SPECIAL | Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Atomic bomb survivors: it’s time to ban nuclear weapons

75 years after two atomic bombs almost entirely wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, survivors such as Reiko Yamada won’t rest until the world is rid of nuclear weapons.

August 2020

Nick Jones

Reiko Yamada was an 11-year-old sixth grader taking a break from practicing semaphore with schoolmates when an American warplane called the Enola Gay dropped the first nuclear weapon over her hometown, the port city of Hiroshima in western Japan.

The Koi Primary School was less than 3 kilometres from the epicentre, where 64 kilograms of uranium-235 detonated roughly 580 metres above the ground. She recalls the intense white flash followed by the heat blast on her back as she stumbled towards a nearby shelter.

Unlike the estimated 70,000 people who were killed instantly that morning – and the 70,000 who succumbed to their horrific injuries in the subsequent days and years – Yamada survived. She is a hibakusha, a term used in Japan for the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, three days later.

Like many survivors, Yamada has travelled across Japan and abroad to talk to groups and schools about that experience and her hope for a world free of nuclear weapons.

“Since I experienced such an awful event at the age of 11, I want to share that with as many people as possible,” she says. “At the same time, I want people to understand the situation of the survivors, whose bodies, day-to-day lives and minds were broken.”

“I want people across the world to share our hopes for the elimination of nuclear weapons. That’s how I see my role as a hibakusha.”

Reiko Yamada (third from left, in white dress) was 11 years old when the first nuclear weapon was dropped over her home city of Hiroshima, Japan.

“I want people across the world to share our hopes for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
That’s how I see my role as a hibakusha.”
Reiko Yamada, Hiroshima survivor

Lasting hope: a world free of nuclear weapons

The two nuclear attacks on Japan in the final days of World War II set in motion a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two superpowers developed huge arsenals of weapons thousands of times more destructive than those used on Japan.

The largest bomb in America’s nuclear arsenal today is the B83, which has an explosive payload some 80 times larger than Hiroshima-era atomic bombs, according to scientific groups that study the impacts of nuclear weapons.

“During the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so many people were indiscriminately killed and entire cities were utterly destroyed,” Yamada says. “Today’s far more powerful nuclear weapons have the capability of wiping out any kind of future for human life and the planet.”

While the number of atomic weapons in the world has declined from its peak of nearly 70,000 in the mid-80s to around 13,400 today (held collectively by nine states), the risk posed by a detonation is still very real, as noted by Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), earlier this year.

“Treaties to reduce nuclear arsenals and risks of proliferation are being abandoned, new types of nuclear weapons are being produced and serious threats are being made,” he said.

The detonation of even one of today’s nuclear weapons would result not only in large-scale death and destruction, but in a highly complex and dangerous catastrophe for which no group of governments, humanitarian organizations or emergency medical systems could possibly handle.

Aerial photos taken before and after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

The only viable humanitarian response therefore is to ensure these weapons can never in fact be used. This concern over the massive humanitarian consequences of any modern use of nuclear weapons has driven hibakusha groups, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and organisations like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) to campaign for the prohibition of all such weapons.

“The hibakusha groups were set up with the mission of completely eradicating the evil of nuclear weapons from the planet,” Yamada says.

For these reasons, all these organizations are working to pressure more countries to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by 122 of the UN member states on 7 July 2017. “We are working hard to collect more signatories to the treaty—which the hibakusha demand—and now 40 countries have ratified it,” she says.

Fiji and Botswana are the most recent countries to ratify the treaty, which requires another 10 state ratifications for it to be entered into force and to be binding under international law.

Yamada says she doesn’t know if she will see the treaty take effect in her lifetime, but that won’t stop her continuing to share her story from that summer’s day 75 years ago.

“The message inscribed on Hiroshima’s cenotaph says, ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil,’” Yamada says. “I hope and pray that the day of peace and free of nuclear weapons comes soon so that the souls of the victims who died in agony and who didn’t understand why they were killed can finally rest in peace.”

Like many who survived of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 86-year-old Reiko Yamada wants to see nuclear weapons completely banned and eradicated.

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