By Frederick Mills
Chernobyl, Fukushima, Hiroshima—in our collective memory these places are forever tied to humanity’s complicated relationship with the atom. In thirty countries around the globe, states and peoples harness the raw power of atomic fission to power their homes and fuel their economies. In nine capitals, possession of atomic weaponry is thought to be the ultimate guarantor of state security in an increasingly chaotic international arena. Yet, the vast wellspring of real and potential energy stored in the atom also powers our apprehensions and fuels our anxieties about its awesome destructive power. Fears of fallout, radiation, and meltdown, not to mention nuclear waste and warfare, temper atomic enthusiasm and shape the ways in which the atom has impacted societies globally. These issues and others recently took center stage at the Prince Takomodo Japan Centre’s international conference on nuclear issues titled “70 Years after Hiroshima: Reconceptualzing the Atom in Global Contexts” on 18-19 September 2015.
The conference’s first symposium on “The Social Impact of the Atom” offered three fascinating perspectives on how individuals and governments negotiate atomic disasters and manage post-catastrophe situations. David Marples, a world-leading expert on the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, provided an intriguing retrospective on the Soviet-Ukrainian nuclear disaster thirty years later. He contends that blatant government ineptitude and secrecy contributed to a climate of domestic and international misinformation and fear and serve as a clear cautionary tale for what not to do. It wasn’t until 28 April 1986, forty-eight hours after the explosion and fire, that the Soviet Union even acknowledged an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant! This acknowledgement, as Marples relayed, happened only because the increased background radiation levels tripped alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, roughly 1000km away. A Radio Moscow bulletin released thereafter acknowledged two tragic deaths but calmly assured citizens that “the effects of the accident are being remedied” and that “assistance has been provided for affected people.” The 29 fire fighters who succumbed to acute radiation poisoning 48 hours after the explosion were ignored. Clean-up workers, Marples mentioned, were even told to drink vodka and red wine to protect against radiation; as if Soviet cabernet could protect against Chernobyl’s curies. The situation on the ground and health data regarding the Chernobyl incident, however, was immediately classified. In fact, with more than a touch of the absurd, it was three years later in 1989 after Moscow issued a report about the accident to the International Atomic Energy Agency that panic gripped local populations as fear and uncertainty about radiation spread.
Now, if the Soviet response to the health consequences of Chernobyl radioactive fallout was dilatory and panic inducing, the Japanese response post-Fukushima attempted to change the conversation about radiation itself. Osamu Ieda, our distinguished guest from Hokkaido University, argued that the Japanese government attempted to change the discourse on the hazards of radiation in the aftermath of the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The official line, that low levels of radiation are not dangerous and in fact posed less risk to one’s health than that posed by a mass and probably chaotic evacuation, stands in stark contrast to popular ideas about the dangers of radiation, particularly those created in a post-Chernobyl environment. Certainly the claim of Syunichi Yamashita, Fukushima radiation health risk advisor and Professor at Nagasaki University, that “if you smile, the radiation will not affect you” is as bizarre as the Soviet claim of vodka’s anti-radiation properties and should not be taken seriously. Yet, as Ieda made clear, societies’ encounters with the atom must also include a potential reckoning with the consequences of the atom.
The attempts of the Japanese government to create an alternate discourse on the consequences of radiation reflected the reality of radioactive contamination in populated regions. Although the Fukushima Prefecture has one of the lowest population densities in Japan at 154 people/km2 (contrast this to Canada’s rate of 4 people/km2), the long term costs associated with the relocation and provision of nearly two million people was too much for Tokyo to bear. As Ieda noted, this alternate discourse on the harmfulness of radiation meant that 1.5 million people who live in “mid-polluted” areas had no other choice than to accept this experimental policy and live in areas with levels of radiation that were previously considered unsafe. However, the burden of contamination and the challenges posed by radioactivity were to be obstacles faced by the entire Japanese nation, not just those immediately affected. As part of this newly created discourse, if living with chronic radiation was to be a burden borne by those living in the vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi, then it was up to the entire Japanese nation to help with reconstruction. The Japanese were and are being encouraged, according to Ieda, to travel to Fukushima for business and pleasure, to purchase products made and eat food grown in radiation affected towns and cities, and pressure local governments to accept contaminants for incineration. Though this new discourse attempts to change perceptions about the hazards of radiation contamination in our physical environment, as our next speaker made clear, long held Japanese believes about those who’ve been affected by radiation may be harder to change.
Professor Noriyuki Kawano from Hiroshima University offered the audience an ultimately tragic tale of the psychological trauma and social discrimination suffered by hibakusha (literally explosion-affected people), those survivors of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Based on the results of two very large surveys of atomic bomb survivors, Kawano contended that 76% of hibakusha report remembering their atomic experiences weekly. For one victim, the smell of grilled squid reminded the respondent of the burning flesh witnessed in the rubble of Hiroshima. For another, slices of cucumber evoked the efforts of the dying to cool their radiation-charred skin in the days and weeks that followed early-August 1945. Yet, those fortunate to survive faced more than recurring nightmares of jigoku (hell) – they endured the discrimination of a society fearful of radiation. Though only one fifth of hibakusha reported feeling some form of social discrimination, almost four fifths claimed that they frequently hid their atomic afflictions and trauma from others. A full 18% of respondents claimed to be victims of discrimination in matters of courtship and marriage. It remains to be seen, however, if this newly constructed narrative on the dangers of environmental radiation will change how Japanese society broadly relates to atomic victims. Will residents of Fukushima ultimately face the same barriers and discrimination as the hibakusha or will new understandings of radiation temper broad social fear and anxiety? Will this new laissez faire approach to the long term exposure to mild-medium levels of radiation change when radiation induced cancers invariably rise in Japan as they did in Ukraine and Belarus?
Yet, these are not questions simply for the academy. They are broader questions relevant to all atomic societies. As Marples alarmingly noted “some of the conditions that caused Chernobyl are actually being repeated today.” Russia is currently building two new nuclear power plants, one in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea the other close to its border with Lithuania, with similar potential design flaws as those that enabled the Chernobyl disaster. The specter of another Chernobyl, of technological malfunction and catastrophe, must not be discounted. Fukushima Daiichi is not the only nuclear power station located near tectonic fault lines, either—plants in the United States and China are also located in earthquake prone regions. The atom, when contained, when controlled, influences how we work, how we play, how we live—its social impacts are largely beneficial and positive. But, at times, when the atom escapes humanity’s control, the consequences can be devastating.