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.

Of course, Japan lost the race, and instead of victory through atoms, two of her cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, burned in a nuclear holocaust in 1945.

After the end of the war, however, the United States Occupation banned all nuclear research in Japan, including medical and power applications. Although the end of the Occupation in April 1952 opened the possibility for nuclear research to begin again, it was not until after President Dwight Eisenhower's famous "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations General Assembly that nuclear power research started in earnest in Japan.

On December 8, 1953, twelve years to the day after the United States declared war on Japan, Eisenhower laid out a grim future for the world, one dominated by nuclear weapons of ever increasing destructive capability. After first scaring his audience, he pivoted and offered a solution: the development of civilian nuclear power.

The United States, he proposed, would share nuclear technology, train technicians from other countries, and loan fissionable materials for research and commercial power production.

At its heart, the Atoms for Peace program had two purposes. The Eisenhower administration designed the program to foster good relations between America and its allies, and to show the material benefits of allying with the United States. But Atoms For Peace was also a nuclear weapons disarmament program designed to provide an alternative use for the radioisotopes necessary for nuclear weapons.

His approach assumed that the sharing of nuclear technology would foster cooperation and trust between the United States and the Soviet Union. Eventually, the demand for nuclear materials for peaceful purposes would grow to the point when both sides would dismantle weapons to provide fuel for reactors.

Eisenhower's proposal painted a positive future for nuclear power, one that was creative and productive, rather than purely destructive.

As far as the Americans were concerned, Japan had a special place in this proposal. Since Japan had been the victim of the first and only atomic bombings, it would only be fair that Japan be among the first countries to benefit from advances in nuclear power.

Before an offer could be floated, however, a disaster struck in the form of the Lucky Dragon Incident.

Unlucky Dragon

On March 1, 1954, the United States test detonated a hydrogen bomb in the south Pacific, the fallout from which coated a Japanese fishing boat by the name of the Lucky Dragon Number 5 with a thick, radioactive ash. The 23 sailors aboard were covered in the ash and most were coming down with the early stages of radiation sickness by the time they returned to Japan on March 14.

Panic exploded in Japan with the revelation that not only were the fishermen affected by the fallout, but that their catch had already been sold at market before anyone thought to test it. The abstract threat of invisible atomic poison became all too real once people began to realize that it had infiltrated the food supply.

The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh. But it was the Lucky Dragon incident that provided the opportunity for a national discussion of the effects of radiation, which were not particularly well understood immediately after the bombings. Even though studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealed valuable information about the effects of radiation on the human body, this knowledge was not well circulated and the U.S. Occupation censored such information in the press.

In order to calm the anger and fear from the Lucky Dragon incident, the Eisenhower administration offered to establish an agreement to share nuclear technology and radioisotopes with Japan. In the midst of a major scandal over radiation exposure, Japanese politicians quickly accepted.

The Choice for Nuclear Power

Why would Japanese officials accept new nuclear technology in the middle of a crisis that was commonly (if hyperbolically) called "a new Hiroshima"?

It was hardly an auspicious time for a nuclear power program. But, the immediacy of the Lucky Dragon crisis aside, nuclear power appeared to Japanese leaders as the only viable long-term option for the production of sufficient electricity for the country.

In the 1950s, Japan, which had been devastated in the war, embarked on an ambitious economic recovery program that witnessed double-digit economic growth and culminated in the "income doubling plan" of Japan's "Golden Sixties."

The issue of energy scarcity was front and center in the minds of Japanese policy makers during this rebuilding. To meet surging demand for electricity, they had little choice but to turn to new sources or power, which immediately after the war were based primarily on hydroelectricity and coal burning plants.

Hydroelectric plants were attractive because once the dam and turbines are built, the only costs associated with them are largely operational and maintenance. Yet, annual droughts lowered the water levels of many rivers, making electric output variable and regularly causing blackouts during the summer when the water was at its nadir and demand at its zenith. Developing this resource, moreover, could not continue unabated. By the mid-1950s, most of the easily dammed sites had already been developed.

Likewise, Japanese sources of coal were shallow and poor, and had been overexploited during the war. In the 1950s—with traditional sources of imported coal from China blocked because of the civil war and communist victory—high quality coal had to be imported all the way from the east coast of the United States.

In addition to its economic benefits, nuclear technology also provided a symbolic way to rebuild Japanese society after the war. American bombers had physically destroyed Japanese infrastructure, including a large number of coal-fired power plants. World War II had also unraveled Japanese conceptions of their place in the world.

Since the beginning of modernization in 1868, Japan sought first to catch up to the West and then prove that it deserved a place among the world's great powers. Through the Second World War, these efforts hinged on the building of an empire, both for resources and for international prestige.

Japan's loss undid fifty years of development and undermined Japanese identity and its role in international affairs.

After the war, a number of prominent figures proposed the development of science and technology as a method of playing a positive role in the world community.

As early as 1950, Nakasone Yasuhiro, a member of the lower house of the Diet at the time and later Prime Minister, saw nuclear power as an area where Japan could contribute to the world and maybe even make up for Japanese war crimes.

More famously, Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru proposed what is known as the Yoshida Doctrine. This policy argued that Japan should focus on economic development, fueled by technological development, and eschew playing an active role in international affairs.

Nuclear power fit this policy quite well. Many in Japan and throughout the world firmly believed that this technology would bring on a new industrial revolution. Nuclear power would generate electricity that was so cheap that it wouldn't even be worth metering.

What better way to rebuild post-war Japan than using the most modern technology that would shape a new era of prosperity? In the 1950s, people had seen the future, and it ran on nuclear power.

Selling the Nuclear Option

After deciding on nuclear power, the Japanese government, electric utilities, and nuclear industry engaged in extensive efforts to persuade the public to support it.

This was no easy task. A survey by the U.S. Department of State in 1956 found that Japanese were much more pessimistic about the potential civilian applications of nuclear power than Europeans and Americans. In Japan, 39% said that nuclear technology would provide more harm than good in the long run, while 22% said it would be more beneficial than harmful. In Europe and the US, these figures were nearly the reverse.

In order to overcome this reluctance, the government and industry launched a relatively successful public relations campaign.

They sponsored traveling exhibits, lectures, films, and slides that extolled the safety, modernity, and promise of nuclear power. Predictions of nuclear-powered cars and consumer electronics appeared regularly in the newspapers, which ran a spate of pronuclear articles.

Popular fiction mirrored public fascination with—and growing acceptance of—all things nuclear. One need go no further than Osamu Tezuka's comic, Tetsuwan Atomu (literally: Iron-armed Atom), known as Astro Boy in the English speaking world. The comic books began their run in 1952 and they depicted a nuclear-powered wonderland –a far cry from the Japan of that time.

Although few of the stories have anything to do with energy sources, the connections to nuclear issues are ubiquitous, starting with the main character's name: Atom. Atom's mentor creates a nuclear family (a pun that works in Japanese as well). His sister is named Uran, which means uranium in Japanese, and his brother is Cobalt, another important element in nuclear physics. Nuclear power would bring a utopian future.

Nuclear weapons are conspicuously absent throughout the run of Astro Boy. In this future, nuclear weapons would be replaced by peaceful nuclear power, one of the key aspirations of the Atoms for Peace program.

Opposing Nuclear Arms

Much like in Tezuka's work, the Japanese people's growing support for nuclear power did not extend to nuclear weapons. While there was no shortage of people who opposed nuclear power in the 1950s and early 1960s, nuclear critics tended to focus on the issue of nuclear weapons rather than electric power.

One of the main anti-nuclear groups, Gensuikyou (founded in 1955), for instance, opposed both nuclear weapons and power, but their early focus was clearly on weapons.