Seventy years of unfinished business

A. Rahman
Published : 6 August 2015, 02:07 PM
Updated : 6 August 2015, 02:07 PM

Two dates – August 6, 1945 and August 9, 1945 – will remain firmly etched in the minds of humanity as the example of the world's worst man-made disaster and cruelty. People will recoil, as long as human civilisation lasts, at how the evil nature of human beings can cause such enormous death, destruction, and sufferings — not by the thousands but by the hundreds of thousands of people. On those two black days America dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan's Hiroshima and Nagasaki cities respectively and caused unprecedented destruction never seen before or since.

World War II was nearing its end around that time. Germany had surrendered, Japan was on the verge of surrendering since they risked being literally overrun by the victorious Allied Forces. But America would not let Japan off the hook just by surrendering; she had to be given a very bitter lesson for the audacity of attacking America at Pearl Harbour in 1941. Two nuclear bombs were the pay back from America to Japan.

The first nuclear bomb, called sadistically as the Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by a Boeing B-29 bomber aircraft. It was a crude gun-type fission weapon using fissile uranium (U-235) material, which is the enriched uranium isotope of the natural uranium-238.

A total of 64 kg of U-235 was used, of which 38 kg formed the projectile and 26 kg was the target. Although the projectile mass was above the critical mass for criticality, its configuration (hollow cylindrical structure) was such that a large fraction of neutrons escaped from the outer surface and inner hollow rings to cause criticality.

Similar configurations were applied to the target. But when the projectile component was blasted to move over the target component and locked in, neutron population causing fission reactions increased and attained criticality.

This bomb had the explosive power of 15 kilotons of TNT. (A 15 kg TNT parcel is big enough to demolish a very large building completely. This nuclear bomb was million times more powerful). It was exploded at about 600 metres above ground level to maximum devastating effect. Around 66,000 people died immediately and another 70,000 within the radius of 2.5 km were severely injured. Beyond that distance hundreds of thousands of people – men, women, and children – had been exposed to a high dose of radiation which caused somatic and stochastic damages.

The second bomb, sarcastically named Fat Man, was exploded over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It was also a fission bomb, but the fissile material was plutonium-239 as opposed to uranium-235 of the Hiroshima bomb. An entirely different technique was used to cause criticality here – an implosion when fissile materials were compressed by conventional explosive material was utilised to reach the critical mass and neutron density. It was exploded at ground level about 3 km from the centre of Nagasaki over a mountainous terrain.

Although the explosive power was 20 kilotons of TNT (higher than the Hiroshima bomb), due to the distance from the population centre and the terrain, the casualty was somewhat lower. A total of 35,000 suffered immediate fatality and over 60,000 suffered severe casualty. As always in a nuclear bomb, a very large number, exceeding 150,000 people, were exposed to high dose of radiation causing somatic and genetic effects.

The damage from nuclear explosion is caused by three effects: (a) Blast, (b) fire, and (c) radiation.

(a) Blast: It is the immediate cause of damage. A pressure wave between one and half to two times the atmospheric pressure blows out in all direction from the epicentre of the explosion. This pressure wave travels initially at a speed greater that the speed of sound. Almost everything including buildings, lamp posts as well as human beings within about 2 to 3 km radius are literally blown away and ripped apart within seconds after the detonation of the bomb. There is no escape from this.

(b) Fire: At the epicentre and up to about 400 metres from the epicentre, the temperature reaches as high as 6,000°C. At this temperature even iron and steel would just melt away. Everything would burst into flames and firestorms would rage up to 3 km. Hardly anything can escape from this hellish fire.

(c) Radiation: Further away, beyond about 4 to 5 km, people may not die immediately, but would suffer acute radiation effects. Those who got a high dose (about 100 Gy or more) would be totally dazed, their central nervous system would cease to work and they would remain as 'dead men walking'. Their skin would peel off and they would die horribly. Those further away getting less of the radiation dose may survive the immediate effect, but would have all sorts of radiation effects such as skin burn, cancer etc., and some may suffer genetic damage, which means their children would have mental and physical deformities.

So what prompted America to take such inhumane steps to punish Japan? Admittedly Japan took the aggressive posture against America by bombing the port city of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, but that did not warrant killing of hundreds of innocent men, women and children. The justification America produced was that by using nuclear bombs America brought the war to an early end.

But does that justification hold any ground? Japan was already in retreat. Their Air Force was virtually non-existent and America could bomb any place anywhere in Japan. Even Japan's mighty Naval Force was reduced to a skeleton. American warships were closing in on mainland Japan. It was a matter of time Japan would surrender. After all, Germany had surrendered and what could Japan alone do against the Allied Forces, other than surrendering?

Seventy years have passed since those dreadful days of their Armageddon. Japan had repeated apologised to America, Britain, and the Netherlands for treating American, British, and Dutch Prisoners of War (POWs) in the jungles of Borneo, Sumatra, Burma and other theatres of war in the Far East with brutality.

But that does not warrant the greatest killing of civilians the world has ever seen. Has America apologised for such atrocities against innocents? No, not even once. Is it not time, though long overdue, to reciprocate the Japanese gesture of reconciliation and remorse by America and apologise?

In the world of today, the West takes extreme caution against any casualty to civilians in the war front. Any violation to this practice of protecting civilians is roundly condemned by friend and foe alike. So what makes America so obstinate not to apologise unreservedly to Japan for causing death and destruction to civilian populations in those two cities so brutally?

A long 70 years have passed and now it is the time for the West to apologise to Japan and draw a firm line under the brutal episode of WWII, which epitomised everything that was evil in humanity.

Dr. A Rahman is an author and a columnist.