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The anniversary of the United States atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki serve as a reminder of the danger posed by nuclear weapons and the need for this country to work in good faith toward their elimination. The bombings killed more than 200,000 people and set in motion an arms race that has resulted in several near brushes with nuclear war.
There are more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in existence today. The vast majority of these weapons are held by the United States and Russia, with 9,400 and 13,000 respectively.
President Obama has stated his support for a world free of nuclear weapons and has made the reduction of both the United States and Russian nuclear stockpiles and a ban on nuclear weapons testing through ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty key priorities for his administration.
Through the Nuclear Posture Review due at the end of the year, the Obama administration will be establishing what roles nuclear weapons will play in foreign policy. There are those in Congress who want to spend billions of dollars to build new modernized facilities that would enhance the United States’ capacity to develop, design, and produce new nuclear weapons.
Such action would send the wrong message to the international community about the United States’ intention to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. At the same time the environmental and health threats posed by these facilities would increase.
Those who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, referred to as Hibakusha (in English, explosion-affected people), all have unique and tragic stories. Many have committed their lives sharing their experience while working toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. Out of this group, some have adopted the idea that there are Global Hibakusha, meaning there are people around the world who have been victimized by the development, production, and testing of nuclear weapons.
When considering the threat nuclear weapons pose to Americans, one needs to include the environmental contamination and resulting health impacts on the communities downwind and downstream from these facilities. Today, the environmental contamination caused by more than 60 years of nuclear weapons development and production spans across the country and is viewed as the largest and most complex environmental cleanup program in the world.
The Department of Energy estimates that the cost of decontamination will be at least $225 billion and take decades.
In Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington, where the radioactive component of the original Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were manufactured, contamination still remains.
In New Mexico, the home to four sites, including two national laboratories, one nuclear bomb waste disposal site and the location of the first above ground nuclear bomb explosion, public concerns about contamination in the air, water and soil increases as operations continue. For example, plutonium releases into the air from the early days of operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory were higher than releases from other Cold War production facilities combined for all their years of operations. The other facilities are the well-known Hanford, Rocky Flats and Savannah River sites.
The administration should oppose efforts that would invest billions of dollars into the modernization of nuclear weapons industrial infrastructure. These facilities and the waste they produce will continue to jeopardize the health and environment of the communities around them. To prevent future generations of Hibakusha, the Obama administration should focus on cleaning up the environmental legacy left by nuclear weapons.