On July 16, 1945, at around 5:30 a.m., 11-year-old Henry Herrera was outside his home in Tularosa, New Mexico, helping his father work on the radiator of their truck, when he saw a blinding flash of light. He thought he was witnessing the end of the world. In fact, he was witnessing the first ever use of a nuclear weapon — the Trinity nuclear test.
A few weeks later, on Aug. 6 and 9, the newly tested weapons were used on Japan, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 150,000 to 246,000 innocent people. In 1946, nuclear testing began in the Marshall Islands; it would continue there until 1958, and in the United States until 1992. The production of these weapons, with its own harmful consequences, continues today. Even worse, Congress recently voted to fund expansion of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
In a cruel twist of fate, July 16 is a double nuclear anniversary for New Mexico. On that day in 1979, a dam holding back radioactive waste at the Church Rock uranium mill broke, releasing 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco, across three Navajo Nation chapters, and into Arizona. After both July 16 events, no health studies or medical resources were provided for residents, leaving those affected to battle the resulting illnesses and deaths alone.
Last summer, after marking these anniversaries, my colleagues and I felt a sense of anti-climax. Something was missing. Perhaps after so long, we had become numb in the face of this history of death.
As we approached the 75th anniversary of the fateful bombings of Japan, we decided we needed to do more.
To begin, we reached out to our partners in Japan, and learned an important lesson. The survivors of the bombings, known as hibakusha, generally focus on messages of hope and resiliency, in pursuit of opportunities to build a peaceful world. They share their haunting memories of the bombings, but then they look forward and demand progress.
We also looked to the survivors of nuclear weapons activities here at home. Estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and in the Marshall Islands that have been sickened and killed due to nuclear weapons testing, uranium mining and nuclear-weapons production.
Despite the distances between them — in time, place and culture — the stories of many of these survivors are the same. A flash of blinding light, the feeling the world was ending. Falling dust and powder — like snow — that sickened people and would lead, eventually, to cancers. Secrecy and neglect shrouded their experiences for decades.
United by these tragedies, now most impacted communities have the same ultimate goals: ensuring these weapons are never used again, and that they are one day eliminated.
With these goals in mind, our national coalition is gathering virtually on Aug. 6 and 9, the anniversaries of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The event will feature presentations from many of the 150 groups that have joined the effort so far. We hope readers will join us to learn more and hear from the people who have been impacted and are fighting for change.
Seventy-five years after these bombings, nuclear weapons are still here, continuing to threaten every person on earth. But the survivors are still here, too. And in a time of separation and mourning, this is a chance to stand in solidarity with communities around the world that are calling for peace.
Lilly Adams, a consultant with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, helped organize a national coalition commemorating the 75th anniversary of the first uses of nuclear weapons. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.