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Reflections on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima: Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the nuclear age?

August 6, 2011

Masao Tomonaga, MD

Masao Tomonaga

Masao Tomonaga

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.

IPPNW’s 20th World Congress will be held in Hiroshima from August 22-26, 2012.

  1. Robert Gould permalink
    August 8, 2011 11:51 am

    Dear All,

    I just want to briefly concur with John and Jan on their points about the dangers and the real limitations of nuclear power in dealing with our global energy and climate change crises.

    Dr. Tomonaga–I especially want to thank you for your moving and thoughtful essay, points of which I had the privilege to highlight in my own remarks at the Hiroshima Day rally at the Lawrence Livermore Lab this last Saturday night. Our participants, who at the end of the rally were able to speak via Skype to colleagues in Japan, were extremely appreciative of your insights and your call to physicians and all gathered to bring the nuclear age to end as soon as possible. With warm regards, Bob Gould (Physicians for Social Responsibility).

  2. Jan Abliter permalink
    August 7, 2011 6:23 am

    Clark C. Abt wrote “In the US where some 100 nuclear power plants supply about 20% of our electrical energy more healthily and safely than the coal and oil that supply most of the rest, there has not been a single life lost by nuclear power plants. In France, where nuclear power plants supply some 80% of electric power, there is a similar record of safety and a superior one of reduced (and health-damaging) air pollution.”

    Dear Clark, the negative effects of nuclear power cannot be regarded nationwide but have to be examined globally, i.e. by the damage done on the worldwide population. The frequency of nuclear disasters is low, but -in the rare cases they occur- their consequences affect the lives of an exorbitant high number of people.
    So, if speaking of the safety of nuclear power plants the only valid numbers are those who take account of all the lives lost and damaged throughout the globe as well as over a long-term view.

    Japan shows that nuclear disasters can affect not only developing countries but also highly industrialized nations. Even economically leading countries as the US or Germany still have power plants that are of a comparable model range as the Fukushima reactors.

    The only safe and clean alternative can thus be renewable energies. It is time to make a change as soon as possible.

  3. John Loretz permalink*
    August 6, 2011 1:52 pm

    Clark, I’m not sure I understand where your quarrel with Dr. Tomonaga lies. If you believe that no new nuclear power plants should be built, then it goes without saying that their generating capacity will have to be replaced with clean, sustainable technologies as they are retired over a period of years. I did not hear Dr. Tomonaga say that the existing 439 plants should be shut down overnight, rather you both said the transition to non-nuclear energy sources should take place as soon as possible. I don’t think anyone is underestimating the size of that challenge. I would add one thing to what you said, which is that building enough nuclear power plants in a short enough time to have any significant impact on averting catastrophic global warming, aside from being stupidly dangerous, is physically and economically impossible. The industry’s self-serving propaganda to the contrary is…well…self-serving propaganda. While there’s no question that fossil-fuel plants are responsible for countless respiratory illnesses and deaths, I think you’re being way too casual about what you seem to see as the health benefits of nuclear power. I’d invite IPPNW’s doctors to comment on that.

  4. John Loretz permalink*
    August 6, 2011 1:22 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Tomonaga, for sharing your personal story and the effect of the bomb on the course of your life. We are fortunate that you escaped physical harm, as so many tens of thousands did not, and were able to devote your life to helping the survivors cope with radiation-induced cancers and other illnesses. We remember Hiroshima today and Nagasaki on Tuesday, and over these four days (at least) it’s important to put aside all the intricacies of policy debates and the political maneuvering and the pointless arguing about who can be “trusted” with the bomb and who can’t, and simply reflect on what nuclear weapons are. They are what they do, and what they do is kill and destroy on a scale that is indefensible from any perspective. I have never heard an argument for having or keeping nuclear weapons that stands up to scrutiny when placed side by side with the images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and with the stories of the hibakusha, who carry the reasons for abolition in their blood. It just doesn’t have to get any more complicated than that.

    The Japanese people are now suffering the terrible effects of a dangerous reliance on the so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy, which has shattered their peace, health, environment, and economy and will continue to do so for years to come. It’s doubly tragic that Fukushima must now be added to the list of nuclear disasters that Japan has had to endure. I share your hope that the world will get rid of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants very soon.

  5. Clark C. Abt permalink
    August 6, 2011 12:35 pm

    Dr. Tomonaga’s important scientific work on hematology is admirable, and his advocacy of the elimination of nuclear weapons on moral and medical grounds (which I share) is persuasive. What is not persuasive is Dr. Tomonaga’s advocacy of the cessation of the world’s current 439 nuclear power plants (with more planned) on grounds that “they have brought neither safety or peace to global human society.” Despite the three important nuclear power plant disasters in the 66-year old nuclear age (Three Miles Island in the US in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, and Fukushima in Japan in 2011), civilian nuclear power plants have a record of safety (in terms of prevention of lives lost- and perhaps species too) superior to the other current major sources (coal, oil and gas) of energy producing electric power, heating, and fuels essential to the world economy, industries, agriculture and civilization. In the US where some 100 nuclear power plants supply about 20% of our electrical energy more healthily and safely than the coal and oil that supply most of the rest, there has not been a single life lost by nuclear power plants. In France, where nuclear power plants supply some 80% of electric power, there is a similar record of safety and a superior one of reduced (and health-damaging) air pollution.
    I am not an advocate of expanding nuclear power, and am an advocate of replacing both nuclear power and all the air-polluting and GCC-inducing carbon non-renewable energy sources with renewable, non-emitting solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and benign types of biofuel energy resources. But to be realistic, the increased production and deployment of environmentally and economically renewable energy resources cannot replace both nuclear and fossil fuel energy sources fast enough to make possible the prompt cessation of nuclear power plants without incurring grave economic damage (and the attendant impoverishment) to the world economy. It will take decades of R&D and investment in renewables to completely replace nuclear and fossil fuels, but we should proceed with that intention as quickly as possible.
    Clark C. Abt, Ph.D.
    Professor of Energy & Sustainable International Development, Brandeis University


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