Ticking Boxes, Ticking Bombs…

Author’s Note: In a future edition I hope to review Christopher Nolan’s movie of the moment, Oppenheimer, exploring the rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the top-secret Allied ‘Manhattan Project’ to build the Atomic Bomb. In a July 26 interview in Nature, nuclear historian Richard Rhodes answers a critical question—“Why didn’t Nolan show what happened on the ground at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”—as follows:

First of all, the story was told from Oppenheimer’s perspective. And second of all, if [Nolan] had shown the chaos on the ground, it would have been too much for the sensibility of a viewer who wasn’t prepared for that kind of destructiveness of war.

This month, I deliberately choose to focus on the perspective—and honor the witness—of those who were ‘on the ground’ when those terrible war crimes were committed.



“It has never been true that nuclear war is ‘unthinkable,’” wrote British historian E.P. Thompson. “It has been thought and the thought has been put into effect.” He was referring to President Harry Truman’s use of nuclear weapons to destroy the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. What needs further attention is that the president who ordered these attacks—together with the great majority of the American public—regarded these nuclear attacks as marvelously successful. Such thoughts get thought again, and acted on.

Daniel Ellsberg (1931-2023)

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017)


The scientists involved cannot possibly have lacked the ability to imagine the hell that would issue from the explosion. The decision, nonetheless, was made. I presume that it was done on the basis of some calculation…

Kenzaburō Ōe,(1935-2023)

Hiroshima Notes (1965)


This year’s commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki takes place not only under gathering clouds of nuclear danger but in the shadow of one of the most disgraceful diplomatic episodes of the nuclear age: the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.

Consisting of three nuclear-armed states (France, UK, US), three states from nuclear-armed NATO (Canada, Germany, Italy) and another ‘nuclear-dependent’ state (Japan), the G7 was hardly likely to shapeshift from hawk to dove in a few days, even days spent at the site of an annihilating violence that, as historian Richard Rhodes wrote in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, “most accurately models the worst case of our common future.” The question, instead, is whether the leaders did anything at all to make ‘the worst case’ less likely?

G7 leaders laying wreaths in Hiroshima

G7 Hiroshima Summit, 19 May 2023. (Photo by Adam Scotti, PMO)

Hiroshima is the hometown (and constituency) of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, raising hopes nuclear disarmament would take center stage not just symbolically—with visits to the Peace Memorial Park and Peace Memorial Museum, and meetings with survivors (the hibakusha)—but substantively. “This is the moment,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres (who attended the summit) declared, “in which we must insist on the need for revitalizing disarmament, and especially nuclear disarmament.”

No one felt the moment more keenly than the hibakusha, aware, as The Guardian’s Justin McCurry wrote, that this “may be their final chance to make their case for disarmament directly to the US, France and Britain.” One prominent hibakusha, 91-year-old Setsuko Thurlow—a co-recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)—flew to her hometown of Hiroshima from Toronto, where she has lived since the 1950s. “I wanted,” she told Democracy Now!:

…to be part of this whole excitement that the world leaders are coming to Hiroshima to discuss nuclear disarmament. And the people here were so excited, so happy to…give the leaders the opportunity to be with us, to be in the center of the calamity and catastrophe, and to have a profound encounter themselves with the meaning of the dawn of the nuclear age.

There were warning signs the moment would be lost. With nine days to go (May 10), Gensuikyo, the Japan Council Against Atomic & Hydrogen Bombs, submitted a request to the Foreign Ministry, endorsed by 180 municipal leaders, arguing that “the only guarantee to prevent the use of nuclear arms is to abolish them,” and that continued misplaced trust in “nuclear deterrence”—namely, “the vicious circle of arms buildup and dependence on nuclear weapons”—will only further “deteriorate the situation.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida leads discussions at G7 Hiroshima Summit, May 2023.

“In reply to our request,” Gensuikyo told supporters, the Ministry described nuclear deterrence as “essential for peace and security in the world.” And as McCurry reported on May 18, “US officials” were briefing that:

Washington will not be pushing an independent agenda on nuclear weapons in Hiroshima, while senior German government sources said nuclear disarmament was not a high priority, adding that it was ‘important mainly for Japan’.

While the leaders did pay an unprecedented visit to the Peace Museum (how could they not?), no comment or reflection followed: “I wanted to hear the leaders’ frank opinions of what they saw,” complained 85-year-old hibakusha Michiko Kodama. While a general sense of boxes being ticked—e.g. a strikingly unemotional wreath-laying at the Memorial Cenotaph—was palpable, for many hibakusha and their allies the summit’s lowest point was the failure to acknowledge, in the words of 77-year-old Jiro Hamasumi (in his mother’s womb when the Bomb exploded), that “nuclear weapons are an absolute evil that cannot co-exist with humans.” Instead, in a special May 19 statement—the so-called ‘G7 Leaders’ Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament’—the contrary “understanding” is reached that, “for as long as they exist,” nuclear weapons (in the right hands) will discharge a moral, even noble function, to “deter aggression and prevent war and coercion.”

For Thurlow, this was “blasphemy”:

To put it bluntly, for us survivors, who want nothing less than the total abolishment of nuclear weapons…it was nothing but a disaster. We are feeling more than frustration. It’s a fury, anger, and total disappointment…

I felt no pulse, no warmth from the voices of the G7 leaders,” she added, a sentiment shared by Hamasumi:

As a survivor, I am outraged… What was the point of hosting it in Hiroshima?


The ‘Vision’ does “reaffirm” the lip-service “commitment to the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” immediately adding the wrecking-ball caveat “with undiminished security for all”—this from states whose possession or dependence on nuclear weapons creates a situation of undiminished insecurity for everyone (including, in fact especially, their own citizens). This ‘ultimate goal,’ the Vision adds, is attainable only through an undefined “realistic, pragmatic and responsible approach” supposedly capable of moving from a “harsh reality” to a new “ideal.” And “in this regard,” the leaders add, patting their host on the back, “Japan’s ‘Hiroshima Action Plan’ is a welcome contribution.”

“What ‘Hiroshima Action Plan’?” the reader may well ask, given the scant attention it has received since Prime Minister Kishida unveiled it last summer. Boldly billed as ‘Leading the World Towards a Future Without Nuclear Weapons,’ the plan instead suggests five baby steps from the brink:

1) “shared recognition of the importance of continuing the record of non-use of nuclear weapons”

The 78-year ‘nuclear taboo’ must obviously be upheld, and as recently as January 2022, the nuclear-armed five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council—the G7’s nuclear trio plus China and Russia—reaffirmed the famous formula of Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan that “a nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought.” Yet all five except China remain wedded to ‘strategic’ doctrines countenancing the first use of nuclear weapons, while China’s current nuclear build-up suggests it, too, is moving to a first-strike footing.

Photos of the representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, 2023.

Both the US and Russia, moreover, also assume the possibility of successfully managing—and even prevailing in—a nuclear exchange. “If deterrence fails,” the latest edition (April 2020) of the Pentagon’s ‘Joint Nuclear Operations’ manual declares, it should still be possible to “achieve US objectives,” including “ending a conflict and restoring deterrence at the lowest level of damage.” So, once broken, the nuclear taboo…can be fixed? Yet not only has Japan failed to criticize Washington’s nuclear-war-winning fantasy—while roundly condemning Moscow’s identical stance—it claims to derive ‘benefit’ and ‘reassurance’ from it.

But what, anyway, do we mean by the ‘non-use’ of weapons routinely utilized since 1945—ad nauseam, for example, by Bomb-emboldened Russia in Ukraine—to threaten, terrorize, dominate, coerce and steer events; while all-too-often ‘deterring’ only diplomacy, conflict resolution, common security arrangements, and of course disarmament? As we will see, a large majority of states—but not yet Japan—believe the only way to prevent such political use one day ‘going nuclear’ is to denuclearize world politics now: to extend the taboo to nuclear possession.


2) “to enhance transparency” by all nuclear-armed states (the P5 plus India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan) with regard to both weapons and stocks of fissile materials (uranium and plutonium). In the P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Termscontext of a commitment to disarm and dismantle, such transparency can indeed play a constructive, confidence-building role; absent such a commitment, it is barely a baby step, and can even descend into farce, as in the P5’s rightly-ridiculed ‘Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms’ (which nobody asked them for), in which we learn, for example, that a “detonator” is “a mechanism used to trigger an explosive device,” but nothing whatever about the human and environmental devastation those ‘devices’ are designed to inflict. In fact, evidence suggests that environmental effects—the certainty of climate collapse and global famine, even in so-called ‘limited’ wars—are not only a ‘taboo’ official topic but inadequately (if at all) factored in to war plans.

As reported here before, the US National Academy of Sciences is now conducting the first ever Congressionally-mandated ‘Independent Study on Potential Environmental Effects of Nuclear War,’ with a declassified report due next August. In one of its rare open sessions, Dr. Christopher Yeaw, assistant executive director of the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska—a nuclear war-gamer and contributor to President Donald Trump’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review—was asked how the study’s findings might influence perceptions of US policy. “We wouldn’t,” he worried:

…want to give the impression to adversaries like Russia and China that we have so much concern over environmental prospects of nuclear weapons employment that we are self-deterred. So we want to be careful not to come near to that line.

The ‘line,’ potentially, between life and death for billions…


3) “Maintain the decreasing trend of the global nuclear stockpile,” now down to a—still sky-high—12,500 weapons.

At a time when five of the ‘nuclear nine’—China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and the G7’s own UK—are expanding their arsenals, Japan is right to press this point. But in terms of nuclear risk, not just quantity but quality matters, and all the Bomb-states are currently engaged in long-term ‘modernization’ programs, investing in new warheads, delivery systems, factories and infrastructure to the tune, as ICAN recently documented, of $82.9 billion in 2022, with America’s share ($43.7 billion: $83,143 per minute) bigger than the other eight combined.

Launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, 23 Feb 2021.

An Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operation test 23 February 2021, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Space Force photo by Brittany E. N. Murphy)

In barely 20 years, a once extensive US-Russia nuclear arms control architecture has crumbled almost to rubble, destroyed first and foremost by President George W. Bush’s doomed bid for nuclear (and geopolitical) ‘supremacy.’ While Kishida, I’m sure, would love to help rebuild the ruins, he also shares the suspiciously unanimous view of Moscow, Washington and the other nuclear capitals, that before work can begin, the “harsh security environment” they constantly refer to—and which they bear such responsibility for creating!—must first (but how, without disarmament?) be transformed.


4) “secure nuclear non-proliferation and promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy upon that basis”

Kishida launched his initiative at the August 2022 Review Conference of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at the UN in New York. The Conference, delayed two years by the pandemic, belatedly marked the 50th anniversary of a treaty designed to deliver (originally, no later than 1995) on a supposedly ‘grand bargain’: non-proliferation in return for 1) complete nuclear disarmament, and 2) the proliferation of ‘peaceful’ nuclear power. The nuclear-weapon-free world the NPT envisaged would thus be one replete with nuclear reactors (currently, 440), creating—in addition to mountains of radioactive material and waste—a large category of ‘threshold’ states (currently 32, including plutonium-rich Japan) on the porous border of the Bomb.

Kishida Fumio, Prime Minister of Japan, addresses the opening meeting and commencement of general debate of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1-26 August 2022).

Kishida Fumio, Prime Minister of Japan, addresses the opening meeting and commencement of general debate of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1-26 August 2022). UN Photo/Loey Felipe.

Such reactors, of course, generate the ‘stuff’ not just of explosions but other nuclear nightmares: the theft, diversion and illicit sale of fissile material; the insoluble problem of waste disposal; vulnerability to attack by terrorists or in war—witness the knife-edge fate of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine; and the omnipresent specter of catastrophic, potentially uncontrollable malfunction, a fate suffered by Ukraine and far beyond in 1986 with the Chernobyl disaster, and also by Japan, as recently as 2011, at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima plant.

The Japanese author and Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe—who died, aged 88, in March—was an implacable foe of both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy: of, that is, the nuclear threat as a whole. For him, Fukushima constituted the “worst betrayal” yet “of the memory of the victims” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a dishonoring of the pledge “never to allow any more hibakusha to be created.”

“And so,” he told Democracy Now! in 2014, “the thing I feel the most at this time, as we’re suffering from the disaster, is that we must follow the wishes and the will of the hibakusha” for a fully—comprehensively—nuclear-free world. Yet the Action Plan’s fourth proposed step, one actually taking us closer to the brink, makes no mention of Fukushima, simplistically presenting nuclear energy as the benign, positive side of the atomic coin: a denial of reality—and, as Ōe stressed, the wishes of the hibakusha—dousing the fifth and final step in irony.


5) “Japan will promote the accurate understanding of the realities of nuclear weapons use through encouraging visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by international leaders and others”

Remarkably, the word ‘hibakusha’ does not appear in Kishida’s Action Plan (or his August 2022 speech). Obviously, however, since hibakusha have unique insights into ‘the realities of nuclear weapon use, their importance and involvement is at least implied. After the Plan was launched, for example, Japan convened an International Group of Eminent Persons (IGEP) for a World Without Nuclear Weapons, and in its inaugural meeting in Hiroshima in December 2022, the 15 members “deepened their understanding…through attentively listening to a testimony given by Ms. Yahata Teruko, who suffering the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.”

Secretary-General António Guterres (left) meets with Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors (Hibakusha) in Nagasaki, Japan.

Secretary-General António Guterres (left) meets with Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors (Hibakusha) in Nagasaki, Japan, 8 August 2018. (UN Photo Daniel Powell)

Though details are scarce, hibakusha seem to have been minimally included in the ongoing IGEP process, while G7 leaders duly “met a hibakusha”—Keiko Ogura (85)—as part of their Summit experience. But while Ogura described the meeting as “a dream come true,” we have seen that many hibakusha felt frozen out of the process—and aghast at the ‘product.’ Certainly, despite her international renown, Setsuko Thurlow was cold-shouldered, doubtless because of the attention she’d have drawn to the most glaring omission of all in both Japan’s ‘Hiroshima Action Plan’ and the G7’s ‘Hiroshima Vision’: the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

The TPNW constitutes the definitive breakthrough from non-proliferation to prohibition envisaged in the NPT, which is why all 122 states that adopted it at the General Assembly in 2017—and all 92 that have since signed (and 68 that have ratified) it—are non-nuclear NPT members. “Mindful” in its Preamble “of the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons (hibakusha), as well as of those affected by the testing of nuclear weapons,” and “reaffirming that any use of nuclear weapons would also be abhorrent to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience,” the new treaty (in legal force since January 2021) outlaws the possession, use, threat of use, development, production, testing or manufacture of any “nuclear explosive device.” It also outlaws the hosting of other state’s nuclear weapons (as Belarus now hosts Russian weapons, and as five NATO states have long hosted American weapons) and the transfer of any materials, or rendering of any assistance, to states seeking to proliferate.

In addition to banning the Bomb, the TPNW—reflecting as it does the rise of ‘humanitarian disarmament’ in recent decades—also includes far-reaching provisions on ‘Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation’ and ‘International Cooperation and Assistance;’ and at the Treaty’s 1st Meeting of States Parties last June it adopted a 50-point ‘Vienna Action Plan,’ putting Japan’s insipid initiative to shame.


A few weeks before the G7 Summit I had the privilege of speaking with Setsuko Thurlow about the ‘Hiroshima Action Plan,’ for an article subsequently published (May 16) in Hiroshima’s Chugoku Shimbun newspaper. She described herself as “very disappointed” and “embarrassed,” lamenting the lack of concrete commitments—for example, as many groups are calling for, a Hiroshima-centenary deadline (2045) for reaching ‘Global Zero’—as “alarming.” “What does he mean?” she wondered: “is he unaware” of the gravity of the threat or, even worse, “deceiving us”?

Setsuko Thurlow. (Photo via ICAN http://www.icanw.org/hear-the-stories/setsuko-thurlow/)

Setsuko Thurlow. (Photo via ICAN)

“No other human beings,” she stressed repeatedly, should ever endure what the hibakusha had; and as I listened to the anguish in her voice I recalled the ‘Survivor’s Story’ she told at an ICAN Nuclear Ban Forum last summer. It was, she began, a “story I have told countless times, but always try and tell for the first time”; the ordeal of a “13-year-old student…on a beautiful summer morning, not a cloud in the sky, turning away blinded by an unnaturally intense, bluish-white flash from the window: and falling away into silence and darkness.” “Open your eyes with me,” she begs, tellingly using the present tense:

…as I wake in that silence and darkness, bewildered and pinned under ruins. Imagine that the faint cries you hear—“Mother, help me. God, help me”—are those of your dying friends. And then—a miracle in hell!—feel a touch on your shoulder, and a man’s voice begging: “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it as quickly as you can.”

When she emerges, the “man has vanished. Hiroshima has vanished. I crawl, stand, stare at the flames, watch ghostly processions go by, beings who used to be human: bleeding, burnt, blackened, swollen; parts of their bodies missing; flesh and skin hanging loose; bellies burst open, intestines hanging; many blinded by the flash, some with eyeballs in their hands.” “That’s how my story began,” she concludes, “how the story of humanity in the atomic age began. But I am here to ask not how my journey, but how our journey will end?”

But can the sleepwalkers on the summit even hear?


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.