Continuing fallout

by Meredith McKinney

THE STORY OF Japan’s marriage to nuclear energy is so fraught with suffering, you have to wonder why they ever got together.

Just what are the dynamics of this abusive relationship? It’s easy to look at a bad marriage and shake your head over it in disbelief. To an outsider, the stark facts of the matter can seem glaringly obvious. But from the inside, the view is often very different. When I went to Japan after the post-tsunami nuclear accident at Fukushima, I anticipated that mention of Hiroshima would be thick in the air. It is an astonishing and tragic fate, surely, to find yourself not once but twice the victim of nuclear damage on an unprecedented scale, and the terrible story of Hiroshima is very far from forgotten in Japan. But people were oddly resistant when I mentioned the connection: ‘It’s really very different,’ was the general response.

This is certainly true – the atomic bomb killed roughly seventy thousand people and left more than two hundred thousand sick from the radiation, while according to official data Fukushima has so far killed no one, and evidence of the effects of the radiation are slow to emerge (an increase in incidences of thyroid cancer among children is beginning to reveal itself). The bomb was an uncontrolled chain reaction, while the nuclear power plants at Fukushima were designed in such a way that this could never happen. Their danger is from leaked radiation. None of this means, of course, that the radiation from Fukushima may not prove to be immensely harmful in the long term – it has already proved so to the economy, local industry and the surrounding area both sea and land – or that it is not the same substance that is doing the harming. But it is important to maintain perspective when drawing analogies, and the view from up close makes Fukushima a very different story from Hiroshima’s.

Nevertheless, it struck me as odd that so few in Japan were inclined to step back and take a long view that linked Hiroshima and Fukushima in any way. Discussion on the web and elsewhere has, in fact, tended to react defensively and even angrily to any suggestion of a connection. Why should the idea make people so uncomfortable? In some way it is important, it seems, to keep Japan’s two nuclear disasters firmly separate in the mind. This puzzling psychology turns out to be a key to the story of Japan’s unfortunate nuclear marriage.

When I said Hiroshima is very far from being forgotten, this was an understatement. Hiroshima dominates Japanese perceptions of their nation’s involvement in World War II, much as Gallipoli increasingly dominates discussions of World War I in Australia. I only fully realised this when I had to teach a first-year university course in Japan on Australia–Japan relations. I’d expected the students to be ignorant of Australia’s role in the war, but I struck a deeper ignorance: at best, most seemed to be only hazily aware that Japan had been the aggressor in the Pacific War. Overwhelmingly, the bombing of Hiroshima was the war’s single defining image in their minds. For my students, as for many others in Japan, ‘the war’ could be summed up in very simple terms: America had been the perpetrator and Japan the (innocent) victim of an unforgivable atrocity. It seems that the single act of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – along with the terrible suffering it inflicted – has had the unintended effect of virtually obliterating any possibility for many Japanese of understanding the Pacific War, its causes and its culpabilities. It has largely foreclosed on remembering, and replaced it with an aggrieved and righteous sense of national victimhood.

In fact, with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, America unleashed a host of problems it had probably never thought to anticipate – only one of which was the ongoing dire effects of radiation on humans, which it then eagerly set to work to study. (Why Nagasaki is so seldom mentioned is another tale.) The story is worth tracing, for it leads, via some interesting historical twists, finally to Fukushima.

THE TERRIBLE EFFECTS of the atomic bomb appalled the world, including America’s allies and indeed most Americans, and there was general horror at the thought that such a weapon could be used again. The ‘atom bomb’, as it was then called, had in fact been so successful that it proved potentially disastrous from the American government’s point of view. In the face of such universal revulsion, what was to become of the precious nuclear research that was the new darling of physics, where America held the cutting edge thanks to the work of Oppenheimer and others? How to win back the public’s trust, reassure the allies, make some amends – or at least seem to – for the atrocity that was raising such howls on all sides, and save the nuclear research project for the job of forging ahead with important, world-changing discoveries and, more importantly, helping to maintain America’s now-superior military capability?

The next chapter in the story of Japan’s nuclear marriage begins here. In the midst of the post-Hiroshima nuclear fear that gripped the world, President Eisenhower and those around him began to hatch a plan that would prove to be almost as successful (and, ultimately, perhaps as disastrous) as the atomic bomb had been. It was to be called ‘Atoms for Peace’, and its aim was to present to the world the dreaded ‘atom’ – newly dressed in civilian clothes, taught to smile nicely and be polite – as the promise of future peace and prosperity for all. Behind this plan lay not only the urgent need to reverse public fear of ‘the atom’, but the growing necessity to counter and contain the burgeoning nuclear capability of the USSR. This seemingly harmless project was, in essence, a child of the Cold War.

The Atoms for Peace project had about it the same innocent air of American generosity as the Marshall Plan: the latest nuclear technology would be offered freely to friendly countries, together with enriched uranium for use in the atomic reactors they would be encouraged to build. This would not only promote the widespread civilian use of the new nuclear technology, and thereby reassure the world that the atom was its friend, but coincidentally ensure that America’s allies had the readily available potential to build nuclear weapons at need. Meanwhile, the public must be soothed and won over. The underlying concept was summed up, in the words of Stefan Possony, Defence Department consultant to the Psychological Strategy Board of the time, as follows: ‘The atomic bomb will be accepted far more readily if at the same time atomic energy is being used for constructive ends.’

The cynicism behind the project is astonishing. Nevertheless, Eisenhower probably meant every word when he introduced the plan in his famous Atoms for Peace speech to the UN General Assembly by asserting that nuclear technology ‘can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind’. The project embodies that peculiar combination of think-big idealism and hard pragmatism that is so characteristic of American thought. Eisenhower was not only keen to maintain America’s military supremacy while surreptitiously arming his allies, he and subsequent administrations set about putting his grand civilian promises into practice at home. The string of nuclear debacles attending the mad dreams of Project (or Operation) Plowshare over the following decades attests to the strength of this ongoing faith in nuclear energy – nuclear explosions were seen as the new engineering fix for any US plans that required large-scale blasting, until the combination of public outcry, radiation contamination, failure and expense finally killed the project in the late ’70s. The Pilbara region in Western Australia was lucky to avoid being irradiated by the gift of a new nuclear-blasted harbour, just one of many among Project Plowshare’s cheerful plans.

IN HINDSIGHT, SUCH massive irresponsibility seems entirely culpable. Nevertheless, it’s worth pausing to understand the widespread allure of the new promises of nuclear technology at the time of Eisenhower’s speech. Aside from the wilder ideas (building houses impregnated with uranium to melt the winter snow, and so forth), there was much talk of a future of atomic planes, trains and space ships, futuristic atomic-powered gadgets, and the suggestion that nuclear-generated power would be so plentiful it would be free. Until the limitations of the realistic applications of nuclear technology – and the full dangers of radiation – were understood, this new technology could easily be made to promise the world. The massive build-up of America’s atomic arsenal that Eisenhower covertly oversaw during his term in office (from around a thousand nuclear weapons when he arrived, to roughly twenty-two thousand by the time he left), eloquently gives the lie to the formula ‘atoms for peace’. But, for a while at least, atoms for prosperity and a brave new world seemed like a genuine promise.

Eisenhower’s UN speech in December 1953 was so winning that it had many convinced. The US testing of a huge atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands less than four months later was, in retrospect, a big mistake for them. The world proved to have been less won over than Eisenhower had assumed, and the fact that an innocent fishing boat outside the exclusion zone had been smothered in deadly radioactive ash made matters worse. It was doubly unfortunate that the boat was Japanese. By the time the poor SS Lucky Dragon 5 had limped home to Japan, all aboard were suffering from radiation sickness and one was already dead. Their catch of fish went to the market and was sold before anyone thought to prevent it.

The Lucky Dragon incident provided a potential turning point for Japan. Still reeling from the war, eager to embrace the chance of peace and prosperity and already disinclined to look back at the suffering from which they had so recently emerged, many in Japan seemed prepared to be lulled by Eisenhower’s promises. The effects of radiation were only just beginning to be generally understood, owing to the secrecy of America’s research on Hiroshima victims. But the shock of the Lucky Dragon incident suddenly galvanised people: an anti-nuclear weapons petition was immediately begun by a group of Tokyo women. By the following year, it had gathered almost thirty-two million signatures (roughly a third of Japan’s population). From this was born Japan’s formidable and long-lasting anti-nuclear movement, embodied by the organisation known as Gensuikyo.

Just when Japan had seemed to be recovering from what the US Administration termed its unfortunate ‘nuclear allergy’, Eisenhower thus found himself with fresh problems on his hands. It made matters worse that Gensuikyo was closely linked to Japan’s Communist Party, and hence to Russia. Urgent action was needed to save Japan (of immense strategic importance in the US versus USSR stand-off of the Cold War) from a disastrous lurch to the left. ‘Japan’ in this case refers to the Japanese public – the Japanese government was never in question. Indeed, Prime Minister Hatoyama and his Cabinet were as worried as Eisenhower by these developments, and all too keen to welcome his solution: a massive exhibition promoting Atoms for Peace that would tour Japan and win hearts and minds. The brave new nuclear world was coming to tout its promises, with no expense spared to impress. Along with the exhibition came another solution of a far less public nature – the offer to freely share nuclear technology with Japan. The Japanese government accepted with quiet alacrity.

It was now just a matter of soothing the public’s nuclear allergy and bringing people round to what they would scarcely notice was in fact a fait accompli. The touring exhibition of 1955 was a huge success. To understand its full allure, it is important to remember that Japan was only slowly emerging from the disastrous effects of the war; there was still dire poverty and devastation at every turn. The exhibition’s delightful entertainment and privileged glimpse into the bright new future where anything, it seemed, would be possible was enough to turn anyone’s head. And any head that was turned by this was thereby being turned away from the public fear and anger over nuclear equating to weapons. The two must become firmly separated in people’s minds, if the nuclear allergy was to be abated.

It was a brazen move to bring the atom back to Japan, after everything the nation had experienced at its hands and a bare month or two after the Lucky Dragon incident, and attempt to convince the country that, as it were, this guy was worth marrying. But for the blitz of publicity and support provided by the press and the national and local governments, it would surely have failed. The struggle to reconcile the two was solved with some astonishing logic. The minister of technology proclaimed that Japan had a right to nuclear technology ‘as the country baptised by the ashes of Bikini’, a bizarre statement which reflected the official American position – that Japan should be offered the ‘good’ atom precisely because of all it had suffered at the hands of the ‘bad’ one. This daring and clever argument served to reassure the public that the two were not only entirely separate things but that the new atom, who was quite as good as the old one had been bad, was deeply contrite about the damage done by its evil twin and eager to make generous amends. It also neatly set up a dichotomy between good and bad that made the outcome a foregone conclusion: anyone in their right mind must choose the good. The possibility of choosing neither was outside the equation. With this, nuclear technology had its foot wedged firmly in the door.

THE CRUNCH CAME when the touring Atoms for Peace exhibition arrived at Hiroshima. For reasons that are obvious, Hiroshima had a particular lack of large public buildings that could house the exhibits. It was therefore rather unwisely decided that the recently constructed Memorial Museum, built in memory of the dead and housing the memorial exhibits of Hiroshima’s bombing, would be temporarily cleared out to make way for the new exhibition.

Could Hiroshima’s mayor, Hamai (who was only too happy to welcome the exhibition and all it had to offer), really have believed that his bomb-shattered city would accept this without a murmur? He and the American Cultural Centre that was overseeing the tour seemed genuinely surprised at the ensuing outcry. Perhaps he was indeed as naive as he appeared; in January that year, he had been approached with the suggestion that Hiroshima should be the first place in Japan to host a nuclear power plant, a plan conceived in the US as ‘a dramatic and Christian gesture which could lift all of us far above the recollection of the carnage’. His response had been that, as far as he was concerned, ‘starting the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the first city victimised by atomic energy would serve as our tribute to the deceased victims. Our citizens, I am sure, will welcome it.’ (The proposal was subsequently dropped by the US Administration, much to Hamai’s disappointment.)

Hiroshima’s citizens turned out to need more coaxing than anticipated when their beloved Memorial Museum was gutted to make way for the brave new atomic promise. Most vocal were the many thousands of hibakusha, the surviving sufferers of the atomic bomb, supported by Gensuikyo. Hamai and the American organisers pushed ahead regardless, and over two thousand items commemorating Hiroshima’s terrible recent past were duly removed and replaced by an American vision of its enticing nuclear future. One of the underlying purposes behind the Atoms for Peace project – to remove the memory of searing experiences of nuclear weapons and replace it with the glowing promise of a peaceful nuclear world to come – was never more clearly expressed.

It had been a close call, however. This short, sharp confrontation between the anti-nuclear weapons movement, behind which the Japanese public had overwhelmingly rallied, and the Atoms for Peace project brought the two into direct collision for the first time. ‘Peace’ was the powerful mantra that united them both, but behind Atoms for Peace lay the unstated aim of convincing the world eventually to accept the bitter pill of nuclear weapons by slipping it down with the sweet syrup of the atom’s technological promise. If Japan’s formidable anti-nuclear weapons movement had decided to swing its full weight against Atoms for Peace, things might have turned out very differently. The Hiroshima Memorial Museum incident not only allowed a glimpse of the true nature of Atoms for Peace, it was a moment when history perhaps hung in the balance.

Instead, Gensuikyo and the hibakusha retreated to consider their position, and at Gensuikyo’s 1956 conference in Nagasaki they issued their verdict: ‘Redirecting destruction- and annihilation-capable nuclear power toward the goal of definitive happiness and the prosperity of humanity is our one and only wish as long as we remain alive.’ From having its foot in the door, nuclear technology had now been welcomed at the family table. (‘And to think that I was the one who drafted this declaration!’ Moritaki Ichiro, one of Japan’s foremost peace activists, sadly wrote in retrospect.) Atoms for Peace had made another huge step towards its goal of achieving the complete separation of bad and good atom in the mind of the public. All that remained was to cement its position, and finally to whittle away the opposition to nuclear weapons, until nuclear technology in all its forms became simply an accepted part of life.

The Japanese public at large didn’t cave in quite as quickly as Gensuikyo had done. A US Department of State 1956 survey found that almost two-thirds still stubbornly believed that nuclear energy would be ‘more of a curse than a boon to mankind’. A mere two years later, however, the number had significantly dropped, and it went on falling. To the disappointment of the US Administration, Japan continued to suffer from a chronic nuclear allergy, such that even the government was obliged to pay it at least lip-service – but the symptoms had been neatly isolated to relate only to the question of nuclear weapons. And so it has remained to this day.

In those intervening two years and beyond, the work done by Atoms for Peace was enthusiastically carried forward by the mass media and others. The idea of all things nuclear became a new craze, epitomised by the famous comic book character Astro Boy, first created by Tezuka Osamu in the early ’50s. His Japanese name was Iron-Arm Atom (tetsuwan atomu), and he belonged to a nuclear (pun intentional) family whose members included his sister, Uran (uranium), and brother, Cobalt. Astro Boy is a vision of technology: a robot who can do just about anything, who flies about in a nuclear-powered future fantasy land fighting the bad and protecting the good as a true hero should. He is not only cute, he has a sensitive heart and a morally upright nature. He’s all that nuclear power promised to be – what’s more, he’s fun.

In the aftermath of Fukushima, the internet in Japan ran hot with accusations that Tezuka had been a pawn in the hands of the nuclear power industry, helping to brainwash millions of innocent readers through his pro-nuclear message. But this is rather unfair; Tezuka was a man of his time, as beguiled by the fantastical Atoms for Peace promises as everyone else, and is on record as regretting his unwitting support of an industry he later came to see as deeply problematic. More to the point, surely, is Walt Disney. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Eisenhower’s project from the beginning, and not only infused Disneyland’s Tomorrowland with a strong pro-nuclear message but produced the hugely influential primer Our Friend the Atom, which explained the atom and its wondrous benefits to a generation of Americans, with cute illustrations and barely a passing nod toward its destructive power.

It turned out, of course, that aside from its medical application almost none of those brave dreams for nuclear technology were practicable – except for nuclear power. But then, it had always been nuclear power that America was really interested in exporting, for reasons to do as much with the military considerations of Cold War geopolitics as with generosity and a belief in its benefit to mankind.

Thus did Japan’s nuclear marriage begin, though private nuptials had already been held thanks to agreements between the Japanese and American governments. By 1957, a nuclear reactor had been purchased and twenty more were contracted. The momentum of Japan’s nuclear power industry was already unstoppable.

THE REST OF the story can be quickly told. Through the ’60s, and picking up further pace in the ’70s, earthquake-prone Japan dotted its coastline with nuclear reactors; and not only reactors, but both uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities, and a truly scary, hideously expensive and dangerous fast breeder reactor, shut down in 1995 after revelations of the cover-up of a negligence-caused sodium leak and fire, and remaining under wraps ever since due to ‘technical problems’.

The fast breeder reactor, along with a cluster of rapidly ageing earlier reactors, is located on the Japan Sea coast, less than one hundred kilometers from Kyoto, Japan’s beautiful early capital – where I lived for twenty years – and the huge conurbation of Osaka-Kobe. We never heard news of these reactors except in passing, every so often, when reports of an accident would leak out. It would evoke brief outrage, and be quickly buried. The outrage was as much at the revelations of how shamelessly the government and authorities were prepared to lie to protect the reputation of what had momentarily been recognised as extremely dangerous technology. From the days of Atoms for Peace and its open-handed promises, the reality of nuclear technology had sunk into worrying secrecy. I used to go walking along the little back roads of the remote Japan Sea peninsulas, delighting in their sleepy fishing villages and pretty forested promontories and inlets, but again and again I would find myself at the far end facing a mysterious, manned barrier. Nothing was visible beyond, but round a corner, carefully shielded from sight, lay yet another nuclear reactor. You couldn’t help but wonder just what it had to hide.

It took the accident at Chernobyl in 1986 to alert the Japanese public to the full dangers of nuclear power. Enough people were sufficiently horrified to boost anti-nuclear sentiment until it became an ongoing movement of sorts, though only with Fukushima has the anti-nuclear movement gained real traction in Japan. Why? Knowing the full story, you can see how Japan was sold the nuclear story. But surely, given the revelations down the years, it could have been met with stiffer opposition? There was probably never any stopping Japan’s nuclear choice, but things could have been a lot better if enough voices had been raised along the way at least to make the industry in some way accountable, to make it behave itself, keep it just a bit nervous about its reputation.

When I went to live in Japan in the ’70s, I had been educated by the anti-uranium mining movement in Australia and its opposition to the Jabiluka mine in Kakadu, which planned to sell its resources to Japan. I arrived keen to liaise with the country’s anti-nuclear movement and was astonished to discover that, to all intents, such a thing didn’t exist. The Socialist Party had come out against nuclear power, I learned, but it was hardly a force in Japan. The puzzle remained with me until I finally delved a little into the history of nuclear power, and indeed it remains with me still.

Perhaps Japan at large was so thoroughly overcome by the Atoms for Peace pitch that, having lain back and said yes, it found it easier never to open its eyes again and look more closely. Doubts about the value of nuclear power can be quieted with a simple formula: ‘We need it.’ As with global warming, any suggestion of a reduction in prosperity and economic growth is enough to make people shrink from facing facts and hard decisions. The important discussion that post-Fukushima Japan could be having about a shift towards renewables, and just how ‘clean’ the astonishingly expensive and problem-ridden nuclear power really is as an energy source, is virtually non-existent. The Japanese public knows now that it hates nuclear power, but it can’t begin to see where else to turn.

But what of Gensuikyo and the anti-nuclear weapons movement? Surely they at least could have stepped back from their fateful early decision to welcome nuclear technology to Japan? Here we come back to Hiroshima again, the city that is somehow the key to so much of what has happened. Down the years, Gensuikyo has kept the Hiroshima victims as its primary focus, supporting them in their important struggle to gain recognition and support from a deeply resistant government. The Hiroshima Peace Park’s ‘Never Again’ slogan is still its mantra. That strange unwillingness to recognise any link between Fukushima and Hiroshima is mirrored by Gensuikyo’s long focus on nuclear weapons to the exclusion of wider questions about nuclear technology.

THE STORY OF how Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace project managed to blindside the anti-nuclear weapons movement and the Japanese public into accepting this unconscious separation is told above. Yet there seems to be a deeper psychology somewhere at work. Not only has Hiroshima, that powerful symbol of Japan’s suffering and victimhood, killed any clear understanding of the story of the war, but for all the differences between Hiroshima and Fukushima, ‘Never Again’ has essentially turned out to be a hollow promise – and this time Japan has brought it on itself. The sacred Hiroshima story is much less clear for anyone willing to examine how Fukushima came to happen; it is perhaps no wonder that so many are disinclined to do so.

From September 2013, when the last of the progressive shutdowns occurred, Japan spent a year entirely without nuclear power. It has managed very well, albeit with the aid of coal-fired backup. The nuclear power plants around the nation sat idle, biding their time, while the Abe government inched towards start-ups once again. To date, two have been tentatively brought back into production, against continuing opposition. But Abe is determined, and the public seemingly becomes less inclined to resist. As for nuclear weapons – the bitter pill at the heart of the nuclear technology hard-sell that the public was supposed to effortlessly swallow along with the rest – in the case of Japan, they’re still waiting. There’s little doubt that those on the right would welcome the chance at nuclear armament – every so often, someone in government sticks his neck out and says as much and then quickly pulls it back in again, much as our government occasionally mentions that Australia really should consider going nuclear. Just testing. But the Japanese public still stubbornly clings to Japan’s peace-embracing postwar constitution and the promises contained in its Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which forbid the possession, production or entry of nuclear weapons. (That Japan had secretly long-agreed with the US to violate the last principle – and had very likely done so – was revealed four years ago, and should come as no surprise.) In this case at least, memories of Hiroshima are serving their purpose well.

If the charming and morally impeccable Astro Boy was the pop culture embodiment of the Atoms for Peace nuclear promise, perhaps a more apt final image for nuclear technology in all its forms is that other creature of ’50s Japanese pop culture, Godzilla (Gojira in Japanese – God somehow got into the name when he went to America). Born in the days immediately after the Lucky Dragon incident, Godzilla is an ancient nuclear monster, his skin a mass of keloid scarring inspired by that of atomic bomb victims. Stirred into life by America’s atomic bomb testing, he rose from the deep and proceeded to wreak havoc on Tokyo, and he has been storming on through the world ever since in movie after movie. Sometimes he is on the side of humanity but, lacking all moral sense, he can as easily turn on us with devastating results. Sixty years later he’s still going strong.


From Griffith REVIEW Edition 48: Enduring Legacies © Copyright Griffith University & the author.