FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How Japan Learned About "Nuclear Safety"

Although people can be educated in a variety of ways, experience is a particularly effective teacher. Consider the Japanese, who today are certainly learning how dangerous nuclear power can be.

Of course, the Japanese people also have had a disastrous experience with nuclear weapons—not only in 1945, when the U.S. government destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, but in 1954, when a U.S. government H-bomb test showered a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, with deadly radioactive fallout, and a vast nuclear disarmament movement began.

The Lucky Dragon incident occurred in the context of the first U.S. H-bomb test, conducted by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in March 1954. The AEC had staked out a danger zone of some 50,000 square miles (an area roughly the size of New England) around Bikini atoll, the test site in the Marshall Islands, which the United States governed as a UN “trust territory.” But the blast proved more than twice as powerful as expected, and sent vast quantities of radioactive debris aloft into the atmosphere. When large doses of this nuclear fallout descended on four inhabited islands in the Marshall chain (all outside the official danger zone), the U.S. government evacuated U.S. weather station personnel and, days later, hundreds of Marshall Islanders. The islanders quickly developed low blood counts, skin lesions, hemorrhages under the skin, and loss of hair. Eventually, many came down with radiation-linked illnesses, including thyroid cancer and leukemia.

Meanwhile, about 85 miles from the test site—and also outside the danger zone—radioactive ash from the H-bomb test fell on a small Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon. Two weeks later, when the vessel had reached its home port of Yaizu, the crew members had become seriously ill, with skin irritations, burns, nausea, loss of hair, and other radiation-linked afflictions. In short order, the Japanese government hospitalized the stricken fishermen and destroyed their radioactive cargo. Although most of the fishermen survived, the Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died during hospital treatment.

As the news of the Lucky Dragon incident spread throughout Japan, a panic gripped the nation, as well as a fierce determination to end the victimization of people, in Japan and the world, through nuclear weapons. Nuclear fallout—or, as the Japanese referred to it, “the ashes of death”—became a household term. A poll found that only two percent of the population approved of nuclear testing unconditionally. In May 1954, a group of middle class housewives in the Suginami ward in Tokyo began a petition campaign to ban H-bombs. Carried in their shopping baskets, this “Suginami Appeal” grew into a nationwide movement and, by 1955, had attracted the signatures of 32 million people—about a third of the Japanese population. Japan’s nuclear disarmament campaign blossomed into the largest, most powerful social movement in that nation’s history. Polls showed overwhelming popular support for it.

Naturally, this upsurge of “ban the bomb” sentiment shocked U.S. government officials, who—with their nuclear weapons program at stake—engaged in a systematic policy of denial. The

chair of the AEC, Lewis Strauss, publicly declared that the Marshall Islanders were “well and happy.” The Japanese fishermen, he conceded, had experienced a few minor problems; but, in any case, he stated falsely, they “must have been well within the danger area.” Privately, he was more caustic. The Lucky Dragon, he told the White House press secretary, was really a “Red spy outfit,” a component of a “Russian espionage system.” At the request of Strauss, the CIA investigated this possibility and categorically denied it. Nonetheless, Strauss continued to maintain that the irradiation of the Lucky Dragon “was no accident,” for the captain of the vessel must have been “in the employ of the Russians.” He also told authors to ignore the contention of the “propagandists” that a crew member of the vessel had died of radiation exposure.

Other American officials, too, saw no justification for the Japanese response to the Lucky Dragon incident. From Japan, the U.S. ambassador lamented that nation’s “uncontrolled masochism.” He reported that Japan, “aided by [an] unscrupulous press, seemed to revel in [its] fancied martyrdom.” According to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower found this message “of great interest and value from [the] standpoint of policy formulation.” Like Strauss, Eisenhower insisted in his memoirs that the fishermen were within the danger zone. Commenting on the effects of the Lucky Dragon incident, the acting secretary of state added his own warnings about public attitudes in Japan. “The Japanese are pathologically sensitive about nuclear weapons,” he told Eisenhower. “They feel they are the chosen victims.”

In reality, most Japanese had learned from the tragic events of 1954 that, when it came to nuclear arms, everyone was a potential victim. Or, to put it another way, there are no safe nuclear weapons. But many Japanese continued to cling to a belief in safe nuclear energy—at least until this month, when their crippled nuclear reactors began spewing out radioactivity and heading toward a meltdown.

Plenty of people in other countries, including the United States, remain in denial about the safety of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. What kind of experience will it take to convince them to rid the world of these monstrous things? More to the point, is it really necessary to wait for that experience to occur?

Dr. Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

 

More articles by:

Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press.)

December 19, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russophobia and the Specter of War
Jonathan Cook
American Public’s Backing for One-State Solution Falls on Deaf Ears
Daniel Warner
1968: The Year That Will Not Go Away
Arshad Khan
Developing Country Issues at COP24 … and a Bit of Good News for Solar Power and Carbon Capture
Kenneth Surin
Trump’s African Pivot: Another Swipe at China
Patrick Bond
South Africa Searches for a Financial Parachute, Now That a $170 Billion Foreign Debt Cliff Looms
Tom Clifford
Trade for Hostages? Trump’s New Approach to China
Binoy Kampmark
May Days in Britain
John Feffer
Globalists Really Are Ruining Your Life
John O'Kane
Drops and the Dropped: Diversity and the Midterm Elections
December 18, 2018
Charles Pierson
Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Waters of American Democracy
Patrick Cockburn
Will Anger in Washington Over the Murder of Khashoggi End the War in Yemen?
George Ochenski
Trump is on the Ropes, But the Pillage of Natural Resources Continues
Farzana Versey
Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva
Robert Hunziker
Is COP24 One More Big Bust?
David Macaray
The Truth About Nursing Homes
Nino Pagliccia
Have the Russian Military Aircrafts in Venezuela Breached the Door to “America’s Backyard”?
Paul Edwards
Make America Grate Again
David Rosnick
The Impact of OPEC on Climate Change
Binoy Kampmark
The Kosovo Blunder: Moving Towards a Standing Army
Andrew Stewart
Shine a Light for Immigration Rights in Providence
December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
ANIS SHIVANI
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail