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Hiroshima Day Reflection on Nuclear Weapons

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Utter destruction of Hiroshima by 6 August 1945 bombing with a single atomic weapon. Writt

Sixty-six years ago today, the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and killed 90,000 to166,000 Japanese, most of them civilians.  Three days later it dropped another bomb on Nagasaki and killed 60,000 to 80,000 more.

As the Cold War progressed and people obsessed over the threat of nuclear destruction, John F. Kennedy, a new president from a new generation, took command of one of the two most powerful nations in the world and promised to secure our country no matter what it took to do it.  He began the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) program where 1,000 missiles were planted in silos right in the heart of the country:  the Dakotas, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Wyoming.  The power of each missile was 1,000 times more than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Each silo is covered by a 20-ton concrete lid that was designed to protect the missile below from being a target. If you are out on the plains and see these missile sites, it's difficult to recognize them for what they are.  If anything, they look like electric substations.  Two operators are assigned to ten missile silos. If given the order by the president, they would each simultaneously throw a switch to launch them.

In 1991, the United States "won" the Cold War and became the one and only "superpower" thanks to the dissolution of our great rival, the Soviet Union.  But what to do with all those weapons?  The United States alone had an arsenal of 14,747 warheads (down from a 1965 peak of 32,000) and the Soviet Union had 33,000 (down from a 1985 peak of 45,000).

In fact, the post-Cold War era ushered in a significant reduction in the total number of nuclear weapons in the world from 70,480 warheads in 1985 to about 26,850 in 2009.  However, many of the decommissioned weapons were simply stored or partially dismantled, but not destroyed

The existence of these lethal weapons, some of which are on "hair-trigger alert" (they can be deployed within 15 minutes of the president's order) present a potentially scary scenario of pre-emptive strike and retaliation that would surely end the world as we know it.

Another unfortunate consequence is that the "Nuclear Club" has been expanded to nine nations and made the world more vulnerable to nuclear attack, especially when "rogue nations" like North Korea acquired "the bomb" and Iraq and Iran are said to be working on it. 

Then there is the cost factor.

The United States currently spends $54 billion per year on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs, and President Obama wants to increase this budget by $2 billion per year for new bomb factories and by $12 billion over the next ten years for new nuclear-armed missiles, submarines and bombers.  The President has ordered untold and constantly shifting billions more for three locations:  Kansas City, Y-12 and Los Alamos as part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program

Over the next ten years the U.S. government will spend $700 billion on nuclear weapons alone.  Meanwhile, the Pentagon plans to use its budget to develop a new fleet of 12 nuclear-armed submarines at an estimated cost of $110 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and another $55 billion for 100 new bombers, and a new missile to replace the recently upgraded 450 Minuteman III.

In all, the United States has spent about $5 trillion on nuclear weapons, said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA)

This figure was largely unknown until 2000 when Stephen I. Schwartz published a two-year research project titled Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brookings Institution Press, 1998).  At the time he was a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and director of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project.  His paper was one of the first of its kind to determine what the nation had spent on nuclear weapons, which at the time turned out to be $4 trillion.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was a tremendous sigh of relief that the threat of nuclear war was gone, said Hutchison, so Americans stopped thinking about it and the issue disappeared from the public's imagination.  However, the danger of someone using a nuclear weapon is greater now than it was during the Cold War due to a lack of vigilance in making sure nuclear materials are kept secure.

"It won't be an exchange between the United States and Russia," said Hutchison. "Non-state actors have potential access to nuclear materials for crude or dirty bombs.  Proliferation has occurred because Pakistan has given information to other countries to pursue their capabilities."

In other words, America's stockpile of 1,950 active missiles (with 6,550 in reserve) won't deter a suicide bomber who is willing to die.  And now, with the Norway massacre, national security officials fear the emergence of "lone wolf terrorists." 

So it is no wonder that some peace activists have made the manufacturing, updating and stockpiling of nuclear weapons an issue for public attention.  They are even willing to go to jail for the cause of ridding the world of this dangerously lethal and expensive hardware--like the 200 activists who conducted a demonstration last year at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., "birthplace" of the atom bomb.  Thirteen of them were arrested and found guilty for trespassing on federal territory.  They will be sentenced this September.

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)
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