After Sendai - Richard Falk - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was in the West, especially the United States, a short triumphal moment, crediting American science and military prowess with bringing victory over Japan and the avoidance of what was anticipated at the time to be a long and bloody conquest of the Japanese homeland. This official narrative of the devastating attacks on these Japanese cities has been contested by numerous reputable historians who argued that Japan had conveyed its readiness to surrender well before the bombs had been dropped, that the US Government needed to launch the attacks to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that it had this super-weapon at its disposal, and that the attacks would help establish American supremacy in the Pacific without any need to share power with Moscow.

This use of atomic bombs against defenceless densely populated cities remains the greatest single act of state terror in human history, and had it been committed by the losers in World War II surely the perpetrators would have been held criminally accountable and the weaponry forever prohibited. But history gives the winners in big wars considerable latitude to shape the future according to their own wishes, sometimes for the better, often for the worse.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki there were widespread expressions of concern about the future issued by political leaders and an array of moral authority figures. Statesmen in the West talked about the necessity of nuclear disarmament as the only alternative to a future war that would destroy industrial civilisation. Scientists and others in society spoke in apocalyptic terms about the future. It was a mood of ‘utopia or else’, a sense that unless a new form of governance emerged rapidly there would be no way to avoid a catastrophic future for the human species and for the earth itself.

The shock of the atomic attacks wears off, is superseded by a restoration of normalcy, which means creating the conditions for repetition at greater magnitudes of death and destruction.

The reality of current nuclear dangers in Japan are far stronger than these words of reassurance that claim the risks to health are minimal because the radioactivity are being contained to avoid dangerous levels of contamination. A more trustworthy measure of the perceived rising dangers can be gathered from the continual official expansions of the evacuation zone around the Dai-ichi reactors from 3 km to 10 km, and more recently to 18 km, coupled with the instructions to everyone caught in the region to stay indoors indefinitely, with windows and doors sealed. We can hope and pray that the four explosions that have so far taken place in the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex of reactors will not lead to further explosions and a full meltdown in one or more of the reactors.

We know that throughout Asia alone some 3,000 new reactors are either being built or have been planned and approved. We know that nuclear power has been touted in the last several years as a major source of energy to deal with future energy requirements, a way of overcoming the challenge of ‘peak oil’ and of combating global warming by some decrease in carbon emissions. We know that the nuclear industry will contend that it knows how to build safe reactors in the future that will withstand even such ‘impossible’ events that have wrought such havoc in the Sendai region of Japan, while at the same time lobbying for insurance schemes to avoid such risks. And we know that governments will be under great pressure to renew the Faustian Bargain despite what should have been clear from the moment the bombs fell in 1945.

The writer is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, writer, and appointee to two United Nations positions on the occupied Palestinian territories.


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