SIMON SHARP / THE STATESMAN
From left, Kathleen Sullivan, Marie Cochrane, Reiko Yamada, Nobuko Sugino, Sumiko Hatakeyama speak in the Educational Communications Center on May 7 about the Hiroshima bombing and the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility. SIMON SHARP / THE STATESMAN

The morning of August 6, 1945 greeted 11-year-old Reiko Yamada and the rest of Hiroshima’s citizens with scorching temperatures and a cloudless sky. Sitting on the edge of a sandbox, Yamada noticed nearby students pointing to the sky and shouting, “It’s a B-29!”

The American bomber B-29 usually flew so frequently and harmlessly above that she and her friends found nothing unusual about that day’s plane sighting. However, she was terribly mistaken.

That B-29, more commonly known as the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing approximately 140,000 people and leaving most of its survivors with devastating long-term effects.

And on Thursday, Yamada, fellow survivor Nobuko Sugino and disarmament activist Kristen Iversen, Ph.D., shared their first-hand experiences with nuclear weapons and a desire for nuclear abolition at the Educational Communications Center for a program hosted by Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Program. 

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Yamada and Sugino are two “hibakushas,” the Japanese word for atomic bomb survivors. Hibakusha Stories Program Director Kathleen Sullivan, Ph.D. started the event by discussing the history of nuclear weapons and the current international movement for a ban.

According to Sullivan, nine countries worldwide possess nuclear weapons, including the U.S. and Russia, and roughly 16,000 nuclear weapons exist in total. She described nuclear arms as “instruments of genocide,” referring to the term “weapon” as a euphemism that is “too kind of a word.”

Iversen, author of “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats,” recounted details from her recent book that narrates her childhood growing up near Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons facility in Colorado—a plant where she worked and eventually quit.

Her mother innocently believed that the plant was making “scrubbing bubbles.” Instead, Rocky Flats was manufacturing plutonium pits, small spherical explosives that produce atomic bombs. According to Iversen, the most dangerous way to ingest plutonium is by breathing it into one’s lungs.

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“A tiny particle as small as a millionth of a gram can lodge in the lungs and present an ongoing source of radiation for more than 200 years, beyond human life span,” she said.

Eventually, Rocky Flats lacked the capacity to store 5,000 barrels indoors. As a result, those barrels stood out in the open for more than eleven years. As time passed, the containers rusted, and radioactive, toxic material leaked out.

The effects of the radiation were first apparent in the animals around Rocky Flats. According to Iversen, people began to notice problems with animals beginning in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Chicks belonging to local farmer Lloyd Nixon could not peck their way out of shells. His pig Scooter was born without back legs.

It was not long until radiation’s impact on humans was also discovered.

According to Iversen, the members of her community suffered from cancer, chronic fatigue and “autoimmune stuff” that baffled doctors. One of her friends underwent surgery for nine tumors, and Iversen and her siblings all ached from thyroid issues. However, the suffering in Hiroshima occurred on a much grander scale.

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On the day of the bombing, Yamada witnessed people with burnt skin and clothing, coated in blood. By the third day, victims began to die in droves. Though Hibakusha Stories interpreter Marie Cochrane, Yamada said the dead were “gathered together like garbage and cremated.”

Even after time passed, Yamada could not forget the bomb’s destruction. During the spring of sixth grade, Yamada was digging up sweet potatoes she and her friends had planted earlier when she suddenly heard screams. As her friends tried to scoop out the dirt, the ground evolved into a gelatinous consistency and bones of cremated people began to appear.

Sugino also recalled the Hiroshima horrors. Although she was only one year old when the bomb dropped, her mother told her what happened that fateful day. Neighbors helped her and her mother out of their home where they were trapped. Her older brother and sister did not survive.

During part of an initiative by Peace Boat, a Japan-based organization that invites hibakusha to travel on a global scale and call for nuclear abolition, Sugino also learned that natives of Tahiti suffered from the effects of French nuclear testing. As translated by international coordinator Sumiko Hatakeyama, Sugino realized that “although Tahiti is so much farther away from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are also people that are suffering from the same kind of effect.”

However, a startling percent of Japan’s younger generation seems to be uneducated about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Yamada stated that “two-thirds” of the young generation is uneducated about nuclear weapons and asked the government for help in educating the children. During a festival called “Children,” Sugino asked kids if they knew what prefectures on a map suffered from the bombings. Few pointed to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During sleepless nights, Sugino often tells her late mother that she’s working hard to convey the stories and suffering of the Hiroshima victims, a rapidly
disappearing generation.

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“I hope there will be no more nuclear weapon in the world,” Sugino concluded in English to thunderous applause. “I wish peace all over
the world.”

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1 comment

  1. Unfortunately, when nuclear weapons are outlawed
    only outlaws will have nuclear weapons.

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