In the shadow of the Atomic Bomb

Seventy-five years ago today, in the morning of August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was just waking up; everyone made their way to work and school, slowly filling streets and roads with activity as usual.

Then, within the blink of an eye, at 8:15 a.m., the sun seemingly descended upon the earth, its blinding light seen from miles away in the darkness, its overwhelming power rocking cities far into the distance. Yet it was not the sun, but in fact the explosion of a 9,700-lbs atomic bomb (named Little Boy) dropped from the Enola Gay, a U.S. Air Force B-29 bomber. At its centre, many were vaporized in an instant – others were burned to death by the immense waves of concentrated heat, followed by powerful shockwaves bursting through entire buildings like a child kicking down a house of Lego. As if that wasn’t enough, the lasting radiation killed anyone else in the vicinity, including any emergency personnel who scrambled to help. In the eyes of USAF superiors, Little Boy was a grand success, after all, careful calculations went into making sure the weapon detonated right before impacting the city to maximize damage.

Aside from a handful of standing buildings, not much else was left of Hiroshima following the bombing.

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

J. Robert Openheimer, theoretical physicist

In the coming days, the U.S. would drop another atomic bomb, Fat Man, on the city of Nagasaki, on August 9, 1945, forcing Imperial Japan’s hand to surrender and ultimately ending the Second World War. In the aftermath of the bombings, an estimated 200,000 people were killed, including any survivors who eventually succumbed to fatal burns, radiation poisoning or other cancers. It would take years for the U.S. and the rest of the world to realize the full extent of the destruction.

Playing with unimaginable power

The world’s first nuclear device is detonated in the dark desert of New Mexico, July 16, 1945

Some knew well ahead of time what such a beast would be capable of, should it be unleashed upon the world. Among the carefully-chosen and brilliant minds was J. Robert Openheimer, theoretical physicist and head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, birthplace of the Manhattan Project, the secretive U.S. nuclear development program. It’s by this association that he is commonly known as “the father of the atomic bomb” who led a small team of mostly-German physicists and scientists to develop the most powerful source of energy on earth. A visibly-emotional Openheimer is seen delivering his famously-chilling speech on July 16, 1945, mere weeks before the bombings on Japan, in which he repeats his favourite line from the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Interestingly, the Manhattan Project began well before Pearl Harbour and America’s direct involvement in the Second World War. It was its paranoia of Hitler’s supposed plans of developing nuclear weapons to sway the war back in his favour, after all, it was the Germans who discovered nuclear fission in 1938 and quickly became an emerging field of interest, given its potential of creating massive amounts of energy. But Germany’s surrender in spring of 1945 revealed no stockpile of uranium, nor was there any sign of the Nazis being any closer to cracking nuclear power.

In the east however, things were ready to take another vicious turn. Despite repeated losses in the Pacific, Imperial Japan was still unwilling to surrender, pushing its already-faltering factories and resources well beyond their limits to continue feeding the Imperial war machine. Evidence of this iron ambition was hidden well within the Kure Naval Arsenal near Hiroshima; the Yamato, one of the biggest and most powerful battleships in the world, was taking shape. Little did Japan know however, that the United States had a far worse secret; one of unimaginable power, capable of vaporizing entire cities and melting even the thickest armor plating of the grandest battleship.

Meanwhile at the Los Alamos Laboratory, a realization was starting to emerge among senior staff; that their discovery would soon be put to use. Some physicists even started a petition to try to control the use of the atomic bomb, but it was too late. By that point, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt had succumbed to his illness, replaced by President Harry Truman, whose stance on the war was to end it – at any cost.

A thin veil of peace

It soon became clear that the Manhattan Project would not succeed without its essential fuel source: uranium.

This is a part of the whole atomic bomb story I don’t hear very often, but one that is of significant importance; where did the uranium come from. Today, it is a known source of fuel commonly used in nuclear power plants, but back in the 1940s, such a thing simply wasn’t conceived yet; and certainly no one thought to use it to power a bomb. Still, it was in short supply. So much so that the U.S. government looked to the Great White North – yes, us peace-keeping, hockey-winning, beer-chugging friendly Canadians eh – for a healthy supply. Under a highly-secretive, under-the-table handshake of sorts between the two neighbouring nations, the Canadian government began supplying the United States with uranium that directly fed the Manhattan Project, and, ultimately, its development of the atomic bomb. Though it’s unclear just how many locations around Canada supplied uranium, one of the best known is the historic mining site of Port Radium in Great Bear Lake, near Délı̨nę, a tiny 533-person hamlet in the Northwest Territories.

A miner hauls a car of uranium-bearing ore at Eldorado Mine of Great Bear Lake, N.W.T., in 1930 (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission)

As the revealing CBC News article entails, workers were hauling sacks of radioactive ore on their backs with no knowledge of what even uranium was. Locals said the whole operation was kept under a veil of secrecy, with not even the workers themselves knowing where this material was going or what it was going to be used for. To this day, the Canadian government has yet to formally acknowledge or apologize to the Sahtúot’ine people and the community of Délı̨nę for the physical and mental impact the whole operation had on its people.

The impacts on the human body from mining uranium were certainly underestimated, even well after the Second World War. My grandfather, Constantin Buhaceanu, spent 30 years deep in the toxic darkness of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania mining uranium, an experience that would inadvertently bring consequences to him and his colleagues in the years to come. In his early 60s, he developed Parkinson’s disease, and though it was never fully determined that uranium exposure was directly responsible, the premature deaths due to cancer and other inexplicable illnesses of all his mining colleagues was self-evident. Since Romania was then under the USSR, I can only speculate where that uranium went, as the country had no use for uranium, nor did it have any nuclear power plants to feed.

Visions of doom

I find it unimaginable, impossible, to try and picture that moment in time when Little Boy detonated in Hiroshima. How can the human brain comprehend so much power? So much energy that, in an instant, human flesh vaporizes, concrete becomes glass, and metal becomes liquid.

Earlier this week, I watched in awe at the footage from Beirut’s catastrophic port explosion as it trickled through the news, closely resembling that of a nuclear detonation; the powerful blast, the shockwave, the mock-up mushroom cloud… it all seemed surreal. And that’s just watching it through a monitor; I simply cannot imagine what the people of Beirut, and of Lebanon, are going through right now, and what horrific things they face as they continue recovering people from the wreckage.

The explosion was caused by a surplus of ammonium nitrate, which was being stored at the port for several years. A nearby fire caused the nitrate to ignite, leading to a massive explosion. A similar incident involving ammonium nitrate in 1917 happened here on Canadian soil, when an explosion flattened the port of Halifax, N.S., killing 2,000 people and injuring 9,000 more.

Still, as devastating as both disasters are, they still don’t compare to that of an atom bomb detonation. For perspective, the Halifax explosion had an estimated energy output of 2.9 kilotons, whereas Little Boy was at around 18 kilotons.

The idea of humanity killing itself with power too much to control has equally become a topic of fiction and science-fiction, often telling stories in the future that have deep roots in the past. There are countless examples, but one that sticks out for me most is the 1988 anime sci-fi masterpiece, AKIRA, not only because its story of a dystopian future feels so damn familiar with 2020, but because it comes from the very same nation that met face to face with the atom bomb.

[Some spoilers ahead] Set in a dystopian 2019 (not far off from ours, funny enough) AKIRA takes place in the post-World War Three city of Neo-Tokyo, a futuristic metropolis built on top of the ruins of the old city, which was devastated by an overwhelming force. The city is overrun by crime, gangs, corruption, extreme poverty and excessive wealth, while the unhappy, overworked masses protest in the streets for equality (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, a secret government entity is starting to play around with the same uncontrollable, dangerous and destructive power that destroyed the old city and started WWIII more than 30 years prior. Essentially, they fuck up again, and Neo-Tokyo is once again consumed by a quantum-singularity thing that very closely resembles the A-bomb.

Tokyo is wiped out after human scientists uncover god-like sources of energy

A clip below shows the final destruction, which I feel is so well done, it’s chilling.

And it’s meant to be chilling. AKIRA certainly wasn’t the only anime or manga depicting the destruction of the A-bomb in a storytelling sense, but has a seed of truth and reality to it that’s hard to miss.

What is the truth, really? That humanity has had the power to annihilate itself for years now, and the constant expansion and drive for more and more power can lead us on paths we are not ready for, in charge of things we are too weak and too immature to handle. In many ways, AKIRA, like many events happening in our world right now (COVID-19, fight against racism, fight for equality, etc), is a stern warning of what can happen if we choose to ignore our history.

Today, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bustling, modern metropolises, home to millions of people, yet its wartime scars will remain forever, marking the days when the world woke up to the power of the atomic bomb.

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