Lessons of nuclear catastrophe go unheeded

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by Patrick Comerford (World View, The Irish Times, 6 August 2005)

Living under the mushroom cloud
TODAY [August 6th] marks the sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Tuesday [August 9th] is the sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and next Monday week [subs: August 15th] marks the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender to General Macarthur and the eventual end of World War II.

The commemorations in Japan this weekend are of a more low-key nature, and have a less international flavour, than the commemorations in Europe earlier this year marking the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of World War II. The US still feels no collective shame for the atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the Japanese have never really accepted responsibility for the role their imperial expansion in Asia played in triggering the war.

However, the solemnity and dignity in Europe earlier this year were reminders that commemorations must never be about recriminations. Instead, we should remember that it was war and racism, rather than people, that are evil, and in remembering we should commit ourselves to the ideal that the evils of World War II must never be repeated. Unfortunately, the trials of Slobodan Milosevic and those allegedly involved in the massacres of Srebrenica and "ethnic cleansing" throughout the former Yugoslavia, remind us how easily we forget the lessons of racism and war.

What lessons have we learned from the horrors that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Twenty-five years ago, on Hiroshima Day 1980, as chairman of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, I was involved in planting a cherry tree in Dublin's Merrion Square to commemorate the 200,000 victims of the Hiroshima bomb and the 100,000 victims of the Nagasaki bomb. I had spent the previous summer studying in Japan on a fellowship for young journalists, and was so moved emotionally during a visit to Hiroshima that I returned to Ireland with a life-lasting commitment to nuclear disarmament.

For five years I was either chair, vice-chair or national secretary of Irish CND.

Between 1979 and 1984, I was involved in lobbying every successive Minister for Foreign Affairs, and while the qualified assurances we received about Irish neutrality were never going to satisfy CND activists and lobbyists, there was a consistent assurance from ministers that Ireland would never be involved in the arms industry, the arms trade, or in permitting the use of Irish territorial space (land, sea or air) for the transportation of nuclear missiles.

In the 20 years since my involvement in Irish CND has lapsed, I have watched in near-despair as those assurances have been eroded to the point that they now appear meaningless. The transportation of US troops through Shannon to take part in an illegal war in Iraq and the use of depleted uranium in their weapons have eroded all the barriers between neutrality and membership of military alliances and eroded all the inhibitions that helped to distinguish between "conventional" warfare and "nuclear" warfare.

Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, nuclear proliferation appears to have continued unabated over the span of two generations. It is not being over-emotional or over-fretful to say the whole world is now living under one looming mass mushroom cloud.

The Greenham women were singularly succesful in having the missile silos shut down at Greenham Common. They proved that unilateral nuclear disarmament was possible politically. In recent years, Britain has taken out of service all its non-strategic nuclear weapons, it has disarmed 70% of its total nuclear explosive capacity, it has halted the production of weapons-grade material, and it has placed its fissile material not in warheads under international safeguards. But Britain retains an arsenal of 185 Trident nuclear warheads on four nuclear submarines, and Tony Blair has plans to replace Trident with a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Today, there are 11,000 active, deliverable nuclear weapons in the world -- the US has the majority of these (6,390), and Russia has 3,242. The US and Russia signed a bilateral arms control treaty in 2002, aimed at sharply reducing the number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads by 2012. But the weapons do not have to be destroyed, only moth-balled, and there are no verification procedures.

The western world is quick to express its fears that groups like al-Qaeda may acquire nuclear capability and that Iran and North Korea are about to join the nuclear club. In a recent paper in the magazine 'America', Professor Ronald Powaski of Cleveland State University grimly detailed the breakdown in relations between the US and North Korea. Placing much of the blame on the Bush administration, he believes there must be a reversal of US policy before the situation worsens and says President Bush is left "with only two options: allow North Korea to become a nuclear-weapon state or take military action to prevent it."

Despite the failure of pressure on Iran and North Korea in recent, threse efforts must continues. But they are not the only "rogue states" in the nucelar arms race. Last May, the Bush administration contributed singularly to the collapse of the review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Washington is now planning a new generation of nuclear weapons designed not to deter but to wage a nuclear war, including small-yield "mini-nukes" and the nuclear "bunker-busters". The Bush Adminstration has no intention of joining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or of signing a verifiable accord ending the production of new non-fissile material intended for nuclear weapons.

President Bush says "the gravest danger facing the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons." But he says nothing about the very real danger from the governments already possessing those weapons, including the US, Britain, Russia, France and China. Israel probably has 200 nuclear weapons, but no Arab state posseses nuclear weapons. Real possession is surely a greater danger than an ambition to possess.

The sort of hypocicy osown by the US has allowed Israel, Pakistan and China to remain outside the regime of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to develop their own nuclear arsenals. If all our fears about Iran and North Korea following this week's failures are to be taken seriously, then the five nuclear powers need to turn around and give a commitment on their own behalf that they too will do all in their power to assure us that there will be no more Hiroshimas and no more Nagasakis.

Rev Patrick Comerford is a Church of Ireland priest. He is a former Irish Times journalist and was the founding chairman of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1979.
Contact: theology@ireland.com

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