Looking at the history of nuclear technology, there may be no more difficult place to be a nuclear energy advocate than Japan. The first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, a city with strategic military importance and a population of approximately 350,000. The first bomb was followed by a second, only three days later, dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The debate about the ethics of the bombings continues to this day, but the horrors of the atomic weapon are indisputable.
It is easier for us now in the 21st century to think about the atomic bomb in a more philosophical way. For many alive today, the detonation of an atomic bomb is a thing we talk about and hypothesize about but not something we’ve lived through. It is more difficult to approach this topic with empathy if we do not try to understand what happened, to feel the impact, to let the emotion penetrate our souls.
I consider myself to be an empathetic person, but as such I can often find it emotionally unbearable to let myself constantly feel the wide range of emotions that comes with attempting to understand the experiences of others. We would all be emotional disasters if we didn’t put up some barriers. But as it goes with emotional barriers, it’s hard to know you’re using them until they are challenged and something that you didn’t realize was there at all cracks and lets emotion flood through.
Heather and I were honored to receive an invitation to speak about nuclear advocacy at an event hosted by the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. To prepare for this journey, we promptly began learning about Japanese culture and the history of nuclear energy advocacy in Japan. We quickly learned there may be no more difficult place to separate fear of nuclear weapons from fear of nuclear energy. As the date of the workshop approached, we grew more and more aware of our need to understand the roots of this fear.
To challenge our mental models, Heather and I watched a powerful Hiroshima documentary on the flight from California to Tokyo. As our plane flew somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, the screen in front of us recounted the horrors of the atomic bomb - mass devastation of families, men, women, children, young, old, all being ruthlessly incinerated by the initial blast, crushed by the rubble, burned in the subsequent fires, or sickened by radiation exposure. The narrator told a story of a mother who watched her young daughter burn to death before her eyes, trapped in the rubble of their collapsed home. Both of us turned into sobbing messes in the back row, and the weight of this humanitarian horror fell across my heart in a new way. Even now as I type this memory, I can’t stop the emotions from flooding in. My young children are safe at home with their father, and our unborn child travels with me – there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect them. The mothers and fathers of Hiroshima felt the same way, yet they were powerless to protect their children from the devastation of the bomb.
This technology that I advocate for has a dark relative that will never and should never leave the hearts and minds of any who walk this earth. It is no wonder that it is so difficult to emotionally separate nuclear weapons from peaceful uses of nuclear – when one has such a deadly and inhumane legacy, it is only natural that it would seep through to tarnish the reputation of any other technology bearing the name “nuclear.” This effect can easily be seen in every major nuclear energy accident.
Although the March, 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania did not hurt anyone, a deep and justifiable fear of atomic weapons surely contributed to the mass panic and hysteria that followed. With the April, 1986 accident at Chernobyl, the explosion and open-air graphite fire killed around 60 plant workers and first responders, and long-term effects of radiation exposure continue to be monitored (4). Back in Japan, the March, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami killed over 15,000 people. The horrors of this natural disaster were exacerbated by the reactor meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi, forever conflating the devastation of a tsunami with a nuclear power accident. Although the reactor meltdown didn’t kill anyone, and long-term effects of radiation exposure are also not projected to have a human health impact, this doesn’t stop fear of radiation from spreading - with its deep roots in the horrendous human impacts caused by the atomic bomb (5, 6).
On our flight, we chat with our flight attendant about our trip. When she learns that we will be visiting Fukushima, she inquired about the safety of that choice since I am an expecting mother (interesting sidebar - this conversation came after multiple flight attendants offered me an alcoholic beverage). We discussed fear of radiation, and the fact that Heather and I will receive more radiation dose on this flight than we will get while visiting Fukushima, which led to a discussion about fears of her occupational radiation exposure.
We live on a radioactive planet, but that doesn’t make radioactivity less scary. When I consider what makes nuclear more scary than other things that cause a far greater risk to human health and safety, I wonder how much of it has to do with our perceived level of control. I can choose to not smoke cigarettes or to wear my seatbelt every time I get in a motor vehicle, but the radiation all around us is not something that we can see, and without radiation detection equipment we cannot perceive when we are receiving more or less exposure. Additionally, radiation dose caused by a nuclear accident (no matter how small) is not the choice of those who are exposed.
Not to be let off so easily, we moved from the Hiroshima documentary to the 2016 South Korean disaster film, “Pandora.” The film centers around an earthquake and out-of-control nuclear meltdown at a Korean nuclear plant, killing people left and right, with radiation plumes chasing residents across the countryside while the government covers up the accident and locks evacuees in buildings, leaving them to die. The filmmaker clearly draws on recent emotion from the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident, and then takes the human impact up to astronomical heights. The parallel with nuclear weapons is also clear as the reactor building in the film explodes and sends a shockwave reminiscent of an atomic bomb through the unsuspecting city.
The movie Pandora affects Heather and me in a different way – while the Hiroshima documentary brought our hearts into deep empathy with atomic bomb victims and survivors, Pandora reinforced the difficulty of separating atomic bomb-driven emotion from any peaceful uses of nuclear technology. For anyone who knows the basics of radiation science and nuclear power technology, the film’s technical accuracy was atrocious. It was intellectually painful to watch scenes where characters scream in agony, “the radiation is all over me!” or solemnly warn each other, “the radiation is deep in there.” However, they cleverly linked the environmental case for nuclear energy into the disaster by accurately citing many of the strongest reasons for its use, “nuclear is the only energy source that can replace fossil,” “nuclear does not emit carbon dioxide or particulates,” and “nuclear is the safest way of producing reliable electricity” (3). Of course, these environmental arguments precede the accident and the message becomes “don’t believe any pro-nuclear advocate, nuclear plant owner, or government official - nuclear plants can explode like bombs and the radiation will kill you.” The film wraps up with impassioned commitments to finding newer, safer technologies and using less electricity (sound familiar?). In short, if someone was trying to cement the conflation of nuclear weapons and natural disasters with nuclear power, while discrediting pro-nuclear environmentalists, Pandora nailed it.
Through muffled sobs and swollen eyes, I not-so-silently cursed Heather for her choice of in-flight movies, but also felt appreciative for the renewed empathy and reverent appreciation for the technology that we are flying to Japan to help save. As we approached Tokyo, I felt grateful for my many years of professional education on nuclear energy, without which I would have become a victim of the panic of “Pandora.” I know I received more radiation dose on this flight than I will receive all year living next to a nuclear power plant, and far more dose than we will receive on our upcoming trip to Fukushima (1, 2). I know the argument to use less energy applies to developed nations but is essentially a death sentence to those in developing nations who need energy to develop their economies and provide modern healthcare. I know the reasoning, “we will find another way to provide clean energy” sounds compelling but has not yet produced the results we wished for - leaving us in a world with global climate change and millions dying every year due to air pollution (7).
The case for nuclear energy is strong, but so are the forces against it. Can pro-nuclear environmentalists make a difference? Time will tell.
-- Kristin Zaitz
1. Aircrew Safety and Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/aircrew/cosmicionizingradiation.html
2. Dose Scale. National Institute of Radiological Sciences. http://www.nirs.qst.go.jp/data/pdf/hayamizu/e/20160401.pdf
3. Markandya, Anil et al. Electricity generation and health. The Lancet, Volume 370, Issue 9591, 979 - 990TMI
4. UNSCEAR (2008). Sources and effects of Ionizing Radiation. UNSCEAR 2008 Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes. http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf
5. UNSCEAR (2013). Sources, Effects and Risks of Ionizing Radiation. Volume I Report to the General Assembly, Scientific Annex A. http://www.unscear.org/docs/publications/2013/UNSCEAR_2013_Report_Vol.I.pdf
6. UNSCEAR (2016). Developments Since the 2013 UNSCEAR Report on the Levels and Effects of Radiation Exposure Due to the Nuclear Accident Following the Great East-Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. http://www.unscear.org/docs/publications/2016/UNSCEAR_WP_2016.pdf
7. World Health Organization. 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution. (n.d.). Retrieved February 05, 2018, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/air-pollution/en/