Lanterns for Peace

Lanterns float on Madison's Tenney Park lagoon during the Lanterns for Peace annual event on Aug. 6, 2013, remembering the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This year's family friendly event will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7, at the Tenny Park shelter. 

Earlier today, Aug. 6, the 73rd anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Father James Murphy trespassed at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, the location of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which coordinates the launch of nuclear weapons.

Extreme danger calls for extreme action. Father Jim did what we should all be doing — calling attention to the incredible danger of nuclear weapons. He put his body on the line to prevent these monstrous weapons from ever being used again. He will likely face a prison sentence.

He carries on a tradition of SAC protests. For the last 40 years, members of the Des Moines, Iowa Catholic Worker group have organized demonstrations against nuclear weapons at Offutt on Hiroshima day and on Holy Innocents Day, Dec. 28.

In Hiroshima, a city of 255,000, approximately 65,000 people died immediately upon the detonation of a small nuclear weapon. Another 65,000 survived, but suffered severe radiation, blast and burn injuries. If just one American city of the same size were targeted with a modern nuclear weapon, the nation’s medical system would be overwhelmed.

Most U.S. medical personnel have little training in the diagnosis and treatment of persons with radiation injuries. Treating a person with exposure to radioactive isotopes is complex and requires specialized radiation monitoring equipment and urine/fecal radio-bioassays. One needs ready access to agents that block uptake, chelate and promote excretion of internally ingested isotopes. A plentiful supply of red and white blood cell stimulating factors and stem cells is needed to treat bone marrow failure.

Besides the radiation injuries, the U.S. medical system does not have the capacity to treat tens to hundreds of thousands with serious burn and blast injuries. Our nation has only 2,000 burn beds. As of 2010, we had 1,675 trauma centers. Of the 200 best staffed and equipped of these centers (Level 1), most have a “surge capacity” at one time of only 20-30 patients. What happens if the medical centers themselves are destroyed and their staff killed or wounded in a nuclear attack?

We are a wealthy country. Imagine the casualties in a poor country under nuclear attack with limited medical, communication and transportation resources.

International medical groups have agreed that a humanitarian medical response to a nuclear weapon attack would be impossible. The United Nations recognized this and passed a nuclear weapon ban treaty last July. The treaty makes nuclear weapons illegal under international law, putting them into the same category as biological and chemical weapons.

We have made progress in reducing nuclear stockpiles since President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev negotiated nuclear arms reductions in 1986. But the world still has approximately 9,000 to 10,000 of these weapons in service. Our nation, together with Russia, has 90 percent of them. And the U.S. is planning a $1.7 trillion modernization of its nuclear forces, which will likely spur other nuclear nations to do the same.

Terrorist threats to obtain and use a nuclear weapon, the long-simmering conflict between India and Pakistan, the U.S. and Russia conflict in Syria and recent U.S.-North Korea tensions have increased the threat of accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons. Yet neither we, Russia nor any of the seven other nuclear states have signed the U.N. nuclear weapon ban treaty.

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Across the United States a new advocacy campaign is underway. The “Back from the Brink” campaign calls for no first use of nuclear weapons, ending the unchecked authority of a U.S. president to launch a nuclear attack, taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, canceling the nuclear modernization program and pursuing a verifiable agreement with other nuclear-armed states to eliminate our nuclear arsenals. Encourage our senators and representatives to support it.

Let us remember those who lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and make their lives count. Contact Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Mark Pocan and ask them to support preventive measures at home and diplomatic efforts abroad to pull us back from the nuclear brink.

Paula Rogge, M.D., is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility–Wisconsin steering committee.

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