Mixed Progress on Banning ‘The Big One’

One hears the word and wants to know more, but one also wants to forget it. One has heard both too much and not enough about Hiroshima. For the city evokes our entire nuclear nightmare… 

Robert Jay Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1967)

Return to Hiroshima on August 6. The city seems frozen in time. Once again the Enola Gay seems to cast its shadow over everything.

Betty Jean Lifton, Return to Hiroshima (1970)


How can towns and cities best respond to the danger of nuclear war? Throughout the atomic age, New York City has provided some fascinating, contradictory answers to a question that—77 years after the radioactive immolation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—remains a matter of burning concern to us all. For as Mitchie Takeuchi, a second-general Hiroshima survivor, recently stated in Times Square:

Nuclear weapons do not target military installations, but set entire cities on fire. And there can be no adequate response to a city on fire.

Takeuchi was speaking during ‘Amnesia Atómica NYC,’ a week (May 17-24) of anti-nuclear arts and activism in the heart of a city of over 8 million people. The centerpiece of the protest-festival was Pedro Reyes’ 30-foot inflatable Mushroom Cloud structure ‘Zero Nukes,’ commissioned by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists  to stand—or loom—“as a graphic, visual, and conceptual” embodiment of the threat,” as well as “a symbol of global unity for a single non-controversial cause: to avoid the destruction of life on Earth.” And as Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), told the opening ceremony, the danger of nuclear war should today be clear and present to us all:

The invasion of Ukraine has shown the whole world what the realities are around nuclear weapons. That we are all held hostages to the whims of a few men. That one sudden lapse of judgment, or unpredictable decision, by one of these leaders could lead us all into a massive global catastrophe.

What a real Mushroom Cloud over the ‘Big Apple’ might mean has been the subject of extensive study. In 2015, three leading experts asked “what would happen if an 800-kiloton warhead detonated above midtown Manhattan?” (Hiroshima was destroyed by a 15-kiloton warhead.) In the first “few tenths of millionths of a second” the explosion would reach a temperature of 100 million Celsius, “four to five times the temperature at the center of the sun.”

A second later a fireball roughly a mile wide, 4,000 degrees hotter than the sun’s surface, would create “a shockwave of vast size and power,” igniting fires over “a total area of about 100 square miles.” These blazes—a “hurricane of fire”—would rapidly “join to form a single, gigantic” blaze, releasing energy “15 to 50 times greater” than the detonation itself. And soon, far “downwind of the area of immediate destruction, radioactive fallout would begin to arrive.” “But that,” the authors conclude, “is another story.”


And here is a fairy tale: NYC Public Service Announcement (PSA), released in July by the Office of the Mayor, Eric Adams, explaining in 91 seconds and 164 words how to weather such a storm:

So there’s been a nuclear attack. Don’t ask me how or why, just know that the Big One has hit. OK? So, what do we do? There are three important steps that I want you to remember.

Step one, get inside, fast. You, your friends, your family, get inside. And no, staying in the car is not an option. You need to get into a building and move away from the windows.

Step two, stay inside. Shut all doors and windows. Have a basement? Head there. If you don’t have one, get as far into the middle of the building as possible. If you were outside after the Blast, get clean immediately. Remove and bag all outer clothing, to keep radioactive dust or ash away from your body.

Step three, stay tuned. Follow media for more information. Don’t forget to sign up for Notify NYC for official alerts and updates. And don’t go outside until officials say it’s safe.

All right? You’ve got this.

The PSA is well-produced, set in a spacious apartment and soothingly narrated by a charming young woman, sounding rather like a schoolteacher mildly concerned about bee-stings on an upcoming class picnic. Like so much “civil defense advice”—as nuclear expert Dr. Jeffrey Lewis promptly tweeted—it is “designed” to serve a cynical purpose: “to make people feel better without really leveling with them.”

Facing a merely metaphorical firestorm, Mayor Adams was able to ‘duck and cover,’ telling reporters “I’m a big believer in ‘Better safe than sorry,’” and that the “very proactive step” was justified by public concern over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


On December 9 last year, New York City Council took a series of very different proactive steps showing it actually grasped the reality of the threat posed by ‘the Big One.’ Under the historic terms of Resolution 976, Council reaffirmed the City’s status, first established in 1983, as a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone; called on the United States “to support and join” the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)—a call already made, as part of the ‘ICAN Cities Appeal,’ by Washington, Los Angeles and other major American municipalities; and instructed the City’s comptroller “to instruct the pension funds of public employees…to divest from and avoid any financial exposure to companies involved in the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons.”

Mayors for Peace logo

According to the New York Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (NYCAN), the City’s decision to divest from mass destruction could see the tidy sum of nearly half a billion dollars—$475 million—withdrawn from investments in nuclear-weapons corporations. According to a new study from ICAN and PAX, ‘Perilous Profiteering: Don’t Bank on the Bomb,’ there are 25 such corporations worldwide, supported and funded—to the tune of $685 billion in the last two years alone—by 346 financial institutions (160 banks, 186 investment firms). This is a mountain of money, but as the report’s lead researcher, Susi Snyder, notes:

These profiteers can and do change their behaviours. A combination of the emerging norm against nuclear weapons, the growing strength and membership of the TPNW, and the increasing stigma against weapons designed for mass destruction are leading companies away from harmful contracts and investors to consider alternatives.

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality, happily, has both a Mayor, Amanda McDougall, and a Council in agreement that the only cure for the nuclear ‘plague’ is prevention. On July 12—as part of its annual proclamation of August 6 as ‘Hiroshima Memorial Day’—CBRM unanimously called for “all states, including Canada, to sign and ratify” the TPNW, arguing that the “illegal and barbaric Russian invasion of Ukraine” dramatically underscores “the utter failure of nuclear weapons to prevent or deter war” and the urgent “need to reduce and eliminate the nuclear threat worldwide.”

In 2013, Mayor McDougall’s predecessor, Cecil Clarke, led CBRM into ‘Mayors for Peace’ (M4P), the Hiroshima-based global coalition of municipalities—then, 5,664; now, 8,188—demanding progress in building a nuclear weapon-free world. M4P, working closely with the hibakusha, the survivors of the 1945 bombings, played a notable role in the activism leading to the adoption of the ‘Ban Treaty’—by 122 states, two-thirds of UN membership—five years ago.


The treaty, which ‘entered-into-force’ (became international law) last January, currently has 66 member states, with many more in the queue. In Vienna from June 21-23, hot on the heels of the June 20 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, the 1st Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) was held, tasked with consolidating the fledgling treaty regime.

In addition to hundreds of civil society delegates, a number of ‘observer states’ came to town, including three—Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway—from nuclear-armed NATO, plus ‘nuclear-endorsing’ Australia, whose new Labour Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, is a strong and vocal Ban Treaty fan.

Setsuko Thurlow

Setsuko Thurlow (Photo by Frode Ersfjord via ICAN)

Canada, ignoring multiple appeals, refused to attend, just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has for years refused to meet with Canadian citizen Setsuko Thurlow, a 90-year-old Hiroshima-survivor who received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICAN in 2017. All Thurlow wants to do is tell Trudeau her story, try and open his mind to a treaty that wouldn’t exist if voices like hers had continued to be ignored. As she told an ICAN ‘Ban Treaty Forum’ in Vienna on June 18:

For the first six decades of the Nuclear Age, the voices of its survivors and victims∼in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the many Indigenous homelands devastated by over 2,000 nuclear test explosions—were silenced or marginalized by the nuclear-armed states and their allies and accomplices. We continued, of course, to tell our stories and issue our warnings… Our journeys, and our suffering, continued. And there were always people and states who listened; who understood; who cared. But it is only in the last 15 or so years that our voices finally broke through, and helped lead the way to the breakthrough we are all here to celebrate, the …treaty that can bring to a close the long, ruinous reign of nuclear terror.

But as Thurlow acknowledged: “we must not delude ourselves; the old order is still standing.” Addressing the 1MSP, Mayors for Peace Vice-President Taue Tomihisa, the Mayor of Nagasaki, powerfully conveyed a prevalent sense that we are living in the best and worst of nuclear times. For while the hibakusha finally have a treaty—dubbed by the Mayor ‘The Hiroshima-Nagasaki Treaty’—they can “rejoice greatly” over the new “ray of light” is menaced with extinction:

Almost a year and a half has passed since the treaty has come into effect and now, amidst the Ukraine Crisis, threats of nuclear force are being made and there is a risk that nuclear weapons will be used again. Now more than ever, I feel that the existence of the treaty is very important, as it is the only international treaty that clearly prohibits the ‘immediate crisis’ the world is now facing.

The meeting was chaired by Austrian diplomat Alexander Kmentt, who told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan that “this is a very serious treaty on an extremely serious issue, and we are very serious about our work. We have been meeting now for many months preparing as best we can,” aware that “in the current geopolitical context, it is extremely important that we refocus attention on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, what would actually happen…”


Such intense preparation was certainly warranted, partly because the TPNW is a formidably ambitious, multi-dimensional treaty, and partly because only three days of deliberation were allotted, a compression reflecting the logistical and financial pressures on the predominantly Global South membership. In the view of many observers, however (for example the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist’s Ruth Rohde, asking “what’s next for the nuclear ban treaty?,” in this all-too-brief time, “these countries did far more than reiterate their opposition to nuclear weapons: they also adopted a concrete action plan for implementing the treaty.”

The reiteration, in the ‘Vienna Declaration,’ was indeed emphatic: “We will not rest until the last state has joined the Treaty, the last warhead has been dismantled and destroyed and nuclear weapons have been totally eliminated from the Earth.” But the pledge was backed by no fewer than 50 ‘Actions’  aimed at accelerating progress in priority areas including:

Universalization – the drive to expand membership, emphasizing the “humanitarian,” “legal” and “ethical” imperative of ending the pernicious “practice of nuclear deterrence.” Given the Pope’s recent visit to Canada, it is worth noting that the Holy See was the first UN member to ratify the TPNW. One wonders whether the Pontiff, who denounced “strategies of deterrence” during remarks in Quebec City, urged the PM to embrace the Ban?

Towards the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons – the elaboration of specific technical, scientific and legal ways and means for achieving the verifiably complete disarmament of nuclear-armed states joining the treaty.

Victim Assistance, Environmental Remediation and International Cooperation and Assistance – the coordination of efforts, and the possible establishment of an International Trust Fund, to address the monstrous, intergenerationally-traumatic legacies of nuclear use, production and testing, working closely with “affected communities, indigenous peoples, and youth” while reaching out to “states not party to the Treaty that have used or tested nuclear weapons.”

The Relationship of the TPNW With the Nuclear Disarmament Regime – a call for all members and supporters of the TPNW to stress at all “appropriate opportunities” the treaty’s “complementarity with the existing disarmament and non-proliferation regime,” particularly with the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to which all TPNW states belong—which demands “good faith negotiations” leading to complete nuclear disarmament.

Conference organized by the Austrian Foreign Ministry on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons, Austria Center, Vienna, 20 June 2022 (Source: Austrian Foreign Ministry)

In addition, three major decisions were taken:

  • to set a deadline of 10 years, with a possible extension of five years, for nuclear-armed states to destroy their arsenals after joining the treaty (though they may also choose to disarm before becoming members);
  • to set a deadline of 90 days for new member states to remove any nuclear weapons on their territory (there are currently five such ‘nuclear sharing states’—Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey—hosting American nuclear bombs);
  • to establish a Scientific Advisory Group to “advance research on nuclear weapon risks, their humanitarian consequences, and nuclear disarmament,” and “address the scientific and technical challenges involved in effectively implementing the treaty.”


In New York this month—for three weeks, not three days—the 191 members of the NPT (every state except nuclear-armed Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) will meet to review progress towards its own goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world. Yet the only real advance made since the last Review Conference in 2015 is the very achievement—the Ban Treaty—that the five nuclear-armed NPT states (China, France, Russia, UK, US) and their ‘allies and accomplices’ like Canada will spend rostrum-time depicting as irrelevant, unnecessary, and/or premature: as an affront and threat to their supposedly-beloved ‘cornerstone’ NPT. A ‘cornerstone,’ though, serves as a beginning, not an end in itself, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty was always intended—and carefully crafted—to evolve into a prohibition treaty marking, as Setsuko Thurlow likes to describe the TPNW, “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”

"Return to Hiroshima" book cover

In 1970, the year the NPT became law, Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe and American journalist Betty Jean Lifton (wife of anti-nuclear author and psychologist Robert Jay Lifton) published Return to Hiroshima, a searing photo-essay on the city’s flawed and faltering post-1945 rise from the ashes. “Hiroshima is full of surprises,” she wrote: “Mostly unpleasant ones.”

When a reporter, for example, “was assigned to do a feature on ‘Forgotten Hiroshima’” he found numbers of young adults “with small heads” and severe developmental difficulties, whose “mothers had been three or four months pregnant with them” when the ‘Little Boy’ Bomb was dropped. They were afflicted with severe microcephaly, defined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an incurable “condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than expected,” because the “brain has not developed properly.”

The sufferers, Lifton wrote, “are now twenty-four years old. Their mental ages range from two to eleven. They are the size of a ten-year-old.” But “not only did the city not know about these children, the families”—most living “in depressed areas called ‘atomic slums’”—“did not know about each other.” With the reporter’s help, the families formed ‘The Mushroom Club,’ referring “both to the shape of the cloud, and the fact that these children are growing like mushrooms in the shade.”

Of the 49 Working Papers submitted to the TPNW Meeting in Vienna, two moved me most: a magisterially-harrowing ‘Summary of the Evidence and New Research Findings’ on ‘The Catastrophic Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and War’ by the Nobel Peace-Prize winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; and, zooming in on those consequences, a short statement —‘Hear Our Silenced Voices’ – from Kinokokai, the Association of Atomic Bomb Microcephaly Sufferers and Their Families. “Being mentally handicapped,” the statement reads, the victims:

…never shout, ‘Abolish nuclear weapons!’ But their very existence is persuasive testimony to the inhumanity of those weapons. The treaty states in its preamble that ‘Total abolition is the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons must never be used again under any circumstances.’ … We hope the TPNW will go into universal effect in time to prevent any repetition of our tragedy.

All right, people: we got this?


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.