One night not long ago I found myself sitting in my local IMAX theatre watching a summer blockbuster. No, not that one, the other one — the one about the bomb. I was gripped, and not only by the special effects. Here was a film for our age, one with the power to revive an urgent discussion.
Watching Oppenheimer brought up a lot for me. For many years, my role at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meant advocating for a world free of nuclear weapons. That message stayed the same when I went to work for the United Nations: We demand an end to the bomb.
But how best to communicate that? Memories of the existential dread of the Cold War are fading, yet the world has rarely been in a more precarious position. A resurgent nuclear threat has brought us closer than ever to catastrophe. The Doomsday Clock stands at 90 seconds to midnight.
Cinema is one way to drive these hard realities home. I was impressed by Oppenheimer’s treatment of the moral dilemmas behind the development of nuclear weapons and their use by the US military in Japan at the end of World War II. The world faces many similar quandaries today.
We see today how competition can drive technological development at a reckless pace without due consideration for the human consequences. We see how tempting it is for mankind to push the limits of what can be done, and the regret when it becomes clear the genie won’t go back into the bottle.
Still, I can’t help feeling an opportunity was missed. The filmmakers omitted showing the bomb victims and the devastation, leaving moviegoers to guess at the horror by reading the protagonist’s on-screen reaction. Yet the human cost of nuclear war is unimaginable. We need it spelled out for us.
That’s exactly what happened to me in Japan last year, where I had a series of encounters that will never leave me. To hear the testimonies of the survivors of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, known locally as hibakusha, was to glimpse their horror. It was profoundly moving.
These brave witnesses have dedicated their lives to ensuring the world never again sees such unmatched destruction. It is their harrowing statements of terror, pain, and incalculable loss that keep that message alive. Through their voices, we understand at last just how high the stakes really are.
On August 6 and 9 we mark the 78th anniversaries of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens. We might say never again. Yet we live in a world awash with nuclear warheads — an estimated 12,500 in 2023.
Listening to the hibakusha it is impossible to defend the use or proliferation of nuclear weapons. As Secretary-General António Guterres recently said, nuclear arsenals “guarantee no victory or safety. By design, their only result is destruction.” We must unite to destroy them before they destroy us.
So, let’s take this summer’s Oppenheimer opportunity. Let’s make the discussions sparked by a powerful blockbuster and a haunting anniversary into more than just chatter. Let’s start talking, properly talking, about finally ridding the world of nuclear weapons. The right time is always now.