Hiroshima Memo: Reflections on August 6

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

Seeking a new nuclear-free society

On August 6, 67 years after the tragedy of the atomic bombing, people queued from morning to night to offer prayers in front of the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. At a variety of rallies and demonstrations held in the city, the calls made for the elimination of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants were stronger than last year, following the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power station.

In this year’s peace declaration, as in the first declaration he delivered last year, Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui expressed the idea, albeit indirectly, that “nuclear power and humankind cannot coexist.”

This idea was first put forward by Ichiro Moritaki (1901-1994), who was then a professor emeritus of Hiroshima University and known as “the father of the anti-nuclear movement.” Each time a nuclear test was conducted in the world, Mr. Moritaki would stage a sit-in in front of the cenotaph. In his keynote address at the 1975 World Conference against A- & H-Bombs, 30 years after the atomic bombings, Mr. Moritaki made the following appeal:

“We have always rejected the military use of atomic power completely, but we have entered a new nuclear era in which we must oppose the so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy. In the end, mankind and nuclear power cannot coexist.”

The blast, heat rays, and radiation unleashed from a single atomic bomb produced unprecedented devastation on the city of Hiroshima and its people. After the war, the city came out firmly against nuclear arms, but the idea of objecting to the “peaceful use” of nuclear energy, a technology born in the 1950s, was not considered. Rather, many A-bomb survivors took their cue from the media--including Mr. Moritaki, at least initially--and looked forward to a rosy future with atomic energy used for a peaceful purpose, all the more after the tragic experiences they had to endure.

This is shown in the “Exhibition for the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy,” held at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 1956, less than a year after the opening of the museum. During the run of the exhibition, which was staged with significant financial support from the U.S. Embassy in Japan, the Hiroshima prefectural and municipal governments, the Chugoku Shimbun, and other entities, materials related to the atomic bombing, including A-bombed artifacts, were moved out of the museum.

Mr. Moritaki, who was an ethicist, became skeptical about nuclear power generation in the late 1960s. Through his international peace activities, he came to learn that there were many radiation sufferers in various parts of the world, including uranium miners in the United States.

The spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power stations contains enormous amounts of fissionable material, and a safe method for disposing of this hazardous waste is still being sought. Plutonium 239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, can be extracted from spent fuel and could be converted to military use. In the 1970s, Mr. Moritaki’s doubts over the “peaceful use” of nuclear energy turned to conviction.

India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea... In fact, it is the “peaceful use” of nuclear energy, which makes use of the same nuclear material employed in bomb-making, that has enabled the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This situation remains unchanged. In addition, there is now the danger of nuclear terrorism.

In his Peace Declaration, Mr. Matsui urged the Japanese government “to establish without delay an energy policy that guards the safety and security of the people.” It was exactly that safety and security, for the people of Fukushima, which was uprooted when the stricken power stations suffered core meltdowns last year. A full seventeen months after the accident, some 160,000 people are still forced to live the life of evacuees. Agriculture, fishing, and tourism in that region have been badly affected. The disastrous effects of Fukushima will be long-lasting and clearly demonstrate that “nuclear power and humankind cannot coexist.”

Meanwhile, a movement to shutter Japan’s nuclear power plants has been gaining momentum, reflecting the heartfelt appeal of each citizen involved: “No more hibakusha.” This movement will also have a synergistic effect on the public’s passion for the elimination of nuclear weapons, no doubt sparking fresh calls for a shift in government policy from the nation’s reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

But the address made at the Peace Memorial Ceremony by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who has a duty to listen to the voices of the people, lacked enthusiasm and was meager in substance, both in his determination to see nuclear arms abolished and in his attitude toward breaking away from the use of nuclear energy. Apparently more concerned about politics of the moment, Mr. Noda left the impression that his mind was not really on Hiroshima.

Another thing about August 6 made its mark. Among those in attendance at the Peace Memorial Ceremony were Clifton Truman Daniel, 55, a journalist and grandson of former U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who authorized the atomic bombings, and Ari Mayer Beser, 24, grandson of the only American soldier to fly on both planes that carried the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During their time in Hiroshima, Mr. Daniel, a resident of Chicago, and Mr. Beser, a resident of Los Angeles, met with A-bomb survivors and the two sides looked past the ill will that can characterize the atomic bombings to demonstrate a sense of reconciliation.

Of course, this reconciliation was largely symbolic, since the grandchildren of the war generation hold no responsibility for the attacks. But the two Americans might naturally have felt the need to brace themselves for some blame, simply because they are Truman’s grandson and the grandson of one of the crew members that took part in the bombings.

Mr. Daniel listened closely to the accounts of many hibakusha, his eyes misting from time to time. He had a look of ease on his face, though, probably because he felt relieved that the people of Hiroshima had welcomed him as a human being, not merely the grandson of the former president. Masahiro Sasaki, 71, invited Mr. Daniel to visit Japan. Mr. Sasaki is the older brother of Sadako Sasaki, the 12-year-old girl who died of radiation-induced leukemia as a result of the A-bombing and is well known for her paper cranes. Now a resident of Fukuoka, Mr. Sasaki described the change that Mr. Daniel underwent while in the A-bombed city: “He was nervous when he first arrived in Hiroshima, but that anxiety has mostly disappeared.”

Mr. Daniel said that he would like to help bring more A-bomb survivors to the United States to share their experiences. He added that he will call on more Americans, especially veterans of World War II, to pay a visit to Hiroshima.

At one of their events in the city, Mr. Sasaki and Mr. Daniel met with three Iranian people involved in a film production about Sadako, including the director of the project, and all of them pledged to make efforts to realize a world free of nuclear weapons. Even though those assembled were from countries with conflicting views, the city of Hiroshima is a fitting place for a spiritual bond to be forged between people who are intent on promoting peace and nuclear abolition.

But creating a world without nuclear weapons is a hard road under current conditions. In February 2011, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia came into effect, but the progress made by these two nations, and the other nuclear weapon states, has been painfully slow when it comes to nuclear disarmament.

At the same time, more people have arrived at a deeper recognition of the inhumane nature of the damage that nuclear weapons produce, and there are growing efforts to enact an international law that would ban nuclear arms completely. As we now take our first steps toward the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombings, let us learn the lessons raised by the experiences of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini, and Fukushima, and bravely advance down the road which will lead to ending our nation’s dependence on nuclear power. This is the path we must take to uphold the vow made to the A-bomb victims, which graces the cenotaph: “We shall not repeat the evil.” And this is the contribution that Japan, as the A-bombed nation, can make to the world.

(Originally published on August 8, 2012)