Hiroshima at 75: Health lessons still current

The devastating threats that atomic power poses to health still are a huge threat to humanity.

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The Hiroshima atomic attack, the first nuclear weapon used on human targets, is now 75 years in the past (August 6). The year 1945 is far in the rearview mirror; only a small fragment of people who remember the bombing are still alive. And today’s world is different from that one in virtually all aspects.

Nonetheless, Hiroshima’s legacy is very much alive today, and will continue so in the future.

This essay will not consider whether the bombing was or was not needed. That debate has been unrelenting for the past 75 years. At this point, few minds will be changed. But while that discussion continues, numerous issues of concern continue, and will continue in the foreseeable future. Those mentioned here are confined to those involving human health hazards.

Japanese Health Hazards. Nobody knows precisely how many deaths occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb three days later. The acute deaths have been estimated at 210,000 within four months, and 350,000 within five years. Other non-fatal diseases such as cancer and birth defects continue today – not just to those directly exposed to the bombs, but their children and grandchildren, who inherited genes rendered defective by the bombs.

Threat of Nuclear War. Hiroshima demonstrated that nuclear weapons could be used in war, to devastating ends. The Cold War nuclear arms race was a direct outgrowth of Hiroshima, and tens of thousands of weapons were produced. Despite efforts to reduce nuclear arms, over 13,000 remain; 92% belonging to the U.S. and Russia. The American monopoly on nuclear weapons has been replaced by nine nations with arsenals. Today’s weapons are far more powerful than the “Little Boy” bomb at Hiroshima and are much more easily deployed. The “red button” in nine nations are a sober reminder that nuclear war is never far away.

Bombs Mean Testing, Which Means Harm. To develop the large nuclear arsenal inspired by Hiroshima, thousands of tests were conducted, including over 400 in the atmosphere until a 1963 treaty banned them. Fallout high in the atmosphere spread across the globe, returned to earth through precipitation, and entered human bodies through food and water. While studies of fallout’s health hazards to humans were suppressed or ignored, the devastation was enormous. A recent study estimated the 1963 treaty, signed by President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev, may have saved 16-24 million lives. Health consequences continue today, in the form of diseases to those directly exposed, and genetic malfunctions among their children and grandchildren.

Even though few tests have occurred since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, there have been exceptions. Tests in the late 1990s brought India and Pakistan into the nuclear club, and North Korea joined in the past decade. Additional tests could occur at any time. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been signed and ratified by 168 nations (not the U.S.), not enough to take effect.

Bombs Mean Manufacturing, Which Means Harm. Building the massive nuclear arsenal after the devastation at Hiroshima involved hundreds of thousands of workers. Each was subjected to occupational radiation exposures; due to the race to speedily develop weapons for a nuclear war considered inevitable for years, health and safety took a back seat. Studies of health consequences of these exposures became hotly-contested issue, denied by the U.S. government for years, but ultimately the U.S. government established a fund for workers who developed certain cancers later in life.

Another type of worker in the rush to establish nuclear superiority during the Cold War was the group of over 250,000 “atomic soldiers” present near the above-ground tests in Nevada who suffered substantial exposures. Again, a long fight ensued about how much damage was due to fallout, only to be followed by a federal program of retribution to stricken soldiers.

Nuclear Reactors Generate Electricity and Health Hazards. With millions badly shaken by Hiroshima and impending nuclear war, governments tried to soothe fears by touting the “peaceful atom.” Electricity generation using nuclear power was strongly promoted – based on the same uranium-splitting seen only in nuclear weapons.

But while they were not military weapons, reactors could not get past the fact they produced harmful chemicals as waste that later entered people’s bodies. Exposures could take the form of catastrophic meltdowns at sites like Chernobyl and Fukushima; routine releases of part of the waste that could not be stored; and the ongoing problem of storing waste for thousands of years (the U.S. still has no long-term plan). Health hazards have long been denied by officials interested in maintaining a strong nuclear weapons arsenal, despite numerous studies showing high rates of cancer and other diseases near reactors.

The aging crop of reactors are closing. Ten U.S. reactors have shut down since 2013 (the current total is 95), with more scheduled. After Fukushima, all 54 Japanese reactors closed; nearly 10 years later, only 9 are operating, as Japanese public opinion is strongly against re-start. Germany operated 36 reactors, but only six remain, and they will close in several years as safe, renewable energy replaces them. Still, hundreds of reactors continue to add harmful radioactive gases and particles to the environment, the same mix first observed at Hiroshima many years ago.

Conclusion. The passing of many years has not changed the threat posed by the atom.

At any time, a nuclear weapon could be discharged.

At any time, a catastrophic meltdown could occur at a nuclear plant.

And at any time, a large environmental release of waste could take place.

Nuclear power, and its terrible legacy of destructive chemical exposures, is not as clearly on the public policy radar screen as it was during the Cold War. Global warming now has claimed a high profile on the list of public concerns, and 2020 saw the rise of the ruthless COVID-19 pandemic present immediate threats to health. Nonetheless, the devastating threats that atomic power poses to health still are a huge threat to humanity. Remembering the 75th year since this concern started at Hiroshima is an important lesson if we wish to make a better future.

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