If you ask people about a terrorist attack involving two airplanes that killed a large number of civilians, most peoples’ thoughts go immediately to the World Trade Center, when somebody (and just who it was doesn’t matter for the sake of this discussion) dropped the tallest buildings in Manhattan, killing nearly 3,000 people within a few minutes, and causing long-term illness in thousands of others who were exposed to the cloud of toxic chemicals released or created by the burning and collapse of the buildings.
Few people would think back to August of 1945, when the United States government flew two airplanes into two Japanese cities, dropped small, primitive atomic bombs on them, and killed nearly 200,000 civilians, many in the blink of an eye, but many very slowly and painfully from radiation poisoning. The attacks were totally unnecessary. Japan had been desperately contacting the U.S and Britain for months, asking for peace, and had consistently been rebuffed.
Leo Szilard, one of the scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb, wrote in 1960
“If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined (it) as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them.”
There were plenty of other atrocities committed against civilians in World War II, on both sides–from the Final Solution and the London Blitz to the Rape of Nanking and the fire bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, but when those were over, they were over. Unleashing atomic explosions, on the other hand, is a terrorist gift that keeps on giving. The radiation released by the two small atomic weapons the U.S. dropped on Japan has elevated cancer rates in those areas, and the genetic mutations that result will take generations to surface.
Thoughts of Fukushima begin to crop up here. The disaster-torn nuclear power plant has, so far, actually released far more radiation than the A-bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, albeit less spectacularly. We’ll get to Fukushima, and its wider implications, in a little while. But first, let’s keep looking at the subject of America’s–and other countries’–nuclear terrorism.
First of all, it seems obvious that the real reason the U.S. killed a quarter million or so Japanese civilians with two nuclear weapons was to put the fear of God (or at least Uncle Sam) into the Soviets. Kind of makes Bin Laden, or whoever was behind the World Trade Center bombing, seem like a piker, doesn’t it? And it didn’t scare joe Stalin into line, it just inspired him to develop his own bomb, which the Russians succeeded in producing just four years later, which leads us to examine another commonly overlooked form of “nuclear terrorism.”
That form is radioactive contamination from “fallout” and the prodution of nuclear weapons and reactor fuel. There are vast quantities of nuclear waste loose in the world today, and much of it will continue to be dangerous for hundreds, even hundreds of thousands, of years. Governments are worried that “terrorists” will obtain these materials and use them to poison population centers. I got news: it’s already happened, a couple of different ways, one vastly more widespread than the other, and it’s almost certainly going to happen a whole lot more.
Between 1945 and 1980, the U.S. exploded 330 nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, over twice as many as the rest of the world’s nuclear powers combined.
The National Cancer Institute report estimates that doses received in these years are estimated to be large enough to produce 10,000 to 75,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer in the U.S.Another report, published by the Scientific Research Society, estimates that about 22,000 additional radiation-related cancers and 2,000 additional deaths from radiation-related leukemia are expected to occur in the United States because of external and internal radiation from both NTS and global fallout. (source)
All the while, the Atomic Energy Commission assured the public that there was no danger from fallout. How’s that for nuclear terrorism against an innocent civilian population? Well, OK, technically you could say it wasn’t terrorism, because they didn’t do it to scare the American people–the target was the Russians. But they used fear of a nuclear war with Russia as a way to excuse poisoning tens of thousands of Americans. There is no safe dose of radiation. The Taliban can only wish they could poison as many Americans as our own government has. and we’re just talking about radiation today. Other ways American citizens get poisoned with the collusion of “our” government? Don’t get me started!
Again: There is no safe dose of radiation. That fact of life leads to our consideration of the next round of U.S. nuclear terrorism: the use of “depleted uranium” weapons in Iraq, particularly their use in cities against civilian populations. The citizens of Fallujah didn’t appreciate American intervention in their lives. The U.S. response, like the response of the Syrian government to its citizens’ protests, was to level the town, using depleted uranium weapons, which the Syrian military doesn’t even have.. Since then, there has been a huge upsurge in birth defects among children born there. Of course, U.S. government studies claim there is little or no radiation danger from depleted uranium. But there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation.
On that cheerful note, let’s look at the future. There are about 400 nuclear power plants n the world, many of them at sea level, because both the plants and the no-longer usable fuel that is removed from them need continual cooling so that they do not explosively contaminate hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles of land in their vicinity. You know, like what happened to the Fukushima plant in Japan, or at Chernobyl in Russia, or what nearly happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
All it will take to turn any of those plants from a nuclear power station to a nuclear pollution station is a serious disruption in the status quo–an earthquake, a tsunami, the unavailability of enough diesel fuel to power the backup generators that keep the water pumps working when the plant isn’t functioning, enough cold water to pump–and all that “nuclear waste”–not to mention the far more lethal fuel in the reactors– becomes dangerously destructive. Some of it retains this potential for decades, some for hundreds or hundreds of thousands of years. We have bet on our ability to keep these plants and their waste products safe far longer than any human culture has ever lasted–indeed, about as long as human beings have been a species. The past 250,000 years have seen not one, but two ice ages. How you gonna keep that radiation contained when you’re up against an ice shelf a mile thick?
Meanwhile, the planet is heading in the opposite direction from another ice age. What ice we have left is melting rapidly, which means the seas are going to be rising, and a whole lot of nuke plants, in the U.S. and elsewhere, are going to have to deal with a situation that will make Fukushima’s temporary tsunami wave seem like getting off easy. Cheers!
So, that’s the long view on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the entire “Atomic Age.” Our leaders struck a Faustian bargain, and now events are spiraling rapidly towards the moment when we will be dragged off to a, nuclear-contaminated Hell for our hubris. Hey, it wasn’t my idea, and it probably wasn’t yours. Much thanks to the U.S. government and all the big corporations and generals who run this country–General Electric, General Dynamic, General Mills, and the rest–for inking the deal. Maybe there’s still a way for some of us innocent pawns to escape this reverse rapture. I’d rather go down looking for a way out than pretending that everything is going to be just fine. Time to get to work.