Sep 18, 2007

The View from Beneath the Cloud

The Los Alamos community is cordially invited to a discussion about nuclear weapons policy, past and present, featuring Hiroshima survivor Ms. Shigeko Sasamori. This free event will be hosted by the Los Alamos Study Group on Sunday, September 23, at 1:00 PM. Please come to the Holiday Inn Express at 2455 Trinity Drive for this rare opportunity to meet Ms. Sasamori.

Virtually all discussion of nuclear policy in the U.S. is based on a perspective from above the mushroom cloud. Ms. Sasamori’s experience “beneath the cloud” offers a perspective with which most of us are unfamiliar. We who deal with nuclear weapons professionally cannot fully understand what nuclear weapons are all about until we can see them through eyes that have seen them more intimately than anyone ever should.

Hugh Gusterson wrote, in a review of “White Light, Black Rain” for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web edition:
Until we can look at the schoolgirl's charred lunch box, until we can take in the suffering of the survivors, our defense of Hiroshima – if we still want to make one – will be dishonest. And until we look at what these weapons do as unflinchingly as Okazaki's survivors look into his camera, they will not be able to die in peace, knowing that their message was heard.
I will follow Ms. Sasamori's talk and discussion with an update on current nuclear weapons budget decisions in Congress and what they may mean for Los Alamos.

I am not sure many folks in Los Alamos understand that more than half of the cuts to LANL’s budget proposed by the House of Representatives are cuts to LANL’s proposed new pit production mission and related capital projects. Basically the House, among other aims, is trying to keep LANL from becoming the new Rocky Flats plant. The local press, following the pained cries of our lackluster congressional delegation, has so far mostly missed this point. Congress is deciding right now whether to ante up $137 million or so for capital projects at LANL related to pit production in FY2008. That’s money not approved by the House but approved by Senate Appropriations (not yet by the whole Senate). There’s also a $131 million difference in pit production operating funds, mostly at LANL, between the two houses.

It is difficult to tell if anybody at LANL opposes pit production here (anonymous blog entries don’t count, politically speaking). It is generally assumed in Congress and in the press that all LANL staff are foursquare behind pit production at Los Alamos, or for that matter any funding for any nuclear weapons project.

Someone recently wrote to me, in so many words, that the Los Alamos community is too cowardly and self-oriented to be worth engaging. I don't believe that is entirely true nor fair. Of course not everyone will be able to attend. What we are looking for Sunday is that 5 or 10 or 20 people who are engaged and are interested in exploring the moral and public responsibility aspects of the lab's mission. Who are these people? Join us Sunday to find out and to be one yourself!

After this year there will be one more annual budget prepared by the Bush team, probably enough to solidify LANL’s future as the new Rocky Flats if folks here remain silent (pit production policy does not have a significant partisan component, so the arrival of another administration is unlikely to change much).

Why not come on Sunday and talk with Shigeko, some of our Study Group colleagues and myself? Seriously, why not? This will be a small and pleasant gathering, I am sure. Light refreshments will be provided. We're looking forward to meeting you.

Shigeko Sasamori, one of the "Hiroshima Maidens" brought to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery in 1955, is among the survivors interviewed in the August 2007 HBO documentary, "White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki " (Director: Steve Okazaki).

Ms. Sasamori is an unusually resilient person, full of life and energy today even though her face and hands were horribly burned in the 1945 nuclear explosion. She has since struggled with cancer and other ailments. Her story is part of Los Alamos’s most intimate history.

For further information contact Greg Mello at or 505-265-1200.


Anonymous said...

This is really important imo, bomb designers for example should have to meet people like this. I don't mean to say it might change their minds about profession so much as the non-denial factor, I think its important to look at what one is doing full in the face, no games or spin.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, unfortunately tainted by Greg Mello's agenda. But this should be no excuse not to attend.

Anonymous said...

Rest assured, 2:55, most of the good citizens of Los Alamos will find some excuse to not attend. Some, even, will use the perceived, or, more accurately LANL-generated "Mello Taint" as their excuse for not attending.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Sasamori is a victim of Imperial Japan and dream of the Japanese military to rule China and the Pacific. Do not blame America for her dreadful story: it was her government that brought it upon her.

Had we not bombed Japan into submission, it is most likely that my father would have been killed in the hand-to-hand fighting on the Japanese home islands. Los Alamos' atomic bombs saved his life and made mine possible.

Remember the Japanese brutality of the Bataan Death March, where women in labor had their knees tied together to maximize the pain of childbirth before they died. THAT is the story of Imperial Japan.

I'm sorry for Ms. Sasamori, but she got much more compassion as one of the "Japanese Maidens" than any of the "Comfort Women" of Korea.

Anonymous said...

OK, 6:26, you are a dick.

Your father was a soldier, and yes, he might have died in combat. That would have been sad, but that is no excuse for targeting civilians. Yes, imperial Japan was evil. And it is certainly no reason to gloat about killing civilians.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary evils. They were probably necessary, which absolves us. They were still evils, and no one should gloat like you do.

PS - you really, really are a dick.

Anonymous said...

So, 2:55. Is Mello "tainted" because he believes that the lab's mission should no longer be pit production, storing nuclear waste, and otherwise focused solely on nuclear weapons design?

If so, then you can count me as "tainted" too.

Anonymous said...

War is not about morality, its about survival. You can be damn sure that nuclear weapons I work on will function and devastate anybody foolish enough to attack the US. Nuclear weapons are no more evil than any other weapon, just bigger. That we haven't had a world war since WWII shows how effective a deterrent they are. Go try your guilt trips somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't arguing the utility of nukes in keeping the US safe, just the asshole attitude of people who think killing civilians is a cause for celebration.

And the un-American, asshole attitude that just because imperial Japan was evil means that the US should stoop to their level.

BTW, I would love to be "damn sure that nuclear weapons I work on will function and devastate anybody foolish enough to attack the US."

How many certified pits have you made?

How many of your designs are known to work?

How many times have you sent open emails with classified information in them?

Anonymous said...

Poster 8:47 PM, being a good weapons designer doesn't protect one from also being a great big dick! The arrogant tone in your post is all too familiar with what I've observed at LANL from some who work too closely with the nuclear weapons world. Humility is not a word which they know. When the Congressional mandated nuclear weapons budget cuts hit LANL (and they will), perhaps they can start the cuts by RIFing your position.

Anonymous said...

"Wasn't arguing the utility of nukes in keeping the US safe, just the asshole attitude of people who think killing civilians is a cause for celebration."

Hm. I wasn't on this earth in 1945, but from what I've heard, most Americans at the time felt that the Japanese surrender was quite a cause for celebration.

Anonymous said...

Why do so many think that people who work
at Los Alamos are "in denial" or have
never considered the morality of their

Additionally, to all the complaints about
targeting civillians with nuclear weapons;
that is not unique to nuclear weapons;
conventional bombs also killed civilians.

One must remember that in prosecuting a
war a nation is allowed to target the
enemy's "means of production" of war
materials - like the arms factories in
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Those arms factories are staffed by
civilians - which make them legitimate
military targets.

Anonymous said...

You mean like LANL and other parts of the NWC being on Russian and Chinese targeting lists?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where this attitude that people who work with bombs are either in denial or don't appreciate the toll the weapons take on innocent civilians. This seems to be an opinion held by people who A) don't work with the WP folks, and B) have never asked the WP people how they feel about what they do and what their motivation is for working on this stuff. It's easier to just make accusations without backing up your argument with any facts or information.

Terry Goldman said...

OK, I'll stand up and say it: I am a LANL TSM opposed to pit production here -- I favor a R&D lab, not a production facility of any kind. But it makes no difference -- NNSA has apparently decided that there will be pit production here and it also appears that not even Congress can stop it. At best, it will be divorced from the rest of the Lab, made into an independent entity -- perhaps to protect it from all of us untrustworthy, cowboy butt-heads.

Anonymous said...

One could make an economic argument for nuclear weapons, in that they give you the most "Bang for the buck."

We measure the yield in kilotons of equivalent TNT, but most of the damage that can be caused by nuclear weapons could be accomplished by an equivalent weight of TNT - it would just be a LOT more expensive to deliver, in both platforms and lives.

We build nuclear weapons for two reasons: for their psychological "fear factor" value, and for their cost-effectiveness. Nuclear-armed missiles are far cheaper than TNT-armed missiles because you need far fewer of them installed in fewer silos and fewer submarines. The same goes for bombers. You could deliver the equivalent tonnage of high explosives with aircraft, but you couldn't afford it. Think of the massive air raids on Germany and Japan with conventional weapons and the thousands of aircraft required.

During the Cold War, the US spent a great deal of money and effort on building precision nuclear weapons - to the point of designing a "Dial-a-Nuke", which yield could be dudded to match the target to minimize collateral damage and civilian deaths. Only military targets were on the target list, and the weapons' yield was calculated to kill the military target while avoiding civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible.

The Russians, on the other hand, put their efforts into massive weapons because they did not have the precision guidance technology that we had. They were totally unconcerned about collateral damage and civilian casualties, because that was part of the "Balance of terror." They knew that a US President would not risk a major city to a Russian nuke attack because the President knew that the Russians didn't care about avoiding civilian casualties like we did.

The stockpiling of nuclear weapons is both a political and economic decision. The use of nuclear weapons is solely a political decision. As we have developed more precision-guided conventional weapons, the usefulness of nuclear weapons fades.

Now our greatest threat is not from the Russians, as they have too much to lose, like they always did. It's the rogue states and stateless actors that are the worry. If Muslims nuke New York, who will we retaliate against? Mecca? Islamabad? Syria? The balance of terror has shifted to the terrorists - simply because they feel they have nothing to lose.

The greatest argument in favor of the RRW (Robust Replacement Warhead) is its' state of the art security and safeguards features. We're scared of the old Soviet-era "Loose nukes" and have re-examined our systems from the terrorist's point of view. The RRW is designed to make sure that even if a terrorist got hold of an RRW, it could NEVER deliver a nuclear yield.

People opposed to RRW are playing into the hands of the terrorists - a threat to all of us.

Anonymous said...

9/18 10:10 pm: "The arrogant tone in your post is all too familiar with what I've observed at LANL from some who work too closely with the nuclear weapons world. Humility is not a word which they know."

And where exactly is the "humility" in your post? You are so sure you are right that you stoop to impugning the "some who work too closely with the nuclear weapons world" without even having a clue what that description actually means in the real world. Will you define for the rest of us what "too closely" means? Shame on your naivete.

Anonymous said...

"People opposed to RRW are playing into the hands of the terrorists - a threat to all of us." - 9/19/07 6:21 PM

Another desperate weapons designer looking to save his job? This is really pathetic stuff. I would hope that you could do a much better job at making a convincing argument than what I've read in this post. Congress certainly won't buy it.

The current security features in the US arsenal are sufficient. Our nukes have been accidentally dropped from bombers and not detonated. The stockpile was very well designed by US scientists who can be rightfully proud of their work. The current stockpile will last this country many more decades and can in no way be exploited by terrorists.

Money wasted on RRW would be much better spent on non-poliferation efforts, nuclear bomb detection devices, and helping to make sure that the nukes over in Pakistan cannot be stolen or used by Islamic terrorists. Those are all items that Congress is more than willing to fund and which will help to make the US more secure.

Anonymous said...

10:05 PM - I am not a weapons designer, but from what I see you are an effing idiot. Work at the Lab? Must be one of those chemists avoiding any "mission work" and trying to hurt students and postdocs. Tree hugger are you? And finally, perhaps you haven't heard that any extra monies are going Marie ...

Anonymous said...

"and helping to make sure that the nukes over in Pakistan cannot be stolen or used by Islamic terrorists. Those are all items that Congress is more than willing to fund and which will help to make the US more secure."

You're joking, right? The solution here is not a technical one. Pakistan isn't going to have them STOLEN -- if they decide that they're sick of being reasonable with us, they'll just sell them. Of course, that's part of the point of our own stockpile - it's a great way to convince someone that selling something like that would be a bad idea. Your post is about as bad as the one you're responding to - people who attach themselves to either extreme side of the issue sound like biased idiots who have ceased to be able to actually listen to opinions other than their own. Try to think reasonably, rationally, and actually weigh both sides -- both of you.

(Like that's going to happen! Ha!)

Anonymous said...

A little off topic, but how much better are the safeguards in RRW? Would they prevent a stolen warhead from being dismantled to remove the fissile material?

I happened to be reading about INDs today at and saw this;

It is impossible to achieve a large nuclear explosion by employing plutonium in a gun-type device because the speed of assembly of the critical mass is too slow to allow plutonium to be used efficiently. However, some authorities have concluded that a relatively small explosive yield (not greater than 10 to 20 tons TNT equivalent) could be produced by using plutonium in a gun-type IND. Both weapons-grade and reactor-grade plutonium would result in this fizzle yield. Although this yield is about three orders of magnitude less than the yield expected from a Hiroshima-type (HEU) bomb, it is much more powerful than typical conventional explosives. Thus, terrorists detonating a gun-type IND fueled with plutonium could cause tremendous blast damage within an area encompassing several city blocks – the destruction radius from ground zero would be about 100 meters - and could “produce radioactive fallout with a total intensity of a few tens of curies, as well as a cloud containing a few kilograms of plutonium oxide aerosol.” This aspect of the weapon’s impact would, in effect, be similar to a very large radiological dispersal device, and would be especially dangerous, inasmuch as small
quantities of plutonium, if inhaled, are known to cause cancer. In sum, although weapons-usable HEU poses the greater threat by far because it could power a devastating gun-type device, plutonium could conceivably be used by terrorists to produce a
significant, but a lower order level of, damage.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. S likely would have lived better had H and N been spared. But if your father was born between 1922-1926, you might not be here. It was anticipated that subduing militarist Japan would have taken 200-500k American lives mostly from the high school classes of 1944 and 1945, just as the Battle of Europe struck down the most Americans from the Classes of 1941 and 1942.

No papa, no descendents.

Something someone should have taught the militarist regime that murdered it's way into controlling the Japanese goverment in the '20s and '30s.

Anonymous said...

"You're joking, right? The solution here is not a technical one. Pakistan isn't going to have them STOLEN" (10:29 PM)

About a year ago, Sig Hecker made a comment to the press that the greatest nuclear danger he could foresee was the possibility of poorly secured nukes in Pakistan falling into the wrong hands. I happen to agree with Sig. Those nukes are held by an unreliable Pakistani military and this should be of great concern to the US.

There have been many attempts by terrorists over the last few years to kill the Pakistani leadership, and it is not at all clear who might be in charge if the terrorists succeeded at murdering some top Pak leaders. It would be foolish to believe that Pakistani nukes could never be diverted into the wrong hands.

Anonymous said...

Would it be possible for Ms. Sasamori to visit my Uncle in the VA hospital where he has been for the last 15 years due to the time he spent in a Japanese "camp" or perhaps to visit the grave of another relative who died at Pearl Harbor. I am sorry that war exists but those who try to rewrite history are pathetic! The trust fund babies that seem intent on ignoring history should be required to go and take care of the graves of those men and women who answered their countries call. I know my cousins who lost their fathers would agree.

Anonymous said...

"Would it be possible for Ms. Sasamori to visit my Uncle in the VA hospital where he has been for the last 15 years due to the time he spent in a Japanese "camp" "

Oh, pleeeze! If you dear WWII veteran Uncle was currently in a VA hospital, he would have to be, what? 85? 90? At that age, he would be suffering from dementia, and not 60 year old horrors from a Japanese camp. Your totally full of shit!

Pinky and The Brain said...

9/20/07 7:14 PM,
Perhaps you know more about Ms. Sasamori than I do. I've never met her nor heard her speak. I also haven't seen White Light, Black Rain, so admittedly I know almost nothing of her. That said, I'd be quite surprised if on Sunday she attempts to defend the actions of the Japanese military during WWII. I'm also fairly certain you'll be disappointed if you attend hoping to hear her thank America for nuking her at the age of thirteen.

If you want to discuss nuclear weapons policy with Ms. Sasamori (and make sense), try reading this. If you want to invite her to visit your uncle or a departed relative, well - there's no harm in asking. If you want to discuss trust fund babies then please be prepared to explain what the heck you are talking about.

Anonymous said...

10:20 PM - OK, so you do not have the need to visit those lucid men and women that answered that call. Would you consider visiting the graves of those who gave all?

I do not think so, you are so full of yourself. Try talking to those that have answered the call to preserve what you take for granted.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Pinky & Brain -

Thanks for posting this and for trying to bring some sensibility to the ensuing comments which seemed split almost entirely between LANL-bashers and Nuclear-Weapons-apologists.

About 10 years ago, I had the good fortune of meeting with several *children* of survivors of H&N. They were in Santa Fe on a national tour. A friend of mine was closely involved with this project and invited me to an evening with them. They all suffered birth-defects from the radiation exposure their parents experienced.

Despite my work at LANL and their natural "agenda", we had a very pleasant and informative evening.

At one point, each of us told a story about our relationship to the nuclear weapons used at the end of WWII. I was very moved by some of the other Americans at the "party".

The most poignant was the story of an artist in Santa Fe, whose father was a rancher on the Pajarito plateau when his ranch was condemned for the Manhattan project.

As I remember the story, his father knew the purpose of the project and was sworn to silence. Being too old to fight in the war, he then took a job as a guard at the Japanese Internment camp. This camp was at the location of what is now the Solana shopping center. The men interned at this camp were all Buddhist priests... the US government mistook their role as being "political leaders" in their communities and therefore decided to separate them to prevent any uprisings in the camps.

Apparently the loss of their "spiritual leaders" actually made keeping peace and calm at the Japanese camps was more difficult rather than less.

The guards, first observing the priests, came to realize that these were deeply spiritual men whose primary occupation was gardening. Apparently they naturalized a wide range of vegetables and herbs by having seeds sent to them by mail and experimenting with them. Many of the guards developed close friendships with these most foreign of men, despite a huge language and culture barrier.

The bottom line was that the entire evening was very informative and useful to me. I did not feel "blamed", nor did I feel resentful of these damaged children of the culture that joined the Nazis and Fascists in the largest war of aggression in history. We all seemed to understand that we were each playing the roles we had inherited and/or chosen in good faith.

- Doc

Pinky and The Brain said...

I wanted very much to attend the event today but could not. I still have no reports on how it turned out, though I imagine it was pleasant and informative - much like your experience.

As usual, I tried to be very tolerant of all views in the comments. In this case I only deleted one, the first one. I can't even remember what it was now. No doubt something petty and mean spirited.

My own view of the bombings has evolved as I became more informed. I only recently learned of the testimony of General Groves before the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy on 28 November 1945.

"The radioactive casualty can be of several classes," Groves testified. "He can have enough so that he will be killed instantly. He can have a smaller amount which will cause him to die rather soon, and as I understand it from the doctors, without undue suffering. In fact they say it is a very pleasant way to die. Then we get down below that to the man who is injured slightly, and he may take some time to be healed, but he can be healed."

While the effects of the bombs were likely not well understood before they were used, they were known by November 1945. General Groves knew his testimony not to be true, yet he apparently felt justified in giving it. In doing so he set a precedent for the abuse of secrecy from which we have not disentangled ourselves to this day.