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Fukushima Victimization 2.0

Fukushima Victimization 2.0

Dr. Robert Jacobs, Hiroshima Peace Institute/Hiroshima City University

Please Note: This article has also been published (with images not seen in this version) at DiaNuke.org.

One year ago, triggered by the Great Tohoku Earthquake, three operating nuclear power plants and one huge spent fuel pool from a fourth, non-operating plant, released immeasurable and catastrophic amounts of radiation into the air, onto the soil, into the groundwater and ultimately the sea nearby the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The nearby Fukushima Daini plants came very close to suffering three additional meltdowns as well.[1] Almost 100,000 people were evacuated, many after having already been irradiated, and most will never return to their homes.

The victimization of the Fukushima residents, and refugees has been intense. As the nuclear plants melted down over the course of a week following the 3/11 earthquake they were lied to repeatedly to avoid having them “panic.” While dwelling in the uncertainty of those lies, they were exposed to radiation that was spewing from the plant, and falling-out from above after a series of hydrogen explosions blew reactor building after reactor building apart, creating huge plumes of radionuclides. It has since come out that information about the trajectory and danger of these plumes was deliberately held from them, again to prevent them from panicking.

Many of these same people lost family or loved ones to the earthquake and the tsunami, but their mourning and losses were delayed because of the ongoing threat of nuclear radiation. They were denied closure for their losses having to maintain their focus on the present and to try to ascertain the current dangers that faced them and their families. Huge numbers of them were then evacuated from their homes, now contaminated with the radiation that they were not informed of to stem their possible panic.

Now these people live as refugees. Many have come to grasp that they will not be returning to live in their homes again, although they have not been given the respect of being told this directly by those in authority who certainly understand this to be the case. Living in limbo, the traumas and stresses of broken lives cannot give way to the process of healing and move towards a new stability for themselves and their families. The communities in which they lived will never be whole, or in proximity of one another, again. For many this is the community that they, and generations of ancestors, have lived in for centuries. They are, and they feel, isolated and abandoned.

TEPCO and the government of Japan knew that the three plants were melting down almost immediately. They knew that #1 was melting by the end of the first day of the crisis, and knew that the nuclear fuel in three plants had melted, and that the spent fuel pool of #4 was releasing radiation, by the end of the week yet they denied this—and lied about it—for three months. The whole world, but primarily the people who’s lives and families were directly uprooted by these events, were deliberately deceived.

So we have an immense cohort of people who have been irradiated, lied to, and permanently (though not explicitly) removed from their homes and communities for the rest of their lives. They are victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, separately from being victims of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami. Their lives have been pulled apart and they are now scattered, some families living in separate places from each other—parents separated from children, spouses separated from each other—and left to sort these multiple traumas out for themselves. This as many are still in mourning for dead relatives and friends swept out to sea.

Here was the first, and most profound, victimization. For many it was accompanied by discrimination by people living in areas where the refugees have relocated, treating them as though they carry contagion: cars being vandalized, children being bullied in new schools.[2] It is an immense and crushing burden to bear. But now, even more is being added: the Fukushima victims are being victimized again.

Almost from the start, and now reaching a loud chorus, are the claims both here in Japan and also abroad that the unrealistic fears and anxieties of these victims are the real cause of their physical and mental health problems.

Following on the work of those who minimize the radiological impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster claiming that depression and anxiety took a much larger toll on the affected population than radiation, some experts have advised that worrying about radiation will have a much bigger impact on the health of the Fukushima victims than the radiation itself. From early apologist declarations like that of Canadian journalist (and hormesis proponent) Lawrence Solomon who wrote ten days after the disaster that, “The only evidence that exists as to the health of humans who have been irradiated at low levels points to a benefit, not a harm. Difficult though it may be to overcome the fear of radiation that has been drubbed into us since childhood, there is no scientific proof whatsoever to view the radiation emitted from the Fukushima plant as dangerous to the Japanese population,” to more recent statements like that by National Public Radio (USA) correspondent Richard Harris who told his nationwide audience this month that “trauma, not radiation” is the key concern in Japan, the people of Fukushima have been fed a steady diet of self-blame.[3]

The pacifying statement that most outraged local citizens was in a public presentation by Dr. Shunichi Yamashita who ended his presentation on the threats of radiation to a community meeting with the statement that:

“Conclusion: A small radiation is good for your health

There are two sides to radiation.

Small dose: Like an angel’s smile (even at 50 millisieverts/year)

Large dose in short time: Like a devil’s violence

From now on, the number of cancer patients in Fukushima will decrease.

Food items with a small amount of radiation will fetch ‘premium.’

Fukushima Prefecture will be the Number One health land in Japan, and people will flock to Fukushima.

Our future is bright.”[4]

Public outrage over the comments of Dr. Yamashita led the later resignation from his position as a radiological health safety risk advisor to the Fukushima prefectural government. Yamashita was later to explain that the people of Fukushima were suffering from “radiophobia.”[5]  He framed his statements as efforts to support public health, claiming that, “The mood of the people was really depressed. From animal experiments with rats we clearly know that animals who are very susceptible to stress will be more affected by radiation. Stress is not good at all for people who are subjected to radiation. Besides, mental-state stress also supresses the immune system and therefore may promote some cancer and non-cancer diseases. That is why I told people that they also have to relax.”[6]

. . . .

Here in Japan there has been a campaign to support the small farmers and fisherfolk of Tohoku by buying food from the affected region. Former Washington Post Tokyo correspondent Paul Blustein has written that he and his wife enthusiastically feed their family food from Fukushima: “Let me explain why my wife and I have no reservations about eating Fukushima food and feeding it to our sons, who are 8 and 10….The amounts of radiation that would endanger one’s health, we’ve come to realize, are way above the levels that anyone living a normal life in the Tokyo area could plausibly encounter from Fukushima-related causes. About a third of Japanese die of some form of cancer — roughly the same as in other advanced countries — and the chances increase by 0.5 percent for people exposed to an annual cumulative total of 100 millisieverts, according to widely accepted calculations by scientists.” This has led Blustein to bemoan earlier this month that, “It’s distressing that visceral fear is trumping rational thought, especially since such attitudes could dash hopes for recovery among the hundreds of thousands of disaster victims. Saddest of all are signs that people in the northeast may be cracking under the strain.” Presumably he means the strain of “radiophobia” and not believing the same “experts” in a very contentious scientific disagreement that he does.[8]

What is it like for Fukushima residents to “crack under the strain” of radiophobia? In testimony before the Japanese Diet upper house Budget Committee recently lawmakers heard the story of schoolchildren in a Fukushima school who were publicly humiliated for their “anxiety.” These students who “refuse to drink milk in school lunches were called to the front of the classroom by their teacher and told they were not Fukushima residents if they dared refuse drinking milk from Fukushima.”[9]

. . . .

More nuanced and less bombastic rhetoric continues from those in a position of authority aimed at stilling public fears of radiation, and by extension, the anxiety of the Fukushima refugees. Leading the charge is the Health Physics Society. At a recent panel on Fukushima presented by the Health Physics Society, one of the panelists, Dr. John Boice Jr. of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, declared that the danger to public health from radiation was so insignificant there was no point in studying the long-term health impact of the exposed population of Fukushima, explaining that, “There’s no opportunity for conducting epidemiological studies that have any chance of success…the doses are just too low.…If you were to do a proposal, it would not pass a scientific review.”[11]

The push to minimize the impact of radiation from Fukushima in the press in the lead up to the first anniversary of the events has been very noticeable in the US. A recent article in Scientific American explained to readers that, “Heart disease and depression are likely to claim more lives than radiation after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, experts say.”[12]

This follows similar statements made in defense of the nuclear power industry in the United States throughout the pushback on negative perceptions of nuclear power since Fukushima. Addressing the role of the scientific community should there be a similar meltdown at the Vermont Yankee plant in Vermont, Dr. Harold Swartz explained at a public seminar that, “in the real events of Fukushima, or the theoretical events at Vermont Yankee, the “worried well” are the major issue. Civilians will not experience exposure at a dose which would measurably increase their chances of getting cancer or limit their life-expectancy. At the same time, they will not believe any official reassurances that ‘everything is okay.’ It would be the duty of the scientific community to explain that people are not in danger of cancer or early death. In other words, it would be the duty of the scientific community to reduce one of the major public health effects of any type of accident: fear and anxiety.”[13]

Such a high level push takes tolls on the ground as well:

“In the weeks following the March 11th disaster the estimated exposure dose for children was abnormally elevated, leading the Japanese government to begin testing to deduce the amount of radioactive iodine concentrated in the thyroid of over 1000 children shorty after the accident.  Many parents demanded the tests, drawing parallels with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, after which locals reported thyroid disorders, a problem sometimes associated with radiation exposure.

The Japanese Yomiuri report shows that the government’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters did not fulfill requests from the Cabinet’s Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSC) to conduct further testing on the internal radioactive exposure of children, due to fears of how the public may react to the inspections.”[14]

Now, a year after the disaster began, with the government declaring the crisis “over” and proclaiming that the corium that it cannot locate or determine the temperature or condition of is in “cold shutdown,” the attention of the apologists for the nuclear industry has turned to framing any health problems caused by the crisis as the fault of the victims and antinuclear critics. This strategy is clearly designed to assuage public anxiety about nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns. They feel it is necessary to press their case and demean their opponent’s intelligence and views. The effects that this strategy has on the victims in Fukushima can simply be attributed, as are their distresses as a whole, to irrational anxiety.

Just as for those who suffered radiation exposures from nuclear testing in the dozens of communities around the world, and those who suffered from direct nuclear attack in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these exposures are simply the initial victimization. In defense of nuclear technology, both weapons and power plants, keeping the health effects of the victims out of the public eye is so valuable a goal that the repeated victimization of these hibakusha is business as usual.

 Robert Jacobs is a historian working on the cultural and social effects of nuclear technologies working at the Hiroshima Peace Institute/Hiroshima City University. He is the author of The Dragon’s Tail: Americans Face the Atomic Age (Massachusetts 2010), the editor of Filling the Hole in the Nuclear Future: Art and Popular Culture Respond to the Bomb (Lexington 2010).

[1] “Fukushima No. 2 plant was ‘near meltdown’,” (February 10, 2012): http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T120209007089.htm

[2] Robert Jacobs, “Social fallout: Marginalization after the Fukushima nuclear meldown,” The Asia-Pacific Journal (July 11, 2011): http://japanfocus.org/site/view/3562

[3] Lawrence Solomon, “Japan’s radioactive fallout could have silver lining,” Financial Post (March 21, 2011): http://opinion.financialpost.com/2011/03/21/lawrence-solomon-reactor-victims-will-benefit-studies-show/; Richard Harris, “Trauma, not radiation, is key concern in Japan,” NPR (March 9, 2012): http://www.npr.org/2012/03/09/148227596/trauma-not-radiation-is-key-concern-in-japan

[4] “Radiation: Like an angel’s smile,” EX-SKF (June 30, 2011): http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2011/06/radiation-like-angels-smile.html

[5] “Radiophobia: A new game of blame the victim,” SimplyInfo (October 12, 2011): http://www.simplyinfo.org/?p=3566

[6] “Studying the Fukushima aftermath: ‘People are suffering from radiophobia’,” Der Spiegel (August 19, 2011): http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,780810,00.html

[7] Radiophobia (August 1, 2011): http://nuclearradiophobia.blogspot.com/

[8] Paul Blustein, “Japan meltdown moves from reactors to rice bowls,” Bloomberg (March 1, 2012): http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-01/japan-meltdown-moves-from-reactors-to-rice-commentary-by-paul-blustein.html

[9] “Fukushima children humiliated by their teacher for not drinking Fukushima milk, and Cabinet Secretary sneers,” EX-SKF (October 3, 2011): http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2011/10/fukushima-children-humiliated-for-not.html

[11] Matthew M. Wald, “Sizing up health impacts a year after Fukushima,” New York Times (March 1, 2012): http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/sizing-up-health-impacts-a-year-after-fukushima/

[12] Katherine Harmon, “Japan’s Post-Fukushima earthquake health woes go beyond radiation effects,” Scientific American (March 2, 2012): http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=japans-post-fukushima-earthquake-health-woes-beyond-radiation

[13] Meredith Angwin, “If Vermont Yankee had an accident like Fukushima,” TheEnergyCollective (October 11, 2011): http://theenergycollective.com/meredith-angwin/66960/seminar-dartmouth-if-vermont-yankee-had-accident-fukushima

[14] Lucas W. Hixson, “Thyroid testing in children delayed after Fukushima due to worries that monitoring would add anxiety to community,” (italics added) Enformable (February 23, 2012): http://enformable.com/2012/02/thyroid-testing-in-children-delayed-after-fukushima-due-to-worries-that-monitoring-would-add-anxiety-to-community/

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3 Comments
  1. I think you’ve put a finger on what is so frustrating about these events, namely the belittling of concerns. Belittling, rather than a conversation. Surely this is not the way forward, yet I expect it will continue. It is a pattern set by American and British scientists “under siege” in the 1950s and after, and their tone will inform how experts treat the “irrational” public around the world, especially in booming nuclear economies such as China. That’s because the culture of nuclear energy encourages experts to consider their relationship with laypersons as a public relations problem, not as a collaboration. You might be interested in my EH piece on this subject, linked for free from http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/jdhamblin/2012/02/22/fukushima-motifs-of-nuclear-history/

  2. Sharon Traweek permalink

    I am very glad that the abominable treatment of many people in Tohoku is being foregrounded in this essay, along with the duplicity of multiple perpetrators. Keeping such abominations in public, political, economic, policy, and scholarly discourse is crucial, at least until there is redress. I have only one caveat. In gender and ethnic studies we have learned that in various languages the words victim and victimization leave no room for such people/us and the recipients of such processes/us to have agency in gaining redress. There also is a widespread practice of blaming the victims for either their putative passivity, passive aggressiveness, unwillingness to take responsibility for themselves, etc. Racism, sexism, domestic violence, rape, and crime are just a few obvious examples. [A significant exception is the emergence of victim rights groups.] Many have proposed instead the words survivor and surviving. Robert Jacobs show us that the people who have survived the triple trauma of 3.11 often also are surviving condescending policies and practices that do not place their self-defined needs and goals first. I believe the public discourses about these people and their experiences are already changing, partly because their own voices are now circulating widely through many media. I am eager to learn what kinds of research/activism facilitates the powerful circulation of the many kinds of survivor voices throughout society, especially in the rooms where policies are made, implementation is defined, and results are monitored.

  3. Reading Robert Jacob’s essay, particularly the final paragraph, makes me wonder what lessons can be learned from the histories of hibakusha, survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, especially in terms of their medical subjectification and the history of radiation and health in Japan more largely. This kind of scholarship [Naoko, Wake. “Gender and Science in Hiroshima’s Aftermath: a Cross-cultural Approach.” Endeavour 35, no. 4 (December 2011): 178–186] increasingly places Japanese and Japanese American hibakusha experiences into conversation with scholarship on the history of American medical scientists’ activities in post-atomic Japan [Lindee, M. Susan. Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima. 1st ed. University Of Chicago Press, 1994]. The rupture posed by Fukushima highlights a temporality issue at play in the production of knowledge here in post-war Japan, or post-post-war Japan, and how now, the scientists who largely survey, examine, and most important, treat those exposed to varying degrees of radiation of the remaining hibakusha population are also Japanese, not merely complicit. Indeed, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission provided the foundation for the joint US-Japan project, Radiation Effects Research Foundation (est. 1975). But, Fukushima particularly brings to light a responsibility for self, by self, following the U.S. occupation. The question of what might be done now poses intriguing questions about who in Japan will be responsible for once again turning trauma into medical data. Analyzing the historical development of the care, non-care, or discrimination experienced by hibakusha within post-war Japan through Japanese sources will play a valuable role for understanding what it may mean to identify as a new hibakusha from northeastern Japan.

    -Lisa Onaga

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