Radiation Effects of Hiroshima

Published 20 Feb 2017

Radiation disease is something like a devil who sticks around with unshakable determination all your life
(Selden & Selden, 1989, “The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki”)

On August 6, 1945 one of the most terrible atrocities in modern history took place in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Atom bomb was completely on target and exploded in Hiroshima, with a force equivalent to twenty thousand tons of TNT, eighteen hundred feet in the air near the center of a flat city built mainly of wood. It created an area of total destruction (including residential, commercial, industrial, and military structures) extending three thousand meters (about two miles) in all directions; and destroyed sixty thousand of ninety thousand buildings within five thousand meters (over three miles), an area roughly encompassing the city limits. Flash burns from the beat generated by the release of an enormous amount of radiant energy occurred at distances of more than four thousand meters (two and a half miles), depending upon the type and amount of clothing worn and the shielding afforded by immediate surroundings. Injuries from the blast, and from splintered glass and falling debris, occurred throughout the city and beyond.

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The number of deaths, immediately and over a period of time, will probably never be fully known. Variously estimated from 63,000 to 240,000 or more, the official figure is usually given as 78,000, but the city of Hiroshima estimates 200,000 – the total encompassing between 25 and 50 per cent of the city’s then daytime population (also a disputed figure, varying from 227,000 to over 400,000). Publicly accepted estimates of the population at the time of the bombing are 280,000 to 290,000 civilians and 40,000 military personnel. That morning many workers from neighboring towns and villages were assembled in Hiroshima in order to clear debris from buildings that had been destroyed to create fire lanes in the city.

People who gathered for physical labor at demolition sites included young teenagers. Schooling had been interrupted by the war, and students were mobilized daily to make fire lanes or to work at factories. Elementary school students who were third graders and above had been evacuated to the countryside in order to avoid possible air raids. Some children were sent in a group to safer areas, and others went to stay with relatives in the countryside. Younger children remained in the city with their parents. Victims of the bombing included all sorts of people: parents, small children, older children, elderly people, and laborers from other areas, as well as military personnel. In 1976, the city of Hiroshima reported to the United Nations that the number of the victims who had died from radiation effects by the end of December 1945 was between 130,000 and 150,000 (Yoneyama, 1999). The enormous disparity is related to the extreme confusion which then existed, to differing methods of calculation, and to underlying emotional influences, quite apart from mathematical considerations, which have at times affected the estimators. An accurate estimate may never be possible, but what can be said is that all of Hiroshima immediately became involved in the atomic disaster

Two thousand meters (1.2 miles) is generally considered to be a crucial radius for susceptibility to radiation effects, and for high mortality in general–from blast, beat, or radiation–though many were killed outside of this radius. Within it, at points close to the hypocenter, heat was so extreme that metal and stone melted, and human beings were literally incinerated. The area was enveloped by fires fanned by a violent “firewind”; these broke out almost immediately within a radius of more than three thousand meters (up to two miles). The inundation with death of the area closest to the hypocenter was such that if a man survived within a thousand meters (.6 miles) and was out of doors (that is, without benefit of shielding from heat or radiation), more than nine tenths of the people around him were fatalities; if he was unshielded at two thousand meters, more than eight of ten people around him were killed. Mortality indoors was lower, but even then to have a 50-per-cent chance of escaping both death or injury, one had to be about twenty two hundred meters (1.3 miles) from the hypocenter.

Within half an hour after the explosion, it started raining. This was not a normal rain but a black rain containing radioactive dust and ashes. The black rain devastated the city further by spreading radiation far beyond the areas the explosion itself had damaged. It is said that the rain reached over 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from ground zero (Yoneyama, 1999). Radiation released by the bombing caused fatal injuries to many people in the city. Both the soil and all objects in the area became radioactive and many people who did not perish immediately died soon afterward from residual radiation. Not only people who were in the city at the time of the bombing but also those who entered it to search for their loved ones were fatally exposed to this residual radiation. There were, however, people who survived the massive fire, the black rain, and the residual radiation. These people were seriously harmed both physically and psychologically.

The immense release of nuclear radiation includes gamma rays and neutrons, which do the most damage to living tissues. Much of the radiation is released in the first minute. There are longer-term energy releases as well, including fallout, which can carry radioactive particles far and wide, as scientists were to see most clearly later in the Marshall Islands tests.

Studies that were conducted among Hiroshima survivors report some findings on immediate and continuous consequences of exposure to radiation. For instance, Yamazaki and Fleming (1995) interviewed women, who have been scarcely half a mile from the hypocenter of the explosion. Some of them had been thrown through the air by the blast and left unconscious. Yamazaki and Fleming (1995) indicate that all of them had suffered radiation illness in some form – lassitude, bloody diarrhea, loss of hair, skin hemorrhaging, ulcerations of the mouth, sores on the face, symptoms that continued for the duration of their pregnancies for some, longer for others. Selden and Selden (1989) affirm that more people died from the burns and radiation effects than from external injuries. They indicate that those who were in the open and directly exposed to the burst incurred burns over the entire body and died on the spot. Selden and Selden writes: “An incoherent shock like state, with marked prostration, sometimes preceded the other symptoms, which progressed to early and severe symptoms of radiation effects and death” (1989:71).

Apart from biological consequences, bombing and radiation had a significant impact on survivor’s mental health. Studies indicate that many persons and patients appeared disoriented for several hours, unable to recall where they were at the time of the bombing (). It is impossible to tell whether this was an emotional response to the terrible events they had witnessed or some brain injury. At the time specialists were unaware that the brain could be damaged by radiation. These manifestations of toxic radiation effects aroused in the minds of the people of Hiroshima a special terror, an image of a weapon which not only instantly kills and destroys on a colossal scale but also leaves behind in the bodies of those exposed to it deadly influences which may emerge at any time and strike down their victims. According to Hein and Selden (1997), this image was made particularly vivid by the delayed appearance of these symptoms and fatalities – two to four weeks later – in people who bad previously seemed to be in perfect health and externally untouched. The scientific findings do not contradict some personal material included in books and poems written in the post-bomb period in Japan. Many who suffered the devastation of the bombs remain convinced that residual radiation, both in the area of the hypocenter and in more distant areas affected only by fallout, had serious biological consequences for the survivors.


  • James N. Yamazaki, Louis B. Fleming (1995). Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician’s Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands, Duke University Press
  • Mark Selden, Kyoko Selden (1989). The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, M. E. Sharpe
  • Laura Hein, Mark Selden (1997). Living with the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age, M.E. Sharpe
  • Selden K. Selden L. (1989). The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, M.E. Sharpe
  • Yoneyama L. (1999). Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory, University of California Press
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