and twenty-two countries met and voted to ban nuclear weapons. The one hundred and twenty-two countries did not include those who hold nuclear weapons, nor the only country to ever experience their use, Japan.
At the 72-year mark, it may be important to remember what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. At 8:14 that morning, as commuters headed to work and school-children into school, an atomic bomb was dropped on central Hiroshima.
“Suddenly--the time is approximately 8:14--the whole valley is filled by a garish light which resembles the magnesium light used in photography, and I am conscious of a wave of heat. I jump to the window to find out the cause of this remarkable phenomenon, but I see nothing more than that brilliant yellow light.” (Father John Siemes)
“Suddenly, a strong flash of light startled me - and then another. So well does one recall little things that I remember vividly how a stone lantern in the garden became brilliantly lit and I debated whether this light was caused by a magnesium flare or sparks from a passing trolley.
Garden shadows disappeared. The view where a moment before had been so bright and sunny was now dark and hazy. Through swirling dust I could barely discern a wooden column that had supported one comer of my house. It was leaning crazily and the roof sagged dangerously.Moving instinctively, I tried to escape, but rubble and fallen timbers barred the way. By picking my way cautiously I managed to reach the roka [an outside hallway] and stepped down into my garden. A profound weakness overcame me, so I stopped to regain my strength. To my surprise I discovered that I was completely naked How odd! Where were my drawers and undershirt?” (Dr. Michihiko Hachiya)
“Well, it was like a white magnesium flash. I lost consciousness right after or almost at the same time I saw the flash. When I regained consciousness, I found myself in the dark. I heard my friends, Ms. Asami, crying for her mother. Soon after, I found out that we actually had been attacked. Afraid of being caught by a fire, I told Ms. Asami to run out of the building. Ms. Asami, however, just told me to leave her and to try to escape by myself because she thought that she couldn't make it anywhere. She said she couldn't move. I said to her that I couldn't leave her, but she said that she couldn't even stand up. While we were talking, the sky started to grow lighter. Then, I heard water running in the lavatory. Apparently the water pipes had exploded. So I drew water with my helmet to pour over Ms. Asami's head again and again. She finally regained consciousness fully and went out of the building with me. We first thought to escape to the parade grounds, but we couldn't because there was a huge sheet of fire in front of us. So instead, we squatted down in the street next to a big water pool for fighting fires, which was about the size of this table. Since Hiroshima was completely enveloped in flames, we felt terribly hot and could not breathe well at all. After a while, a whirlpool of fire approached us from the south. It was like a big tornado of fire spreading over the full width of the street. Whenever the fire touched, wherever the fire touched, it burned. It burned my ear and leg, I didn't realize that I had burned myself at that moment, but I noticed it later.…
The whirlpool of fire that was covering the entire street approached us from Ote-machi. So, everyone just tried so hard to keep away from the fire. It was just like a living hell. After a while, it began to rain. The fire and the smoke made us so thirsty and there was nothing to drink, no water, and the smoke even disturbed our eyes. As it began to rain, people opened their mouths and turned their faces towards the sky and try to drink the rain, but it wasn't easy to catch the rain drops in our mouths. It was a black rain with big drops....
They were so big that we even felt pain when they dropped onto us. We opened our mouths just like this, as wide as possible in an effort to quench our thirst. Everybody did the same thing. But it just wasn't enough. Someone, someone found an empty can and held it to catch the rain.…
No, no it didn't. Maybe I didn't catch enough rain, but I still felt very thirsty and there was nothing I could do about it. What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black and brown, but, but, nothing else. Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I, I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn't believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just, they just burned away. For a few years after the A-bomb was dropped, I was terribly afraid of fire. I wasn't even able to get close to fire because all my senses remembered how fearful and horrible the fire was, how hot the blaze was, and how hard it was to breathe the hot air. It was really hard to breathe. Maybe because the fire burned all the oxygen, I don't know. I could not open my eyes enough because of the smoke, which was everywhere. Not only me but everyone felt the same. And my parts were covered with holes.” (Akiko Takakura)
“The citizens of Hiroshima will never be able to forget August 6, 1945. On that morning, exactly two years ago today, the first atomic bomb to be unleashed on a city in the history of mankind fell on Hiroshima; it instantly reduced the city to ashes and claimed the precious lives of more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens. Hiroshima turned into a city of death and darkness. Yet as some slight consolation for this horror, the dropping of the atomic bomb became a factor in ending the war and calling a halt to the fighting. In this sense, mankind must remember that August 6 was a day that brought a chance for world peace. This is the reason why we are now commemorating that day by solemnly inaugurating a festival of peace, despite the limitless sorrow in our minds. For only those who most bitterly experienced and came to know most completely the misery and the guilt of war can utterly reject war as the most terrible kind of human suffering, and ardently pursue peace.” (Shinzo Hamai, Peace Declaration 1947) (Emphasis added)
The impact of the bombs was immediately destructive but the injuries and radiation sickness they left behind ruined the health and well-being of more than one generation. There are places we visit to remember our best moments as a species and there are places that are reminders of the worst we have been. Hiroshima and Nagasaki should belong to the latter.
The seven decades since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been three parallel movements. First, several nuclear arms races—between pairs or groups of states that have nuclear weapons, are trying to build them or are trying to stop each other from getting them—have shaped international relations globally and regionally. Second, the idea that nuclear energy has peaceful applications and offers a clean, safe and cost-effective solution to the world’s growing energy hunger took off in the 1950s and 1960s and still influences government policies around the world. This idea has been shaken by human acts of omission (Chernobyl and the Rajasthan Power Plant) and the catastrophic impact of disasters (Fukushima, raising questions about Koodankulam). Third, anti-nuclear struggles persist around the world, like voices in the wildnerness but also like stubborn weeds that resist destruction.
Women have played an important part in anti-nuclear struggles everywhere. The women hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been advocates, raising awareness around the world of the impact on health and life of atomic weapons. The women’s peace camp at Greenham Common stayed put from 1982 to 2000, to protest a US missile base in rural England, raising questions about the legitimacy of both the base and of nuclear weapons. The women of Jaitapur and Idinthakarai are raising questions about safety, environmental and health impact of the nuclear installations in their neighbourhood. These are just three examples from around the world. But despite this, and despite the growing numbers of women nuclear physicists, there are very few of them at policy tables (also, this)—and there is no reason to expect that women physicists will have different views on weaponisation or even the efficacy of nuclear energy, but the fact that the physical and social impact of nuclear weapons or even accidents are gendered should make diversity imperative.
Women too, fight shy of learning to engage with technical discussions—an ingrained patriarchal notion of both capability and interest that is taught at home and in school. This week, marking the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may be a good time to commit to gender inclusivity in the nuclear debate:
- Do we understand the gendered consequences of our choices?
- Are we inclusive in whose accounts we read?
- Whose voices do we consider authoritative?
- What do we know about the century-old legacy of women’s peace and anti-nuclear work?
- What do women know (bother to/ have the chance to learn) about nuclear energy, nuclear policy and nuclear weapons?
- How do we build capacity among women professionals to engage with these issues?
- How do we ensure women’s inclusion in policy discussions on matters nuclear?
And yet, when the world votes to ban nuclear weapons, and there are prominent absences and abstentions, it seems we are still standing where we were seventy-odd years ago, and the promise of world peace, optimistically held out by the Mayor of Hiroshima in 1947, has not come to fruition.