Hiroshima Memo: New mission for A-bombed city of Hiroshima

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

Before dawn came, continuous smoke from sticks of incense rose into the air at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, mourning the lives lost in the atomic blast. That night, past 9 o'clock, a crowd of people were still lining up in front of the cenotaph in Peace Memorial Park to offer their prayers. On the Motoyasu River near the Atomic Bomb Dome, hundreds of colorful paper lanterns lit the surface of the water to comfort the souls of the A-bomb victims. Visitors to the park, including many from abroad, eagerly took photos of the scene.

August 6 marked the 66th year since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Although the A-bombed city met the occasion in traditional ways, it has now been tasked with a new role and mission not squarely faced before. The disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant has produced a score of hibakusha, or radiation sufferers, as well as evacuees, by releasing a huge volume of radioactive materials, which have also contaminated the air, the soil, and the sea. The accident at Fukushima poses a grave challenge to the A-bombed city of Hiroshima.

Kazumi Matsui, the mayor of Hiroshima, read out the Peace Declaration for the first time since taking office. In the declaration, the mayor touched on the elimination of nuclear power generation and the use of renewable energy, and urged the central government to review its energy policy. His wording, though, was rather restrained.

In his address, Prime Minister Naoto Kan reflected on the safety myth of the past involving nuclear power. The prime minister vowed that he would seek to “create a society that is not dependent on nuclear power.” However, as Mr. Kan did not mention specific measures and a timetable for accomplishing this goal, I can't help but feel concern over its feasibility. Although his tenure as prime minister will likely soon come to an end, whoever becomes the next leader should realize that the direction Mr. Kan has pointed to is nevertheless the right path forward.

The horrific conditions wrought by the atomic bombings that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered instilled among many Japanese an antipathy toward nuclear power. But this antipathy was directed toward nuclear weapons alone, despite the fact that nuclear power uses the same hazardous nuclear materials. However, it took the disaster in nearby Fukushima, not the disaster in distant Chernobyl, to finally awaken the people of Japan to the dangers of nuclear power plants. On August 6, too, citizens' rallies against nuclear power, in addition to nuclear weapons, were held at various venues in the city. Demonstrations were waged on the streets as well.

After the ceremony, I asked a number of international visitors to Peace Memorial Park to share their reaction to the Peace Declaration. Overall, they expressed very positive impressions. One of the people I spoke to was Ndumiso Dlamini, 41, from South Africa. Mr. Dlamini is studying energy science at Kyoto University and intends to earn a doctorate. “I wanted to attend the peace ceremony at least once,” said Mr. Dlamini, who had arrived in Hiroshima early that morning on an overnight bus from Kyoto. He responded to my question by referring to circumstances in his own nation.

“South Africa had six nuclear bombs, but we dismantled them all by 1991, following the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. We're the only nation to have disposed of all of its nuclear weapons,” he said. At the same time, he told me that South Africa is the only country in Africa that makes use of nuclear energy, with two nuclear power plants operating in the suburbs of Cape Town. The government has been planning to increase the number of nuclear plants, but public opposition is strong, and now the accident in Fukushima has occurred.

“The appeal from Hiroshima to eliminate nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants as a whole has my full support,” Mr. Dlamini said. “I hope that this message will reach people all over the world. I myself made a vow at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims that I will contribute to my nation's efforts to seek sources of renewable energy after I return to South Africa.”

Hiroshima, along with Nagasaki, which marks the day that city was attacked on August 9, have begun their first steps of a new mission in this 66th year since the atomic bombings.

(Originally published on August 8, 2011)