HIROSHIMA–The crisis at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has driven home the need to accelerate nuclear disarmament, experts told a recent symposium here in the city that felt the power and the horrors of the world’s first atomic bombing.
Civilian use of nuclear energy, or nuclear power generation, can be as dangerous as its military applications, or nuclear weapons, panelists said at the International Symposium for Peace 2011, held at the International Conference Center Hiroshima on July 31.
“Whatever its source, the harm to health of ionizing radiation is the same. The same chain reaction drives nuclear fission in reactors and bombs,” said Tilman Ruff, who chairs the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. “Releases of radioactivity similar to or larger than those from a nuclear bomb can come from nuclear reactors and spent fuel ponds.”
Kazumi Mizumoto, vice president of Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City, said the Fukushima disaster should not be seen as an accident at a single nuclear power plant but as a case that exposed the risks inherent in the entire system of nuclear power generation.
“Japan uses uranium fuel at 54 nuclear power reactors, stores spent nuclear fuel in storage pools and (plans to) dispose of radioactive waste at a final disposal site,” Mizumoto said. “All the processes involve risks, and all the processes are subject to human errors. If an error does occur, risks are enormous.”
Experts also said civilian use of nuclear energy is often a source of suspicions about military use.
Japan, which is pushing the nuclear fuel recycling program, or extracting plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for use in fast breeder reactors, is not an exception.
“Japan has continued to accumulate plutonium, which has raised doubts in the international community that it is actually seeking to use nuclear energy for military applications,” Mizumoto said. “Japan has adhered to a suspected system.”
Ruff said: “Japan is the only state without nuclear weapons to be amassing a large stockpile of separated plutonium: a nuclear arsenal in waiting.”
Motoko Mekata, professor at Chuo University’s Faculty of Policy Studies, said the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons increases sharply if nuclear fuel recycling spreads.
“Japan should take the initiative and withdraw from the nuclear fuel recycling program at a time when many other countries hope to carry out nuclear fuel recycling,” Mekata said.
About 700 people attended the symposium, titled “The Road to Abolition–What Civil Society Needs to Do Now.” The annual symposium, held in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, was the 17th.
It was hosted by Hiroshima city, the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation and The Asahi Shimbun, and supported by Nagasaki city, the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace, Hiroshima Home Television Co. and Nagasaki Culture Telecasting Corp.
Asahi Shimbun editorial writer Toshiaki Miura served as coordinator for the panel discussion.
Experts said a global movement toward nuclear disarmament has made little progress since U.S. President Barack Obama pledged that the United States will work toward “a world without nuclear weapons” in a speech in Prague in April 2009.
The Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament has long failed to start meaningful negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, designed to stop production of highly enriched uranium or plutonium for nuclear weapons, bound by its rules of consensus.
“One country can stop the negotiation from beginning,” George Perkovich, vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said. “Pakistan has for a number of years wanted to block this negotiation. Many people believe that China is not unhappy with Pakistan blocking this negotiation.”
Experts said the conventions that prohibit anti-personnel land mines and cluster munitions, for which a small group of “middle power” countries and nongovernmental organizations laid the foundations, can offer lessons for nuclear disarmament.
Negotiations that culminated in the land mine ban treaty are called the Ottawa Process after Canada, one of the prime movers, while those that resulted in the cluster bomb ban treaty are known as the Oslo Process after Norway.
Mekata, who has been involved in an international campaign to ban land mines, proposed starting a “Hiroshima Process” to push for a Negative Security Assurance Treaty.
Under the treaty, a nuclear power would guarantee that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers that are signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Mekata also suggested that a group of countries, including Japan, start a new round of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, apart from the Conference on Disarmament.
Negotiations on prohibiting land mines or cluster bombs started as part of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. Advocates set up separate forums outside the United Nations after the discussions reached a stalemate due to opposition from major powers.
“Why don’t we apply the start-where-we-can approach to nuclear disarmament, without bothering about countries that are opposed?” Mekata asked.
Major powers, such as the United States, Russia and China, have not signed the land mine ban treaty, which took effect in 1999, or the cluster bomb ban treaty, which went into force in 2010.
But Ruff said an important aspect of the two treaties is that they have even influenced the behavior of those opponents.
“Land mines have become unacceptable,” Ruff said. “There is no country, including those who are not signatories to the Ottawa Treaty, that exports land mines.”
Ruff said the two treaties are “inspiring examples of civil society collaborating with international organizations and a couple of determined governments (that changed) the argument from a military and strategic one of these arcane concepts that bear no relationship to what happens when you use the weapons to a humanitarian debate. I think that is what we desperately need with nuclear weapons.”
Experts said civil society has a crucial role to play in lobbying governments to act and pressing financial institutions to divest from companies that manufacture nuclear weapons.
Mekata said Japan’s megabanks decided to refrain from doing business with companies that manufacture cluster bombs following pressure from citizens.
“It is important to become ‘nagging’ citizens who raise their voices against what they oppose and what they doubt through local politicians or media,” Mekata said.
Perkovich said Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons has met significant resistance both in the United States and in other major powers.
Referring to the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia, which took effect in February, Perkovich said, “It is a fairly minimal, not a very ambitious, treaty, but it was actually very hard to get ratified in the U.S. Senate.”
Perkovich said Obama has not received support from other major countries that he needs to make progress toward his goal.
“Everyone applauded, but then no one stepped up to say, ‘I’m a head of a major country and I will work with you.’ (Countries such as) Brazil and South Africa applauded but have gone off to do other things,” he said.
“This is a problem, and it’s hard for civil society to overcome when there is not leadership in other countries that want to work strongly with someone like Obama.”
An ultimate goal is to conclude a Nuclear Weapons Convention to prohibit nuclear weapons, which has been pushed by nongovernmental organizations.
The final document adopted at the NPT review conference in May 2010 for the first time included a reference to the convention. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on member states to start negotiations on the treaty.
“Everything that was wrong with chemical and biological weapons, land mines and cluster munitions is worse with nuclear weapons,” Ruff said. “It simply is inconsistent that we don’t have a comprehensive framework for the worst and most indiscriminate and inhumane weapons.”
From right, Motoko Mekata, Kazumi Mizumoto, Tilman Ruff and George Perkovich at the International Symposium for Peace 2011 in Hiroshima on July 31. At left is Asahi Shimbun editorial writer Toshiaki Miura, who served as coordinator. (Takuya Isayama)