On July 16, 1945, the world changed forever. The first test detonation of a nuclear weapon, code-named Trinity, was conducted by the United States Army as part of the Manhattan Project. As he witnessed the test, Robert Oppenheimer, one of the lead scientists behind the bomb’s creation, recalled a piece of Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
A little less than one month later, on August 6, 1945, the same weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, home to approximately 320,000 people. In minutes, half the city vanished. Three days later, another plutonium-based bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, a city of more than 260,000.
After the initial blasts, intense firestorms continued killing survivors trapped under debris and black rain with radioactive soot and dust contaminated areas far from ground zero. By the end of 1945, the nuclear attacks’ blast, heat, and radiation killed an estimated 74,000 in Nagasaki and 140,000 in Hiroshima. Many who survived the immediate nuclear attacks would die later from radiation-induced illnesses.
The Nuclear Threat Today
Seventy-seven years later, the world finds itself in a perilous situation. Nine countries still possess a total of more than 13,000 nuclear weapons. The risk of nuclear war remains, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”
On this somber anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we call on Congress to recognize, apologize for, and provide compensation for the lasting damage the U.S. nuclear program has caused, both at home and abroad.
This week, countries will gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to discuss progress on nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapon states have been modernizing and upgrading their arsenals, pointing at tensions with one another as the primary reason for their respective lack of progress. Despite world leaders repeatedly recognizing that nuclear war must never be fought and cannot be won, they continue to rely on nuclear weapons as a centerpiece of their national security strategies.
The Quest of the Hibakusha: Nuclear Abolition
Survivors of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, called hibakusha, are leading the quest for a nuclear weapons-free world.
We can not have true peace as long as the status quo is maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction and planetary annihilation. Nuclear weapons are not just another implement in a nation’s toolbox. They are uniquely and indiscriminately destructive, with long-lasting impacts on the environment and human health.
Supporting Survivors and Impacted Communities
The hibakusha in Japan were not the only victims of U.S nuclear weapons. The initial Trinity test was one of more than 1,000 nuclear weapons tests conducted on U.S soil. Families living downwind of nuclear test sites were unknowingly exposed to radiation levels 10,000 times higher than what we now consider safe.
Recognizing the harm such exposure caused to local residents, uranium miners, and atomic veterans, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990 with strong bipartisan support. In June 2022, the House and Senate passed a two-year extension of RECA, and President Biden signed it into law.
However, this stopgap measure leaves behind many victims. It did not expand eligibility to unjustly excluded U.S. nuclear testing and production victims, some of whom have waited 77 years for recognition. Unfortunately, downwinders in highly irradiated places like Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Guam have never been able to apply for benefits under RECA. For people with radiation-related cancers, access to this compensation can make the difference in getting the medical care they need.
Fortunately, there is legislation that aims to expand RECA to those previously excluded communities. The RECA Amendments of 2021 (H.R. 5338) would extend RECA for 19 years and add eligibility for more victims of U.S nuclear weapons activities.
Acknowledging the full scope of harm caused by U.S. nuclear testing and uranium mining, and providing appropriate compensation, is a moral obligation for a country that continues to produce, stockpile, and threaten to use nuclear weapons. On this somber anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we call on Congress to recognize, apologize for, and provide compensation for the lasting damage the U.S. nuclear program has caused, both at home and abroad.