August 6-9, 2022 marks the 77th anniversary of the first uses of atomic weapons in warfare: the US’s bombing of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945; followed by the US’s bombing of Nagasaki, Japan on August 9. Beyond the horrible, indiscriminate violence unleashed on civilians … and the relentless harms of cancer and other diseases that continue plaguing the Hibakusha (survivors) and successive generations … the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have an even farther-reaching legacy.
The Manhattan Project had suppressed all awareness of the nuclear enterprise behind a curtain of obstruction and secrecy for years. Almost none of the thousands of people throughout the United States and Canada who worked on developing nuclear fission and the atomic bombs had any idea that was what they were involved in. Even the first atomic detonation, the Trinity test on Mescalero Apache lands in the Tularosa Basin (also called New Mexico), was conducted without any public knowledge. Many people were contaminated without their knowledge.
But with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, total secrecy was no longer possible – and, in fact, was no longer the point. The horrific destruction of the bombings inspired governments around the world – democracies and totalitarian states alike –to pursue the perceived power of nuclear weaponry and technology. August 6, 1945 immediately began the even more pernicious age of nuclear denial: lies, propaganda, disinformation, obfuscation, and coverups – all to win the public’s acquiescence and even support for nuclear technology.
Decisions to create a civilian nuclear energy industry were intended to normalize radioactive pollution. They required sophisticated propaganda, most famously the Atomic Energy Commission’s “Peaceful Atom” marketing campaign, with its fantastical claims of “electricity too cheap to meter.”
It also involved winning the people of Japan’s acceptance of nuclear energy. There was widespread, deep concerns about nuclear technology and radiation with fresh memories and ongoing impacts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the 23 crewmembers of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru fishing boat, who suffered acute radiation syndrome after they were engulfed by fallout of the US’s Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test in the Marshall Islands. Major US nuclear corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse were involved in the reconstruction of Japan’s economy and infrastructure, and the US succeeded in building a large nuclear energy industry in Japan, with false promises of energy independence and technological supremacy. Corporations, politicians, and government agencies became deeply intertwined in efforts to suppress the public’s distrust.
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011 has resulted in another cycle of lies, denial, minimization, and obfuscation. The government continues “reopening” contaminated areas of Fukushima prefecture, falsely declaring them safe to live in, while the vast majority of former residents do not intend to move back. Despite nearly all of Japan’s nuclear reactors being officially closed or remaining offline due to ongoing safety concerns, the government and industry continue insisting on plans to restart reactors.
And in a testament to the insane commitment to nuclear denial and normalization, Japan’s government and the worldwide nuclear establishment now plan to dump radioactive contamination from the triple-meltdown into the ocean. Millions of tons of groundwater contaminated by the molten cores has been filling up hundreds of massive storage tanks erected on the Fukushima Daiichi site. Japan’s regulators and the International Atomic Energy Agency have decided that simply dumping the still-contaminated water into the ocean is “safe” —because the ocean will dilute it – over the opposition of local residents and fisherfolk, South Korea, China, and people all over the world. The justification? Cost. The main difference between the low- and high-end cost estimates of the Fukushima Daiichi clean up ($250 billion to $800 billion) is whether the government begins dumping radioactive water into the ocean, or develops the means to treat, store, and manage it.
The IAEA even recently said that South Korea and China should not worry about it because they also operate coastal nuclear reactors that dump radioactive water into the ocean on a regular basis. This is the horrifying logic of the nuclear age: denial and normalization of ever-increasing harm and constant danger, through international complicity: denial that radiation is dangerous and nuclear disasters are existentially catastrophic, and normalization of the constant generation and dispersal of radioactive waste and pollution.
We rightly take time to commemorate the terrible, ongoing violence that the US government did to the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on these dates. But this is the other legacy of the atomic bombings of Japan: the now 77-year history of lies, denial, coverups, and propaganda by our elected governments.
This is a matter of survival, even more so as we face climate chaos: it is long past time to end nuclear power and weapons, uranium mining, and the production and dumping of radioactive waste. Nuclear power is not normal. There is no “safe” amount of radiation. We must break the chains of war, colonialism, and pollution.