Thoughts on Fukushima and Hiroshima

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John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” probably the definitive account of the atomic bombing of Japan and its aftermath, caused a sensation when it was published in the New Yorker (and later as a book) in 1946. What shocked most readers was not only the destructive potential of the bomb–the eradication of entire cities by airborne ordnance was not a new phenomenon, after all (see: Dresden, firebombing of)–but the bomb’s insidious after-effects. Hersey was the first reporter to document the agony of acute radiation sickness. The public did not know, back then, that nuclear bombs poison as well as demolish.

Modern editions of “Hiroshima” contain a final, fifth chapter, The Aftermath, written forty years after the original article. Hersey ends this account by tracing the proliferation and build-up of nuclear weapons since World War II, and the invention of MAD (mutually assured destruction). The last line of the book, and I am paraphrasing from memory, refers to the global nuclear armament and ends with something like “the world’s memory was becoming spotty.”

I’ve always admired the artfulness of this ending. “Spotty,” here, has a double meaning, as Hersey in earlier pages documented that one of the final stages of illness following fatal radiation exposure is the appearance of purple spots on the skin (a result of internal bleeding). The ghastly arms race Hersey describes is simultaneously a symptom of forgetfulness (of the fact that nuclear war is bad) and a deeper, half-remembered trauma (nuclear war is so bad that we must do everything to deter it, even if it means more atomic bombs). The use of “spotty” in the last line suggests that humanity has suffered from a collective post-Hiroshima radiation sickness, and that a noxious unease continues to hover like an invisible cloud.

I’ve been returning to these thoughts this week as I have reported on the unfolding Fukushima catastrophe. It doesn’t take much, it seems, to remind people how scared they are of atomic energy. An unfolding meltdown in Japan sends consumers in Paris and New York scrambling for iodide tablets. Governments once in favor of nuclear power immediately announce a rethink of their energy policies. All this before a single death is reported at the site of the radiation release, and amid assurances from experts that the fallout will be local and small when compared to the destruction of the earthquake and tsunami. Is it a stretch to say that the location of this event, Japan, deepened our unease by tapping into the ghostly images we all store off the defiant but doomed visages of those sickened at Hiroshima? There was rubble, after all, in the wake of the tsunami too.

So what is the correct and rational response in the wake of Fukushima? Since the dawn of the atomic age, proponents of nuclear power have tried to use the fact that binding energy can power cities as a balance or absolution for the fact that it can also destroy them. Eisenhower dubbed it “atoms for peace” and spoke of turning nuclear swords into nuclear plowshares. It’s a beautiful vision, and one that, as I have written before, literally became true after the Cold War when the U.S. began buying fissile material from ex-Soviet missiles. Today, one in 10 light bulbs in the U.S. is powered by uranium that once sat on top of ICBMs aimed at American cities.

The dual nature of nuclear energy has, I think, engendered a zeal in nuclear power’s supporters. Anyone who has attended an energy conference knows that there is no more maniacal figure than the nuclear evangelist. They believe that nuclear energy can save humanity just as surely as others fear it will destroy it. And in their world view, there is no room for shades of gray: nuclear power has nothing to do with nuclear weapons (it does, of course, just look at Iran) and a meltdown is impossible given modern safety systems (it is entirely possible, as Fukushima proves).

It seems perfectly reasonable to me to argue that we should continue to support nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. Simultaneously, it seems right to push regulators in the U.S. and abroad to demand the highest possible safety standard from nuclear operators—even if they complain that doing so will make them insolvent. Depending on the energy sources available to them, some countries may choose to subsidize nuclear power. Others may simply let the market decide if nuclear should expand (as Michael Grunwald wrote in the magazine this week, however, it probably won’t thrive in such conditions).

But we should simultaneously remind ourselves what it is that scares us about radiation. It’s not nuclear power plants but nuclear bombs. And there are still 20,000 of those on the planet, and no one seems to be doing much about it.