Hiroshima Memo: Dispel the “safety myth” of nuclear deterrence as well as nuclear power

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

In the aftermath of the March accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, the most distinctive feature of the peace declarations made this year by both the mayor of Hiroshima and the mayor of Nagasaki was their call for the Japanese government and Japanese society to effect a shift in the nation's energy policy from a reliance on nuclear power generation to renewable energy sources.

Kazumi Matsui of Hiroshima and Tomihisa Taue of Nagasaki may have used different words in their statements, but the thrust of both declarations is the idea that we should seek to realize a society that is free of nuclear power, even if such an aim takes time to achieve. Declarations delivered in the past focused solely on the elimination of nuclear weapons and the fulfillment of peace in the world, and this is the first time that both cities have expressed a contrary view with regard to the peaceful use of nuclear power.

This turn of events is a natural development, considering the appeals of “No more hibakusha” from the A-bombed cities. Although a lame duck, Prime Minister Naoto Kan also came to a dramatic shift in his view of nuclear power when faced with the sweeping radioactive contamination caused by the nuclear accident. Mr. Kan stated that Japan will strive to become “a society that is not dependent on nuclear power.” It is hoped that the new administration of the next prime minister will put forth a concrete vision which specifies how and when this goal will be achieved and then properly implement the necessary measures to advance this agenda.

The disaster in Fukushima has brought home the horror of radiation to young and old alike. It is frustrating, however, that this recognition has not yet led to a thorough review of the nation's other form of dependence on nuclear power: nuclear deterrence, which is even more grave and dangerous.

In his remarks, Mr. Taue said, “Many people once believed the myth of the safety of nuclear power plants, from some moment in the past,” and added, “Do we still believe that the world is safer thanks to nuclear deterrence? Do we still take it for granted that no nuclear weapons will ever be used again?”

If a nuclear weapon is detonated, either intentionally or accidentally, the heat rays and blast would wreak unimaginable destruction. Relying on the nuclear umbrella means that Japan accepts the notion of potentially attacking the people of hypothetical enemy nations with the most inhumane weapons ever created while exposing the people of Japan to the risk of similar attack.

The myth long perpetuated about the safety of nuclear power has now collapsed like a house of cards. In the same way, nuclear deterrence could collapse at any time, too, with nuclear weapons abruptly put to use.

In calling for Japan to free itself from relying on nuclear power, Mr. Kan said that we have learned “new lessons” and come to “realizations.” Yet at the the same time, he still stresses the importance of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to the nation's security. Despite Mr. Kan's avowal that Japan, as the A-bombed nation, is “firmly committed to leading the international community toward realizing a world without nuclear weapons,” his words are seen as hollow and unconvincing to the nations of the world and to anti-nuclear nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Nonnuclear members of the Non-Aligned Movement and developed nations such as Switzerland, in cooperation with a number of international NGOs, have been actively pursuing an early start to negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention. The heart of this convention would be the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons. By using international law to explicitly ban nuclear weapons, the convention would abolish all possession of nuclear arms, whether by members or non-members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants are inventions of our scientific civilization of the 20th century. Now that the Japanese people have experienced both types of disasters wrought by nuclear energy, we are charged not only with the task of breaking free of nuclear power generation at home, but of serving the world by advancing nuclear abolition for all. Toward that end, we must do away with the notion of security that is based on power politics, symbolized by nuclear weapons, and value the idea of promoting security for the whole of humanity on a global basis.

Mayors for Peace, which currently has some 5,000 members in 151 countries and regions, and civil society, which seeks a world that prioritizes security for all, have larger roles to play. Mr. Taue also urged the Japanese government to make efforts to help realize a nuclear weapons convention and establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone for Northeast Asia. Now is the time for the government to sincerely respond to these requests.

(Originally published on August 22, 2011)