Atoms for War. Atoms for Peace.
Only Japan knows both sides of this coin now spinning in the wind.
Only Japan knows the nightmare of nuclear attacks.
Only Japan knows the horror of multiple reactors as they explode and threaten to melt down.
Only God—if anyone—knows how critical this crisis can become, but it's bad enough to render Japan a poster child for extremes of nuclear madness experienced by humans to date.
Early today a guest on MSNB could be heard, "hoping for another Three Mile Island." That's right, "hoping for another Three Mile Island," the reactor near Harrisburg, PA, that experienced a partial meltdown in March, 1979, and took years and many millions of dollars to clean up.
Even that wish is becoming a wan hope, as tens of thousands of Japanese flee their homes or else seek refuge indoors—perhaps under tables and chairs—like so many American school children during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Americans were spared seeing nuclear nightmares become real in a way generations of Japanese never were.
It was Aug. 6, 1945, that Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on Earth, killing more than 50,000 people within minutes or hours, in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. On Aug. 9, 1945, a second nuke fell, this time on Nagasaki, killing another 40,000 or so. Within six months of the bombings, a quarter-million people had died of the effects. I'll spare you the details. The Japanese were so traumatized that they turned en masse against the very idea of nuclear weapons and adapted three guiding "Non-nuclear Principles," outlined by Prime Minister Eisaku Satō in 1967.
1. Japan would never own nuclear weapons.
2. Japan would never build nuclear weapons.
3. Japan would never import nuclear weapons.
The redundancy of the Three Non-Nuclear Principles is a measure of the fervency and expressed resolve of the Japanese people. So is the occasion of their enunciation. It was the 1960s, and America was trying to give Okinawa back to the Japanese. Millions opposed taking back the offshore island, because they feared it held nuclear weapons placed there by Americans. It was to allay such fears that Satō outlined the Non-nuclear Principles. To placate some in the pro-military factions and elsewhere, however, he later placed the principles in a broader context, pledging:
1. To promote the peaceful use of nuclear power.
2. To work toward global nuclear disarmament.
3. To rely on the extended U.S. nuclear deterrent.
4. To support the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.
One reason Japan embraced nuclear power was that the island nation was resource-poor even before World War II, having nearly exhausted domestic supplies of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil. Japanese aggressiveness prior to WWII was, in part, due to an oil embargo which fanned flames of conflict, resulting in their attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the inception of our Atoms for Peace Program, starting in the 1950s, Japan built dozens of nuclear reactors, and now has more than 50, with two dozen more planned by 2030.
Those of us who have opposed all things nuclear have done so mostly because we believe they're too hot to handle—the technologies, the military applications, the waste—with half-lives of some materials rendering them dangerous for thousands of years.
We've watched askance as leader after leader, including President Obama, have denounced nuclear weapons while continuing to spend billions to build them; while promoting nuclear power worldwide, and while threatening nuclear opponents and winking at nuclear allies.
Will the current Japanese crises crystallize America's messy nuclear policies into something coherent? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, to quote Bob Dylan. Even now, it blows in clouds of shimmering particles too small to touch, too ephemeral to catch, too deadly to wish away.
Sources for this article included: