Seventy years later and more than 16 000km away, a group of atomic bombing survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki are campaigning for a nuclear-free world in their adopted home of Brazil.
Despite their advanced age – some are in their 90s – they have stepped up their activities this year both to mark the anniversary this week of the United States’ bomb attacks and to oppose the Brazilian government’s plans to more than double nuclear power generation.
The survivors – known in Japanese as hibakusha (explosion-affected people) – were among a wave of 20th-century migrants who moved across the world in search of a better life. There are now believed to be more than 1.5-million people of Japanese descent in Brazil – the biggest diaspora in the world.
More than 100 of them are registered survivors of the bombings on August 6 and 9 1945, a trauma that continues to define their identities despite the intervening years.
Takashi Morita was 21 years old when the bomb Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. “I was walking on the street, when suddenly paaaaa! A big flash and then everything collapsed,” he recalls. Morita was burned and injured by debris, but recovered and 10 years later took a boat to start afresh in Brazil, which relaxed restrictions on Asian immigrants in the late 1950s.
Like many of his counterparts in Japan, he and other hibakusha formed a peace association dedicated to banning nuclear weapons and closing nuclear power plants.
In the 1970s and 1980s, both were a major concern in Brazil. The military dictatorship – in competition with Argentina – had launched an atomic weapons programme, starting with the construction of two pressurised water reactors at Angra dos Reis in Rio de Janeiro state. Public fears about radiation hit a peak in 1987 when a capsule of caesium-137 from a radiotherapy device was taken from an abandoned hospital and led to widespread contamination and the deaths of at least four people.
The hibakusha have worked with victims’ groups of this and other contamination cases to raise public awareness of radiation risks posed by power plants, waste dumps, mines, factories, medical devices and mineral dumps – including more than 1 000 tonnes of uranium and thorium residues which are still held at a former Nuclemon site in a densely populated neighbourhood of São Paulo.
“Many people don’t know that radiation is so close to our lives. People must be aware of it, what radiations are and what kind of effect they have on our body,” said Junko Kosumo, a hibakusha who lives in São Paulo. “We must pass on [what we know of the risks] to future generations.”
Brazil’s anti-nuclear campaigners claimed a victory in 1990, when the government renounced its nuclear weapon ambitions. They have also been relieved by long hold-ups in reactor construction plans. Today, Brazil still has only two nuclear reactors, which generate 3% of its electricity.
Back-up in the dry season
But, under the Workers’ Party, the government has resurrected the nuclear energy programme as a back-up to hydroelectric dams during the dry season. The state-run operator, Electronuclear, has resumed construction of a third reactor at Angra, which is due for completion in 2019 after a two-decade delay. Earlier this year, energy minister Eduardo Braga announced that he was looking for private sector investment for another long-mooted plan to build four new nuclear plants.
Opponents, however, question the wisdom of any expansion, considering that the industry – even at its relatively small scale – has been hit by a succession of accidents and scandals. In February, Angra 1 had to be powered down after a cooling system problem. Last month Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, a retired admiral who heads Electronuclear (and formerly ran a government project to build nuclear submarines), was arrested for allegedly taking 4.5-million reais (about R16 520 000) in bribes from engineering firms working on Angra 3.
Such cases give the hibakusha fresh motivation to continue their long struggle. Morita makes at least one visit each month to a church, school or university. He estimates he gave 20 lectures this June. He has also been to the Angra site to register his opposition to the construction of the third reactor.
This week, anti-nuclear groups were set to attend an exhibition in Angra on the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We have to warn the population of the danger. I believe that Brazil, being a country that is close to the equator with a tropical climate, has no need for nuclear energy,” said André Lopes Loula, a teacher who works with the hibakusha.
Morita, meanwhile, is in Japan to mark the 70th-anniversary commemorations. Speaking by phone from Hiroshima he said that after he returns to Brazil, he will continue the work that has defined his life.
“I experienced the bomb. I saw many die. I have lived until now with a spirit dedicated to ensuring humanity never again sees such a terrible thing.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015