Special Report

Three Nuclear Anniversaries

How will they be reported?

By 4.13.05

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Three anniversaries this year remind us how unique the American response has been to danger to us and to our allies during the past 60 years and what a dangerous world it still is. They underscore how our enemies became our allies, how our close friends are not so close anymore, and how new enemies took the place of previous enemies. The anniversaries also signal where nuclear power has been and where it's going.

Recently we witnessed the 60th commemoration of D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of survivors of Auschwitz. We were reminded again of the sacrifice of the Greatest Generation in rescuing the globe from Axis tyranny.

Sixty years ago, the war came to a sudden halt with the explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. An estimated 103,000 Japanese perished immediately or soon after as the result of acute radiation poisoning.

Had we not dropped the Big One to persuade the Empire of the futility of further resistance, U.S. military planners estimated an American invasion of the Japanese home islands -- and Japanese kamikaze human suicide bomb resistance -- might result in 500,000 American casualties. It is reasonable to believe Japanese casualties would be similar. That level of casualties would have made the battle for Iwo Jima look like a round of miniature golf. Nevertheless, we can expect the 60th anniversary of our use of the atomic bomb to be as politically polarizing as the Air and Space Museum's Enola Gay exhibit.

When we became the only nation to use nuclear weapons against an enemy, we also ignited a firestorm of debate over nuclear weapons that continued throughout the Cold War. It now seems almost quaint how American organizations such as Physicians for Social Responsibility and mainstream Protestant denominations urged world nuclear disarmament. If the Soviets would not disarm, then we should do it unilaterally. Never mind that not renouncing American first use of nuclear weapons theoretically kept Soviet armor from racing across Europe. As nuclear weapons kept an uneasy peace in Europe, the U.S., and USSR battled through surrogates in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua.

If the United States and Russia are no longer pointing sufficiently large levels of nuclear weapons at each other to cause Mutually Assured Destruction, the threat has shifted in other directions. It has now been 35 years since the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) went into force. This anniversary was chiefly missed by the media in March.

The club of five nations with nuclear weapons -- U.S., Russia, United Kingdom, France and China -- kept their weapons. Forty-three other nations signed the 1970 treaty, renouncing their intent to get weapons to gain assistance with developing a civilian nuclear power industry. Signatory nations have increased to 190 today.

India, Pakistan and Israel were not bound by the treaty and all have nuclear weapons today. North Korea signed NPT in 1986, but announced its intent to withdraw in 2003, causing anxiety to its neighbors and Washington.

Enter Iran. The Shah sought nuclear weapons and this search was abandoned by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran now claims to only be pursuing a peaceful nuclear power industry but may be enriching plutonium for other then peaceful purposes. New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has discovered at least six nuclear-capable missiles to be exported to Russia were actually diverted to Iran. Iran, of course, has been a state sponsor of regional terrorism so a capacity to strike targets several hundred miles away, which includes Israel and American bases in the region, is scary.

However, NPT has worked well in general. It is ironic that Japan, the target of the first use of nuclear weapons, has 54 nuclear reactors fueling its insatiable demand for electricity. These have often been discussed as a tempting target for terrorists. Operation of the Japanese reactors is also held up to American nuclear power students as how not to run reactors; last August, four Japanese reactor workers were scalded to death by escaping steam. Our more than 100 civilian reactors are operated safely and heavily guarded.

The third anniversary is chiefly unlike the first two dates. In August 2000, the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk was lost with all hands at the bottom of the cold Barents Sea.

Russia has never had the level of safety in its civilian and military nuclear industry we often take for granted. Compare, for example, Chernobyl with Three Mile Island, which still operates today. Nevertheless, losing the Kursk was a huge blow to Russian military prestige. Russia also has 30 civilian nuclear reactors. Chechen separatists have demonstrated an ability to strike deep within Russian on suicide missions. Striking any of these reactors would make an unprecedented statement on a public still mourning the loss of Kursk sailors.

When media elites focus on these three anniversaries, will they report on the nuances of the calculation of risks and rewards? How many Japanese and Americans would have died if the atomic bomb had not convinced the Japanese Empire to surrender? How many nations are living up to NPT? How successful is the civilian nuclear power industry in freeing nations from importing oil or natural gas to fuel turbines? How safe American civilian and military reactors are?

No, probably not. Instead, we can expect quotes from anti-nuclear power advocates, stories about victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and threats of accidents and terrorism.

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About the Author

Mark G. Michaelsen writes frequently about public affairs.