Apparently, according to a recent study, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima
had the explosive power of 16,000 tons of TNT, not 15 kilotons as had been thought.
The Hiroshima device was a one off design, experimental - subsequent nuclear bombs
were of a different type.
There are many ways to turn a few kilos of fissile material into a lot of energy,
heat and light. And it worked a treat. It obliterated a whole city and killed
some 140,000 men, women and children.
It vaporised some in the initial flash, turned others into carbonised shadows
on the wall, crushed many to death in the shock wave, incinerated thousands, boiled
alive those who jumped into the river to escape, and radiated many more who would
live with that legacy all their lives.
There was only one good thing to come out of this horror - it scared the hell
out of everyone on the planet and made nuclear weapons too terrible to actually
Oh, and for those who also want to claim that it ended the war against Japan
- which was no doubt a good thing - the evidence suggests otherwise. The Japanese
government was already suing for peace, and there is even an argument that the
war was prolonged a couple of weeks in order to try out the bombs.
Yes, basically the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (another
80,000 human beings dead there) to see how they would work in practice, and to
scare the Russians who by the end of the European war had mobilised the largest
and most powerful land army in history. But even at the time, at the end of a
long and vicious war, many wondered if this was not going too far.
The nuclear bombs did not end war but they did effectively end direct war between
nuclear states. In a way they just became new weapons in national arsenals, with
thousands built for many different kinds of purposes - strategic, tactical, antimissile,
anti-submarine and anti-ship, to name some. But the cold fact was that no nation
was game to cross the nuclear threshold and use them. They were just too big,
too destructive, and too horrific in effect. Nuclear weapons became useful only
as deterrents, and when the two superpowers came to a showdown in 1962 over Cuba,
they both backed away from the final option. Rationality had won out over the
most trenchant ideological differences.
But now the possibility of nuclear war has come creeping back. The latest
developments are an imminent nuclear weapons capability in those two "rogue
nations" North Korea and Iran, and speculation that Saudi Arabia is considering
the nuclear option. The disturbing trend is that nuclear weapons are proliferating,
and also more likely to be used. The new situation is not the result of some doomsday
scenario with mighty globe-staddling superpowers facing off in a quest for world
domination but as an after-effect of the end of the Cold War. A combination of
events has meant that a new nuclear weapons race is under way; one that is perhaps
ultimately even more dangerous than the Cold War.
The core problem is that with the end of the Cold War one nuclear superpower
fell apart and the other found itself with few constraints on its behaviour. With
the collapse of the Soviet Union, fissile material, other nuclear weapons components
and Russian scientists were suddenly on the market. And potential buyers appeared,
from newly active terrorist organisations like Al Qa'ida to wannabe nuclear states,
like Iran and North Korea. These entities do not have the control systems that
prevented accidental explosions that the superpowers did (although it turned out
the Soviet measures were pretty minimal) and they are also much more likely to
deliberately use them.
As for the other superpower - now the lone global hyperpower - a new generation
of leaders took over who seem to have little of the dread of nuclear weapons of
preceding leaders. There are no "ashes in our mouths" (as Kennedy poignantly
described the results of nuclear war) sentiments issuing from Washington these
Instead, the Bush administration has discussed development of a whole new
range of nuclear weapons, supposedly for bunker-busting. They have also mooted
renewal of nuclear weapons testing. Commentators worry that Washington is undermining
the "threshold" idea of nuclear weapons use with these projected mini-nukes.
Meanwhile Russia has made noises that suggest it will match any such initiatives
by the US, and no doubt China (which has been busy stealing US nuclear weapons
technology anyway) will reconsider its position also.
Elsewhere, in a context of a total lack of positive leadership by the US on
this issue, nuclear weapons proliferate in India, Pakistan, Israel, and actually
or potentially in the "rogue states" of Iran and North Korea. Since
the existing nuclear states refuse to honour their obligations under the Non-Proliferation
Treaty to get rid of their nuclear weapons, and Washington is talking tougher
and tougher about its right to "go nuclear", any constraints on nuclear
proliferation other than the threat of force have pretty much disappeared.
This is a very dangerous situation. With a minimum of safety controls, pre-existing
hostilities, and the rise of new tensions over such problems as environmental
degradation and water shortages, the likelihood of one or some of these nuclear
weapons actually being used grows ever more strong.
It is possible to step back from the brink. We should take heart from the
only state to ever give up its nuclear weapons, South Africa. But then that nation
enjoyed the leadership of Nelson Mandela, a man of true vision and integrity.