This month marks the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombings that brought the Second World War to an end. On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped a 16 kiloton nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 140,000 people and immediately burning more than four square miles of the city. Three days later, another atomic bomb with an explosive power of 21 kilotons was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 74,000 people and obliterating everything within a 1,000-yard radius. Thousands more were left homeless from the devastation and suffered radiation side effects for the rest of their lives.
Never before had so many people been killed by a single weapon.
Since then, no nuclear weapons have been used in battle (though thousands have been tested) and the Cold War ended without a nuclear exchange between the superpowers. More recently, other, more visible concerns like terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have consumed our attention. There is no longer a deep awareness of nuclear issues the way there was during the Cold War, when people lived day in and day out with the fear of a nuclear war ending human civilization. Only the oldest members of society remember the nuclear drills and fallout shelters. The 67 year history of non-use has accustomed people to thinking of nuclear war as something beyond the realm of possibility, with all the close calls of the Cold War receding from memory.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1989, when the Cold War ended, six countries had nuclear weapons, the five members of the Security Council plus Israel. Today, nine countries do, with India, Pakistan and North Korea joining the club. Iran’s nuclear program is a serious concern. Loose nuclear material is still floating around in storage locations and on the black market. The American and Russian nuclear arsenals, designed for assured destruction within minutes, remain geared toward fighting a war that ended with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The chances of an accidental launch or misunderstanding leading to nuclear war is still a concern for all nuclear powers, especially the less stable ones that are locked in historic rivalries with their neighbors. All of this with nuclear warheads that are far more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan (the largest nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal is currently 1,200 kilotons, 60 times larger than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki).
The consequences of a nuclear disaster, either intentional or accidental, are so great that even though it is a low probability event, it requires constant vigilance and action. There is little room for error. Even a limited nuclear exchange involving only a few warheads would change the world as we know it, resulting in millions of deaths, famine from decreased agricultural activity and a global recession with long-lasting economic consequences for the entire planet. That is not an exaggeration.
The anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings serves as a reminder of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons and as a motivation to continue reducing the number of nuclear weapons worldwide and deemphasizing their role in our national security strategy. We must work tirelessly to expand the nonproliferation regime and extend the precedent of non-use forever.