Hiroshima Memo: A-bomb survivors beginning to speak about nuclear power in their testimonies

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

“I can’t be indifferent to what’s happening in Fukushima.”

“I haven’t thought through the dangers of nuclear power. I’ve just been focused on nuclear weapons.”

“I regret having condoned the use of nuclear power without paying much attention to it.”

I conducted interviews with ten A-bomb survivors who I’m acquainted with and are continuing to share their A-bomb experiences with others. One of them confided to me: “Until the accident at the nuclear plant occurred, I hadn’t understood why a nuclear reactor has to be injected with water. Though I’m an A-bomb survivor, I didn’t understand even this basic information.”

That person went on to say, referring to such issues as the mechanics of nuclear power plants, the differences in the various types of nuclear reactors, and the problem of disposing spent nuclear fuel: “I’ve become wiser from all the things I’ve learned since the accident. The accident made me realize the risks involving nuclear power.”

All the survivors I spoke with stressed the same points: human error is always a possibility; natural disasters are inevitable; nuclear energy is uncontainable when control is lost; once radioactive materials spread into the environment in significant amounts, it becomes impossible to repair the damage. The A-bomb survivors shared these sentiments with me and said, “Because of our background, we’re fully aware of the horrors this can cause.” As a result of suffering from a number of diseases, including cancer, after their exposure to the A-bomb’s radiation and living with the fear of the late effects of radiation for decades, they are very sensitive to the subject of radiation and its effects on the human body.

When talking about their A-bomb experiences, the survivors have many opportunities to describe the illnesses and other effects they and their families have suffered. But they are descriptions of effects attributable to the dropping of the atomic bomb 66 years ago. They hardly thought of this as something that could occur to someone close to them today.

“If a nuclear weapon were to be used today, with a destructive force dozens of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the effects of radiation, in addition to the tremendous damage wrought by the blast and heat rays, would be catastrophic.” Although A-bomb survivors have pointed out the perils of using nuclear weapons in their testimonies, they rarely touched on the dangers of nuclear power plant accidents, since the plants are presumed to be completely safe and the possibility of such accidents was something that they never imagined.

There is no change in the fact that one of the main roles of A-bomb accounts is to convey the reality of the atomic bombing, based on personal experiences. But many survivors feel: “Speaking about the A-bomb experience alone shapes the incident as merely a past incident. The atomic bombing should not be perceived only in this way.” In particular, since March 11, when the nuclear power plant suffered a catastrophic accident, questions about Fukushima and the pros and cons of nuclear power have been asked more frequently.

“A-bomb survivors must continue to inform themselves and have knowledge of these issues.” This is the strong sentiment I felt from each survivor I interviewed.

(Originally published on October 17, 2011)