Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: Education is Central


Nuclear Abolition News | IPS

Viewpoint by Kathleen Sullivan*


NEW YORK (IPS) - Upon hearing the stories of atomic bomb survivors, a high school student in Manhattan remarked, "It made me realise how fast and instantly the world as we know it could turn literally into nothing but dust and ashes." [P] JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

Today the proliferation of nuclear weapons continues in a climate of decreased concern.

We no longer have the massive global disarmament movements of the 1960s and 1980s; instead nuclear issues are a kind of background noise. Nuclear news items appear almost daily and are reported in a fairly straight-forward manner. However, they also contain deeper meanings that evade the awareness of many, particularly young people who are growing up with scant knowledge of the distinctive risks of the nuclear age.


To achieve a nuclear weapon-free world we need an educated citizenry that fully appreciates the radioactive violence and Damoclean danger constituted by nuclear bombs. As acknowledged in the United Nations Study on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Education, UN member states need to regard the education of future leaders and citizens with urgency and dedication. Educators should seek creative means to engage young people in nuclear issues, and this requires a thoughtful approach -not only education about disarmament but education for disarmament.


Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan defined this as an absolute necessity: "There has never been a greater need for education in the areas of disarmament and non-proliferation, especially with regard to weapons of mass destruction, but also in the field of small arms and international terrorism. Since the end of the Cold War, changing concepts of security and threat have demanded new thinking. Such new thinking will arise from those who are educated and trained today." (http://disarmament.un.org:8080/education/study.html).


Still, few students understand the basic facts and are often surprised to learn that approximately 23,000 nuclear weapons are owned by nine nations and remain a threat to all life on earth. Many people are unaware that nuclear weapons are unique and are not at all like conventional bombs. We are rarely reminded that the primary effects of a nuclear explosion include a blast, heat, fire, and radiation, producing destruction on an unimaginable scale.


The immense light and heat of a nuclear explosion is three times greater than at the interior of our sun and can initiate firestorms, which deplete oxygen from the environment and create hurricane-force winds that in turn attract debris and feed the storm, causing super-infernos. According to Lynne Eden of Stanford University, a 300 kiloton bomb, the average size of most strategic nuclear weapons (dwarfing the one dropped on Hiroshima, which was around 15 kilotonnes), would create firestorms over a 40-65 mile radius where "virtually no one...would survive". (http://bos.sagepub.com/content/60/1/32.full)


Educators also need to encourage awareness of another, much-misunderstood effect of nuclear weaponry -long-lived radiation. Once released, radioactive elements can hang around for millennia, putting future generations at risk of developing cancer and genetic mutations. Long after a nuclear weapon is detonated, radiation does its deadly work in secret. Plutonium, one of the main radioactive ingredients of nuclear weapons, has a half-life of 24,000 years.


Many students are unaware that there are still people alive today who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In Japanese, atomic bomb survivors are called hibakusha. Listening to their stories can help provide young people with a confident understanding of nuclear issues. In hearing their first hand testimony, students can begin to understand the exceptional dangers of nuclear weapons and radiation and thus grasp the daily realities of our nuclear age.


This urgent education and understanding is needed not only for young people but, sadly, for some adults as well, many in positions of political power, who believe that nuclear weapons are a fact of life and we will just have to learn how to live with the threat.


Even though there has been some talk of the importance of disarmament (in some unidentified future) and there are international laws and agreements to usher in the end of the nuclear weapon era, there is still a yawning gap between rhetoric and reality.


Which countries have Nuclear Disarmament Agencies? Which nations are prepared to plan for the dismantling of their arsenals? What monies and personnel are allocated for this most noble of tasks?


And given the choice, do we really want to live in a world where we have the power to switch off the lights on all complex life forms?


Not great social calculus is needed to understand that the farther we get from the realities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the closer we are to the use of nuclear weapons again, by accident or by design. In recent major media, we have heard a re-mix of the duck and cover mentality that sheltering in place can save lives. The only way to avoid the dangers of a nuclear attack is to educate ourselves about the true meaning of nuclear weapons, and get rid of them. (DECEMBER 2010/COPYRIGHT IPS)


* Kathleen Sullivan is the Programme Director for Hibakusha Stories, an arts-based initiative that brings atomic bomb survivors into New York City High Schools to share their testimonies. She has produced two films about survivors from Nagasaki: The Last Atomic Bomb (2005) and The Ultimate Wish (forthcoming).