Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, August 1, 2004
by Susan Ives
This is what happens when you drop a 1-megaton nuclear bomb.
Everyone within about six square miles of the blast will be vaporized — turned to dust — by the gamma rays coming from the blast. If you put on protective gear and stroll through ground zero, you will see ghostly silhouettes of these human forms etched into the concrete.
But most people will not die in the initial gamma ray burst. They will not die from the heat blast of X-ray and ultraviolet waves that will come less than a second later.
Most will not die from the pressure wave that follows, although it will make them bleed from every orifice. Most will not be killed by the hurricane-force winds accompanying the pressure wave.
Within hundreds of square miles people will begin to suffer from vomiting, skin rashes and intense thirst. Their hair will fall out in clumps, and their skin will peel off as the molecular structure of their cells break down.
As they bleed, they will feel a sudden fierce wind followed by a firestorm covering as much as 100 square miles, fires so hot that the asphalt on streets will burst into flames.
There will be an electromagnetic pulse radiating out a thousand miles. Computer chips will short-circuit. Pacemakers will stop working. Airplanes will drop from the sky.
In the center will be a radioactive mushroom-shaped cloud, reaching nearly 10 miles across and just as high. In an hour the poisonous cloud will scatter, invisible and deadly.
Most of the people who die from a nuclear attack will succumb much later, from the widespread release of radioactive material into the air and water. They will die from cancer, from leukemia. There will be genetic damage to succeeding generations.
At 8:16 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb called Little Boy over downtown Hiroshima, killing an estimated 80,000 civilians outright.
Every August we remember this. We must remember. We re-read John Hersey’s powerful book, “Hiroshima.” We read the story of Sadako and the 1,000 Paper Cranes to our children. It would be unconscionable to forget.
We rightly worry that Korea may have a nuclear bomb, that Iran is developing nuclear capability, that India and Pakistan now have a handful of nukes pointed at each other. We worry that China has the bomb. And who knows where all the nuclear material stockpiled in the former Soviet republic will end up?
But the rest of the world worries about us. We have the most weapons. We are the only nation to have actually dropped a nuclear bomb. And we are developing new ones.
The Hiroshima bomb was 12.5 to 15 kilotons, the Nagasaki bomb, dropped three days later, about 21 kilotons.
In the United States, strategists now think that a bunch of little bombs are more effective than one big one, so our nuclear weapons — more than 10,000 of them, almost half the world’s arsenal — now average 250 kilotons.
But we’re rethinking that. In November, Congress appropriated $7.5 million for research into nuclear bunker busters.
We’ve used conventional bunker busters in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are bombs that burrow deep underground to destroy munitions bunkers and command centers without, they say, causing any death and destruction above ground.
Some have speculated that if a bunker were to contain chemical or biological agents these underground bombs could release the material into the air. Uh-oh.
Their solution is to make the mini-bombs nuclear. In theory, an underground nuclear explosion would vaporize the chemical or biological material, rendering it harmless.
Others disagree. They point out that if a mini-nuke (only expected to be about 1 kiloton) were to go deep enough to contain the blast it would be too deep to destroy a bunker.
Last year, Robert Musil, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, noted: “Why in the world would we move towards manufacturing small nuclear weapons and then expect that no one will ever try to steal, beg or borrow one and use it against us?”
But the real danger is that we give a signal that the nuclear nonproliferation treaties are but mere shadows on the concrete. If we can develop new bombs, why not Iran or Korea?
On Friday, remember Hiroshima. On Aug. 9, remember Nagasaki. Today, remember that if we are to be a moral force in the world, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.