The Weekly Scientist on the Atomic Bomb

When I hear that an estimated 236,000 people died in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945, I often think that the true value of this figure is lost on us. 236,000 people…That’s almost the same as the entire population of the City of Nottingham, or 79 times the number of people that died in the September 11th attacks, or over 1800 clones of each Facebook friend the average person has… Basically it’s a lot of people. But I think in order to truly appreciate how horrific this number is, you need to know exactly what happened to the victims. Luckily (or maybe unluckily) that happens to be the topic of this article…

The city of Hiroshima was the primary blast site of the WWII atomic bomb attack on Japan. Approximately 70,000 people died as soon as the atomic bomb exploded. These people died for different reasons depending on how far from the blast site they were. The blast zones that I am about to delve into lay on top of one another, so effects in blast zone five will also have occurred in the other four. For a half mile diameter centred around the blast site, every single object/person/building was vaporised by the atomic blast in what is known as the “vaporisation point”. This means the strength of the blast was so strong that even stone turned into vapour, and fatality rates as a result of this are calculated to have been a whopping 98%. For a one mile in diameter centred around the blast site, “total destruction” occurred. This means that all structures above ground were destroyed, and the fatality rate in this zone was a deadly 90%. For a two mile diameter centred around the blast site, known as the zone of “severe blast damage”, the strength of the blast was enough to cause large-scale buildings to collapse; highway bridges were  nearly demolished and even the flow of rivers changed to counter-current. 65% of the people in this area died; another 30% were injured.

The fourth zone, a two and a half mile radius around the blast site, is my least favourite one. It was an area of “severe heat damage” and everything flammable in this area burned. People died instantly; their bodies turned to black char. Many who were “lucky” enough to avoid burning to death ran out of oxygen as it was being consumed by the fires, and so they ended up suffocating to death. This blast zone had a 50% fatality rate and a 45% injury rate.

The remaining area of the blast zone, up to just over 3 miles from the blast site, was an area of “severe fire and wind damage”. In this zone structures were wrecked, people were blown around, and 2nd and 3rd degree burns were suffered by most survivors. Only 15% of people in this area died, but 50% were injured. So if Indiana Jones hid in a fridge at this nuclear explosion site, he would need to have been at least over 1.25 miles away from the centre of the blast in order to avoid death from vaporisation, destruction, burns or suffocation. Unfortunately, this list of the different ways that an atomic bomb can kill you is not exhaustive…

To paint a picture of how petrifying this atomic explosion was, I’m just going to tell you a little bit more about it. Birds burst into flame in mid air, paper and other combustibles instantly ignited as far away as 6,400 feet from ground zero, the bright light emitted from the blast was so intense that it burned dark patterns of clothing onto skin and the shadows of people onto walls. Even blind people 120 miles away from a nuclear explosion have reported being able to see its light. The numerous small fires that had started in blast zone 4 soon merged into one large firestorm that killed anyone who had not escaped in the first minutes after the attack. And yet, despite the not-so-brilliant odds, there were survivors from the attack on Hiroshima who, other than severe psychological scarring and critical burns, were fit and well. For a little while…

Several days after the blast, survivors started suffering from an unknown “sickness”, and soon the death rates of the seemingly recovering patients started to rise. It turned out that this was due to radiation sickness, which killed most of its victims between 3 and 8 weeks after the attack on Hiroshima. Even the rain that follows an atomic detonation is laden with radioactive particles, which led to further radiation poisoning of Hiroshima survivors. By the end of 1945, due to the initial blast effects and radiation fallout, the death toll had risen from an initial 70,000 to over 100,000 victims. Unfortunately, as radiation exposure is associated with long-term health risks, the death toll did not stop there.

Exposure to radiation can lead to many different health problems. Radiation is a carcinogen most commonly associated with leukaemia (cancer of the blood or bone marrow). The increase in leukaemia sufferers was noticeable three years after exposure to radiation and the number of new diagnoses reached its peak between 1950 and 1952. Following this, the incidence of leukaemia has been diminishing, but even over 50 years after the bombing, excess cancers were still being detected in the population. Other long-term effects for the victims of atomic radiation include: an increase in cases of anaemia (a low white and red blood cell count lasted up to ten years after the bombing) and cataracts; other malignant cancers including that of the thyroid, breast, lung and salivary gland; and finally, keloids (abnormally swollen scar tissue forming mounds of raised and twisted flesh) formed over apparently healed burns. Lastly, a vast range of psychological consequences resulted from the appalling and shocking attack, with many of the symptoms being a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder, for example feelings of guilt, dizziness, unconsciousness, headaches, nausea and other neurotic symptoms, to name but a few.

So to summarise, the attack on Hiroshima was shocking in many ways. The attack was completely unexpected; the different ways that it killed people were in all cases horrendous. Those who survived the direct effects were later killed by radiation sickness or long-term effects like cancers, and anyone fortunate enough to survive all of these suffered from serious psychological trauma. But the following two interesting yet dreadful points really make me think when it comes to nuclear attacks. Firstly, it turns out that the atomic bomb doesn’t just affect the people who are exposed to it; it is also a curse for future generations and some people who are yet to be born will still suffer due to an attack that occurred over 60 years ago. The atomic bomb takes its victims both quickly and very, very slowly, and even now we haven’t seen the full effects of the attack on Hiroshima… And secondly, the nuclear explosion seen at Hiroshima was calculated as only using 1/10th of a percent (i.e. 0.1%) of the bomb’s atomic potential, which makes me wonder how much destructive power we actually have in our hands as human beings, and how much devastation we’ll cause in the future…

Doñah K. Sabbagh

Editor’s Note: Welcome back! I hope you haven’t been suffering from Weekly Scientist withdrawal symptoms…I know I have and needles to say, they are not very pleasant! This year, the Weekly Scientist will continue to keep you both informed and interested. If the above article has left you feeling gloomy, then rest assured, next week shall be a little bit more light-hearted! As a matter of fact, the next four articles will be entirely dedicated to anything love, sex or dating related, in spirit of February’s Valentine’s day. Please look forward to what we have in store and tell us what you think!

14 Comments on this post.
  • dan
    25 January 2011 at 12:31
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    There is a section of pavement and wall in the museum in Hiroshima with a black silhouette seemingly scorched on it. What is it in fact is the original colour but the rest of the section has been bleached by the explosion. That person was simply sitting there at the time of the explosion. Tough break.

  • Cynthia
    27 January 2011 at 08:02
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    The Atomic Bomb should have never been used on anyone, and should never be used again. So horrific.

  • Dave Jackson
    27 January 2011 at 09:00
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    I can’t agree Cynthia. My granddad spent the entire war in Burma, and was set to be one of the first to land on Japan in the case of an invasion. He remained convinced that he wouldn’t have survived such an eventuality, such was the fanaticism of those he fought against. I’ve most likely got a vested interest in the atomic bomb having been used!

  • vanessabrown
    27 January 2011 at 12:48
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    C’mon Dave! You’re saying that because some British soldiers would have died if they’d had to fight on land then the use of an atomic bomb that killed 236,000 people including civilian men, women and children is justified?! “Vested interest” is putting it lightly methinks!

  • Mike
    27 January 2011 at 18:27
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    Would you have preferred that instead of the atomic bomb, they should have fire-bombed Hiroshima as they did Tokyo, which killed 100,000 people? Maybe they should have tried bioweapons as the Japanese did on China, killing an estimated 350,000 people?

    The Japanese were training women to fight with bamboo spears, they were making backpacks with explosives for kids to use as suicide bombers. Yes, it was a terrible thing to drop the atomic bombs and as a result, it ended the war before tens of thousands if not millions more died. Do some research!

  • Dave Jackson
    28 January 2011 at 02:24
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    I think (and I wish i could do more research into this, but I haven’t the time!) that, if anything, the fact that a D-Day-esque invasion wasn’t required actually saved lives on both sides.

    I don’t think the nuke actually changes things in terms of the power of destruction – we had the ability to kill every man, woman and child in Japan before the atomic bombs existed – their existence doesn’t make the deaths caused any more immoral than the bombings of Dresden or Tokyo, which have also been derided despite their ‘conventional’ nature.

    We know the fanatical nature of the Japanese forces in WWII, and it has been heavily suggested that had an invasion taken place, the population would have risen up and become another army to face. Considering aswell the horrific nature of the war we had fought with Japan, and the war crimes which they committed, it’s not a clear cut issue!

  • vanessabrown
    27 January 2011 at 17:05
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    I honestly know nothing about this conflict *sheepish smile*. However, I personally still can’t rationalise that number of deaths being caused by one attack. Death tolls always seem to be the determining factor for my support of a conflict rather than the nobility of the cause. I know that makes no actual sense in the long run but I just can’t help thinking about all the wasted lives of both soldiers and civilians and the effects on their families. I know that I’m perhaps missing the point but that’s just the reaction I always have.

    • Eric John
      27 January 2011 at 17:36
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      You are not missing the point, Vanessa. In fact, you are probably one of the few people who actually understood what Doñah’s article was about. The first line of this article makes it very clear. We see it on the news, read in the newspapers: “So and so many people have died”, but it’s all just a number to us, and not even a very accurate one. We don’t see the countless lives that have been lost and none of us could ever begin to understand the enormity of such tragedy until it actually start hitting closer to home. You can string all kinds of statistics together and make all kinds of arguments about the potential political ramifications of not having dropped the atomic bomb. At the end of the day, people died, innocent people, and that will never be acceptable.

      I don’t know about you, but I would never have wanted to face as gruesome a death as by the atomic bomb, no matter the political implications behind it. Yes, many lives were lost on both sides of the war, but can we really call the atomic bomb “unavoidable” on the basis of pure speculation? Put yourself into somebody else’s shoes before you start justifying the use of such a dangerous weapon.

  • Dave Jackson
    27 January 2011 at 19:31
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    I don’t think that many people would say that war is a desirable outcome, least of all a total war in which civilians are involved. I’m genuinely interested though – do you guys think that, all other things being the same, that dropping a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima was worse than carrying out strategic conventional bombing? Nukes don’t kill people, people kill people, and all that.

    The difference between nukes and conventional weaponry now, for me, is that they work incredibly quickly – there is not time for nations to step back once nuclear weapons are in the air. By the time we’ve reevaluated, the world has ended, whereas with conventional weapons this is not the case.

    I am quite interested in what people think the difference is though – nowadays we have the knowledge that had the two superpowers gone to war during the Cold War, the world would be unrecognisable in less than a day’s time. This was not the case in world war 2 – there was no MAD, no potential for escalation. So what’s the difference?

  • Mike
    28 January 2011 at 01:56
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    Actually Dave, the super powers did go to war. The Cold War became quite hot in Korea and in Vietnam. I used to work with a Russian woman whose father taught and flew some missions for North Vietnam. Some U.S. prisoners that are MIA may have been taken to the Soviet Union. We know that China took some during Korea.

    But I’m still trying to understand Vanessa’s comment that she doesn’t know about this conflict. Doesn’t know about World War II? It shaped everything in the world, everything. How do you not know that?

  • vanessabrown
    28 January 2011 at 05:04
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    @ Dave:
    “I’m genuinely interested though – do you guys think that, all other things being the same, that dropping a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima was worse than carrying out strategic conventional bombing? Nukes don’t kill people, people kill people, and all that.”

    Even if the scale of people that died woud have eventually totalled the same amount through using conventional bombs, there would not have been the nuclear fallout leftover that goes on to cause generations and generations of illnesses. That’s another one of the reasons that I think the use of nuclear weapons is worse than conventional bombs. Deplited uranium tipped shells were even used in the 1st Gulf War and medical studies have shown that this is resulting in cancers within the local population due to the fact that they and their children are breathing in the chemicals in the air and it will take hundreds (if not thousands) of years for it to clear.

    I can’t answer your 2nd question because I have no idea what you are talking about lol. It’s embarassing but I don’t know much about the Cold War or WW2. I study and take much more of an interest in more recent wars and conflicts, sorry! So I won’t try and blag it.

    @ Mike: Of course I know the basic facts about WW2. However, I don’t know the political and strategical reasoning behind their use of nuclear weapons and why this resulted in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. I don’t know the ins and outs and I’m not going to pretend that I do. Yes, you’re right it did shape the modern age but since then a lot of other things have happened and so through my course and personal interests I have studied more recent conflicts such as the 1st and 2nd Gulf Wars, the Northern Ireland conflict, the Rwandan genocide, South African apartheid, the Falkands etc. Admittedly, I should brush up on the olders wars (which I of course learnt about in secondary school) but personally the more contemporary wars interest me far more as their effects are still being felt by today. And, not in the ideological way that you might say Cold War strategies or WW2 ways of thinking still inflitrate political decision making, but in the everyday lives of those affected countries and populations. (Russia being probably the only exception from the older wars due to not having progressed much democratically since them.) I would argue that the more recent conflicts are equally, or in fact more, important in the here and now if we forget politics and focus on actual people for a moment. So, sorry for not knowing much about WW2!

  • Dave Jackson
    28 January 2011 at 07:24
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    @Mike – I meant that the superpowers did not go to war in the sense that no flashpoint escalated to the nuclear level, and that US and Soviet forces did not engage directly – should have made that clearer. I’m not sure Korea would represent an example of the superpowers going to war, really!

  • max mcdonald
    9 February 2011 at 21:19
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    the bomb was dropped for a reason. it was a horrific thing but it was used for a purpose.

  • Tom
    7 March 2011 at 06:14
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    In every war, countries accelerate the search for new weaponry. Lincoln began to utilize the repeating rifle, for instance, in the Civil War. America wasn’t the only nation doing research on an atomic bomb. Germany, thankfully, did not develop the bomb before they were defeated. Stalin knew about the bomb, and grabbed as many german scientists he could to accelerate their program.
    In war, you fight to win. That means killing the enemy soldiers. War has always been brutal, and ugly. I’ve made friends with a 92 year old man who was in the 101st Airborne, a paratrooper, who faced death on several occasions. I asked him about Truman’s decision to drop the bomb. “President Truman saved my life,” was his response. And invasion of Japan would have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. Hiroshima was horrible. So was Dresden, and Pearl Harbor, and Berlin, and Nanking. War is horrible. Countries use their resources to win a war. I believe that American values are superior, and I believe in the establishment of freedom.
    It’s OK to rail against war, and the injustice and brutality. But to protest Truman’s decision is, IMHO, a reflection of one’s basic ignorance of the realities of warfare. And those are my copper tandems. 🙂

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