TOKYO (AP) — Pope Francis voiced concern about nuclear power Monday after meeting with victims of Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster, saying the development of future energy sources must take environmental considerations into account.
Francis didn’t explicitly urge a ban on nuclear energy during his emotional encounter with victims. But he recalled that Japan’s Catholic bishops called for the abolition of nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the “triple disaster,” in which three reactors at a nuclear plant in Fukushima melted down after an earthquake triggered a tsunami.
The meltdown coated the area in radioactive fallout and at one point forced the displacement of 160,000 people. Nine years later, more than 40,000 people still can’t return home.
After comforting some of the evacuees who gathered in Tokyo, Francis said the Fukushima accident will not be fully resolved until the scientific, medical and societal concerns it raised are addressed.
“In turn, this involves, as my brother bishops in Japan have emphasized, concern about the continuing use of nuclear power; for this reason, they have called for the abolition of nuclear power plants,” he said.
Going forward, he said, “important decisions will have to be made about the use of natural resources, and future energy sources in particular.”
During his first full day in Japan on Sunday, Francis visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima — where two U.S. atomic bombs were dropped in World War II — and said both the use and possession of nuclear weapons was “immoral.”
He has not articulated a formal position on nuclear power, but the Vatican has previously called for the “safe, secure, and peaceful, development and operation of nuclear technologies.” Francis, however, has made environmental concerns a pillar of his papacy and has now heard first-hand from Hiroshima and Fukushima survivors of the health and environmental effects of radiation exposure.
Francis spoke after listening to searing testimony from Fukushima victims, including Matsuki Kamoshita, a 17-year-old high school student from Iwaki on the eastern coast of Fukushima.
Kamoshita wrote to the pope last year begging that he visit Fukushima to see for himself the impact. He was rewarded with a papal audience at the Vatican, and on Monday a chance to address the pope in public to tell his story.
The day after the tsunami, Kamoshita’s parents and his younger brother evacuated and eventually ended up in Tokyo to escape the radiation. Instead of sympathy, he said he faced bullying at school, where he was treated as if he were “infectious.”
In his speech to the pope Monday, Kamoshita lamented that the government had “given up” on housing evacuees while continuing to pursue nuclear power as a state policy.
“It will take many times longer than my lifetime to restore the contaminated land and forests,” he told the pope. “So, for us who live there, adults have a responsibility to explain without concealing anything about radioactive contamination, exposure and possible damage in the future. I don’t want them to die before us, having lied or not admitting the truth.”
Kamoshita asked for the pope to pray that political leaders find another path.
“And please pray with us that people from all over the world will work to eliminate the threat of radiation exposure from our future,” he said.
After he finished, he approached the pope, who took him in his arms for a long embrace.
The pro-nuclear government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to restart as many reactors as possible to keep the nuclear industry and technology alive, especially as it seeks to showcase its recovery ahead of the Tokyo Olympics next year.
Areas that used to be under the no-go zone in Fukushima have opened following decontamination efforts, prompting people to return home and resulting in cuts to government financial support for evacuees.
“Regardless of the position on what to do with nuclear energy, its victims here are suffering under the government policy that has marginalized them,” said Kazuko Ito, secretary general of Human Rights Now.
Ito welcomed Francis’ visit as a chance to “shed light on the issue and let their voices be heard.”
Francis’ meeting with the victims kicked off a busy day of activities in Tokyo, including a private audience with Emperor Naruhito, a rally with young people and Mass at the Tokyo Dome.
Present in the crowd of 50,000 for the Mass was Iwao Hakamada, a former professional boxer who has become a leading symbol for the anti-death penalty movement in Japan. Hakamada, 83, converted to Catholicism during his decades on death row for murders he says he did not commit.
Francis has said the death penalty is “inadmissible” in all cases, and one of his main messages while in Japan was to “respect all life.” Local organizers confirmed Hakamada was at the Mass, but the Vatican declined to say if the pope met with him as his supporters had hoped.
During his meeting with young people, Francis denounced what he called an “epidemic” of bullying that is afflicting youth in Japan and elsewhere.
“We must all unite against this culture of bullying and learn to say “Enough!” Francis told the students, three of whom recounted the pressures they face in a hyper-competitive society, their feelings of inadequacy and cruelty they sometimes face from their classmates that drives some to suicide.
At the end of the day, the pope delivers his main political speech to Abe and government authorities.
Francis wraps up his weeklong trip to Asia with a speech Tuesday at Sophia University, Japan’s main Catholic university founded by his Jesuit order a century ago.
Story: Nicole Winfield and Mari Yamaguchi