Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On The Bomb (or should that be 'The Bombs'?)

As most museums do, one room contains a series of artefacts from the era (or their replicas) under glass cases. On the opposite wall from the one you enter, there is a black suppository-shaped object with a square tail - a model of 'Little Boy', the wreaker of all the original destruction. Given that the original one exploded about 580 metres above the city, this one could only be a replica. On the wall immediately to the right as you enter the room, is a case containing a mock-up of children that survived the blast wandering amongst the devastation of the city. The waxwork nature of the dummies probably adds to the effect brought on by the ragged clothes they are wearing and the straggled hair falling from their scalps, but it nevertheless brings a possible moment from that day vividly back again for modern-day observers.

Between these two cases lies another, containing a slab of stone marked only by a dark smear. At first glance, there is nothing remarkable about the piece of stone until further inspection reveals the stain to be shadow of a man seared into the stone face - a man who had been climbing the steps of the city bank at 8.15AM, August 6th 1945. We don't usually think of shadows as being physical things that are able to have an afterlife, much less be captured for posterity. But to imagine watching a man being instantly vaporised, to the point where his shadow is all that remains of him, is quite a remarkable thought.

August 9th marked a gruesome anniversary, and one that came three days after another. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both bombed 65 years ago, causing the deaths of over 200,000 people and ushering in the nuclear age. Debate still rages on today about the ethics of US President Truman's fateful decision to order the dropping of the bombs. One side talks of Imperial Japan's war crimes of the time, the country's subsequent government's failure in the eyes of some to adequately atone for such actions and the idea that this decision hastened the end of the war and subsequently saved a further hundreds of thousands of lives by avoiding the need for a land invasion. Other sides consider it to have been a barbarous act that human beings did to each other, side-stepping a position of nationalist self-interest and looking at the inhumanity of dropping such a weapon. This is the position taken by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which factors Japan's imperial aggression into its exhibitions and purposefully avoids a position of anti-Americanism.

At 65 years old, it is high time that the nuclear age was retired.

The pessimist's view

This year, the Doomsday Clock was moved back to 6 minutes to midnight. The Clock, an initiative from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, has become universally recognised as an indicator of the proximity of the planet to catastrophe, particularly from nuclear weapons. It was brought back from 5 minutes to midnight, its last position in 2007, due to initiatives between Washington and Moscow for a renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and Barack Obama becoming the first American President to publicly call for a nuclear-weapon-free world. As the above graph shows, this still places the clock perilously close to the midnight hour and still the fifth highest point the Clock has ever been.

After a long and uncharacteristic spell out of the limelight, Fidel Castro has been making his presence felt again in recent months. One of the few figures on the international stage still remaining from the 1950s (aside from Elizabeth II), he was a major player in the period generally recognised as one of the closest times the world has come to nuclear war, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As an aside, even though this period in world history may well have been briefly terrifying for those that lived through it, in 1963 the Doomsday Clock was set at 12 minutes to midnight, one of its lowest points in its history. Two decades later, as America and the USSR faced off against each other in a Cold War peak, it reached its second highest point at 3 minutes to midnight.

Anyway, Castro seems to have come out of retirement to make a series of predictions of nuclear war in the Middle East. His analysis of the complex interplay of relationships between Israel, Iran and the US, with the added potential of India and Pakistan letting something off while a window of opportunity opens could be seen as the paranoid fears of an old man looking for a final word while he still can. On the other hand, they could be taken as a warning from a man that has the experience and knowledge of the international stage to know when something's going on.

Growing up in the 1980s, I learned of the terrifying prospect of a 'nuclear winter' - the climatic effects of a nuclear war that would produce consequences so severe that social collapse would be inevitable and billions of people far from the conflict zone would face immediate famine. With more states now possessing nuclear weapons than the original five who had them during the 80s, it would seem that the threat has not gone away. The science that went into the original nuclear winter research has now been updated, reporting the following findings with subsequent implications:

New Science:
  • A minor nuclear war (such as between India and Pakistan or in the Middle East), with each country using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs as airbursts on urban areas, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. This is only 0.03% of the explosive power of the current global arsenal.
  • This same scenario would produce global ozone depletion, because the heating of the stratosphere would enhance the chemical reactions that destroy ozone.
  • A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet.
  • The climatic effects of the smoke from burning cities and industrial areas would last for several years, much longer than we previously thought. New climate model simulations, that have the capability of including the entire atmosphere and oceans, show that the smoke would be lofted by solar heating to the upper stratosphere, where it would remain for years.

New Policy Implications:
  • The only way to eliminate the possibility of this climatic catastrophe is to eliminate the nuclear weapons. If they exist, they can be used.
  • The spread of nuclear weapons to new emerging states threatens not only the people of those countries, but the entire planet.
  • Rapid reduction of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals will set an example for the rest of the world that nuclear weapons cannot be used and are not needed.
(source: Alan Robock; text issued under Creative Commons license)

The optimist's view

Happily, there has indeed been quite significant progress towards large reductions in American and Russian weaponry stockpiles, as shown above. Obama has made laudable moves in this direction, particularly after the posturing of his predecessor (who nevertheless also reduced America's nuclear weapons). He naturally faces significant obstacles in attempts to do this and there are many who say that his new treaty with Moscow does not go far enough, but when facing absolute darkness, one must hold on to whatever glimmers of light come along.

With last year's ratification of the Treaty of Pelindaba, Africa has joined Latin America, the Caribbean, Australasia and other parts of the planet as Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zones (where the use, development or deployment of nuclear weapons is banned), and pushing the percentage of the Earth's land surfaces now declared a Nuclear-Weapons-Free up to 56% (from a previous year's figure of 34%. The full map of non-nuclear zones can be seen below.

In a rare sign of relative success for international conferences organised by the likes of the UN, this year's review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was deemed a success, with the 189 signatory member states reaching agreement on further steps towards disarmament. This included a commitment to a 2012 conference on making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Perhaps we have teetered once too close to the brink of the abyss again and are finally starting to realise that there is no going down that route is we are to survive as a species. That said, the US has still recently admitted that it does have plans to attack Iran if they deem it necessary.

There are those today that don't quite see the same urgency as their forebears did in the need to rid the world of the horrors of nuclear weapons and attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. It could be that fear of terrorism has become the order of the day, or that they simply don't fear the bomb in quite the same way. There are equally those that see a perceived desire of other states to acquire the bomb as justifying the need to hold on to these foul weapons and that all attempts to prevent such states from acquiring them, including the use of military force, should be considered. Surely, as long as the most powerful states continue to harbour these potential species destroyers, the more that other countries that feel threatened by them will aim to get hold of them too, as with North Korea.

When I was a boy, my father told me that to his great surprise he had seen the end of racial segregation in the US, and that I may therefore also see the end of South African apartheid in my lifetime. He was right. While these may have been situations within national borders and the nuclear issue is surely a far wider one that that, in my lifetime I have also seen concerted global efforts at tackling other scourges of our planet - from landmines and (soon) cluster bombs to polio and the hole in the ozone layer.

Our grandchildren could either grow up in a world where the nuclear age is but a shadow seared into our conscience, or there could not be a world for them to grow up in. The longer the issue goes unsolved, the more states (or others) are likely to want to acquire the bomb themselves. The more that get hold of it, the greater the chances of one going off somewhere again, and therefore the possibility of others joining in the fray.

Let's wish Little Boy and his descendants a long overdue retirement. But please, don't give him a clock as a parting gift...


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