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Nuclear Disarmament is People’s Work

Presidential declarations and filmmakers’ scare tactics get the attention—meanwhile, powerful grassroots movements build on 60 years of effort.


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Nuclear assemblyline graphic by Rob Sussman

Graphic by Rob Sussman for YES! Magazine.

Mayors for Peace

A push for nuclear abolition could come from Asia, where the largest nuclear power, China, has shown surprisingly strong interest in eliminating rather than simply reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba has led the growth of Mayors for Peace, which had 4,467 members (in 150 countries and regions) as of January 1, 2011. Akiba returned to his native Japan after working as a math professor at Tufts University and becoming well-known for educating U.S. journalists about nuclear issues. I remember once asking him about the relevance of mayors’ work for nuclear abolition, when such big issues are traditionally seen as the work of world leaders. He replied that mayors are closer to the people, making them a perfect group to advance the cause. Of course, it does take the world leaders to disarm. President Obama took a decisive step with a speech in Prague in 2009, in which he declared a goal of abolishing all nuclear weapons. The Nobel Committee cited the special importance of his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” when it awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009.

The Prague speech sparked considerable hope in Hiroshima that Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit the city while in office. High school students have mobilized to support efforts by Akiba and prominent survivors to secure an invitation. A presidential visit would provide momentum for nuclear abolition, but more than anything, there is a simple, human desire to convey Hiroshima’s message—no more war, particularly the nuclear kind. Jacqueline Cabasso (who also serves as North American coordinator for Mayors for Peace) sees one promising route to nuclear abolition—making the link to other issues, like social justice and how funding for nuclear weapons could be diverted to meet basic human needs. That framing has certainly been a factor in Akiba’s ability to draw strong support from The U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has worked closely with Mayors for Peace, passing progressive resolutions to advance both nuclear disarmament and government that prioritizes improved quality of life over nuclear stockpiles.

Nuclear Abolition

Like many in the peace movement, Cabasso was appalled by the huge investment in nuclear-weapons-related plants that Obama promised in order to win Senate support of the recent Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

But activists see encouraging signs. Alice Slater, of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, suggests that a push for nuclear abolition could come from Asia, where the largest nuclear power, China, has shown surprisingly strong interest in eliminating rather than simply reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles. The real need is to move beyond the current nonproliferation regime, in which nuclear powers say they will eventually abandon their weapons, and toward a true nuclear abolition treaty.

Slater compares stagnation on the issue to the situation a few years ago, where Canada jump-started the process on an international landmine ban treaty that had been stalled by the largest powers. The United States, among a number of other countries, hasn’t signed the landmine treaty, but the moral effect of the international consensus has proven powerful in preventing new deployments of mines. 

Daiichi Power PlantThe Risks of Nuclear Power:
Amy Goodman interviews experts on what the ongoing nuclear disaster really means for Japan—and the rest of the world.

Something similar has already happened with nuclear weapons, in part because the hibakusha—survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—have been so insistent about reminding the world of the fearful realities of nuclear war. Instead of remaining victims, they are inspiring advocates for saving humanity.

In the face of the difficulties and uncertainties of mobilizing people internationally, the determined ­hibakusha look ahead toward success. Maybe nothing symbolizes that better than the drive to bring the Summer Olympics to Hiroshima in 2020, the year Mayors for Peace has targeted for achieving nuclear abolition. The thinking is that, if the goal is achieved, there ought to be a huge celebration. If there is still work to do, the Olympics will be an occasion to celebrate progress and spur final steps toward a safer future. For everyone thinking, studying, or working on nuclear abolition, there is something to learn from that optimistic effort.


Joe CopelandJoe Copeland wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Joe is an editor for Crosscut.com, a nonprofit news site in Seattle. He has written about nuclear issues since visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1986 as part of a program for U.S. reporters. In 2009, he researched the legacy of the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima under a Fulbright grant.


Nuclear Disarmament: Resources for Action

The end of Countdown to Zero points viewers to the filmmakers’ own website and a single organization, Global Zero. In a field of such longstanding activism, there are many ways to be involved: Urge your mayor to join Mayors for Peace. It’s up to 165 in the United States, and that’s good, but worldwide the total is already nearly 4,500. Ask your member of Congress to join Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. Get involved with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and its International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Work with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation on its Waging Peace Today campaign.

Follow developments on such websites as Abolition 2000 , the Mayors for Peace 2020 Vision Campaign, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose famous Doomsday Clock assesses how close the world stands to nuclear catastrophe.

There are excellent research resources at the Western States Legal Foundation. The Hiroshima Peace Media Center is also excellent, particularly for peace news related to Japan.

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