Japan’s earthquake- and tsunami-induced nuclear tragedy harkened me back to a dazzling day in August in Semipalatinsk.
The sky was clear and the sun bright as hundreds gathered at the city’s anti-nuclear testing memorial on August 29 of 2010 to mark the first United Nations day against such tests.
The sponsors of the event were perceptive enough to invite a Japanese speaker, and I remember her being both eloquent and to the point.
Michiko Watanabe struck a chord when she said Japan knows what those in the Semipalatinsk area endured during five decades of Soviet nuclear testing in their back yard. She was referring, of course, to Japan being the only country to suffer atomic bombings.
Some of the hundreds of nuclear explosions near Semipalatinsk between 1947 and 1991 killed villagers outright. They died not from the force of an explosion, as tens of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did, but from shock waves slamming into them harder than the right hand of one of Ukraine’s Klitchko brothers.
Others in the Semipalatinsk area, as in the A-bombed Japanese cities, died later of radiation-generated cancer and other diseases. Then there were the many birth defects that children in the Semipalatinsk area suffered from radiation – another grim connection with Japan.
“Let me offer my remorse for the victims of the nuclear tests,” said Watanabe, head of the Japanese Cultural Center in Almaty. “I wish the victims of the nuclear explosions peace in another world – and peace for their families, too.”
Semipalatink’s victims are seared into the soul of Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. He has described in biographies how angry he was that the Soviet leadership in Moscow foisted nuclear testing on a place they considered a backwater – the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.
Nazarbayev has seen the test victims’ suffering firsthand, both as president of Soviet Kazakhstan and head of its independent successor. Some of those who sickened and died were his friends.
The bile rising in his stomach over the outrage propagated on his fellow citizens, Nazarbayev ordered nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk halted on August 29, 1991. Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union at the time, and the move angered Kremlin leaders. Four months later their anger didn’t matter: Kazakhstan was independent.
Nazarbayev went on to scrap Kazakhstan’s nuclear arsenal – the fourth-largest in the world – and to convince the United Nations to declare August 29 a worldwide day against nuclear testing.
All of this enveloped my mind as I began watching Japan’s desperate effort to stop meltdowns at two of its earthquake- and tsunami-damaged reactors.
I was a journalist in Japan nine years. I love the country and its people, so my heart has been bleeding over the tragedy.
Unlike Kazakhstan, Japan has no oil and gas, and little coal. It decided decides ago to generate most of its power from nuclear reactors – an irony given Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It has run those dozens of reactors smoothly – with one or two exceptions – until the natural disaster this month.
With all its oil, gas and coal, Kazakhstan has said it wants to generate electricity from nuclear plants as well. Most of its power comes from highly polluting coal.
And countries such as China and India are going flat-out to build nuclear reactors.
Japan’s disaster will give pause to countries that are going nuclear – but it will be just a pause and not a retreat.
The Japanese calamity raises a question for me:
Why can’t the world’s powerhouses – the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Western Europe – come up with a crash program to create a hydrogen fuel cell that would power everything on the planet? Homes, businesses, cars, everything.
It would set the world on a path that allows the phasing out of nuclear reactors, assuring that there are no more reactor victims.
The next, much more difficult steps in ending the nuclear threat would be eliminating nuclear testing and then nuclear weapons themselves.
Kazakhstan and Japan, the world’s most visible victims of the nuclear revolution, have said loudly and clearly that they want testing stopped and arsenals scrapped.
If the world can eliminate nuclear reactors, maybe a totally nuclear-free world will be next.