The Nuclear Debate

by Rt Revd Peter Selby

Posted: 5 Aug 2011

Nuclear energy, we are constantly being told, is an inevitable part of reducing carbon emissions, absolutely necessary if we are to close the energy gap. Resistance to that argument is deemed irrational. The energy requirements of the world are such that we won't manage without nuclear power if we're to have a prosperous life and at the same time avoid the perils of global warming.

That begs the question, what price rationality? And I don't mean the price in money: the real price will be the enhanced security regime we shall have to endure in a world already obsessed with the danger of terrorism, and that has already sacrificed all sorts of liberties to counter it. And what will fuel that enhanced security regime are the deeply ingrained - and not that irrational - fears about the implications of nuclear leaks, nuclear thefts and nuclear waste. And that fear is based for some people on an experience they have actually had.

August 6th, the 66th anniversary of the bomb detonated over Hiroshima, is a good time to reflect on that.

In all my life, however often I had spoken of that city I had never thought that my time would come to visit it; our daughter's decision to go to Japan to teach English gave us the opportunity to enjoy something of that fascinating country, and in the course of our visit to go to the city that we have all heard of and few of us who are not Japanese have seen.

The children with their clipboards were immensely polite and well spoken: "What do you think about our museum?" they asked, wanting to try out their English but also genuinely keen to know our answers.

The visit to the museum of the atomic bomb was hugely disturbing. With artefacts from 1945 it contained also numerous short pieces of writing by people who in 1945 were schoolchildren, interrupted in their walk from school by something that was to change their lives and the life of the world. I remember one account which said, "I reached out for a butterfly I saw on the hedge, when suddenly ...."

The poignant memorial of the girl suffering from a terminal attack of radiation sickness who believed that if she could make a thousand paper cranes she would survive - and died a couple of hundred short of her goal - is not something I'll ever forget. Nor will I forget making the to me new discovery that in the six decades since the Hiroshima - and Nagasaki - bomb no serving Prime Minister of the UK or President of the USA has ever visited Hiroshima - will some holder of that office have the imagination and vision to pay that visit; maybe they haven't gone there because if they did they could think of nothing to say.

Before we entered the museum we had seen the remaining structure of the commercial dome, symbol of the prosperity of pre-war Hiroshima, and now kept in place as a lasting statement of what happened so close to the epicentre of the explosion. But we saw something else too, something of more hopeful import: there is, as you might expect, an eternal flame burning in the park that stretches from the museum to the dome. But what you might not expect is that that flame is not the usual eternal memorial flame commemorating those who have died. Rather it is a flame which will burn until the last nuclear weapon is removed from the face of the earth - so the hope is that that flame will not be eternal after all, that peace will not have to wait for ever.

As I answered the schoolchildren's polite and earnest questions outside the museum I found myself wondering what it will be like for them when they travel as so many Japanese do to be asked 'Where are you from?', knowing that were they to say 'Tokyo' or 'Osaka' their response would get only polite interest. Saying 'Hiroshima' in answer to that question may well produce an embarrassed silence: Hiroshima is the name of the place where humanity crossed a critical boundary in both its knowledge and its violence; what must it be like to be a citizen of a place which has that eternal place in human history?

But then I remembered something else: shall we ever forget what John F Kennedy said fifteen years later in the shadow of the Berlin wall: Ich bin ein Berliner were the words with which he associated himself and his country with the suffering of the divided Germany. Perhaps as we hope with the Japanese people for an end to the nuclear arsenals of the world we might all see ourselves as we are, citizens of Hiroshima. That city speaks of the shadow not of a wall but of a mushroom cloud under which we all live. And the flame that burns there should encourage our hope too that the waste and the danger which nuclear weapons represent may yet be removed from the face of the earth, and that future generations may grow up with that fear removed and those resources redeployed for the good of the children of Hiroshima and of us all.

Those very children whom we met in Hiroshima now have to reflect on the terrible reminder they have had of the risks of nuclear technology, even when deployed for peaceful purposes, in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. What is the 'rationality' they need to deploy in reflecting on the most 'rational' way of generating energy? The rationality we need is the rationality that does not forget that we are all citizens of Hiroshima, all heirs of that moment on 6th August 1945 when humanity entered a new and frightening world.

As the Hiroshima flame tells its tale of hope, however, we know that if we give proper value to the fears that belong to the nuclear age the world is not just frightening but also hopeful. Each year the Hiroshima anniversary coincides with the Feast of the Transfiguration when the sudden radiance seen in the face of Christ promised a new radiance for the face of the world - but only if the world will face up to the reality those children know too well and which we must not forget.

We do need energy - but material energy is not the only kind we need; the energy of those children's experience and their reflections is one we cannot do without if our prosperity is to be genuine.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby was President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards from 2008 until 2013 and the former Bishop of Worcester. He is currently part of the Interim Directing team for St Paul's Institute.