Terrible Twins

Two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are synonymous with suffering, amazing strength, and an enduring commitment to peace. Words don't come easily to describe the emotions that surface at Hiroshima: Its tombstone buildings stand on holy ground where no one can ever forget the vaporizing blast that killed tens of thousands of people instantly in 1945 -- or the long torment that followed.

For more than 65 years, the idea that nuclear radiation would again decimate a region of Japan was inconceivable. But in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in early March, the yet-unresolved accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has brought back horrific memories and fear.

After decades of stagnation, particularly in the West, the nuclear power industry had seemed ready for a renaissance. In early 2011, 440 nuclear power reactors operated worldwide; more than 60 more were under construction. Two years ago in Prague, President Obama revived the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but in the same speech advocated that the world "harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change."

Then the Fukushima accident happened: a dramatic example of the natural world out of control, even in a country with highly sophisticated technical capacity. The possibility that powerful natural events -- the mammoth earthquake and tsunami -- could overwhelm human safety precautions seems to have eluded decision-makers.

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