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The move to un-ban the bomb

Just as 'the war to end all wars' did not, obliterating Hiroshima 60 years ago today was no lasting lesson. It took decades to halt the nuclear-arms race, and now the Bush administration may be doing a complete about-face. JEFF SALLOT reports

Globe and Mail Update

Only two nuclear weapons have ever been used in warfare, and Charles (Don) Albury saw both of them from the cockpit of a B-29.

Sixty years ago this morning, Mr. Albury, now 84, was the co-pilot of one of the aircraft that accompanied the Enola Gay on the bombing run over Hiroshima. Three days later, Bockscar, his plane, dropped the second bomb, on Nagasaki.

Tens of thousands were incinerated in each blast, and he is still in awe of the terrible sight of the mushroom clouds billowing high into the sky and the powerful aftershocks that rocked the plane.

"I prayed to the Lord then, and ever since," he says, "that we would never have to use these weapons again."

Less well known is the fact that, about a week later, Mr. Albury and Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets landed a C-54 transport at a naval air strip near Nagasaki. The Japanese had agreed to surrender and the Americans were flying in the first medical-assessment mission.

"The Japanese people were in pretty bad shape," Mr. Albury recalls, describing images that never go away. He saw acres of twisted steel and smouldering rubble that had been the Mitsubishi torpedo works, a bleeding man in tattered clothes trying to crawl down the road to a hospital that was no more than a gutted shell.

And on the wall of the hospital, "there was a shadow where somebody might have been walking, and they disintegrated."

Although skeptical that nuclear weapons can ever be eliminated completely, he says he hopes that "people will wake up one day. You just have to see the destruction they can cause to want to do something about it."

But 60 years after Mr. Albury came to that conclusion -- and 35 years after the United States signed a global agreement devoted to eradicating such weaponry -- President George W. Bush and other Washington policy-makers appear to believe in something quite different: that a little nuclear proliferation isn't so bad after all.

The total elimination of nuclear weapons is often dismissed as a peacenik's pipe dream. Yet it is a central tenet of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which went into effect on March 5, 1970 -- three months after Richard Nixon signed it on behalf of the United States.

Mr. Nixon wasn't the only apparent hawk to target nukes. That iconic right-winger Ronald Reagan also spoke frequently and unequivocally of his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Admittedly, it's a tall order. When Japan surrendered in 1945, there was enough nuclear material left in the world to make one or perhaps two more bombs. All of it was in U.S. hands.

Today, there are more than 27,000 nuclear weapons, and as many as nine countries may possess them. Many more countries, including Canada, have access to the material and technology to build their own. United Nations arms-control officials say that simply keeping track of the nuclear technology now in private hands will be a huge challenge in coming years.

Yet, for six decades since Nagasaki, the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has held, even in the frostiest days of the Cold War and the close call that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Now, however, there is a growing fear that the taboo is breaking down, and the chances of a nuclear weapon detonation somewhere in the world are increasing rapidly.

"If we continue down the same road we're on now," says Peggy Mason, formerly Canada's ambassador for disarmament, "I wouldn't give us another 10 years."

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the great fear has been that terrorist groups may get their hands on nuclear material. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors the situation, knows of almost two dozen cases of nuclear smuggling in recent years.

But that's not the only reason the Doomsday Clock, the graphic device created by the directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to warn of nuclear danger, has been moved forward twice since the end of the Cold War in 1991. (It now stands at seven minutes to midnight, right where it was in 1947, when the publication was founded by scientists who had helped to build the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.)

Nations are beating terrorists to the punch. Experts now talk about "nuclear tipping points" -- factors that might prompt countries such as Syria and even Japan to hedge their bets by trying to join the nuclear club whether for sake of security or prestige. Japan, for example, wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and the fact that all five of the current permanent members have nuclear arsenals has not gone unnoticed.

The treaty Mr. Nixon signed was supposed to try to put the genie back in the bottle. The five original nuclear powers -- the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China -- promised to work toward the eventual elimination of all of their nuclear weapons. And other signatories in turn pledged they would not try to acquire nukes and would take steps to make sure nuclear weapons technology and material were not traded on the black market.

But there have been holdouts. Israel, India and Pakistan refused to sign the NPT, and went ahead and developed weapons. Others, such apartheid South Africa, cheated by signing and building the bomb anyway. And two years ago, North Korea formally opted out of the treaty.

As well, the five recognized nuclear powers seem no closer today to giving up their weapons than they were 35 years ago. In fact, rather than adopting the Reagan vision of a world without nukes, the Bush administration is now asking Congress for money to develop new kinds of weapons and for "more reliable replacement warheads."

At the same time, so-called "foreign-policy realists" in the United States now argue that nukes can actually prevent wars.

All this may explain why the NPT review conference in May -- a gathering held every five years to strengthen the arms-control regime -- produced no substantive agreement, an outcome that IAEA Secretary-General Mohamed ElBaradei found "particularly disheartening" and left UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan "deeply troubled."

Last month, the picture got even uglier, some analysts say, when Mr. Bush reversed 30 years of non-proliferation policy and said Washington would begin to co-operate on civilian nuclear projects with India.

Three decades ago, India wound up on an international blacklist when it exploded its first atomic device, using Canadian technology. Today, however, it is a large democracy that is emerging as both a major market and an important economic power in Asia. This leads Mr. Bush to conclude that "a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states."

He also said he would try to amend U.S. law to "achieve full civil nuclear energy co-operation with India as it realizes its goals of promoting nuclear power and achieving energy security." It's almost as if he has decided that India could be a strategic counterweight to China in the region.

Indian Foreign Minister Shyam Saran crowed at his country's diplomatic triumph. "What has been achieved is recognition by the U.S. that . . . India should have the same benefits and rights as a nuclear weapons power."

In one sweeping gesture, Washington tried to transform India from a nuclear pariah to a nuclear partner, one of the "good guys," says Miriam Rajkumar, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Bush administration, she says, "is telling other nuclear wannabes they can develop and test weapons -- and wait long enough for Washington to reward you."

Once again, Ms. Rajkumar adds, Mr. Bush was demonstrating his low regard for formal treaties and his view that nuclear proliferation isn't all bad, as long as the weapons are in the hands of a nation that Washington likes.

Ernie Regehr, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian disarmament group, says the Bush administration should not get to pick and choose who has nuclear weapons. And the 189 NPT signatories are almost unanimous in contending that India should be a non-weapons state.

But the genie seems to have no interest in going back in the bottle.

Jeff Sallot is a member of The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau.

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