August 6 marks 70 years since the bomber Enola Gay flew over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, with the atomic weapon “Little Boy” aboard. The mission unleashed devastation never witnessed before, changing history forever.
Very shortly, a terrifying race to test and stockpile increasingly more powerful nuclear weapons broke out between the United States and Soviet Union. The nuclear component of the Cold War between capitalism and communism raised the question of whether life on the planet could continue. Over 400 bombs were tested in the atmosphere, and tens of thousands of weapons were eventually constructed.
The abyss was reached in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Only a last-second political solution by President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev overrode the advice of most military and government advisors on both sides to engage in war. The action of these two men was all that stood between a likely all-out nuclear disaster that would have released enough radioactivity to possibly extinguish all life.
The U.S. conducted nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1962, with contamination and adverse effects on the health of local residents still evident. More recently, the U.S. released depleted uranium weapons in Mideast nations, with devastating results on newborns and young children.
Great strides to harness the nuclear menace have been made over time. Atom bomb testing, both above and below the ground, has ended. Disarmament has dismantled tens of thousands of weapons. But despite these, the atom remains the greatest threat to life on earth.
There are still 16,000 atomic weapons deployed around the globe, accompanied by plans to strike human targets, with far greater destructive power than that at Hiroshima. Eight nations have a nuclear weapons arsenal, and more are hoping to develop their own bomb program.
But the legacy of what happened 70 years ago extends well beyond potential atomic bombing in the future. The process of manufacturing nuclear weapons continues to plague the planet. Uranium mining, milling, enrichment, purification, and fabrication are all necessary to build bombs, contaminating sites around the world. Large areas at plants like Oak Ridge TN, Hanford WA, and Savannah River SC continue to be uninhabitable due to the enormous amounts of nuclear waste, some of which is leaking into the ground. Years of extremely costly cleanup have fallen short of safely harnessing these dangerous chemicals.
Another legacy of the atomic era is the now-halted bomb testing. The worst effects were those closest to the explosions. Soldiers practicing maneuvers during a nuclear war close to the blasts, absorbed large doses, and later suffered from cancers and other diseases at high rates. Workers suffered a similar fate, as did persons living in areas close to the testing site in Nevada.
But fallout from the large mushroom clouds in tests traveled thousands of miles, propelled by wind. This toxic mixture of over 100 radioactive chemicals that didn’t exist before 1945 entered the environment through precipitation, and contaminated humans, animals, and plants. Most above-ground tests were ended in 1963, but the dissipation from the biosphere was slow. All who are now over age 45, especially the Baby Boom generation who were vulnerable fetuses, infants, and young children during testing, were exposed. And because radiation damages DNA, future generations inherited defective genes.
The current meaning of Hiroshima actually is not confined only to bombs. As Cold War tensions mounted, efforts to use the atom for more peaceful purposes were encouraged. The most prominent of these efforts were nuclear power reactors, which created electricity by splitting uranium atoms – the exact same splitting process used to explode nuclear weapons.
The 400-plus nuclear power reactors eventually built worldwide were environmental disasters. Numerous meltdowns in small test reactors years ago went unheeded, and failed to stop the development of electrical nuclear power. In time, larger meltdowns occurred, including Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011). The latter, which remains uncontrolled and is still spewing dangerous environmental radioactivity, may be the worst environmental catastrophe in history.
Aside from meltdowns, reactors steadily leaked a portion of the cocktails of 100-plus radioactive chemicals – the same found in the large atom bomb clouds. Nearby residents have been absorbed these chemicals through breathing and the food chain; to date, over 60 scientific journal articles have documented high rates of cancer in children exposed to routine emissions living near reactors.
A third harmful aspect of nuclear power is the staggering amount of waste that was captured in reactors before leaking, but will not fully decay for thousands of years. Permanent solutions for safely storing this waste continue to elude leaders, decades after plans began. Most waste is now stored at each nuclear plant, in large pools of water that need to be constantly cooled. Loss of cooling water from mechanical failure, human error, or act of sabotage would result in a meltdown.
The history of the atomic era has been a grim one, and continues to be grim today. The genie that was let out of the bottle all those years ago is still very much out. Constant future vigilance to reduce this enormous environmental health threat is needed if humanity is to avoid even more staggering consequences.
Joseph Mangano MPH MBA and Janette Sherman MD are Executive Director and Research Advisor of the Radiation and Public Health Project.