Nuclear bomb survivor Mito Kosei stood by the blasted-out frame of the A-bomb dome, pulling aside passersby to show them a binder labeled “What happened in Hiroshima.” Inside the binder were photos of his family who died in the bombing of Aug. 6, 1945 and charts showing the number of survivors in Japan.
“They saw hell,” Kosei said of the victims. He was in his mother’s womb at the time of the bombing. But Kosei doesn’t dwell for long on Hiroshima. Instead, he warns of another danger of splitting the atom: nuclear energy.
Weapons and Reactors – Protestors Unite
Alongside the photos of his perished family members are readings of residual radiation in the northern Japanese city of Fukushima, where the Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a meltdown more than two years ago.
“This is happening in Fukushima, Chernobyl, in nuclear plant sites,” said Kosei, opening the binder to a page declaring: “Human beings cannot coexist with nuclear power.”
Kosei and other anti-nuclear activists are part of a growing movement in Japan to link the dangers of nuclear contamination from nuclear power plants to the atomic explosion that destroyed Hiroshima and killed thousands of people.
Some of the anti-bomb movement in Japan has always been anti-nuclear energy as well. But that faction has grown since the 2011 meltdown in Fukushima, turning Hiroshima – a city long known for anti-bomb activism – into a center for anti-atomic energy protests.The joining of anti-reactor and anti-bomb protesters is a significant turning point in the movement.
“Hiroshima, and also the anti-nuclear movement in Japan, was separated from the anti-nuclear power movement,” said activist Haruko Moritaki, co-director of the Hiroshima Alliance for Nuclear Weapons Abolition. “But since the Fukushima accident ... we think we should unite.”
Yet the struggle to link the dangers of weapons and reactors remains an uphill fight in a country where the government, its top ally the United States and the nuclear power industry, have worked hard to keep atomic energy separate from memories of the bomb.
A Single Flash vs. A Steady Stream
There are major differences between the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March 2011.
The bomb was a blinding flash that killed 140,000 people and covered the area with high levels of radiation in a single, massive dose. The threat of contamination in the city was high right after the bombing, but quickly diminished.
Fukushima has released a less dramatic, but much more long-term stream of radiation. The meltdown spread radioactive materials over a wide swath of territory, and recent reports show particles are still spewing from the plant into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean.
The Hibakusha. The method of exposure has been different as well, said Dr. Hiromi Sugiyama, a senior scientist doing cancer research with Hiroshima’s Radiation Effects Research Foundation. RERF was set up after the bomb to measure the effects on survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha.
In Hiroshima, victims were exposed externally, while many Fukushima victims became exposed internally after eating contaminated food, she said. Still, many say the similarities between the two events are compelling. The radiation exposure of Fukushima victims, for instance, is roughly equal to that of people who were on the outskirts of the bomb zone in Hiroshima, said Dr. Eric Grant, an American epidemiologist at RERF.
“In that regard,’’ he said, “you might say they are similar in terms of doses.’’
Aside from the common denominator of radiation exposure, there is also an emotional bond between the people of Fukushima and atom bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the U.S. bombed three days later, on Aug. 9, 1945. Sugiyama said the fear of the becoming sick years later weighs heavily on anyone exposed to radiation, in all three of Japan’s radiation-exposed cities.
“Hiroshima and Nagasaki hibakusha,'' Sugiyama said, using the Japanese term for radiation-exposed people, “don’t want to make more hibakusha.”
Hiroshima is no stranger to the debate over nuclear power. In fact, pro-nuclear power campaigners used the city as the site of its first battle to win wider public acceptance in Japan. As with the bomb itself, the push for nuclear energy came from the United States. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched his “Atoms for Peace’’ campaign for nuclear energy at the United Nations General Assembly in December 1953.
By June 1955, ten years after the splitting of an atom destroyed Hiroshima, the United States and Japan had signed an agreement to work together on the research and development of nuclear energy.
Hiroshima became a particular target for the campaign. In 1956, an exhibit supporting nuclear energy was held in Hiroshima Peace Park, yards from the hypocenter of the bomb. The exhibition in Hiroshima attracted 110,000 people from the city and neighboring prefectures, many of them children on school outings.
It was clear the exhibit was aimed at quelling any potential opposition to atomic fuel in Hiroshima as a first step in winning acceptance in the rest of Japan, said Professor Bo Jacobs, a specialist in the history of science and technology and responses to nuclear testing at Hiroshima City University.
“There was really a push here in this community to sell Atoms for Peace,” Jacobs said. Proponents thought: “If the hibakusha will back nuclear power that’s a large moral authority for people in Japan to think, ‘Well nuclear power can’t be bad, nuclear power must be good,’” he said.
Meeting in the Middle. In order to convince bomb survivors to back nuclear power plants, the Japanese government made concessions on other issues, such as providing better compensation and medical care for bomb victims and survivors, Jacobs said.
The deal diluted any opposition from those who best knew the effects of radiation, and over the years, Japan’s number of power plants climbed higher. By 2010, some 50 nuclear power plants supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity.
Then Disaster. On March 21, 2011, the Great Japan Earthquake and tsunami completely shut down electric power in the northeastern region of Japan, crippling the Fukushima power plant and its backup systems. Without electricity to cool reactors at the power plant, the volatile material exploded, releasing dangerous amounts of radioactive material. It was a sad moment for the aging Hiroshima survivors.
“For these people to see the huge number of Japanese people becoming a radiation exposed community at the end of their lives, I think it’s just tragic for them,” Jacobs said. “They had hoped at the least that this is over, but it’s just starting again.”
NO Nuclear! Moritaki is the daughter of Ichiro Moritaki, the “father of the anti-nuclear movement” and founding member of Hidankyo, the Japanese Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Sufferer’s Organization. To her, any harnessing of nuclear power is dangerous. And since Fukushima, she said, it is easier to encourage other anti-nuclear weapons activists to resist nuclear energy too.
“We should say: absolutely no nuclear,” she said. “From nuclear mining, to nuclear power, to nuclear war. I think we should stop the whole cycle.”
She says citizens of Hiroshima can relate to the situation in Fukushima.
“We know the effects from radiation in Hiroshima,” she said. ““Now the people of Fukushima have been in the same situation as the hibakusha in Hiroshima.”
Room to Learn. Not everyone in Hiroshima agrees. Second generation bomb survivor Tamiyoki Okihira, for instance, said the bomb and the power plant meltdown are not as related as anti-nuclear activists may make them seem.
Like Haruko Moritaki, Okihara was six years old when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. And like the activist, he was evacuated with his mother and sister to the countryside, and his father, who was less than one mile from the epicenter of the bomb, found them a week later.
Yet the retired automobile tire manufacturer does not see nuclear weapons and nuclear energy as similar dangers, and he argues closing down all the country’s nuclear plants is unrealistic given the Japanese economy’s reliance on foreign oil.
“The atomic bomb victims were in very bad condition,” he said, while those exposed in Fukushima are much better off. In contrast to the ghastly death toll at Hiroshima, no deaths have been officially linked to exposure at Fukushima.
He argues that cutting down on human error at nuclear plants will make them safe.
“I think Fukushima is mostly a man-made disaster,” he said. “We can learn from Fukushima.”
Though the anti-nuclear energy movement has grown in strength since Fukushima, the government is starting to argue more forcefully that Japan cannot do without atomic fuel for much longer. After the Fukushima meltdown, all of Japan’s nuclear power plants were shut down. Now only two are operating, but Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, announced earlier this year that the government would begin reevaluating the safety of Japan’s nuclear plants, and re-opening them as they are approved. Many Japanese remain skeptical.
“Scientists and doctors stand by the nation, not by the victims,” Kosei said.
Fukushima refugee Saori Kanzawa, who fled to Tokyo after the plant meltdown, said she has stopped believing what the government says about safe levels of radiation. It’s been two years, and it’s as if there was no Fukushima, Kanzawa said in an interview at a Tokyo hotel. The government is ready to forget the harm the power plant caused, she said.
Late in the evening on March 11, 2013, Japanese people gathered in Hiroshima Peace Park to remember the Fukushima tragedy two years prior.
Across the river, Kosei’s spot near the Dome was empty. His blue binder and his imploring calls to visitors to hear his story had left with the daylight. Instead, Japanese citizens on the west bank stood in line to receive a candleholder decorated by local children.
The people congregated not in political protest, but to remember the Fukushima disaster in the center of a city that was familiar with nuclear destruction. As the sun faded, participants lit the candles in the shape of “3.11.” the date of the power plant meltdown. The light sparkled on the river where 68 years ago, people burned by the bomb tried to seek refuge.
The twisted skeleton of the A-Bomb Dome reflected on the water.