The Hell of Hiroshima—Let's Get Real About Nuclear Weapons | Opinion

Sixty years after the Cuban missile crisis nearly destroyed the world as we know it, nuclear brinkmanship and bravado threatens to do so again. On Sept. 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan created a "precedent," an example he is darkly threatening to emulate in Ukraine. But what those weapons created was a hell. One that I somehow survived.

I was 13 when a single atomic bomb—its explosive core not much bigger than an apple—destroyed my hometown of Hiroshima. Tens of thousands of people were killed instantly, tens of thousands more from radiation sickness, cascading through bodies and generations from that day to this. And as the killing goes on, so does the trauma and anguish of survivors, living constantly with our mission impossible of describing the indescribable. Bright morning light, extinguished by the firestorm breath of evil. Ghostly processions of beings who used to be human: burnt, blackened, swollen, flayed, disemboweled. Some, blinded by the flash, carried eyeballs in their hands. The word "water" became a moan, swallowed by dead silence.

But is it any better to call such a "precedent" a "deterrent"? To talk about "tactical" or "strategic" options for inflicting suffering on an equal or even greater scale, as today's nuclear weapons can kill not thousands but millions in moments. Erase vast cities, like New York, in seconds. Poison the planet for millennia, triggering nuclear famine or nuclear winter.

It is not just Russia that has a "nuclear sabre," or Putin that madly rattles it. The founding father of the atomic age, the United States, also has the capacity to destroy life on Earth, and calmly claims the "right" to do so in the name of that nuclear age oxymoron: national security. In fact, all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China—supposedly responsible for making the world a safer place—boast the power, and claim the entitlement, to inflict apocalyptic harm. So do the other countries that now possess nuclear weapons (India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea). And so do those 30 plus nuclear-endorsing states—NATO members, Australia, Japan and South Korea—who seek false shelter under an umbrella that is likely to one day go nuclear.

The degree to which the unthinkable is being thought about, and the intolerable tolerated, breaks my heart. But despair will not deter deterrence from destroying us all. We need an alternative. And, happily, we have one.

In 2017, 122 states, working with survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing, civil society and international organizations, negotiated and adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), fulfilling the promise of the first ever U.N. General Assembly resolution to "ban the Bomb." The new treaty, succinctly describing nuclear weapons as "abhorrent to the principles of humanity," was the culmination of a global Humanitarian Initiative, inspired by a 2011 resolution of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), insisting on a science- and facts-based approach to the real costs and consequences—human and environmental—of nuclear war.

On Jan. 22, 2021, the TPNW entered into force, comprehensively prohibiting not just the possession but the use, threat of use, testing, development, and production of all nuclear weapons. In addition, assistance is pledged for victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, including commitments to help heal the environments, mostly Indigenous lands and waters, still scarred from the ravages of nuclear imperialism.

Rescuers sort through rubble
Rescuers sort through the rubble of a residential building hit by Russian kamikaze drones as explosions rock Ukraine’s capital during a drone attack in the early morning on Oct. 17, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Oleksii Samsonov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

To date there are 91 signatories to the treaty and 68 states parties, with those numbers set to rise steadily. And even in countries outside the treaty, it is having a galvanizing effect. In the U.S. for example, five states (California, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island) and 64 cites (including Boston, Minneapolis, New York, and Washington, D.C.) have called on the United States government to sign and ratify the TPNW. And in December 2021, the New York City Council voted to divest the city's vast pension funds from companies investing in nuclear weapons production, part of a trend spreading across North America and beyond.

As the advent of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons shows, for the vast majority of the world's nations and peoples, the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not a "precedent" in Putin's chilling sense of a potentially "necessary" evil. Nuclear weapons are an abomination, the ultimate evil, an unprecedented blasphemy against creation.

When the TPNW was adopted at the United Nations, I told delegates it was "the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons." But I am a survivor, not a prophet, and I fear that if we do not build on this beginning, what I saw in Hiroshima will prove the beginning of the end of the world.

Setsuko Thurlow is a leading figure in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Thurlow co-delivered the Nobel Lecture when ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.