When life becomes a shadow. In the Chernobyl / Pripyat Exclusion Zone, February 2008. Photo: Pedro Moura Pinheiro via Flickr.com.
When life becomes a shadow - after nuclear catastrophe
8th April 2014
Those caught up in nuclear disasters suffer many times over, writes Robert Jacobs. Ill-health and early death aside, they are also cut off from their former communities, identities and family life, and the victims of social and medical discrimination.
Every time that they run a fever, every time that they experience pain in their stomachs, nosebleeds, and other common ailments this anxiety rears up and they think - this is it, it's finally got me.
Radiation makes people invisible. We know that exposure to radiation can be deleterious to one's health; can cause sickness or even death when received in high doses.
But it does more. People who have been exposed to radiation, or even those who suspect that they have been exposed to radiation that never experience radiation related illnesses may find that their lives are forever changed - that they have assumed a kind of second class citizenship.
They may find that their relationship to their families, to their communities, to their hometowns, to their traditional diets and even traditional knowledge systems have become broken. They often spend the remainder of their lives wishing that they could go back, that things would become normal.
They slowly realize that they have become expendable and that their government and even their society is no longer invested in their wellbeing.
As a historian of the social and cultural aspects of nuclear technologies I have spent years working in radiation-affected communities around the world.
Many of these people have experienced exposure to radiation from nuclear weapon testing, from nuclear weapon production, from nuclear power plant accidents, from nuclear power production or storage, or, like the people in the community that I live, in Hiroshima, from being subjected to direct nuclear attack.
For the last five years I have been working with Dr. Mick Broderick of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia on the Global Hibakusha Project. We have been working in radiation-affected communities all around the world. In our research we have found a powerful continuity to the experience of radiation exposure across a broad range of cultures, geographies, and populations.
Fukushima - the victims' future is all too predictable
About half way between beginning this study and this present moment the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi happened here in Japan.
One of the most distressing things (among so many) since this crisis began is to hear so many people, often people in positions of political power and influence say that the future for those affected by the nuclear disaster is uncertain.
I wish that it were so, but there is actually a deep historical precedence that suggests that the future for the people of Tohoku is predictable.
In this short article I will outline some continuities to the experiences of radiation-affected people. Most of the following is also true for people who merely suspect that they have been exposed to radiation, even if they never suffer any health effects.
Many have already become a part of the experiences of those affected by the Fukushima disaster. There are, of course, many differences and specificities to each community, but there is also much continuity.
Sickness and mortality
Sickness and even death are the results of exposure to radiation that people expect. It is important to know that there are many different ways that people can become ill after exposure to radiation.
When people are exposed to high levels of gamma radiation they can suffer from acute radiation sickness and death can come in a matter of days, weeks or months. Tens of thousands of people died of acute radiation sickness in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they survived the nuclear attacks.
A nuclear weapon gives off a very large burst of gamma radiation that only lasts a very short time, but if the whole body is exposed to high levels it can cause illness and death relatively quickly.
For those who were not close to the detonation of a nuclear weapon, or within a short distance of a disaster like the Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters, illness is often the result of internalized alpha emitting particles. With nuclear detonations this comes down as 'fallout'.
In the case of Chernobyl and Fukushima these came down over large areas as the plumes of the explosions there settled back to Earth. Alpha emitting particles cannot penetrate the skin like gamma radiation can, but rather are internalized through inhalation or swallowing or through cuts in the skin.
These particles don't give off a large amount of radiation, but if they lodge in the body they continue to expose a small number of cells 24 hours a day often for the rest of a person's life. This can result in cancers and immune disorders that develop later in life, sometimes a few years, sometimes after one or several decades.
Since the plumes of the three explosions at Fukushima deposited large amounts of alpha emitters across a large area, this is the primary danger to those living in the contaminated areas.
It is disingenuous when nuclear industry apologists say things like "no one died at Fukushima" since they are well aware that for most of the people who will eventually get sick this process will take time.
We are currently in the latency period for these illnesses, a point not missed by nuclear industry PR people.
Losses of homes, community and identity
Areas that experience radioactive contamination often have to be abandoned by those who live there. The levels of radiation may be high enough that continued habitation can be dangerous to health.
In these cases people lose their homes - often traditional homes that may have been the primary residences for a family for multiple generations. In these cases one's identity may be deeply connected to the home and the land around the home.
For communities that have to be abandoned the bonds that have been built up and that sustain the wellbeing of the community are disintegrated. Friends are separated, extended families are often separated, and schools are closed.
People who have lived in the same place all of their lives have to make a fresh start, sometimes in old age, sometimes as children, and lose the communal structures that have supported them - shopkeepers who know them, neighbors who can be relied on, the simple familiarity that we have by being known and knowing our way around.
Loss of land and continuity
What is lost when a person is no longer able to eat an apple from a tree planted by their parent or grandparent? With the loss of community many people lose their way of making a living. This is especially true in less industrialized places where many people have been farmers or fishers or herders for generations.
When someone who has only known farming is taken from the land they have tended, when someone who is a fisher can no longer fish in areas where they understand the natural rhythms and habits of the fish, it can be impossible to start over.
Often such people are forced to enter service positions or become dependent on state subsidies, which further erodes their sense of self and wellbeing. Usually, those removed from their land because of contamination are placed into temporary housing.
In almost all cases this housing is not temporary, but becomes permanent. Since it is initially intended to be temporary housing it is often very shoddy and cramped.
It can become impossible for multigenerational families that have been living together for decades to remain together. This can remove care for the elderly, childcare for young families and further erodes to continuity of family identity, knowledge and support.
Ill health from processed or radioactive food
Removal from land also is accompanied by the loss of a traditional diet. Those without access to the lands and seas that have provided food for their families for generations often begin a journey of ill health fostered by a new diet composed of processed foods.
In some communities such as the small villages around the former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan the people simply continue to live in dangerously contaminated homes. The state responsible for their exposures no longer exists and no government feels the responsibility to evacuate them.
They live very traditional lives and most of their food is from their own gardens and from livestock raised on their contaminated land. Many of the long-lived radionuclides simply cycle through this ecosystem and those living here can be contaminated and recontaminated over many generations.
Loss of traditional knowledge
In some remote places survival is dependent on centuries old understandings of the land. In Australia the areas where the British conducted nuclear testing in the outback are very difficult places to live.
Traditional communities in these areas often have songs that hold and transmit essential knowledge about how to survive in such a harsh environment, such as - where to find water, when to hunt specific animals, when to move to various areas.
When the British relocated them to live in areas hundreds of kilometers from their traditional homes this knowledge became broken. It became impossible for the refugee population to survive living a traditional life in areas where they had no knowledge of the rhythms of the land and animals.
This removal from their traditional lands led quickly to dependence on governmental assistance and severed what had been millennia of self-reliance. This led to the further erosion of community, familial and personal wellbeing.
People who may have been exposed to radiation usually experience discrimination in their new homes and often become social pariahs. We first saw this dynamic with the hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
They found it very difficult to find marriage partners since prospective spouses feared they would have malformed children, found it difficult to find jobs since employers assumed that they would be sick more often, and often become the targets of bullying. It became very common to hide the fact that one's family had been among those exposed to radiation.
Many people are familiar with the story of Sadako Sasaki who died at the age of twelve after being exposed to radiation from the nuclear attack on Hiroshima ten years earlier.
Sadako folded paper cranes in accordance with a Japanese tradition that someone who folds 1,000 paper cranes is granted a wish. Sadako's story has become well known and children around the world fold paper cranes when they learn her story, many of which are sent here to Hiroshima.
While Sadako has become a symbol of the innocence of so many hibakusha who were victims of the nuclear attack, her father tried to hide this fact so that his family would not suffer discrimination and was upset that his daughter had become so famously afflicted.
Fukushima victims bullied
Children whose families evacuated from Fukushima prefecture after the triple meltdowns at Fukushima found themselves the victims of bullying at their new schools. Cars with Fukushima license plates were scratched when parked in other prefectures.
Often this is the result of the natural fear of contamination that is associated with people exposed to a poison. In the Marshall Islands those who were evacuated from Rongelap and other atolls that became unlivable after being blanketed with radioactive fallout from the Bravo test in 1954 have had to live as refugees on other peoples atolls for several generations now.
The Marshall Islands have a very small amount of livable land and so being moved to atolls that traditionally belonged to others left them with no access to good soil and good locations for fishing and storing boats. They have had to live by the good graces of their new hosts, and endure being seen as interlopers.
Becoming medical subjects - or 'objects'?
Many people who have been exposed to radiation then become the subjects of medical studies, often with no information about the medical tests to which they are subjected.
For example Hibakusha of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki became medical subjects of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission during the American occupation of Japan after World War Two.
This study has continued to this day under the now jointly US-Japan operated Radiation Effects Research Foundation. In the early days of the study Japanese hibakusha had no choice about being subjected to the medical exams.
An American military jeep would appear in front of their homes and they had to go in for an examination, whether it was a good time or not. They were not given information about the results of their tests. This has happened in many radiation-affected communities.
In 1966 a US nuclear bomber blew up in midair and its debris fell on the small village of Palomares, Spain. Four H-bombs fell from the plane, one into the sea, and three onto the small village. None exploded but two broke open and contaminated part of the town with plutonium and other radionuclides.
To this day some of the residents of Palomares are taken to Madrid each year for a medical examination as the effects of exposure on their health is tracked.
They have never been given any of the results of the tests nor informed if any illnesses they develop were related to their exposures. They are subjects, not participants in the gathering and assessing of the effects of radiation on their bodies.
There is no doubt that such studies contribute data to our understanding of the health consequences of radiation exposures (the data itself is contentious for reasons that I won't go into here), however for those from whom the information is gathered, being studied but not informed reduces ones sense of integrity and agency in one's own health maintenance.
Many Pacific islanders exposed to radiation by the nuclear tests of the US, the UK and France had such experiences where they were examined and then sent off with no access to the results. Many report feeling as if the data had been harvested from them.
Often the first thing that those exposed to radiation are told is that they have nothing to worry about. Their anxieties are belittled.
Radiation is a very abstract and difficult thing to understand. It is imperceptible - tasteless, odorless, invisible - adding to uncertainty that people feel about whether they were exposed, how much they were exposed to, and whether they and their loved one's will suffer any health effects.
The dismissal of their anxieties by medical and governmental authorities only compounds their anxiety. When other members of their community develop health problems, such as thyroid cancer and other illnesses years later it can cast a pall over their own sense of wellbeing for the rest of their lives.
Every time that they run a fever, every time that they experience pain in their stomachs, nosebleeds, and other common ailments this anxiety rears up and they think - this is it, it's finally got me. These fears extend to their parents, their children and other loved ones. Every fever that their child runs triggers horrible fears that their child will die.
Sadako was healthy for nine years following her exposure to radiation when she was two years old in Hiroshima. Then suddenly her neck began to swell and she was soon diagnosed with leukemia. This is the nightmare world that the parents of children exposed to radiation experience on a daily basis. Every ailment can rip them apart.
Radiophobia and 'blaming the victim'
Iit is often the case that who is and isn't exposed to radiation, especially to internalized alpha emitting particles, is unknown. So large numbers of people near a nuclear detonation, a nuclear production plant, a nuclear power plant accident, a uranium mining location and countless other sources of exposure to radiation worry about their health and the health of their loved ones.
Among this group, some have been exposed and some have not. The uncertainty is part of the trauma. Often, as is currently the case for the people of Northern Japan, all of these people are dismissed as having undue fear of radiation, and are often told that their health problems are the result of their own anxieties. In some cases that may well be true but it is beside the point.
For those who have experienced some radiological catastrophe - who may have been removed from their homes and communities and lost those bonds and support systems, who are uncertain as to whether each flu or stomach ache is the harbinger of the end, and who cannot be certain that contamination from hard to find alpha emitting particles is still possible when their children play in the park - anxiety is the natural response.
Even if it does cause health problems, it is not their fault: forces outside of their control have upended their lives and they now must live a life of uncertainty and often experience discrimination.
Of course they are going to suffer from the anxiety that this situation produces. To blame them for this is to blame the victims in the situation and is a further form of traumatization.
Their lives will be divided in two parts - before, and after
Radiation makes people invisible. It makes them second class citizens who no longer have the expectation of being treated with dignity by their government, by those overseeing nuclear facilities near to them, by the military and nuclear industry engaged in practices that expose people to radiation, and often by their new neighbors when they become refugees.
People exposed to radiation often lose their homes, either through forced removal or through contamination that makes living in them dangerous.
They lose their livelihoods, their diets, their communities, and their traditions. They can lose the knowledge base that connects them to their land and insures their wellbeing.
Radiation can cause health problems and death, and even when it doesn't it can cause devastating anxiety and uncertainty that can become crippling. Often those exposed to radiation are blamed for all of the problems that follow their exposures.
After a nuclear disaster we count the victims in terms of those who died - but they are only a small fraction of the people who are truly victimized by the event. Countless more suffer the destruction of their communities, their families, and their wellbeing. The devastation that a nuclear disaster truly wreaks is unknowable.
The lives of those exposed to radiation, or those in areas affected by radiation but uncertain about their exposures, will never be the same. As Natalia Manzurova, one of the 'liquidators' at Chernobyl said in an interview published two months after the Fukushima triple meltdowns:
"Their lives will be divided into two parts: before and after Fukushima. They'll worry about their health and their children's health. The government will probably say there was not that much radiation and that it didn't harm them. And the government will probably not compensate them for all that they've lost. What they lost can't be calculated."
Robert Jacobs is an associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University in Japan.
See also the interview with Robert Jacobs on The Ecologist: 'We are still fighting a slow nuclear war'.
This article is condensed from a chapter from a book manuscript in preparation on the work of the Global Hibakusha Project by Dr. Robert Jacobs and Dr. Mick Broderick. It was first published at SimplyInfo.
It is also available in Japanese.
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