On Aug. 6 and 9, the world commemorates one of the great tragedies of the 20th century - the deaths of at least 200,000 Japanese civilians, and devastating injuries to many thousands more including in succeeding generations, from the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today, though the numbers of weapons are lower than during the Cold War, the worldwide nuclear arsenal is vastly greater and more powerful than were the relatively primitive bombs that wreaked such destruction 66 years ago.
Almost miraculously, despite the proliferation of nukes over nearly seven decades, they have not been used in warfare since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But such good fortune may not last forever.
In 2011, besides the five main nuclear powers - the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China - several other countries in volatile parts of the world are known to possess the weapons. They hang like a sword of Damocles over India and Pakistan's longstanding dispute. Israel's unacknowledged arsenal sits in the midst of the tension-fraught Middle East. And North Korea has so far resisted efforts to encourage it to end its nuclear weapons program.
Besides nuclear weapons' potential human toll, scientists have repeatedly warned about their potential effects on climate and environment. Thirty years ago, Carl Sagan and his colleagues spoke of "nuclear winter." Recent studies predict that the use of just 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons, or about 0.3 percent of the world's current arsenal, could lower temperatures worldwide, cut the ozone layer and shorten agricultural growing seasons, bringing on massive famine.
If this year's catastrophe at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, involving far smaller amounts of far less powerful nuclear materials, could produce such widespread havoc, the consequences of exploding 100 relatively small nuclear bombs defies the imagination.
For the last four decades, international conferences under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty have sought to start a process of disarming and finally abolishing nuclear weapons. In signing the pact, the five main nuclear weapons states pledged to "pursue negotiations in good faith" to nuclear disarmament, and ultimately sign a "treaty on general and complete disarmament."
Despite the agreement's hopeful goals, the arsenals remain huge, and the danger, enormous.
As the only nation to have used the weapons in warfare, the United States bears the obligation to lead in nuclear disarmament. Speaking in Prague over two years ago, President Obama pledged to seek a nuclear weapon-free world. Many marked the signing of the START treaty last year as a first step toward disarmament.
But the treaty's ratification was held hostage to the demand by several Republican senators for huge expenditures to modernize the nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. The administration's budget proposal for 2012 now calls for spending well over $200 billion over the next 10 years for this purpose.
Polls show over three-quarters of Americans want a nuclear weapon-free world.
In this season when the world remembers the terrible tragedies 66 years ago, it is urgent that we, the people, speak out and demand that our president and Congress lead the world in ending forever the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Photo: Libero Della Piana/PW