USA | Atomic Bomb Survivors Join Opposition to Nuclear Power

Posted on August 6, 2011

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USA | NEW YORK TIMES | 6 August 2011

Lanterns with antinuclear messages were released Saturday in Hiroshima, Japan, on the 66th anniversary of the bombing there.

NAGASAKI, Japan — In 1945, Masahito Hirose saw the white mushroom cloud rise from the atomic bomb that incinerated this city and that left his aunt to die a slow, painful death, bleeding from her nose and gums. Still, he and other survivors of the attacks here and in Hiroshima quietly accepted Japan’s postwar embrace of nuclear power, believing government assurances that it was both safe and necessary for the nation’s economic rise.

That was before this year’s accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan confronted them once again with their old nightmare of thousands of civilians exposed to radiation. Aghast at the catastrophic failure of nuclear technology, the dwindling numbers of A-bomb survivors, most now in their late 70s or older, have stepped forward for the first time to oppose nuclear power.

Now, as both Hiroshima and Nagasaki observe the 66th anniversary of the twin American atomic attacks at the end of World War II, the survivors are hoping to use their unique moral standing as the only victims of nuclear bombings to wean both Japan and the world from what they see as mankind’s tragedy-prone efforts to tap the atom.

“Is it Japan’s fate to repeatedly serve as a warning to the world about the dangers of radiation?” said Mr. Hirose, 81, who was a junior high school student when an American bomb obliterated much of Nagasaki. “I wish we had found the courage to speak out earlier against nuclear power sooner.”

But speaking out would have required them to challenge Japan’s postwar powers, a difficult position in a consensus-driven nation that had put itself on a forced march toward economic development at all costs. On Saturday, Japan got another glimpse of the difficulty of speaking out in this resource-poor nation, where nuclear power has been seen as a silver bullet for reducing its reliance on imported energy. As Hiroshima observed the anniversary of the bombing there, the city’s mayor stopped short of calling for an end to nuclear power, remarking instead that opinions were divided.

“Some seek to abandon nuclear power altogether with the belief that mankind cannot coexist with nuclear energy, while others demand stricter regulation of nuclear power and more renewable energy,” said the mayor, Kazumi Matsui.

According to Japanese press reports, the mayor, too young to have witnessed the attacks, had considered making a stronger statement in the wake of the Fukushima accident, but pulled back in the face of opposition by industry groups.

Such reluctance to speak out has made the stronger stance taken by the atomic bombings’ survivors all the more prominent. Last month, the Hidankyo, the group representing the some 10,000 still-living survivors of the bombings, appealed for the first time for Japan to eliminate civilian nuclear power. In its action plan for next year, the group called for halting construction of new nuclear plants and also for the gradual phasing out of Japan’s 54 current reactors as energy alternatives are found.

Though the group has been a vocal advocate of abolishing nuclear weapons since its founding in 1956, it has until now been mute on the issue of nuclear power, which Japan continued to pursue even after the accidents three decades ago at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island prompted many Western nations to shelve nuclear expansion plans.

“The bureaucracy, industry and the media were able to shut our eyes to the danger of nuclear power,” said Hirotami Yamada, secretary general of Hidankyo’s Nagasaki chapter. “We let them fool us, even in this country that was the victim of the atomic bomb.”

“They convinced us that nuclear power was different from nuclear bombs,” said Mr. Yamada, 80, who was in junior high school when Nagasaki was bombed. “Fukushima showed us that they are not so different.”

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