Previous page
Next page
Esc Close popup
H Show/hide keyboard shortcuts
Reader settings
+ Increase text size
- Decrease text size
Alt 1 Switch to light theme
Alt 2 Switch to sepia theme
Alt 3 Switch to dark theme

A price too high: Rethinking nuclear weapons in light of their human cost


The e-briefing you are about to enter shows the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. These consequences have been known to the world since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Yet for many, a full appreciation of the effects of nuclear weapons in humanitarian terms has faded.

Paradoxically, we know more than ever before about the impact that even a limited nuclear war would have on people and the environment. We also know, thanks to studies conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organizations, that there is a lack of a humanitarian response capacity in most countries and at the international level if nuclear weapons were ever to be used again. In the e-briefing, you will view photographs and panoramics of the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombings and read the testimony of victims who survived.

You will learn how the Japanese Red Cross and the ICRC responded at the time to assist victims and the work of the Japanese Red Cross today to assist survivors. The current views of the wider International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent are also presented.

Although nuclear weapons have not been used in armed conflict since 1945, there is today a very real risk of intentional or accidental nuclear detonation. This e-briefing shows what international humanitarian law (IHL) has to say about nuclear weapons, and how the discussion on nuclear weapons has been reframed from one of deterrence theory and military strategy to one focused on the profound and long-lasting humanitarian consequences that the use of these weapons would have. The e-briefing closes with an interview with Tadateru Konoé Tadateru Konoé, President of the IFRC President of Japanese Red Cross Society since 2005, Tadateru Konoé has dedicated his entire professional career to domestic and international Red Cross and Red Crescent activities. , president of both the Japanese Red Cross Society and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Peter Maurer Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC Peter Maurer has been President of the ICRC since 1 July 2012. In this position, his priorities include strengthening humanitarian diplomacy, engaging States and other actors for the respect of international humanitarian law, and improving the humanitarian response through innovation and new partnerships. , president of the ICRC, both of whom visited Japan in 2016 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Manhattan project: Making the atomic bomb

In the summer of 1939, six months after the discovery of the uranium fission and amid growing concerns of Nazi Germany working on developing an atomic bomb, a Hungarian-born physicist, Leó Szilárd (1898 – 1964) Leó Szilárd (1898 – 1964), Physicist and inventor Hungarian-born American physicist who helped conduct the first sustained nuclear chain reaction and was instrumental in initiating the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb. , drafted a letter that was signed by Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), Physicist and inventor German-born physicist who developed the special and general theories of relativity and won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Einstein is generally considered the most influential physicist of the 20th century. and sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945), Former President of the United States 32nd president of the United States (1933–1945). The only president elected to the office four times, Roosevelt led the United States through two of the greatest crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II. proposing the establishment of a research programme whose aim would be to develop the world’s first atomic bomb.

The now infamous letter launched a process that would alter the course of history. At first, official skepticism continued to stall United States research efforts, but in late 1941 work eventually began on a secret Government project codenamed: the Manhattan Project. The project was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada.

Los Alamos, New Mexico, was chosen as the site for the main scientific laboratory where hundreds of scientists worked to understand the physics behind creating a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, capable of producing an atomic explosion. Over the next three years, tens of thousands of people would come to be involved in the project, working tirelessly across the United States at three major research laboratories to build the prototype of an atomic bomb.

To build the bomb the scientists needed either uranium-235 (U-235), or plutonium-239 (Pu-239). Both of these materials are highly dense, radioactive elements which can only be found in very small quantities in nature. In order to begin and maintain the chain reaction of fission that would produce an atomic explosion, scientists needed large quantities of these radioactive elements. The US government set up two additional locations, Oak Ridge and Hanford, whose sole purpose was to produce these materials in large enough quantities.

In the early hours of July 16, 1945 at 5:29 AM, the first test of an atomic bomb took place at a site 193 km south of Albuquerque, New Mexico in a test codenamed “Trinity”. Upon explosion, the bomb released an energy equivalent to around 20 kilotons, or 20,000 tons of TNT.


A brief excerpt from 2005, a special edition published by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) "Dr. Teller's Very Large Bomb". The July 16th, 1945 New Mexico test of the world's first atomic bomb. Directed by Michael Lennick.

The detonation of an atomic bomb releases enormous amounts of thermal energy, radiation and a powerful blast wave. The thermal energy creates a large fireball, the heat of which can ignite ground fires that can incinerate an entire small city. Convection currents created by the explosion suck up dust and other ground materials into the fireball, creating the characteristic mushroom-shaped cloud of an atomic explosion.


This infographic shows the destructive force caused by the blast wave, heat rays and radiation from the 15,000-ton TNT nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Source: Nuclear darkness. © Illustration by ICRC

Ultimately, the scientific success of the Manhattan project led to a human disaster of unfathomable proportions. Less than a month after the Trinity test, on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb nicknamed Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The explosion, which had the force of more than 15 kilotons (15,000 tons of TNT), completely devastated 11.4 square km of the heart of this city of 343,000 inhabitants. Of this number some 70,000 were killed immediately, and by the end of the year the death toll had surpassed 100,000.

Three days later on August 9, 1945, a second bomb nicknamed Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki producing a blast equal to 21 kilotons or 21,000 tons of TNT. The terrain and smaller size of Nagasaki prevented greater destruction of life and property, but 39,000 persons were killed and 25,000 injured nonetheless; about 40 percent of the city’s structures were destroyed or seriously damaged.

Over the decades, many more died as a direct or indirect result of the atomic bombings of their exposure to ionizing radiation. Survivors have continued to experience long-term health consequences, and today Red Cross hospitals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki still treat many thousands of survivors.


This infographic shows the immediate casualties caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. © Illustration by ICRC