Opinion: On third anniversary of Fukushima nuclear disaster, hoping to close Pandora’s Box

by Noritaka Egusa, Chief Editorial Writer

Each year, as the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear disaster of March 11 approaches, I think back to my days in high school, now almost 40 years ago. I remember that it was shortly before our graduation ceremony that I got into an argument with other students about the future of nuclear energy.

One classmate, who was normally reserved, spoke up passionately. He said, “We’ll eventually run out of oil, so we have no choice but to rely on nuclear energy for the nation’s economic development. Technology can keep radioactive materials under control.” The way he strongly emphasized the role of science in a bright future may have stemmed from the enthusiasm he felt about heading off to a national university as a science major himself.

Because I had failed my university entrance exams, and was now forced to spend another year preparing to retake these tests, I felt daunted and I muttered, “Can’t we put nuclear energy back into Pandora’s Box?” My classmate laughed and said, “That’s absolutely impossible.”

At the time, people believed that the pursuit of technology and nuclear energy was the only choice for a nation with few natural resources of its own to achieve economic growth. Nuclear power plants were built one after another across the Japanese archipelago, up until that fateful day of March 11, 2011.

Fifteen years after that conversation with my classmate, I began covering issues related to the atomic bombing as a newspaper reporter. I had to face this quarrel over Pandora’s Box again, because it was right in the skies of Hiroshima that the nuclear box was first opened.

When we advocate abolishing nuclear weapons in this newspaper, we sometimes encounter this argument: “The technology to make nuclear weapons can’t be erased from the memory of the human race. Even if all nuclear weapons were eliminated from the earth one day, someone would no doubt start developing such weapons again the day after.”

This is precisely why we often include the phrase “human beings cannot coexist with nuclear weapons or nuclear energy” in our articles. Since accepting the inhumanity of nuclear weapons is unthinkable, we must pursue the path of their total elimination. If we now regret the folly of using science to open this Pandora’s Box on August 6, 1945, we should seek ways, armed with science again, to put nuclear technology back inside it.

It’s true that we did not raise the same level of objections to nuclear energy, which can also release radioactive substances, as we did with nuclear weapons. In fact, I had also come to believe that nuclear energy was an important source of energy for sustaining our lives.

Then came March 11. The accident in Fukushima again laid bare the fact that human beings cannot coexist with the power of the atom. The accident has displaced people, destroyed communities, and continues to cause worry at home and abroad about contaminated water. Nuclear energy poses the same threat as that of nuclear weapons.

One more thing must be mentioned here. I sometimes want to say to the victims of the nuclear accident, “Based on what people experienced in Hiroshima, you needn’t worry.” These words, of course, are for those who are overly anxious about what should be a very limited impact as a result of their radiation exposure. Still, we have no choice but to write in our articles that “the health effects of exposure to low doses of radiation have yet to be determined,” while feeling uneasy that these words might actually amplify fears and breed harmful rumors.

Three years ago, after the nuclear disaster, I thought that Japan had decided to move away from the use of nuclear energy. The unprecedented efforts made since then, to decommission the nation’s nuclear reactors and decontaminate the environment on a large scale, must be maintained, and may eventually lead to new forms of technology able to put nuclear power plants back into Pandora’s Box. Or might there be a new technology with the ability to regenerate cells that have been damaged by radiation? If such technologies can be created, they will be the least that Japan can offer the world for contaminating the earth and causing widespread anxiety.

But these hopes have been dashed by the new basic energy policy released by the government. Reading it, I felt as if cold water had been hurled on me.

The new policy deems nuclear energy “an important base-load energy” and stipulates that idle reactors will be restarted. The government, though, has not clearly outlined an optimal mix of energy sources for the future. This new policy can be interpreted to mean that the government is thinking of constructing new, additional nuclear power stations. Moreover, a substantial review of the nuclear fuel cycle is not planned, even though there is no guarantee that surplus plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, can be reduced.

Does the government seek to set the clock back, to a time before the nuclear accident?

It is impossible to pretend that Pandora’s Box was never opened. Though we are well aware of this fact, there are still times when politicians, scientists, citizens, and journalists must show our spirit by fighting back. We must never neglect our responsibility to hand down to future generations the tragic events of August 6 and March 11.

(Originally published on March 6, 2014)