Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

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Lessons from the Hibakusha- A reflection on the 75th Commemoration of the Atomic Bomb

Seventy-five years ago, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Both cities were reduced to rubble, and a shock wave blast area and fire spread over 2.2 miles, with the lethal area extending to a 1.3 miles radius from the point of contact. The justification for this act rested on ending Japan’s involvement in World War II and bringing a rapid conclusion to the fighting.  Debate over whether this was justified and necessary continue among strategists to this day. But the human suffering and legacy of destruction lingers to this day as a warning against ever deploying nuclear weapons again. The survivors of this bombing, known as the Hibakusha, leave four lessons for our time.

Hiroshima Peace Museum

1. The resilience of the human spirit.

Imagine waking to the horror of a post-atomic bomb site.  The prospect is daunting- infrastructure gone, communication gone, relatives left without knowing the fate of loved ones. Death estimates range from 90,000 to 120,000 for Hiroshima and from 60,000 to 70,000 for Nagasaki because exact tolls were not possible. Bodies were vaporized in the blast zone and bodies were washed out to sea in the tides. Many died of radiation exposure within days or months, many hundreds of thousands survived with lingering illnesses such as anemia, ulcers, asthma, brain tumors, thyroid tumors and leukemia. Yet, 120,000 volunteers participated in the Life Span Study of Radiation conducted by Radiation Effects Research Foundation, jointly funded by the US and Japan. Most of what is known today about the long-term health effects of radiation has come out of research with those survivors. 

Dennis Normile reports in Science: “Within 6 weeks of the bombings, three U.S. and two Japanese expert teams were at work in both cities to study the biological impact of the radiation. Their objectives differed. The Japanese were primarily trying to understand the medical effects on survivors. The Americans wanted to know how and why people died from atomic blast radiation. That might help triage victims—separating those who might be saved from those doomed to die—during future nuclear wars.”[1] Much of the suffering persists long after the initial acute event. The fear of residual genetic effects passed to future generations remains a concern of many Japanese.  The discrimination against the hibakusha – survivors of the A-Bomb, persists from the fear that children will be genetically impaired.  Research and studies of children born to mothers who survived the bomb have not reassured the public. So, the emotional harm continues long after the event.

But some things cannot be destroyed. As a people, the Japanese show resilience, keeping the memory of the Atomic Bomb as a herald for peace. Love and hope can thrive in community, even as we struggle together for a better future. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stands as a permanent testament to the destructive power of human ingenuity turned to making war instead of to peace. The remembrance of this terrible event serves as a spur to peaceful resolution of conflicts.

2. The ethical choice to use nuclear science for benefit rather than for harm.

Marie and Pierre Curie Discovered polonium and radium, and she championed the development of X-rays after Pierre’s death. Curie won two Nobel Prizes, for physics in 1903 and for chemistry in 1911. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize as well as the first person—man or woman—to win the prestigious award twice. She remains the only person to be honored for accomplishments in two separate sciences. 

During the First World War, Marie Curie saw many soldiers die or lose limbs from injuries that were not life threatening but could not be accurately diagnosed in battle conditions.  She put together mobile X-Ray machines that could be taken to medical centers in the battlefield to allow broken bones to be set, and accurately locate shrapnel and bullets for surgical removal.  It was her dream to see X-Rays bring many improvements to the practice of medicine.  Indeed, the legacy of nuclear medicine has taken this path.  Modern diagnostics have advanced to a high degree of sophistication, with surgical procedures simplified through nuclear imaging. Using focused radiation beams to shrink tumors and treat surgically inaccessible lesions has advanced cancer treatments in many areas. 

The choice to turn nuclear technology to the destructive force of a bomb was touted as a great scientific achievement. In speaking of the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb, President harry Truman said, “What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history. It was done under high pressure and without failure.”[2]  Using nuclear science to develop an atomic bomb turned the world on a path of nuclear arms development and containment that preoccupies the global balance of power to this day. 

3. The legacy of High-level nuclear waste

High-level nuclear waste is a concern because these materials remain radioactive and can cause health harms to living things. The biological effects of plutonium and other man-made alpha-emitting transuranic elements are primarily dependent upon their entering the body and being deposited in radiosensitive tissues, especially through inhalation.[3]These high-level radioactive materials decay over very long time periods, thus remaining radioactive for thousands of years.  For Plutonium239, the half-life is 24,400 years- that means that after that time half of the radioactivity will remain; for Plutonium242 the half-life is 379,000 years.[4] These high-level radioactive materials are created in weapons production, deployment or testing, and in nuclear power reactors. They are thus man-made elements not found in nature. 

At the end of World War II, the “cold war” advanced an escalating battle of deterrence that has defined the nuclear age. In the 1950s and into the 1990s open air testing of nuclear weapons was established at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Nuclear weapons testing at the Yucca Flats (NTS) began with a 1-kiloton-of-TNT (4.2 TJ) bomb dropped on Frenchman Flat on January 27, 1951. Over the subsequent four decades, over one thousand nuclear explosions were detonated at the NTS.[5]Underground nuclear testing (951 explosions) continued due to public health concerns about radioactive fallout. The westerly winds carried the radioactive plume over Utah where elevated increases in cancers were observed. Elevated levels of leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, bone cancer, brain tumors, and gastrointestinal tract cancers, were reported from the mid-1950s through 1980.[6] The build-up of nuclear arms has created an eternal legacy of high-level nuclear waste managed at the Hanford. Nuclear Reservation.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was the site of the Manhattan Project atomic bomb production.  The Hanford site was home to the first full-scale production reactor to produce weapons grade plutonium used in the atomic bomb. During theCold War, the project expanded to include nine nuclear reactors and five large plutonium processing complexes, which produced plutonium for most of the more than 60,000 weapons built for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. [7]  Nuclear technology developed rapidly during this period, and Hanford scientists produced major technological achievements. Many early safety procedures and waste disposal practices were inadequate, and government documents have confirmed that Hanford’s operations released significant amounts of radioactive materials into the air and the Columbia River. The weapons production reactors were decommissioned at the end of the Cold War, and decades of manufacturing left behind 53 million US gallons (200,000 m3) of high-level nuclear waste.[8]  In 1989, the Hanford site was declared a superfund toxic site and is under management for cleaning up the 56 million gallons of high-level nuclear waste now in repository there. Radiation leaks from this facility have occurred frequently and numerous lawsuits are in progress surrounding the operation of this high-level nuclear waste facility. 

A second initiative of the “Cold War” was the development of “Atoms for Peace.” Launched by President Eisenhower, this initiative had two aspects, one successful and one abandoned almost immediately. President Eisenhower characterized the atoms for peace initiative :

“To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you—and therefore before the world its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma—to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”[9]

Operation Plowshares from 1962-1965 was a series of nuclear tests at Yucca Flats in Nevada.  Proposed applications for controlled nuclear explosions included the creation of harbors, canals, open pit mines, railroad and highway cuts through mountainous terrain and the construction of dams. The radioactive fallout from such uses would be extensive. Public concerns about the health effects and a lack of political support eventually led to abandonment of the concept.

Nuclear Power “Tamed” the atom for the production of electricity in nuclear fission reactors. In promoting this technology,  Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission testified to Congress in 1954 that “Nuclear power will make electricity too cheap to meter”[10] But in spite of all assurances and encouragement, industry was skeptical and apprehensive. Finally, Congress passed the Price Anderson Act of 1957 which limited required operator insurance; capped liability in case of accidents. The value of this ongoing federal subsidy to the nuclear industry exceeds $100 Billion dollars. Nuclear power plants have supplied about 20% of total annual U.S. electricity since 1990. The 97 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S. produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, according to the Department of Energy —and most of it ends up sitting on-site because there is nowhere else to put it.[11]

This legacy of high-level radioactive waste from man-made materials is the burden this nuclear age, opened with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is imposing on our children for millions of years into the future.  The development of nuclear weapons and nuclear power without addressing the moral obligation to safely manage and contain the waste is a failure of responsibility for our actions on a grand scale. 

4. Nuclear Medicine

The use of nuclear materials in medicine shows the balance between the potential for harm and the potential for benefit. The X-Ray has become a standard diagnostic tool for broken bones, dental evaluation, guiding surgical procedures, and evaluating lung diseases. Diagnostic nuclear medicine involves the use of radioactive tracers to image and/or measure the global or regional function of an organ. And, the focused use of radiation has been used for the treatment of tumors to reduce them for better surgical outcomes or to control their growth in areas which are not amenable to surgery. Nuclear medicine is now a $1.7 billion industry. The Society of Nuclear Medicine estimates that 20 million nuclear medicine procedures are performed annually in the United States of which 12 million are procedures approved for and reimbursed by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.[12]  Nuclear medicine has advanced on many fronts, and in this field, the vision of Marie Curie for beneficial uses of radiation sees fulfillment.

Hear and honor the Hibakusha

The Hibakusha have shown the true grace of an oppressed people. Their dedication to contributing to the understanding of radiation effects on health has continued now into second and third generations of studies. Their call for a constant remembrance of the horrors unleashed by nuclear weapons cannot be ignored or forgotten.  It is the moral responsibility of all of our generation to secure the future for all of the children of the 21st century.  Even as global struggles to address climate change and the social inequities it is bringing exacerbate conflicts, we must strive for peace.

Etsuko Ishikawa “Uranium Glass Globe”

Treaties and agreements to limit nuclear war emerged soon after World War II. Negotiated between 1965 and 1968 among eighteen nations sponsored by the United Nations, the initial nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was fully executed in 1970 and held for 25 years.  It was extended in 1995, with all participants commitment to extend the treaty indefinitely.  The International Atomic Energy Administration was established  to enforce compliance.  As of August 2016, 191 nations have signed the agreement, including U.S.  North Korea withdrew; India, Israel and Pakistan did not sign, all have nuclear weapon capability.  The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, organized under the sponsorship of the United Nations, notes that 184 Countries have ratified the Nuclear Test Ban TreatyEight more will put it in permanent effect to ban nuclear weapons testing forever. “We must remain committed to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty’s entry into force.,” says CTBTO head, Lassina Zerbo.[13] At this point, there are destabilizing elements at play in nuclear arms threats in several countries around the world involving the United States, Russia, Iran and North Korea.  This is a complex area of international power jousting, one that must remain confined to the verbal stage for the sake of our survival as a species, and as civilizations.[14]

We can each play a part in securing the future.  We must insist on funding and attention to managing the existing high-level nuclear waste repositories.  We must recognize that nuclear energy use includes an obligation for thousands of years for waste management- now in temporary storage at 97 reactor sites all around the country. We must demand accountability from our leaders to strive for peace rather than to escalate nuclear weapons capabilities.

We can learn from the Hikabusha that we are human- resilient, enduring, and capable of great empathy.

Pray for Peace

Work for Justice

Dance for Joy

Blessed Be

Patricia DeMarco August 9, 2020

Citations and Resources

[1] Dennis Normile. “How atomic bomb survivors have transformed our understanding of radiation’s impacts.” Science. July 23, 2020.   Accessed August 5, 2020.

[2] Harry S. Truman. August 6, 1945: Statement by the President Announcing the use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima. Presidential Speeches. University of Virginia, Miller Center.

[3] Health Risks of Radon and Other Internally Deposited Alpha-Emitters. Beir IV. National Research Council (US) Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1988.

[4] Health Risks of Radon and Other Internally Deposited Alpha-Emitters. Beir IV.  Table 7-1 Transuranium Nuclides of Potential Biological Significance. National Research Council (US) Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1988.

[5] The Nevada Test SiteEmmet Gowin. Foreword by Robert Adams. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019, pages 148 and 157 (Publ. DOE/NV-209, 1993).

[6] Johnson, Carl (1984). “Cancer Incidence in an Area of Radioactive Fallout Downwind From the Nevada Test Site”. Journal of the American Medical Association251 (2): 230. doi:10.1001/jama.1984.03340260034023

[7]  “Hanford Site: Hanford Overview”. United States Department of Energy.

[8] Deutsch, William J.; et al. (2007). Hanford Tanks 241-C-202 and 241-C-203 Residual Waste Contaminant Release Models and Supporting Data. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). doi:10.2172/917218

[9]  Address by Mr. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, to the 470th Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Tuesday, 8 December 1953.

[10] Strauss, Lewis (16 September 1954). Remarks prepared by Lewis L. Strauss (PDF) (Technical report). United States Atomic Energy Commission.

[11] Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics, as of April 16, 2020


[13] STATEMENT BY LASSINA ZERBO, EXECUTIVE SECRETARY, COMPREHENSIVE NUCLEAR-TEST-BAN TREATY ORGANIZATION (CTBTO)Vienna, 21 April 2018 Hibakusha are dedicated to striving for ve-nuclear-test-ban-treaty-organization-ctbto/

[14]  For an overview of treaties and Agreements on nuclear matters see

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A Perspective on Nuclear Power Past and Future

Here is a presentation from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom presentation of May 18, 2017. I was honored to be on a panel with Ellen Thomas and Odile Hugonot Haber who are on a Nuclear Free Future WILPF-US  to end nuclear war, weapons of mass destruction and nuclear armaments. See more about their work here:

My presentation is here:

5-18-2017 Nuclear Power Past & Future – PD Panel

I welcome your comments and questions.