July 16 is the 75th anniversary of an event that blights the lives of every one of us on this planet. On that morning in 1945 scientists in the desert of New Mexico in the United States detonated the first atomic bomb.
After that successful test, the components of two more bombs were loaded on a warship bound for Tinian, a Pacific island that had been turned into a base from which American bombers could reach Japan. Those bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9.
What began with a single device that Monday morning in 1945 became a nuclear arms race. Though the number is slowly lessening, there are still nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons known to be in the world today. They are possessed by nine nations — Russia, the United States, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel (presumed) and North Korea. Others, like Iran, are working to develop such weapons. So far, only two nuclear weapons have been used in war, those dropped over Japan, but the threat remains.
So, we might assume that the only victims of atomic weapons are people who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago. But that is not so.
Decades of testing weapons in the open air spewed radioactive isotopes throughout the world. Some people, particularly soldiers, were intentionally exposed as guinea pigs to such explosions to measure the effects on them. Those of us who were children in the United States in the 1950s and 60s drank milk contaminated with strontium 90 that settled into our bones.
Apart from the effects of radioactive fallout, the whole world has suffered because resources and talents that could have been directed to alleviating poverty, curing diseases, providing education, protecting the environment, and building infrastructure for society as a whole were diverted to nuclear weapons development. We are all victims.
Ethics, treaties, and the rational calculation that the use of nuclear weapons would bring at least equally destructive retaliation have so far been a restraint on their use. The terror of Mutually Assured Destruction, significantly known as MAD, has provided protection that we should not need because those weapons should not exist in the first place.
As Pope Francis said at Hiroshima in November 2019, “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral”
(emphasis added). He later ordered that this condemnation be incorporated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, so it is now the Church’s official teaching.
But the nuclear problem is not limited to weapons. Sources of danger have become part of our everyday lives.
Once the power of the atom was unlocked, scientists, technologists, and corporations realized nuclear power could be used to produce electricity. Nuclear power plants provide electricity in many places throughout the world. Frequently they are in highly populated areas. One of the oldest, only now being shut down, is only 58 km (36 miles) from the center of New York City.
Such power plants are a perpetual danger. As they age, parts wear out and they have accidents. They can be targets for terrorists. What would be minor human errors in other contexts can become huge disasters. They produce radioactive waste for which we still lack effective means of disposal and neutralization.
At Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima, Japan in 2011, explosions in atomic power plants caused immense suffering, displacement, and environmental disaster. The effects may last centuries or even millennia.
In effect, we have atomic bombs in our communities and must simply hope that they are not detonated.
Germany, which has relied upon such power, is abandoning it, something called for by the Catholic bishops of that country in 1998. The Vatican has not yet formally advocated the abolition of nuclear power generation but after his visit to Hiroshima, Pope Francis said, “A nuclear disaster, from a nuclear plant will be a huge disaster. And safety measures have not yet been developed. I ... would not use nuclear energy until its use is completely safe.”
Eight months after the March 2011 Fukushima explosion and meltdown, Japan’s bishops called for an end to nuclear power generation. Then in 2016, they published a book setting forth the situation throughout the world and presenting the argument for that abolition.
Recognizing that a book in Japanese will have little impact upon world opinion, the bishops then commissioned an English translation. (Disclosure: I was one of the translators.)
is now available free of charge on the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan.
Besides the validity of its argument, the book is an example of the sort of leadership bishops everywhere should take on a host of issues. It does not issue commands, but attempts to convince by presenting well-researched and well-documented arguments complete with reference notes.
Bishops elsewhere should take two important lessons from their Japanese confreres: to confront the nuclear power issue, and to take the time and effort to present all their statements in an intellectually responsible manner.
Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCA News and based in Tokyo, Japan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.