The Absurdity of the Atomic Age


The Absurdity of the Atomic Age
Masatake Shinohara
(Translated by Adam Bronson)

In the essay “The Absurdity of the Nuclear Age,” published in the Asahi Shimbun in August 1982, Kojin Karatani declared that, since childhood, he had nurtured a sense that the human world would someday perish. Karatani pointed out the absurdity of the fact that humanity lived under the “nuclear equilibrium” maintained between the US and the Soviet Union. If the equilibrium is shaken just a little, the earth could be contaminated by radiation in an instant and become uninhabitable. Karatani’s point was: that humanity continues to exist under such condition is itself all too absurd.

Yet Karatani was by no means lamenting for this lived absurdity. He is saying that absurdity must first of all be recognized as a difficult-to-extinguish condition of humanity.

If the absurdity of the nuclear age is that humanity is marked by the possibility of nuclear war, then one might think that now, with the dissolution of the US-Soviet opposition and the ongoing efforts directed toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, this absurdity will be alleviated. However in contemporary Japanese society, a different kind of consciousness of absurdity is on the rise. It is the absurdity of nuclear energy.1 In other words, even after the Cold War, the absurdity connected to the nuclear, as difficult to alleviate as ever, continues to mark human existence. Or rather, it may be that the absurdity of nuclear energy has continued to exist on a different plane from that of “nuclear equilibrium.” (Of course, from the standpoint of the interrelatedness between the introduction of nuclear energy into Japan and America’s Cold War strategy, it could probably be said that the absurdity of nuclear weapons equilibrium and the absurdity of nuclear energy are linked)

Through the nuclear power plant accident, the truth of the peaceful use of the atom2 has been revealed. It ought to be said that the fact this machinery and equipment was built and run under the condition that its operations would be permitted only if accidents absolutely would not occur was, to the same extent as “nuclear equilibrium,” an absurd state of affairs. Nuclear power plants have as their condition the possibility of enormous accidents. Whether we are dealing with computers or air conditioners or anything else, things can break. Nuclear power plants are no different. But in the case of nuclear power plants, the catastrophe that can be triggered by their accidental collapse is all too horrific. Therefore, it came to be assumed that accidents could absolutely not occur.

Jinzaburo Takagi, in a text written in 1994: “Energy and Ecology,” stated it the following way. Whether or not a huge accident will occur is something no one can empirically say. Therefore, “As long as there remains uncertainty, the terror that our lives are potentially jeopardized will always hover around this use of energy.”

That the Fukushima nuclear plant was not safe was first proven by the accident that happened. If there had been no accident, then the myth of its safety would have probably remained unperturbed. That being said, the reality that our lives were potentially jeopardized would have remained, regardless of whether or not an accident occurred, as long as the nuclear plant existed. What constitutes the myth of safety comes into existence when one attempts to ignore or veil this reality.

If I think back over it carefully, the myth of safe nuclear power ought to have already been shaken. At the time of the Chernobyl accident, I was eleven, but even now I remember the shock I felt when I saw the newspaper headline. Given the terribleness of the accident, I wondered suspiciously why humans built such a dangerous thing in the first place. Despite the fact that a nuclear bomb was not used, why did a catastrophe of the same magnitude occur on the basis of an accident at a power plant? If similar accidents repeatedly occurred, wouldn’t the world come to be like “Fist of the North Star?” (a comic hugely popular among children at the time, set in a world in the aftermath of nuclear war) Though I directed these suspicions to adults, I felt frustrated when no one would answer them definitively. I recall that I was told the accident occurred because it was a dangerous country like that Soviet Union, and it would not occur in peaceful and prosperous Japan.

Much has been said about the possibility of nuclear war, but I think not so much about the potential for a nuclear plant accident. Nuclear plants, as much as nuclear equilibrium, have always been a threat to the human world inasmuch as it has been dogged by the possibility of nuclear accident. But the absurdity has never been discussed seriously and rather shrewdly veiled – even after the Chernobyl Accident.

Now in Japan the periodization of post-3/11 is dominantly used. It is true that the nuclear accident was totally different from any of the disasters we had experienced in the past, and in this sense, we have come to live in a new age. Yet the fact that we have accepted the dangerous mechanism of nuclear energy as a condition of existence and, furthermore, that we have not had a serious discussion about its danger is not itself new. Due to the accident, radioactive substances have in reality been dispersed, and the future of everyone, not least of all children, is being hijacked, but we have already been living this actuality in potentia.

3/11 is in the end only the bringing to light of the absurdity of what have become our conditions of life. In other words, the nuclear power accident is in itself by no means unprecedented. It is said that there have been accidents on the verge of becoming a catastrophe up until now, and we were always warned of the possibility of an accident. It would not even be an exaggeration to say that it was waiting to happen.

If there is anything we ought to do after 3/11, isn’t it, first of all, to rethink the question of what on earth the absurdity we have lived through is? The successive construction of nuclear power plants happened after the 1970s. I have heard that 1975 marks a drastic change in Japanese society, but perhaps it is possible to think of this drastic change and the increase of nuclear plants in a parallel relationship. Is it not possible to think of the absurdity called nuclear power worsening at the same time as the state of Japanese society also reached new depths of absurdity? If that is so, it may be that what we are experiencing now is the limit of the absurd.

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