On March 12, 2011, an explosion rocked the towns of Futaba and Okuma in Fukushima, Japan, but few were there to hear it.
The day before, the earth and then the sea turned against the towns in twin disasters that leveled homes and businesses, strewed debris across lawns and fields, and tore chasms through the asphalt streets. But it was a human-made disaster at the nearby nuclear power plants that made Fukushima residents flee.
Among the few who remained to hear the explosion were those too stubborn to leave their homes and the pet akitas and huskies reluctantly left behind by their fleeing owners. Although the town was mostly abandoned, the nation and the world saw the blast on television. As subsequent hydrogen explosions ripped through the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, many watching uttered two words: Chernobyl and Hiroshima.
Few words in the collective vocabulary elicit more fear. Whereas terms like meltdown are abstract, mention of Chernobyl (1986) and Hiroshima (1945) bring to mind human suffering from real events. Happily, neither Hiroshima nor Chernobyl would be replicated at Fukushima Daiichi—prevented by both the reactor designs and the laws of physics.
An atomic bomb requires a rapid, uncontrolled chain reaction of fission, but the design of Japan's nuclear reactors precludes such a cataclysmic scenario. The controlled reaction that powered the Fukushima reactors has already stopped, making such concerns moot.
Although the disaster at Fukushima I is the only disaster to share the worst rating on the International Nuclear Events scale, best estimates place the radiation release at 10% of that at Chernobyl. Events at Chernobyl were exacerbated by the lack of a steel containment dome, which all of the reactors at Fukushima have, and a reactor design that allowed the nuclear chain reaction to continue in spite of the loss of coolant.
Yet, we are haunted by the specter of our nuclear past. And given Japan's complicated past with nuclear issues, it is especially surprising that Japan now has such a highly developed civilian nuclear power program, the third largest in the world after those of the United States and France.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fallout from the testing of Soviet nuclear weapons, and the Lucky Dragon Incident of 1954 left the Japanese in the 1950s with what some observers have called a "nuclear allergy." Historically, Japanese anti-nuclear-weapons activists have been among the most vigorous in the world.
But the desperate need for energy to power Japan's rapid economic growth and the complexities of post-World War II international relations together led the Japanese government to pursue nuclear power.
Choosing a nuclear policy was one thing, persuading an initially reluctant public was quite another. The government and electric utilities promoted the nuclear power option relentlessly, starting a public relations campaign in the mid-1950s that strove to cement a positive image of nuclear power in the public eye.
In Futaba, a sign bearing the town's motto—"nuclear power is the energy of a bright tomorrow"—now stands as an eerie reminder of that campaign for a nuclear-powered future.
But nuclear power has remained a sensitive issue and the public has long expressed ambiguous feelings and increasing concern toward it. The government, by contrast, has remained a firm supporter, even in the face of incidents and disaster that gave rise to questions about the wisdom and safety of nuclear power, such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (1979).
Regardless of the outcome of the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, nuclear issues have played a starring role in Japanese politics, society, and culture for the past seventy years—one that is unlikely to disappear in the near future.
From Hiroshima to Atoms for Peace
Like other researchers, Japanese physicists and chemists closely followed the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Lise Meitner in 1938. Japan was one of the few countries at the time with the material resources and scientific talent to pursue this research. In fact, Japan embarked on not one, but two research efforts to create an atomic bomb during World War II.