Fukushima’s Long Link To A Dark Nuclear Past (New York Times)

Fukushima’s Long Link to a Dark Nuclear Past (New York Times, Sep. 5, 2011):

ISHIKAWA, Japan — Kiwamu Ariga skirted the paddies of ripening rice, moving briskly despite his 81 years to reach a pile of yellowish rocks at the foot of a steep, forested hillside.

It was here that, as a junior high school student in the final months of World War II, Mr. Ariga and his classmates were put to work hacking rocks out of the hill’s then exposed stone face until the blood ran from their sandaled feet. The soldiers told them nothing beyond instructing them to look for stones with brown or black spots.

Then one day, Mr. Ariga recalled, an officer finally explained what they were after: “With the stones that you boys are digging up, we can make a bomb the size of a matchbox that will destroy all of New York.” Mr. Ariga said he did not learn other details of Japan’s secrecy-wrapped efforts to build an atomic bomb until years after the war.

“We had no idea what we were doing here, in our bare feet, digging out radioactive uranium,” Mr. Ariga said, standing between cedar saplings as spindly as his aging legs. “Now, 66 years later, we are exposed to radiation again.”

This quiet mining town, nestled amid gentle green mountains, is located in Fukushima Prefecture, the rural district that is home to the radiation-spewing nuclear plant that bears its name, just an hour’s drive over mountains to the northeast. The accident five months ago has prompted aging residents like Mr. Ariga to speak out about how Fukushima, a name that has now become synonymous with civilian nuclear disaster, also has an older, lesser-known link to an even darker side of atomic energy.

Now in their 80s, the former schoolchildren who worked Ishikawa’s uranium mines find themselves making increasing appearances in major Japanese media.

“Maybe it is Fukushima’s unlucky mission to stand as a warning against the dangers of nuclear power,” both civilian and military, said Etsuo Hashimoto, a retiree and amateur historian who volunteers at Ishikawa’s one-room mineral museum, where rocks with printed labels collect dust on shelves.

Mr. Hashimoto stood before the museum’s single display panel describing the imperial army’s attempt here in 1945 to mine uranium and develop ways of refining it for use in building a bomb. Compared with the United States’ vast Manhattan Project, historians describe Japan’s two bomb-building programs — the imperial navy also ran a separate project — as minuscule, last-ditch efforts, hindered by a lack of resources and pessimism among the projects’ own scientists that such a weapon could actually be completed.

As Mr. Hashimoto spoke, sirens began to wail, in one of the routine checks of emergency-response systems that this town of almost 18,000 residents has held since the accident in March at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 36 miles away. Officials also regularly measure the fallout that has blown this way from the stricken plant, though they say radiation levels are not high enough to endanger health.

Still, the irony of Ishikawa’s current predicament has proven rich enough to draw renewed attention to Japan’s wartime atomic bomb programs, which are not well known here.

The programs were revealed soon after the war, but for decades Ishikawa’s role went largely unnoticed, as an economically resurgent Japan tried its best to put its wartime past behind it. Since the 1990s, major media have become less inhibited about discussing the war, including Japan’s atomic bomb programs. However, the programs still seem to be easily forgotten in a nation that is more accustomed to thinking of itself as the victim of the deadly American atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mr. Ariga, who in recent years has begun telling his story to local schoolchildren, says that most Japanese are shocked to hear that their nation also tried to build an atomic bomb. “I have no doubt Japan would have used it if it succeeded,” he added.

Historians say Japan never got as far as even designing, much less actually building, an atomic weapon. Indeed, its wartime efforts can seem woefully insufficient for the task: in Ishikawa, about 130 schoolchildren were put to work digging for uranium ore because the adult men had all been sent off to war.

“Ishikawa is a symbol of how inanely inadequate it was, using schoolchildren to build an atomic bomb,” said Masayasu Hosaka, a historian who has written on Japan’s atomic bomb projects.

For years after the war, no one in Ishikawa talked about the uranium mines, residents say. Fortunately, they add, no one got sick from radiation exposure. However, many feared they might face the same discrimination as survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who were denied marriage and jobs out of fear that radiation was contagious.

“The mines were the town’s secret,” according to Kuniteru Maeda, 81, who also worked at the uranium mine.

Mr. Maeda and Mr. Ariga, who both became schoolteachers in Ishikawa after the war, said their silence continued until after retirement two decades ago, when they had time to ponder their wartime experiences. In 1993, they pooled their money to self-publish a small book on the bomb project in Ishikawa.

Sitting on the tatami floor of his two-century-old farmhouse, under the black-and-white photographs of recent ancestors, Mr. Ariga grows angry describing the parallels he sees between the wartime bomb projects and Japan’s current nuclear crisis. The biggest similarity, he says, is that in both cases, the public was deceived by what he called hubris-filled leaders.

During the war, he said, generals and admirals believed their own propaganda about Japan being a sacred country that could defeat its foes with spiritual purity alone, and thus allowed themselves to fall behind the United States in the race to build the bomb. Now, he said, the Fukushima Daiichi accident exposed how Japan had let itself be led astray once again, this time by economic planners who promoted a “safety myth” that Japanese technology could never fail.

“We were brainwashed during the war, and we were brainwashed again after the war,” Mr. Ariga said. “Maybe we will get wise the third time.”

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