Orizuru: Peace Ambassadors and Spinifex Hills

The sky is white today. The sea has turned slate grey, and the deep swells rocking the Mona Lisa slowly from side to side are ripped with white foam. We have been out of sight of land for only two days since leaving behind the lonely outflung arms of Aotearoa, and our world has contracted to the swaying confines of this long white liner. Some time around sunrise tomorrow the coastline of New South Wales will come into view and my brief sojourn with the Peace Boat will be over.
The unique Peace Boat project has been running for more than 20 years. It began as an outreach mission by the Japanese peace movement to acknowledge and reconcile Japanese wartime atrocities through direct engagement with the communities of the Asia-Pacific region hit hard by Imperial Japan.
The success of the early voyages has seen the trips grow longer and more ambitious each year; this ship is now a floating laboratory for cross-cultural exchange and peace education. I’ve joined them at the tail end of a four month odyssey that began in Yokohama in early September and has touched every continent save Antarctica. The 700 guests include one hundred Hibakusha – survivors of the atomic blasts that devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

In every port the ship has visited, the Hibakusha have given testimony: their first hand accounts of the day the sky erupted with the light of a thousand suns. This is the ‘Orizuru Project’ – first-generation witnesses of the white flash; the sudden, incomprehensible devastation; tens of thousands of people instantly blasted out of existence or incinerated in the firestorm that followed; then the invisible curse of radiation sickness that still haunts the survivors.

It’s one thing to read this in a history book or glance unknowingly at faded photographs of shattered, irradiated cityscapes. It is quite another to hear it first hand from someone who was underneath it when it happened. All they care about is that, no matter what, this never, ever happens again.

10th February 2009
On dry land, six weeks later, things are moving at a pace that has caught even the optimists flat footed. President Obama wasted no time putting the obscenity of nuclear weapons back onto the front page where they belong. Diplomatic moves are now underway to revive an ambitious plan to put this most lethal piece of unfinished cold war business to rest.

The new President wants the United States and Russia to move rapidly to 1000 nuclear weapons apiece; a tenfold reduction of US stockpiles and a fifteen-fold reduction of the Russian arsenal. This is not the endgame, just the opening move, a long overdue demonstration of good faith. It may well be sufficient to bring the next tier of nuclear weapons states to the table to talk about the ultimate goal: total abolition, on a verifiable timetable, of all nuclear weapons in existence.

Australia has taken a place at this table with the initiation of the Prime Minister’s International Commission on Nuclear Non Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), intended to help defrost this cryogenically frozen debate despite Australia’s utterly compromised position as the willing vendor of uranium to the world’s nuclear weapon states.

On the edge of an isolated and beautiful dry lake bed in the north-east goldfields of Western Australia, the intractable calculus of nuclear geopolitics touches down along a series of drill transects criss-crossing the spinifex hills. They have yielded a marketable three dimensional picture of the silent geology beneath. Out there at Lake Maitland, Mega Uranium are scoping WA’s first uranium mine, pitching to throw a thousand tonnes of uranium oxide a year into the world’s nuclear fuel market.

On paper, the geologists and the engineers believe they can get the mine to pay for itself. A million tonnes of precious water freely used and discarded; two million tonnes of radioactive ore crushed, leached and discarded to produce enough uranium to power five substantial nuclear power stations for a year. Goldfielders are only just now waking up to the idea of hundreds of yellowcake transports through communities already jittery in the aftermath of the Esperance lead disaster.

I’d give a lot to have the good people of Kalgoorlie and Wiluna spend one quiet hour with the Hibakusha, just to stop in and listen to a modest personal description of the day hell opened up on earth. Then trace the path of that yellowcake stripped from Lake Maitland, shipped out under humid Darwin skies and fed into enrichment plants in Russia, Europe, North America and China.

Uranium is bomb fuel. It was on that bright day in 1945, and it still is today. Around the world, powerful undercurrents are turning against the very existence of the unspeakable weapons industry that Australia helps to feed. Australia is on the wrong side of this debate, and with persistence and goodwill we will shortly put these mining companies on the wrong side of history.

It’s all hands on deck now to shove a spanner into the works at Lake Maitland; just know that in so doing, you’re bringing the vision of those patient, determined Hibakusha one step closer.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki; Never Again.