Reflections on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima: Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the nuclear age?
Masao Tomonaga, MD
The 66th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki arrives as Japan tries to recover from the ongoing nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, which has exposed almost two million people to chronic low dose radiation.
On March 11, a powerful tsunami in northeast Japan, triggered by a devastating earthquake, struck the electric supply apparatus at Fukushima and induced meltdowns in two of the plant’s reactors, along with hydrogen explosions in the reactor buildings. During the next two weeks, high levels of radioactive iodine and cesium were released into the air. The soil of Fukushima Prefecture was widely contaminated with radioactive nuclides, as were coastal waters. Residents, including a few hundred thousand children, were chronically exposed to low-dose radiation. More than 20,000 residents were evacuated from their home towns, where the estimated annual exposure dose exceeds 20 millisieverts (mSv). Many farmers abandoned their cattle. Five months after the onset of the disaster, a prefecture-wide mass medical survey has been started to determine the health impact on the two million residents of Fukushima.
This new nuclear tragedy now forms the backdrop of Japan’s first terrible experience with the destructive forces of the nuclear age, commemorated each year at this time.
I was born in 1943 in Nagasaki City and encountered the second atomic bombing from a distance of 2.7 kilometers from ground zero—far enough to escape harm to my body. After becoming a physician in 1968, I chose hematology as my specialty and cared for leukemia patients, including atomic bomb survivors. My major interest as an academic physician has been to explore how atomic bomb irradiation induces leukemia and cancers.
There were approximately 250,000 atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of 1945. That number has decreased today to 150,000 after 66 years. Most of these survivors were under age 10 at the time of bombing. Amazingly, the long-term epidemiological survey clearly shows that an elevated plateau of excess risk of cancers and leukemias persists. Moreover, we have confirmed a linear dose-dependent curve above 100 mSv. This trend is expected to continue throughout the lives of the remaining survivors.
The accumulated evidence of medical research on those survivors indicates that their organ stem cells—such as hematopoietic stem cells—might have been irradiated and acquired genetic mutations in 1945. Those wounded stem cells may have survived over a half century with genetic instability, and eventually transformed to cancer or leukemia cells. Some individuals also suffer from more than two primary cancers or leukemia, suggesting multiplicity of carcinogenesis in different organs due to whole body irradiation that is typical of nuclear bombs. Thus, the atomic bomb affects human beings for their entire lives, proving its inhuman and illegal nature.
A year before my retirement from Nagasaki University Medical School in 2009, I saw an elderly lady with acute myeloid leukemia. She has been one of the most active peace protesters among Nagasaki survivors. She had been 17 years old in 1945, and was heavily irradiated during the atomic bombing, as shown by total hair loss and a fracture of her hip joint. At the age of 79, she suddenly developed leukemia after a half century of healthy life. I treated her with new drugs for leukemia and she got into complete remission and was able to return to the peace movement. This is one recent example of what I have seen time and again as a physician and researcher: the life-long effect of nuclear weapons on human beings.
The Nuclear Age started at the Trinity site in New Mexico in July 1945, followed by the military use of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities on August 6 and 9. A nuclear arms race between the USA and the former USSR started in 1949, bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe during the closing years of the last century. The Cold War has been over for many years, but there are still more than 20,000 nuclear warheads on the Earth.
The world’s first nuclear power plant started operations in 1954 at Obninsk, Russia. There are now 439 nuclear power plants in the world, but no good technology to store nuclear waste or to dispose of it permanently. Three major nuclear power plant accidents have taken place during the past six decades: Three Mile Island in 1979; Chernobyl in 1986; and now Fukushima in 2011.
We human beings, by ourselves, invented the theory and technology to create nuclear weapons and nuclear plants. For 66 years the nuclear age has continued. Now, however, we see the beginning of its slow demise, because nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants have failed to bring safety and peace to global human society. We physicians should help them cease as early as possible.
Dr. Tomonaga, the president of the Nagasaki chapter of Japanese Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (JPPNW), retired in 2009 from Nagasaki University Medical School, where he was an academic internist and a professor of hematology. He is currently Director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Hospital.