August, that most searing of months, compels us to reflect on the atom. Japan was atom-bombed twice in August 67 years ago, and Hiroshima since 1952 and Nagasaki since 1955 have hosted solemn anniversary ceremonies to keep the memory alive in the hope of preventing similar horror and folly in future.

Inevitably over the years the occasion has degenerated into recitations of pious platitudes, of which Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s this year in Hiroshima are fairly representative: “As the only country to have experienced the horror of nuclear devastation in war, Japan bears a noble and grave responsibility to pass on the memory of our tragic experiences to future generations and to see to it that the passion and desire for action to realize a world without nuclear weapons spreads all over the world.”

Japan, complacent beneath the American nuclear umbrella, has in fact contributed remarkably little to the cause of nuclear disarmament. Note, besides, Noda’s reference to “nuclear devastation in war,” and what that leaves unsaid — namely, nuclear devastation in peace.

Neither the victims of Fukushima Prefecture’s triple meltdown in March 2011 nor the aging survivors of the world’s only two wartime atom bombings are letting that pass.

“In terms of being nuclear victims, we are the same,” Hiroshima survivor Sunao Tsuboi, 87, told the AFP news agency.

“In my mind, Fukushima is like a third nuclear victim, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” added Fukushima evacuee Sachiko Sato.

Nuclear devastation in peace is war, a 90-year-old Buddhist nun named Jakucho Setouchi goes so far as to say. Setouchi is a writer of considerable reputation whose collected works, published in 2002, run to 20 volumes. Speaking to Shukan Asahi magazine, she said, “The earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters, but (Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant) was a manmade disaster, and therefore the same as war.”

War happens when it is allowed to happen; ditto nuclear disasters. “The atmosphere today,” says Setouchi, “is exactly like 1941, ’42.” Back then, the public and mass media bought the official line that Japan’s victory was assured. In our own time, the public and mass media bought the official line that the safety of nuclear power was assured.

There are many casualties of a disaster like the one on March 11, 2011. Complacency is one of very few welcome ones. The Japanese public — not the media, Setouchi complains — is fired up as it has not been in decades. Weekly demonstrations against nuclear power draw tens of thousands of protesters. Setouchi, wheelchair-bound, is sometimes among them. What stirred her to activism was the media’s indifference. “But when there’s a 90-year-old woman in a wheelchair, and she’s the nun Jakucho besides, you had to take notice, right? Likewise the office crowd, they’d saunter past on their lunch hour like nothing was happening. Then they see me sitting there. That stops them short — long enough for me to pass out my handbills.”

Future historians looking back on our time may conclude that the nuclear accident changed Japan not much less than the atomic bombs did. There’s a lot happening, where little was before. The weekly Shukan Gendai talks to three female lawmakers who lately bolted the governing Democratic Party of Japan, largely over its decision to reactivate two nuclear reactors in Oi, Fukui Prefecture. “Foreigners think the Japanese are sheep,” said one of them, Kuniko Tanioka. “But we’re raising our voices now, saying no to nuclear power, no to reactivation.”

What reminds Setouchi of World War II suggests to Tanioka a more surprising comparison — to the 1995 poison gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system by a doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo. “Perpetrators of the subway sarin affair were given death sentences,” she says. “The top people in the company that caused radiation contamination are still in their executive boardrooms, drawing high salaries. That’s odd, isn’t it?”

“Parliamentary democracy is not working,” says Kuniko Koda, another of the three ex-DPJ Diet members. That’s an ominous assertion in a nation where an earlier breakdown of parliamentary democracy — in the 1930s — produced a military dictatorship. Hopefully it won’t come to that now. Koda’s evidence is the Oi reactivation in the face of massive public opinion against it, and against nuclear power period — 70 percent of the public favors a total phaseout by 2030.

The argument against the phaseout, raised most energetically by the “nuclear village” of power companies, business leaders and pronuclear politicians and bureaucrats, seems less persuasive now but can’t be blithely dismissed. It is a purely economic argument — that Japan Inc. will sputter without nuclear power.

There are two main rebuttals. One, that the problem is exaggerated, is voiced by the third of the three lawmakers, Yasue Funayama: “They told us there’d be electricity shortages this summer without nuclear power, and yet there is enough, even in this swelter.”

The second rebuttal touts investment in renewable energy, which proponents say can and opponents say cannot be developed sufficiently quickly in sufficient quantities.

There is a third, raised very seldom. Setouchi, breaker of molds, breaks this one too. “The government says ‘not enough power, not enough power,'” she says, “but just 40, 50 years ago there was no air conditioning, no electric heating… There weren’t even electric fans.” Her point is that people survived and were not necessarily less happy than they are now. “We couldn’t easily go back to that,” she says. “On the other hand, why not? Back to nature.”

If the choice is between nuclear power and readily available renewable energy, it’s easy — renewable wins hands down. But if the skeptics are right, if viable renewables are still a ways off and the choice for now is between nuclear and “back to nature” — What then?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.