HIROSHIMA – The marks that still scar Sunao Tsuboi’s face from the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima are a grim reminder of the power of the atom as a wave of wariness about nuclear power sweeps Japan.
Nearly 170,000 people perished instantly in the searing heat or from radiation in the days and months after a U.S. plane unleashed the deadliest weapon ever used and ushered in the nuclear age.
Nearly seven decades on, Tsuboi, one of a dwindling number of survivors of the world’s first atomic attack, is raising his voice against nuclear power in a country still reeling from the Fukushima No. 1 plant catastrophe that started in March 2011.
“In terms of being nuclear victims, we are the same,” Tsuboi, 87, said of those affected by the nuclear disaster.
He was on his way to university when the “Little Boy” A-bomb exploded over Hiroshima in a flash of blinding light and intense heat on Aug 6, 1945. In addition to his burns, Tsuboi has also suffered intestinal cancer that may be linked to radiation exposure and says he sees little difference in the dangers posed by atomic weapons and atomic power.
“Nuclear technology is beyond human wisdom. . . . I still want to see a nuclear-free world while I’m alive,” he said.
He is making his appeal as a bitter debate swirls over the future of Japan’s 50 remaining commercial reactors, which once met around a third of the country’s electricity needs, but which were idled following the Fukushima meltdowns.
Fears of electricity shortages have led the government to order the reactivation of two reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, despite an increasingly vocal antinuclear movement in a country where public protests remain rare.
Those who experienced the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took place three days later and killed up to 80,000 people by the end of 1945, said television images of the Fukushima crisis brought back terrible memories.
“The TV reminded me of the dreadful scenes,” said a sobbing Misako Katani, 82, one of just a handful of hibakusha who survived both attacks.
No one is officially recorded as having died as a result of the Fukushima disaster, but many who fled the area and those who remain, including workers decommissioning the crippled plant, worry about the long-term effects of excessive radiation exposure.
The quake and tsunami knocked out the reactors’ cooling systems at the Fukushima No. 1 power station in March 2011, causing three to suffer meltdowns that spewed radioactive fallout over a large area and forced thousands to evacuate.
Scientists have warned it could be decades before it is safe for some residents to return home.
“I think we can share the same sadness with people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” said Sachiko Sato, a Fukushima evacuee who attended the annual Hiroshima A-bombing commemoration ceremony Monday along with tens of thousands of others. “In my mind, Fukushima is like a third nuclear victim, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Toshiyuki Mimaki, a 70-year-old hibakusha, added: “We want to work together with the people in Fukushima and unite in calling for an end to nuclear victims.”
But for some aging victims, there are few parallels between 1945 and 2011.
“There is nothing to compare to what I experienced” at the time of the Hiroshima bombing, said Shigeji Yonekura, 79.
“The atomic bomb was dropped in war and no one helped us, while the Fukushima accident occurred in peacetime and a lot of people offered help.”
Many people continue to insist the atomic bombings brought World War II to a swift end by forcing Imperial Japan to surrender, preventing many more casualties from a land invasion planned for later that year.
Despite his own experience, Yonekura is resigned to the possibility that resource-poor Japan may not be able to abandon atomic energy altogether. “Nuclear power may be a necessary evil,” he said.
But Miyako Jodai, a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing, said the Fukushima crisis and the government’s botched response have turned her against atomic energy.
Several reports have heaped criticism on the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., with one parliamentary probe labeling Tepco’s Fukushima nuclear crisis a “man-made disaster.”
“I was convinced that the peaceful use of nuclear power should be accepted because reactors were safe,” said Jodai.
“But after seeing the accident and the government’s handling of the aftermath, I felt like I had been betrayed.”