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Avoiding Nuclear Armageddon - 2003-04-22

Hiroshima, Japan. August 1945 was the only time nuclear weapons were ever unleashed on humanity.

Michiko Yamaoko, who was 15 years-old when the atom bomb struck Hiroshima, says "there was a tremendous flash of light, and I thought I had been killed." "Then I said good-bye to my mother because I thought I was dying, and as I did so, my body was blown away by the wind from the bomb. I thought this is the end of the world. My clothes were shredded, my hair was gone and my flesh was coming off. All around me people were undressed and dazed."

More than 70,000 people were killed instantly. US President Harry Truman decided to drop the atom bomb on Japan after it refused to surrender near the end of the Second World War. He hoped to avoid an invasion of Japan's shores that might have resulted in millions of casualties. Just a few days later, the United States dropped another atom bomb on the port city of Nagasaki. Finally, Japan surrendered.

Little more than a half century later, the number of countries with nuclear weapons has grown to eight. North Korea may already be number nine. As more nations obtain these weapons, the risk of a nuclear nightmare increases dramatically. Humanity came close to that nightmare in July 1999.

The tension between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan over the disputed mountainous territory of Kashmir had reached dangerous levels earlier that year. Pakistan launched a surprise attack on Indian-controlled Kashmir and was preparing to go farther.

In the midst of the crisis, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan flew to Washington for urgent talks with former US President Bill Clinton. Just before the meeting, the President received an intelligence report with alarming news. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth was at the meeting and says "there was a disturbing report that Pakistan was preparing its nuclear arsenal for possible deployment."

Mr. Inderfurth says the atmosphere in the meeting between the leaders was incredibly tense. President Clinton knew the world was facing the possibility of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. "No one had thought this through on the Pakistani side or maybe on the Indian side, how much they were increasing the risk to the whole world by precipitating this huge crisis when they were both sitting on these nuclear arsenals," says the former president. "The idea that they would be playing games with the preparation of their missiles - it was terrifying to me."

Under intense pressure from President Clinton, Pakistan pulled its military out of Indian-controlled Kashmir, and the world stepped back from the nuclear brink.

Analysts say the situation on the India-Pakistan frontier remains dangerous. Last year nearly one million troops massed along the border after India claimed Pakistan-supported militants were crossing into Indian-controlled Kashmir. Forceful US-led diplomacy helped ease tensions.

But Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy warns this cannot go on indefinitely. "We will survive perhaps the next crisis and the crisis after that, but the question is how many more crises must we survive and how many more before we don't survive?"

As countries with nuclear weapons remain a real danger, another threat -- less direct but equally treacherous -- is so-called loose nuclear material.

Much of the world's basic ingredients of a nuclear device -- highly enriched uranium and plutonium -- is located in Russia. The strict security measures over this material collapsed after the authoritarian Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, leaving a potential market for terrorists seeking nuclear weapons.

Many nuclear scientists in the former Soviet Union are out of work. Alexander Kolbaenkov is one of the lucky ones. Though many of his colleagues are gone, he is still employed at a nuclear facility in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. "People sell themselves, sell their labor," he says. "There's nothing else to do. If the only knowledge I have is to make nuclear bombs, what should I do? Take Russia, the defense industry is out of work, what should the people do? If Pakistan offers a normal life to a scientist, what should he do?"

One does not have to be a scientist to pose a critical danger. Leonid Smirnov worked as a poorly paid foreman at a chemical plant outside Moscow. He also happened to be in charge of handling uranium waste. "In 1992, inflation skyrocketed, and prices nearly doubled every week, and our future was unclear," he says. "We didn't know where we were headed. Then an idea flashed in my mind. Other people are taking things from production. Why not me? I began to fill small vials of uranium. Each held about 50 grams. I did this in the safebox when no one was watching."

Mr. Smirnov was caught by police as he tried to find buyers for his 1.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. The question is how many others are stealing this material and getting away with it.

Not all is gloom and doom, however. Some countries, like Kazakhstan and South Africa, have voluntarily given up their nuclear arsenals. And the US government is helping to employ former Soviet nuclear scientists and boost the security of nuclear material. One program contributes about a billion dollars a year to secure huge stockpiles of weapons-grade nuclear material in research and military facilities throughout the former Soviet Union.

History teaches tough yet valuable lessons. In Hiroshima, Pakistani and Indian teenagers are invited to meet victims of the 1945 nuclear blast and visit the only building that remained standing. One Pakistani boy says his trip to Hiroshima, was life-changing. "When I was young and they had atomic tests, I was like everybody in Pakistan, I was very proud of myself -- Oh, that's great," he says. "Pakistan has done a good job. But when I came here to Hiroshima, when I saw the real disaster, what had happened, when I went to the museum, I have really changed my mind. Now I am against the word atomic bomb."

This is the kind of revelation that Ted Turner hopes viewers of his documentary will share.