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Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011
Old and new nuclear perils
Aug. 6 and 9 are the days on which Japanese pray for the souls of those who died due to the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and renew our resolve to seek a world without nuclear weapons.
But a new dimension has been added to this year's atomic bombing anniversaries. The disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has made the risk of radiation exposure all too real to many people.
For Japan, this poses a very significant question: Can humans coexist with nuclear power?
In the past, voices speaking out against nuclear power generation were hardly heard among those people involved in the cause against anti-nuclear weapons. Perhaps one reason is that both the victims of the atomic bombings and the anti-nuclear weapons activists placed hope in the idea of using nuclear fission solely for peaceful purposes.
Recent media reports have revealed that the United States, following President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech in the United Nations in 1953, pushed a policy of supplying nuclear power technology to Japan to contain Japanese opposition to nuclear weapons and anti-U.S. sentiment.
Anti-U.S. sentiment, in particular, soared in the wake of the March 1, 1954, incident in which the Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon) No. 5, a fishing boat, was irradiated by nuclear fallout from the test of a U.S. hydrogen bomb explosion in the Bikini Atoll. One crew member died of radiation poisoning about six months later.
Although Japan has 53 nuclear power reactors, sentiment toward nuclear power in the anti-nuclear weapons movement shifted in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
The Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo) urged the government to drop a plan to build new nuclear power plants and to decommission existing nuclear power plants one by one — a drastic change in its stance.
The Japan Congress Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikin), at its Fukushima meeting on July 31, called for phasing out nuclear power generation.
And the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs (Gensuikyo) plans to discuss the issue of nuclear power.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki's mayors will refrain from directly calling for the phasing out of nuclear power in their respective Aug. 6 and 9 peace declarations.
Nevertheless, Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui will call on the government to change its energy policy immediately, citing an opinion calling for such a phaseout as well as an opinion calling for strict management of nuclear power plants and promotion of renewable energy resources,
Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue will call for the development of renewable energy sources and the building of a society based on safe energy. Although neither mayor is directly demanding the abolition of nuclear power, it is clear that both harbor strong apprehensions about it.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings killed an estimated 140,000 people and 74,000 people, respectively, by the end of 1945.
Thankfully the Fukushima nuclear accident will not reap such a toll, but there can be no downplaying its effects. The disaster has forced more than 100,000 residents living near the nuclear power plant to be evacuated, and many radioactive hot spots have been found even in distant places.
Because soil in the areas surrounding the plant is contaminated with radioactive substances, there exists a strong possibility that they will be uninhabitable for many years, meaning that some evacuees may be unable to return to their homes.
The situation inside the Fukushima No. 1 compounds remains extremely grave. Radiation levels exceeding a lethal 10 sieverts per hour were discovered at two hot spots near the plant's No. 1 reactor earlier this week — the highest level of radiation measured since the March 11 disaster.
To put this figure in perspective, it is estimated that radioactive contamination registering 11.1 sieverts per hour existed in areas 700 meters from ground zero following the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Human exposure to 4 sieverts per hour can cause extremely severe radiation poisoning that will result in death if proper treatment is not given.
The radiation hot spots in the compounds were reportedly caused by radioactive substances that were released while venting was being carried out to lower the pressure inside reactors' containment vessels. Similar high levels of radiation are expected to be detected in other spots, especially near the No. 3 reactor, which used mixed oxide uranium-plutonium fuel.
On July 27, professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of both the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo and the university's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, told the Lower House's Health, Labor and Welfare Committee that the Radioisotope Center's calculation shows that the amount of radioactive materials released from the Fukushima No. 1 plant has amounted to 29.6 times that released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In uranium equivalent, it is 20 times the amount released by the Hiroshima bomb.
Given these facts, only a fool would underestimate the severity of the Fukushima nuclear fiasco. Prime Minister Naoto Kan must strive to reach a consensus among his Cabinet members on the need to phase out nuclear power, and then persuade all parties concerned to take action.
Meanwhile, the National Nuclear Security Administration of the U.S. Energy Department announced July 19 on its website that the U.S. carried out subcritical nuclear tests at a Nevada underground test site on Dec. 1, 2010, and Feb. 2, 2011.
It is most regrettable that the Obama administration, which has been calling for a world without nuclear weapons, allowed these tests to be conducted. Such activities may be taken as a sign that the U.S. is not serious about nuclear disarmament.