As we gather here to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the annihilation of Hiroshima, it is significant that we raise these memories here at Los Alamos in the heart of the dragon the very place where such an unprecedented level of violence against humanity was created in a single blast, resulting in the death of over 200,000 people by the end of 1945, most of them civilians. In the 60 years since, delayed effects including radiation-induced cancers, immunologic disorders, psychological trauma and birth defects have killed and afflicted many tens of thousands more in Japan.
But it is not only the people of Japan who are suffering from the 60 year nuclear nightmare first created at Los Alamos. We are all downwinders. Nuclear weapons drove us to the unspeakable act of secretly testing radiation on our own population. 23,000 American civilians were subjected to radiation research in about 1400 projects over 30 years. The government tested on retarded children, mental patients, poor women and US soldiers. More than 200,000 troops were ordered to observe nuclear test detonations and were exposed to radiation.
After 60 years, there are now at least seven acknowledged nuclear powers, and 44 nuclear capable states, thanks to the so called Atoms for Peace program which spread nuclear reactors and materials around the world and put the keys to the nuclear bomb factory in those nations handshanding them the technology and materials for bombs, under the guise of “peaceful” nuclear energy. The world is awash in radioactive waste. We haven’t a clue where to put it. The best we have come up with in the US is a harebrained scheme to ship the toxic waste from weapons and power plants, by rail and by truck from the four corners of the continent and bury it in a hole in the ground in Nevada at Yucca Mountain. Citizens groups, like the proverbial boy with his finger in the dike, have been holding off the onslaught of this devastating disposal solution, preventing legislation from passing in the Congress for years, and now, when the current Republican Congress voted for it to proceed, with a lawsuit in the courts that hangs by a thread, having enlisted the Court’s aid in forestalling the process until some of the tainted, fraudulent evidence submitted by the government as to the suitability of the repository is re-examined. Deadly plutonium remains lethal for 250,000 years and there is no way to guarantee that the Yucca site could prevent radioactive seepage into the ground water over this unimaginable period of time. Remember that all of recorded history is only 5000 years old!
The US has spent nearly six trillion dollars on nuclear weapons over the past sixty years, We’ve created more than 4500 contaminated sites, covering tens of thousands of acres that may take 75 years and cost as high as one trillion dollars “to clean up” Clean up of radioactive waste, much of which remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years is the wrong word. At best, we can only attempt to manage and contain the poisons from seeping into the air soil, and groundwater and visiting further destruction on our planet.
And yet, 60 years later, our Doctor Strangeloves continue to create new sources of toxic waste with sub-critical underground tests of plutonium blown up with high explosives 1,000 feet below the desert floor at the Nevada test site; plans to fabricate new plutonium pits for nuclear bombs here at Los Alamos; plutonium powered rockets to fire into space which could spew down highly carcinogenic radioactive particles upon the earth below should there be an accident like the ill-fated Challenger and Columbia shuttles; as well as the bullets and tanks made with depleted uranium in a bizarre recycling program which enabled the government to make a dent in the 500,000 tons of depleted uranium waste amassed since the Manhattan Project. Don’t be misled by the term “depleted uranium”. Like “spent fuel” from civilian reactors, depleted uranium is highly toxic and carcinogenic and has a half-life of some 4.4 billion years. “Half life” is another euphemism that distances us through our language from grasping the deadly seriousness of what we are doing to our planet. For example, while the Half-life of plutonium is 26,000 years, it remains toxic for about 250,000 years until all the radioactivity decays. So you can imagineor can youthe life span of depleted uranium with its half-life of over 4 billion years!
There are heartbreaking reports that the hundreds of tons of DU ammunition used in Iraq during both wars, as well as in Bosnia left a growing legacy of respiratory problems, liver and kidney dysfunction among US vets and birth defects among their new born children with similar reports coming from Iraq and Kosovo, with an increase in leukemia and birth defects. Yet, as in so many cases, our government has covered up and denied that depleted uranium has been harmful even though a new National Academy of Sciences Report on the Biologic Effects of Ionizing Radiation has reaffirmed that there is no safe dose of radiation. Even the lowest levels of radiation can be carcinogenic. Discouragingly, an August report in the Denver Post informs us that 8500 uranium mining permits have been requested in Utah and Colorado, in the wake of the numerous new nuclear projects in the works, including a push by the Bush administration to build 50 new nuclear power plants by 2020.
But perhaps the most damaging injury from the 60 years of the nuclear age is the toxic effect it has had on our very democracy. Because of nuclear weapons, the government created a whole culture of secrecy, lies and cover ups about the awful effects of the bomb. The very existence of nuclear weapons demonstrates a failure of democracy. We are not permitted to confront our own history. In 1995, 50 years after the bomb, Congress actually fired the Historian at the Smithsonian Museum, our must prestigious historical institution, because they didn’t want Americans to know about the controversy that preceded President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb at the end of World War II. Top US military officials, like Generals Omar Bradley and Eisenhower, wrote letters to Truman telling him it was unnecessary to use the bomb to end the war against Japan. Then there were reports of Winston Churchill, urging Truman to drop the bomb before Russian entered the Pacific front.
Recent reports, in anticipation of this 60th Anniversary, have told us how the military censored photographs and films of the gruesome devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By not only developing the bomb and trying to maintain a monopoly on its usedespite urging by the “father of the bomb”, Robert Oppenheimer, to President Truman to stop the spread of atomic weapons by placing international controls over all atomic technology, the United States lost its moral compass and entered a 60 year cycle of Empire. Pushing our weight around the world, we brandish our nuclear weapons. They are the brass knuckles on the fist of our empire. Even without ever dropping another nuclear weapon on a so-called “rogue or “axis of evil” state we are still using the 10,000 nuclear warheads in our arsenal, just as a bank robber uses a gun in a hold up even without ever pulling the trigger. Breaking our promises for good faith efforts for nuclear disarmament in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, refusing to submit the Comprehensive Test Ban to the Senate for ratification, trashing the Anti-Ballistic Treaty to clear the way for dominating and controlling the military use of space–and spurring a new arms race to the heavens, developing new more useable nuclear weapons and planning to replace all the thousands we already have, we are seen as the nuclear bully, lawlessly menacingthe world with our might like some mad cowboy nation from the Wild West, while actually going to war without legal authority and slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians under the false premise that Iraq was a nuclear threat to America.
Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, of Hiroshima has written that “according to Japanese and Chinese tradition, a 60th anniversary begins a new cycle of rhythms in the interwoven fabric that binds humankind and nature.” Let us begin a new cycle in a life affirming connection of our humanity and nature. Let us awaken from our 60-year nuclear nightmare of imperial hegemony. Let us reject the drive for Empire and reclaim our democracy by working for the abolition of nuclear weapons. We know from public opinion polls that the majority of Americans, 65% in the latest poll taken even while we waged this misbegotten war against Iraq, said they think we’d be better off without nuclear weapons if all countries gave them up. Abolition Now, the campaign of the Abolition 2000 Network, of over 2000 organizations in 95 countries, is working with Mayor Akiba and nearly 1,000 Mayors around the world, to enroll our Mayors in a campaign to have a treaty negotiated by 2010 for the elimination of nuclear weapons, with full implementation by 2020. We have already produced a model nuclear weapons convention that is now an official UN document as a starting point for negotiations. We are working with the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament to enroll our members of Congress in these efforts. At least, until we get regime change here at home, we’ll have to work with our local, state and congressional members to use this cycle of renewal to put an end to the nuclear scourge. Congresswoman Lynne Woolsey of California has submitted a resolution proposing that negotiations begin on a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons. It needs the support of your member of Congress. We need a Senator to sponsor a similar resolution. There’s lots we can do to take back our Democracy and halt the spread of Empire. Let us use this 60th anniversary to begin a year of awakening, acknowledge our shameful nuclear history in which we sacrificed so much of our democracy to the national security state, and say no to the nuclear scourge and yes to our highest ideals of an open and transparent society that, with an informed public, can deliver on our cherished American ideals to uphold the rule of law and live in peace with other nations.
Alice Slater is president of Global Resource Center for the Environment (GRACE).