By Monica Montgomery
n late February, Adm. Charles Richard, head of US Strategic Command, told a House committee that the innovations going into a new nuclear warhead are what make him “proud to be an American.”
He was referring to the W93, a new nuclear warhead that will be used on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and that the Trump administration wants $53 million to start work on this year. While the design and timeline remain unclear, the administration forecasts that the price tag for developing and building this new weapon will reach over $1 billion per year in the next four years. The W93 would join or replace at least three other submarine-launched nuclear warheads that already exist and for which billions already have been and are still being spent to modernize.
ICAN had invited Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima survivor and ICAN campaigner, to begin the forum. Thurlow was 13 years old when an American aircraft dropped an atomic bomb on her home city. A twist of fate put her and 30 of her classmates outside the bomb’s epicenter; over 300 of her other classmates were not as fortunate. As Thurlow says, those classmates instantly perished with “a flash of light and heat that wiped them from the face of earth.”
Thurlow recounted how she floated in the air for several seconds after the bomb’s explosion, before she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she was trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building, shrouded in silent darkness. After crawling out, she saw that the rubble was on fire and that the sky, previously flooded with the morning’s early light, had turned dark. Most of the 30 classmates with her that morning could not get out. They burned alive.
She made her way to a nearby hill. In the scene stretching before her, lifeless bodies lay strewn about, while a “ghostly” procession of survivors streamed past, their flesh burnt, swollen, and hanging from their bones.
When she reunited with her four-year-old nephew the following day, Thurlow saw how the explosion had scorched him beyond recognition. He died four days later.
Thurlow today strives for nuclear weapons’ elimination because of this image: “the symbol of innocent children of the world” who would fall victim to the next nuclear attack.
She has recounted her story thousands of times, even though she says each new telling is no less difficult. She does it to ensure that the world does not forget the pain and destruction caused by what counts as just one “small” nuclear weapon by today’s standards.
Her testimony elicited sorrow, followed by bewilderment, frustration, and indignation. These are the emotions that all the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors elicit.
Testimony by the commander of my country’s nuclear forces should not do the same. Yet, bewilderment, frustration, and indignation are exactly what I feel when I hear a new nuclear warhead hailed as a source of national pride. All this, and sorrow too.
Billions of dollars for yet another nuclear weapon that would make, in Thurlow’s haunting words, “the living envy the dead” do not make me proud.
Decades of irrevocable degradation and radiation that nuclear weapons has inflicted—and is still inflicting—on marginalized communities and our shared environment do not make me proud.