Reflections on Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima

The following statement by Nobuko Tsukui, a Japanese national from Tokyo who has specialized in the literature of the atomic bomb, was delivered at the 2011 Annual Lantern Float at Lincoln’s Holmes Lake Park Saturday evening August 6—the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

(First, I wish to pay a tribute to the memory of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of the March 11 disaster.) I have no word to describe the sense of devastation I felt at the triple disaster of March 11. The earthquake and the tsunami were, of course, caused by the forces of nature. But I could not help reflecting on our civilization in the face of this catastrophe. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, especially, symbolized the problem of civilization in the nuclear age vis-à-vis the forces of nature in their most destructive form. The world witnessed how utterly defenseless the nuclear power plant—supposedly the epitome of nuclear science and technology—could be against the earthquake and tsunami. And I believe that the Fukushima disaster has compelled us to re-examine our attitudes toward both ‘nuclear weapons’ and ‘nuclear energy.’

I wish to refer to two writers who, nearly 30 years ago, tried to awaken us.

John Berger, a British writer and art historian, published an essay titled “Hiroshima” in 1981. The point he makes is that the facts of nuclear holocaust have been hidden through “a systematic, slow and thorough process of suppression and elimination,” and in the process the world has forgotten that the victims of the atomic bombing—the hibakusha—were individual human beings. He also points out that what happened on August 6 and 9, 1945 was “neither the beginning nor the end of the act.” To my mind, his observation has far-reaching implications and relevance. We know that there was a long and arduous ‘preparation’ for “the acts” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And there has been an ‘aftermath,’ which the hibakusha have had to cope with to this day: “long, lingering death, radiation sickness, many fatal illnesses which developed later as a result of exposure to the bomb, and tragic genetic effects on generations yet to be born.”

In the following year, 1982, Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth was published. He writes: “The earth is the largest of the support systems for life, and the impairment of the earth is the largest of the perils posed by nuclear weapons.” (p. 23) He closes his book with the following admonition: “One day—and it is hard to believe that it will not be soon—we will make our choice. Either we will sink into the final coma and end it all or, as I trust and believe, we will awaken to the truth of our peril, a truth as great as life itself, and… we will break through the layers of our denials, put aside our faint-hearted excuses, and rise up to cleanse the earth of nuclear weapons.” (p. 231)

Thirty years later, in March 2011, a gigantic earthquake hit Japan, followed by the stupendous tsunami. The nuclear power plant at Fukushima was severely damaged by both the earthquake and the tsunami. Although the TEPCO (the power company that operates the nuclear power plant at Fukushima) withheld many of the facts and data for nearly two months, the three reactors at the plant which were in operation at the moment of the earthquake (2:46 p.m. March 11, 2011) sustained varying degrees of damage and when the tsunami came, the entire electrical system of the plant failed. Without electricity, the cooling capacity for each reactor (including the pool where the ‘used rods’ were submerged in the water to keep them cool) was lost totally. As a result, the Fukushima nuclear power plant became the scene of some of the worst conditions imaginable in ‘peace time’—the scene of a colossal peacetime hazard produced by nuclear science and technology.

Now, more than three months after March 11, it has become clear that the Pacific Ocean was contaminated as soon as the tsunami subsided, and, I’m afraid, the contamination has not stopped. 

In other words, although Jonathan Schell was talking about ‘nuclear weapons,’ the current disaster tells us that what is supposed to be the peaceful use of nuclear energy can cause and is causing ‘the perils’ of wartime bombing in the northern part of Japan and beyond. What we have experienced since March 12 when the Fukushima nuclear power plant problems were first reported tells us that Schell’s warning against ‘nuclear weapons’ should be applied to nuclear energy. “[The] impairment of the earth” of which he warns us is taking place.

Moreover, the TEPCO company has been grievously negligent in handling the conditions under which the workers have to work at the plant site. According to published reports, a large number of workers have been exposed to high—and dangerous—levels of radiation. No one can say for certain what may happen to them five, ten or 20 years from now. John Berger was writing about the ‘aftermath’ of the atomic bombing 36 years after the bomb was dropped. For the Fukushima workers, their exposure to radiation is only the beginning of the ‘aftermath,’ which could last for the rest of their lives.

From what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 we know that nuclear weapons destroy human lives and human society. On the other hand, despite the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island and another and much worse disaster at Chernobyl, we seem to have accepted the myth of the ultimate safety of nuclear power plants. The indoctrination of the citizens on the part of the power companies (with the government’s support) has been particularly notable in Japan.

As of March 11, 2011, however, the entire world has been watching the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. In the first three months after the tsunami, the problems at the plant worsened, showing clearly that ‘the peaceful use of nuclear energy’ could in fact go wrong, and that the safety myth was a lie. The situation at Fukushima has continued to deteriorate, becoming seemingly uncontrollable. Not only the sea, but the air and the soil have been contaminated.

Now is the time for us to “awaken to the truth of our peril, a truth as great as life itself,” to borrow Schell’s words, and we should “rise up to cleanse the earth of nuclear weapons, [and nuclear power plants]”!

Before the two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on July 16, 1945, the world’s first atom bomb was detonated at Trinity Site on the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. In other words, the first hibakusha was not a human being but the earth. Ms. Hayashi Kyoko, a Nagasaki hibakusha writer, visited Trinity Site in 1999. In her novel, From Trinity To Trinity (2000), which is based on her trip to Trinity Site, this fact is emphasized. In the following passage, the narrator stands before Trinity Site:

Until this moment, until I came to stand here at Trinity Site, I had believed that the first victims of the nuclear devastation on earth were we, the human beings. That is not so. Earlier victims, ‘senior’ hibakusha [i.e. the earth itself], are here. They are here, but they can neither cry nor shout. My eyes were filled with tears.

[The quotation is from the Japanese original –English translation by Nobuko Tsukui.]

The earth is hurting. Are we listening to its silent cry?

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