NAGASAKI, Japan — In 1945, Masahito Hirose saw the white mushroom cloud rise from the atomic bomb that incinerated this city and that left his aunt to die a slow, painful death, bleeding from her nose and gums. Still, like other survivors of the attacks here and in Hiroshima, he quietly accepted Japan’s postwar embrace of nuclear-generated power, believing government assurances that it was both safe and necessary for the nation’s economic rise.
That was before this year’s disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan confronted the survivors once again with their old nightmare: thousands of civilians exposed to radiation. Aghast at the catastrophic failure of nuclear technology, and outraged by revelations that the government and power industry had planted nuclear proponents at recent town hall-style meetings, the elderly atomic bomb survivors, dwindling in numbers, have begun stepping forward for the first time to oppose nuclear power.
Now, as both Hiroshima and Nagasaki observe the 66th anniversary of the American atomic attacks at the end of World War II, the survivors are hoping that they can use their unique moral standing, as the only victims of nuclear bombings, to wean both Japan and the world from what they see as mankind’s tragedy-prone efforts to tap the atom.
“Is it Japan’s fate to repeatedly serve as a warning to the world about the dangers of radiation?” said Mr. Hirose, 81, who was a junior high school student when an American bomb obliterated much of Nagasaki, killing about 40,000 people instantly. “I wish we had found the courage to speak out earlier against nuclear power.”
But speaking out, even here, was no simple matter. It would have required them to challenge Japan’s postwar establishment, a difficult position in a consensus-driven nation that had put itself on a forced march out of devastation and toward economic development. Their stance also made some historical sense in a country bent on not repeating past mistakes. One of the reasons resource-poor Japan went to war in 1941 was to secure new sources of energy, in that case oil, after an American embargo.
Even now, the pressure to adhere to what was the nation’s shared vision for energy security is strong.
As Hiroshima observed the anniversary of the bombing, which killed at least 70,000 people there, the city’s mayor on Saturday stopped short of calling for an end to nuclear power, remarking instead that opinions were divided.
“Some seek to abandon nuclear power altogether with the belief that mankind cannot coexist with nuclear energy
, while others demand stricter regulation of nuclear power and more renewable energy,” said the mayor, Kazumi Matsui.
According to Japanese news reports, the mayor, too young to have witnessed the attacks, had considered making a stronger statement in the wake of the Fukushima accident, but pulled back in the face of opposition by business groups.
Such reluctance to speak out has made the stronger stance taken by the atomic bombings’ survivors all the more striking. Last month, the Hidankyo, the group representing the 10,000 or so still-living survivors of the bombings, appealed for the first time for Japan to eliminate civilian nuclear power. In its action plan for next year, the group called for halting construction of new nuclear plants and the gradual phasing out of Japan’s 54 current reactors as energy alternatives are found.
The group has been a vocal advocate of abolishing nuclear weapons since its founding in 1956. But it has been mute until now on the issue of nuclear power, which Japan continued to pursue even after the accidents decades ago at Chernobyl in Ukraine and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania led many Western nations to shelve nuclear expansion plans.
“The bureaucracy, industry and the media were able to shut our eyes to the danger of nuclear power,” said Hirotami Yamada, secretary general of the Nagasaki chapter of Hidankyo. “We let them fool us, even in this country that was the victim of the atomic bomb.”
Mr. Hirose, who lost his aunt in the Nagasaki attack, played a leading role in the group’s shift on nuclear power after Fukushima.
He was swayed, in part, by his deep understanding of the fears haunting people exposed to radiation from Fukushima. His younger brother died 20 years after the bombing, in his 30s, while suffering from a half-dozen types of cancer.
Those still alive, he said, “are living testimony to the horrors of radiation.”
Mr. Yamada said many atomic bomb survivors, like other Japanese, accepted nuclear power because they had bought the argument put forward by the government, industry and the news media that Japan’s nuclear reactors were among the best in the world, and absolutely safe. This “safety myth,” as many here now call it, allowed Japanese authorities to dismiss concerns over Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, saying they were caused by poor technology or incompetent plant workers.
Some atomic bombing survivors ruefully admit that it took a disaster the size of Fukushima to free them from that myth.
“They convinced us that nuclear power was different from nuclear bombs,” said Mr. Yamada, 80, who was a teenager when Nagasaki was bombed. “Fukushima showed us that they are not so different.”