An atomic cloud over Hiroshima, photographed on August 6, 1945, from the Boeing B-29 Superfortress nicknamed the Enola Gay. (Photo: 509th Operations Group [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
He never saw the mushroom cloud because he was inside it. Less than two kilometres from the hypo-centre, he jumped from a street car and had been blown back by the rush of hot-air. Entire neighbourhoods were razed to the ground, with the dust from demolished houses fogging up the sky and blocking out the sun. The people who weren’t dead were screaming; they were running towards him with arms outstretched because it hurt to touch their own bodies.
Miyake Nobuo, now in his late eighties, has set himself entirely to the cause of nuclear disarmament. These memories of his experience—though filled with blanks from where his mind has erased hours of trauma—maintain his momentum. He is one of the remaining survivors of the Hiroshima atom bomb, a demographic known as the Hibakusha (被爆者). He has spent decades of his life trying to distance himself from his own story; he thought that by moving to Tokyo as a young man he could escape the shadow of the bomb, but it followed him everywhere. As he now recalls the streets of Hiroshima after detonation, hauling his mother from their half-collapsed house over his shoulder and carrying her to safety, he repeats that it is his duty to share his story. His dream is for the very last nuclear bomb to be abolished in the next generation’s lifetime; he doesn’t expect that his mission will bear fruit before he dies.
Miyake is brought to Fremantle by a collaboration between the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, and Peace Boat. A Japanese NGO, Peace Boat intends to visit Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, and Sydney before the 6th of February this year as a part of their ‘Making Waves’ tour. At each step, they advocate against the “devastating humanitarian consequences of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, particularly on Indigenous people”; they discuss the merits of and muster support for the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; and they question the moral legitimacy of Australian uranium exports.
I am listening to this from a broken seat at the back, having only just slipped in. I am listening like a fly on the wall, expecting to not be noticed on the way in or the way out. Everyone else seems to know one-another—though I could have assumed that Perth’s nuclear disarmament activists were a pretty tight-knit family. The Peace Boat docked into Fremantle harbour on the 24th of January, and on the 25th this symposium of sorts was getting underway at the University of Notre Dame.
They also bring a farmer who survived the Fukushima nuclear powerplant’s meltdown. He walks carefully and needs to sit while he speaks. He explains how he and his fellow villagers were whisked away from their homes, forced to leave their cattle and their livelihoods behind. Those who left were under the impression they would be able to come back soon. They could not, and their cattle starved to death. “There is no one who takes responsibility,” he says. The authorities consider the clean up of his village, he says, “completed”; they have dug up up the top five centimetres of irradiated soil throughout the village and put it in black bin-liner bags. These bags remain stacked in fields and besides roadways. And was his house decontaminated? “The roof tiles were wiped down.” How? “Paper towels.”
Karina Lester, an anti-nuclear activist from South Australia, speaks next. Her father, the late Yankunytjatjarais elder Yami Lester, survived the British nuclear testing in Maralinga in the Western Desert of South Australia but was made blind by the “black mist”. Their family stories consist of loved ones becoming sickly, of mothers digging holes to hide their babies from a radioactive dust storms. The gist is that nuclear weapons infect bloodlines, and then never let them go.
Former Labor Premier and current Conservation Council of Western Australia president Professor Carmen Lawrence follows, urging Western Australians to use their leverage as constituents to demand that no new uranium mines are built in this state. Professor Lawrence outlines what is described as a ‘political hypocrisy’; that these survivors of Maralinga, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki come from countries that refuse to become signatories to the United Nations Convention banning nuclear weapons. Professor Lawrence argues that the link between uranium mining, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons is inherent. Others in the room, I know, find the link more tenuous. It is a political dilemma, and one that’s gravity demands more attention in public discourse. The moral legitimacy of the Australian uranium export industry is a complicated affair, and raises social, political, and economic questions surrounding our role in the global market—would our withdrawal from the industry be a lost economic opportunity if the market void left by us is quickly filled by other less conscientious nations? In Western Australia at least, grass-roots momentum for an end to uranium exports seems to be only growing, if only because it is an obvious, actionable way to participate in the international nuclear disarmament discussion.
The Peace Boat is to visit at least 75 countries this year, in what is a global grass-roots campaign. The organisers ran through a list of up-and-coming WA Labor federal MPs, urged us to contact them as they could be ministers as soon as this year. It won’t be Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop signing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons they say; it will be a Labor government, so our best efforts are directed towards persuading them.
If ICAN and Peace Boat are successful in their endeavour to end the threat of nuclear warfare, it will be a glamorous victory forever remembered in the annuls of bottom-up political activism. There is the argument, however, that between realpolitik and the importance of international security, only a top-down approach driven by researchers, policymakers, and world leaders will precipitate permanent change. This is the position taken by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans in his 2017 memoir Incorrigible Optimist. Evans writes that he “would not for a moment suggest that the grass-roots mobilisation effort should be abandoned” (281) but that there must be the realistic top-down encouragement of “two distinct stages, first ‘minimisation’ then ‘elimination’” (287). For an international issue as multifaceted as nuclear disarmament, it is clear that even if activism doesn’t catalyse its own change, it provides the values-based mandate that policymakers will need when the time comes for minimisation. With last year’s death of Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet officer who averted nuclear warfare by recognising a false alarm and refusing to escalate the Soviet Union into a retaliatory attack, the world should have been reminded that minimisation could not be indefinitely postponed without imminent risk.
Whichever way the battle for nuclear disarmament progresses, top-down or bottom-up, and regardless of whether we withdraw our support from the uranium export industry, there is incredible value in sharing these stories and these emotions. Political movements rely on public feeling for their mandate, and policymakers must be personally moved by these gut wrenching tales of survival if we are to expect governments to act. For precisely that reason, it is vital that the next generation of policymakers coming through our universities remember the stories of the Hibakusha. Peaceboat and ICAN deserve our kudos.
Luke is an undergraduate pols and economics student trying to fix his time management problems.