Hiroshima Memo: Reassessment of Japan’s nuclear energy policy is vital

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

In 1954, a series of hydrogen bomb tests conducted by the United States in the Pacific Ocean resulted in a large amount of radioactive fallout affecting people in that area, including U.S. soldiers taking part in the tests, residents of the Marshall Islands, and crew members of Japanese tuna fishing boats. At the time, President Dwight Eisenhower, high-ranking officials of the Atomic Energy Commission (now, the Department of Energy), and other U.S. figures were trumpeting the idea of “Atoms for Peace,” in which atomic energy would be employed for peaceful purposes.

Back then, U.S. citizens were offered very little information on the dangers of contamination from radiation. People were enchanted by the buzzwords describing nuclear energy as “cheap, clean, and safe.” Many citizens, including members of Congress, bought into the hype promulgated by the authorities and came to believe that, in the future, nuclear energy would not only generate electricity, it would also serve as a new source of energy for automobiles and airplanes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, while the United States and the former Soviet Union were locked in an escalating nuclear arms race during the Cold War, voices continued to clamor about the “rosy future” of nuclear energy. This vision of the time even reached the A-bombed city of Hiroshima, which suffered the horror of the atomic bombing.

In 1956, one year after the opening of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the museum held an exhibition on nuclear energy, for about three weeks, dubbed the “Exhibition for Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy.” The U.S. Embassy in Japan provided a sum of 100 million yen to help display such items as a full-size model of a nuclear reactor. In deference to U.S. wishes, during the run of the exhibition, items normally on display which showed the destruction caused by the atomic bombing were temporarily moved to the Hiroshima Central Community Center.

This event exemplifies the fact that even Hiroshima citizens, including A-bomb survivors, who suffered the horrific experiences of atomic attack wrought by war, held naive hopes for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Under these circumstances, Japan's first experimental nuclear reactor reached criticality in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture in 1957.

From the late 1960s into the 1970s, the world's nuclear power plants proliferated, and rose fastest in North America, the former Soviet Union, Europe, and Japan. In 1974, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) projected that 4,450 1 million kilowatt-nuclear power plants would be built by the end of 2000. This would be the culmination of the campaign to promote nuclear energy in the world.

However, as of the end of 2010, the number of nuclear power plants in operation amounts to more than 430 in 30 nations and one region. Even if the number of shuttered plants is added to the total, it would equal only about 11 percent of the forecast made in 1974.

One reason this total is significantly below that projection is the fact that the estimate of global demand for electricity was overstated. The biggest reason, though, were the accidents involving core meltdowns at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in the United States in 1979 and the Chernobyl Power Plant in the former Soviet Union in 1986. The accident at Chernobyl, in particular, released radioactive material in an amount that was several hundred times as extensive as that of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and resulted in the contamination of a widespread area, or “global exposure.”

With these incidents, the myth of safety that had girded nuclear power plants collapsed. Since 1979 no newly projected nuclear power plants have been built in the United States. In Europe, too, nations have become more cautious about their reliance on nuclear energy since the accident at Chernobyl. Even following Chernobyl, though, Japan has made the promotion of nuclear power plant construction a national policy, citing such reasons as poor energy resources and soaring oil prices. Today, 54 plants are in operation, generating about 30 percent of the nation's electricity. 

The central government and the electric power companies have long been telling us, in unison, that a major nuclear accident could never take place in Japan because measures to guard again earthquake damage have been fully undertaken. Over the past 10 years the prevention of global warming became the talk of the times and, in this vein, the winds of a “nuclear renaissance” were blowing. Against this backdrop, the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has now occurred.

For the moment, the immediate priorities are to forestall a further meltdown of the nuclear fuel rods and prevent any additional release of radioactive material into the environment. Like so many, I pray for the safety of those who are working at the site, at the risk of their own exposure to radiation, and a speedy resolution to this crisis.

At the same time, seeing this crisis as a wake-up call, I propose that our nation's policy concerning nuclear energy be reexamined from the ground up. No nuclear power plant on earth, no matter in which country it sits, can be tamed by the will of human beings if there is a large-scale meltdown of the core, as in the case of Chernobyl. Radioactive contamination can then easily cross national borders. Such consequences are catastrophic and last far too long.

In addition to natural disasters, human error can also result in accidents. Nuclear energy technology, too, as seen in India, Pakistan, and North Korea, can also lead to the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nuclear-related facilities, such as a nuclear power plant, could become the target of a terrorist act. 

Even setting aside the concern of accidents, handling the spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants, which contains a substantial amount of dangerous radioactive material, is deeply problematic. This “negative legacy” of the nuclear era will be handed down to future generations.

It is not an overstatement to say that the dream of the nuclear fuel cycle, where the spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed to extract the plutonium and then burned in a fast breeder reactor, resulting in an “infinite” supply of energy, has been shattered. It has become clear that such a dream, even simply in terms of economic efficiency, is a money-losing proposition.

With regard to Japan's energy needs, for the time being we may have to continue to coexist with nuclear power plants. To sit well with this situation, we must thoroughly reassess the safety measures of every existing nuclear power plant and be fully prepared to halt plant operations, if necessary.

From this point forward, Japan should promote renewable green energy that is also better for the environment, such as wind power, wave power, solar power, geothermal heat and fuel cells, as well as natural gas, which releases less carbon dioxide, rather than pursuing the construction of additional nuclear power plants and the operation of reprocessing plants. I expect that decisive investment in this field, including research and development, would provide a positive lift, too, to Japan's economy, environment, local communities, and security.

We should envision a withdrawal from our dependence on the sort of gigantic technology that nuclear power exemplifies and move, as soon as we can, toward the realization of a post-nuclear energy society. The current state of affairs is urging us to put this goal in our sights and switch directions in a deliberate manner.

(Originally published on March 21, 2011) 

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