5 April, 2022

A nuclear bomb dropped at 8:15 am on a clear August (1945) morning. Less than a minute later, a blinding flash was followed by a wave of destruction almost beyond human imagination. An estimated 80,000 people were killed instantly by the intense heat of the explosion. Thirteen square kilometres of a city that had been a bustling commercial, military and transportation hub was reduced to rubble. Immense firestorms swept through wood and paper houses. Thousands were dead and injured. A single bomb dropped from a B-29 bomber on the morning of 6 August 1945 had killed a third of Hiroshima’s population and wiped 70% of the city off the face of the earth. Three days later, a second bomb fell on the city of Nagasaki, killing a further 40,000 people. The Atomic Age had arrived with a vengeance, and the world would never be the same again.

After the fires burned themselves out, Hiroshima was unrecognizable. The occasional ruin of a concrete building, and thousands of dead trees were all that remained standing in a vast wasteland of rubble. Those who survived the attack wandered the irradiated streets in a pitiful state, others lay buried under piles of rubble and others still lay stricken on the ground, too injured to walk. The city’s rivers were clogged with the corpses. Radiation sickness and radiation poisoning began killing many who had survived the initial attack. Of Hiroshima’s 28 hospitals, 26 had been destroyed and the vast majority of the city’s doctors and nurses had been killed in the blast. Hideously wounded citizens, their eyeballs burned out of their skulls and their skin burned away, died in unimaginable agony. Help was quickly sent to care for the survivors, but there was little that could be done for so many, especially those suffering from severe radiation poisoning. Field hospitals were hastily set up and transportation of the injured to surrounding towns and cities was quickly arranged, but many more would die in the months after the bomb dropped. By the end of the year, the death toll stood at 130,000.

Those who survived the bombing were known as ‘Hibakusha’, which translates as ‘explosion-affected people’. Their lives in the decades following the bombing would not be easy. An entirely false belief grew up that those who had been exposed to radiation carried illnesses they could pass on to others. As a result, many Hibakusha were shunned by society and faced severe financial hardships. For many Hibakusha, the physical and mental effects of the bombing lasted for the rest of their lives. Those who survived radiation sickness were plagued by recurring bouts of illness, often leading to their premature deaths. Leukemia – blood cancer – dogged the Hibakusha, as other forms of cancers, heart and liver problems and, in later life, cataracts. In Nagasaki an estimated 35,000 – 40,000 people died immediately with about 60,000 injured. The death toll climbed steadily over the following weeks and months as survivors succumbed to radiation poisoning and burns. Just 22.7% of Nagasaki’s buildings were destroyed compared to the 92% of buildings either totally destroyed or badly damaged in Hiroshima The Japanese government formally surrendered on 15 August 1945, finally bringing an end to the Second World War.

The slow and inadequate treatment of victims probably contributed to the high casualty rates. Probably the number of deaths from the true blast effects, flame burns, or serious injuries from collapsing structures would not have been altered appreciably; generally speaking, these cases were killed outright. Probably the most significant results could have been achieved with the radiation cases. However, it is doubtful that 5 percent of all the deaths resulting from the atomic bombs could have been avoided with the best medical care.

Later on Hiroshima was designated as an international city of peace. In the case of Nagasaki, the government decided to designate it as an international city of culture. In 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the city and the peace park. ‘We have known the agony of war,’ the president wrote in the visitors’ book after visiting the peace museum. ‘Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.’ Today, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving, vibrant cities collectively home to over one and a half million people. But in the cities and memorial parks that arose from the ashes, the memory of those two terrible days in August will live on forever.

Yet another disaster hit Chernobyl, an accident in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union, the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power generation. The Chernobyl power station was situated at the settlement of Pryp’yat, 10 miles (16 km) northwest of the city of Chernobyl (Ukrainian:) and 65 miles (104 km) north of Kyiv, Ukraine. The station consisted of four reactors, each capable of producing 1,000 megawatts of electric power; Between 50 and 185 million curies of radionuclides (radioactive forms of chemical elements) escaped into the atmosphere—several times more radioactivity than that created by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. This radioactivity was spread by the wind over Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine and soon reached as far west as France and Italy. Millions of acres of forest and farmland were contaminated, During the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian forces attacking from Belarus captured Chernobyl after a brief but pitched battle. Combat at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster led to concerns about damage to the containment structure and the possibility of widespread radioactive contamination. Shortly after the Chernobyl accident it became evident that the main impacts of nuclear accidents are not radiological, but socio-economic and psychological. Stigmatisation of both exposed and evacuated populations following both accidents has strongly contributed to a significant rise in alcoholism, depression, anxiety, bullying and suicides.

On 11 March 2011, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan triggered a massive tsunami along the Pacific Coast. The earthquake and the ensuing tsunami resulted in the death of 19,729 people (with 2559 still missing) and devastated communities up and down the country. Reactors close to the earthquake, including those operating at Fukushima were shut down. However, as a consequence of the flood caused by the tsunami, the backup generators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which were meant to pump cooling water through the reactor, were destroyed. As a result, three cores largely melted over the following three days and there were several hydrogen explosions, as well as the release of nuclear material into the environment.

Has the world learnt anything from Hiroshima, Nagasaki nuclear disasters? Has the world forgotten effects of radiation in Chernobyl Disaster (1986) and fukushima daiichi calamity. Have we become wise? Imagine the devastation that would occur with present day nuclear weapons. Imagine its impact on human and animal life and the environment. Are we waiting for action replay of 1945, 1986 nuclear events? I hope and pray to God that wisdom prevails and no one uses destructive terrifying creations of their own.

Dr. A.K. Dewan
Director – Surgical Oncology

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