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Downwind and Denial

Sharon Traweek

A poem by Adrienne Rich (1929-2012):

Power (Happy Birthday, Marie Curie!)

Living   in the earth-deposits   of our history
Today a backhoe divulged   out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle   amber   perfect   a hundred-year-old
cure for fever   or melancholy   a tonic
for living on this earth   in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:

she must have known she suffered  from radiation sickness

her body bombarded for years by the element

she had purified

It seems she denied to the end

the source of cataracts on her eyes

the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends

till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman  denying

her wounds


her wounds   came   from the same source as her power

Adrienne Rich. The Fact of a Doorframe:  Poems Selected and New 1950-1984 (New York: Norton, 1984, p. 225)


In this essay I address the denial of radiation by government agencies, the practices enforcing that denial, and the numerous projects to define the subject position of the radiated and to make that positionality public. Downwind is the direction wind blows. I am using the term “downwinders” to refer to those exposed to radioactive contamination or nuclear fallout from atmospheric or underground nuclear weapons testing, and nuclear accidents, whether in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the south Pacific, the US southwest, or near numerous nuclear power plant accidents, such as the Tohoku region near Fukushima DaiIchi. (See the work of Wm Kinsella, et al, on the downwinders at Hanford, Washington, US.)

I employ a set of concepts from Judith Butler, Kimberly Crenshaw, Michel Foucault, and Miranda Fricker. Foucault used the term governmentality as the organized practices (mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) through which subjects are governed and biopower is the political strategy of governing the biological features of humans. During WW II and the Cold War the US government rationalized the denial of the effects of radiation on the people who lived downwind of nuclear fallout in the US southwest. US governmental biopower policies condoned the collection of biological data about radiation without the permission of the public; the public were unwitting human research subjects. Only much later did the US government develop regulations to protect human research subjects.

The philosopher Miranda Fricker defines epistemic justice as the right to know and be a knower, the right to be trusted as a reliable witness. For decades the downwinders’ growing awareness of the effects of radiation on their bodies and ecologies was not taken as reliable testimony. The concept of intersectionality developed by legal scholars such as Kimberle Crenshaw shows the necessity of investigating clusters of social distinctions together, rather than separately. Sex, age, race, culture, occupation, class, and location are significant, but often overlooked, interrelated factors that contribute to the health effects of radiation on a particular downwind community.  Initially the regulatory silence is imposed on distinct groups: soldiers, Native Americans, farmers, and so on.

The radiated subjects are under surveillance, together becoming a data set, but denied the right to be reliable witnesses; their accounts are isolated and erased. However, as Judith Butler argues, regulatory discourse itself circulates the proscribed language. The downwinders’ knowledge is not erased and eventually some perform their right to know and tell their stories, to transmit their knowledge. As the silenced radiated come to trace their etiologies they learn the infrastructures and classification practices that have restricted their access to the data their own bodies have generated. To speak they must confront the trauma of being stigmatized as contaminated bodies. Clusters of people and communities learn of the experience of other downwinders; gradually, they all learn to demand the standing of expertise, to perform their rights as knowers.

In what follows I trace the accounts of radiation in US government records, the opening of those records, and the uses to which those records have been put since 1945. Then I ask how that history informs us of ways to interrogate the practices of the Japanese government since the 11 March 2011 reactor accidents in Fukushima. I also address the formation of communities of action among those affected by radiation diffusion.

UCLA and biomedical radiation research

Stafford L. Warren (1896-1981), first Dean of the UCLA Medical School, conducted research on the radiation effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He was a member of the Manhattan Project and then led a group traveling to Japan in 1945 to investigate the effects. He later sponsored various research projects on radiation effects in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For example, UCLA received half a million dollars for such research after Warren became Dean of the Medical School. [See below for further information.] Warren’s papers about the administration of the medical school are at the UCLA University Archives.  His research papers are at the Department of Special Collections.  Both are at the UCLA Young Research Library.

“[Hymer] Friedell and other researchers, including Stafford Warren and Shields Warren, soon traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to begin what became an extensive research program on survivors. The data from that project quickly became and still remain the essential source of information on the long-term effects of radiation on populations of human beings.”

From 1949 to 1951 James N. Yamazaki, MD, Professor Emeritus, Pediatrics, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, was the head of the Medical Team for the US governmental Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, studying the effects of nuclear bombing on children in Nagasaki. He published several papers based on his investigations. His memoirs are in Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician’s Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands (Duke University Press, 1980/1995). At the May 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York City Prof. Yamazaki gave a presentation in the session on “Expert briefing on the medical and environmental consequences of nuclear war.”  The conference session was sponsored by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

With the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Yamazaki established the Children of the Atomic Bomb website at UCLA in 2008. The website includes lesson plans for high school teachers and background materials for students.  An excerpt from the 2008 announcement: “The “Children of the Atomic Bomb” website details the Commission’s findings on the physical and health consequences of the atomic bombs on the survivors.  These include increased incidence of leukemia and other cancers and high rates of birth defects such as malformed brains, caused by radiation injury to developing fetal brain cells.  In addition to two video interviews with Dr. Yamazaki, the “Children of the Atomic Bomb” website also features images of drawings and paintings created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts.” The organization Physicians for Social Responsibility recently recognized Dr. Yamazaki its 2008 Socially Responsible Medicine Award, together with Lawrence Bender (An Inconvenient Truth), and Dr. Hans Blix, former International Atomic Energy General.  “At 91, Dr. Yamazaki remains a committed speaker, activist, and activist against nuclear proliferation.”

Radiation Research on Human Subjects during the Cold War

The US conducted 1,054 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1992. During the Clinton Administration Hazel O’Leary, Secretary of the Department of Energy, opened many nuclear testing records in December 1993. From the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments [ACHRE] Report for The Atomic Energy Commission and Postwar Biomedical Radiation Research: “Even before the AEC officially assumed responsibility for the bomb from the Manhattan Project, the Interim Medical Advisory Committee, chaired by former Manhattan Project medical director Stafford Warren, began meeting to map out an ambitious postwar biomedical research program. Former Manhattan Project contractors proposed to resume the research that had been interrupted by the war and to continue wartime radiation effects studies upon human subjects.”

“The minutes of the January 1947 meeting record an ambitious program to focus on the physical measurement of radiation, the biological effects of radiation, methods for the detection of radiation damage, methods for the prevention of radiation injury, and protective measures. There followed an itemized list of the work to be done at Argonne National Laboratory, Los Alamos, Monsanto, Columbia University, and the Universities of Michigan, Rochester, Tennessee, California, and Virginia. The University of Rochester was to be the largest university contractor, receiving more than $1 million, followed by the University of California (about one-half million for UCLA, where Stafford Warren was dean of the new medical school, and Berkeley, to which Stone had returned to join Hamilton), Western Reserve (to which Warren’s deputy Hymer Friedell was headed), and Columbia (more than $100,000).  Argonne received an amount comparable to Rochester; other labs, including Los Alamos National Laboratory and Clinton Laboratories (now Oak Ridge National Laboratory), were scheduled for $200,000 or less.” Stafford Warren, Interim Medical Committee, proceedings of 23-24 January 1947 (ACHRE No. UCLA-111094-A-26). See also ACHRE Briefing Book, vol. 3, tab F, document H.

Cold War Nuclear Testing and Fallout: Fukumaru (Lucky Dragon)

The 1946 Crossroads test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands was the first postwar test. “Behind the scenes … Crossroads medical director Stafford Warren expressed horror at the level of contamination on the ships due to the underwater atomic blast.”

The Fukumaru (Lucky Dragon), a Japanese fishing boat, was strongly affected by the 1 March 1954 Marshall Islands test fallout. Some of the Japanese scientists I have interviewed vividly remember the public outcry in Japan. There is now a museum in Tokyo dedicated to the crew of the Fukumaru.  

On Tuesday, July 5, 1994 there were public meetings held at the Vista Hotel, 1400M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiements. Mr. Weisgall testified that  “… even Stafford Warren said at Bikini at the time, “You can’t say how much exposure any one sailor got at any one particular time.  One guy could be sleeping three feet away from another and could have had a radically different amount of radioactive material absorbed because of the way those fission products acted.” Mr. Guttman added that “…In the Stafford Warren interview, which is in your briefing book, he actually alludes to it and seems to explain it.”

Veterans and Native Americans on Nuclear Testing and Fallout

One group that has pushed for opening the US Dept of Energy (DOE) records about the tests was an organization of military veterans who had worked at the test sites. Other interested groups include Native Americans whose homelands were bombed, many people living downwind of the bomb tests, and scientists who worked on the tests. Note too that uranium mining on Native American land has had cultural and environmental consequences. Since the mid-1990s a rapidly expanding bibliography has emerged on the cultural, health, and environmental consequences of nuclear testing in the US (1945-1992) and elsewhere.

The Atomic Veterans History Project and the Nevada Test Site Oral HIstory Project, directed by Mary Palevsky, have collected extensive accounts by witnesses. The documentary film “Atomic Mom” by M.T. Silva includes many witness commentaries about the long-term consequences of government secrecy policies concerning nuclear weapons research reports and decisions to end the silence.  Silva describes the film as “a feature length documentary about two women, both mothers, who have very different experiences of the atom bomb. One is my mother, Pauline Silvia, who was a Navy biologist in the early 1950’s and was sent to the Nevada Test Site where she witnessed five detonations.  After decades of silence, she is in a crisis of conscience about the work she did.  The other woman is Emiko Okada, a Hiroshima survivor who was eight years old when the bomb was dropped.”

The Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities Project, led by Patricia George, and a study of radiation exposure in Native American communities by Eric Frohmberg, Robert Goble, Virginia Sanchez, Dianne Quigley are among the growing documentation on the effects of decades of exposure. Melissa Nelson, anthropologist and Native American, works with the Southern Paiutes to record their sacred knowledge about their environment, and the damage to that ecology during the decades of testing. Kyoko Matsunaga has explored writing by Native Americans about nuclear testing.  Valerie Kuletz and others have chronicled the environmental effects of the testing and the uranium mining on Native American lands.

Declassified Documents about Nuclear Testing and Fallout

During the last twenty years many researchers, lawyers, and journalists have worked to open more US government documents that were once designated as classified (secret), making use of the US Freedom of Information Act and the US Whistleblower Protection Act.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists represents a group of scientists that tries to open government records about nuclear weapons. Some of the documents include the Records of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey [USSBS], at the US National Archives

Peter Galison, an historian of twentieth century physics, was one of the researchers engaged in declassifying these documents and others. He has directed a documentary film titled “Secrecy” about the US government’s processes for classifying and declassifying documents

[See notes for bibliography.]

Public Memory of Nuclear Testing and Fallout

Historians have begun to study intensively the practices of public memory and the ways they survive and shift over time.   One such topic is representations of WW II including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   Efforts to represent war crimes during WW II in Japanese museums have been controversial.  In the US a controversy erupted in 1995 concerning an exhibition planned for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC on the Enola Gay, the US plane carrying the atomic bomb to Japan.  The exhibition was cancelled and the NASM director, an astronomer from Cornell, resigned in protest.  Many studies have emerged on these conflicts in the representation of WW II in Japan and the US, especially the use of nuclear weapons.

Many new public representations of nuclear weapons fallout continue to appear. Physicians for Social Responsibility [PSR], Los Angeles, and Schecter Films Inc. are co-producing the documentary film “Dr. James Yamazaki and the Children of the Atomic Bomb.” NHK has produced a documentary film by Yoshihiko Muraki, Memories of the Trinity Bomb; it includes information from the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project and interviews with the project director, Mary Palevsky, and Kayoko Yoshida, co-founder and former president or the Japan Oral History Association. The International Center of Photography in Purchase, New York, preserves and exhibits Hiroshima: The United States Strategic Bombing Survey Archive.

Monitoring Radiation in East Japan since 11 March 2011

“Ministry leaders decided to hold nuclear data after Fukushima crisis. TOKYO (Kyodo) — The science minister and other top ministry officials decided to withhold radiation forecast data from the public four days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, an internal document made available Friday showed. Then Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshiaki Takaki, lawmakers serving as top ministry officials and top bureaucrats made the decision on March 15 to withhold data about the predicted spread of radioactivity, which included an assumption that all radioactive material would be discharged from the crippled plant. Prediction of the spread of radioactive substances, compiled from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, “could be by no means released to the public,” the document dated March 19 showed.” Mainichi Daily News, 5 March 2012

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission monitored the Fukushima radiation; see their Operation Center Fukushima Transcript, March 14, 2011:

Shortly after the reactor failures on 11 March 2011 foreign embassies in Tokyo began recommending that their nationals evacuate some parts of Japan. It is unclear what data any of these embassies were using to determine those policies. This is the sequence reported at

14 March:  French recommended that their nationals leave the country or move south;

15 March:  Swiss recommended leaving Tokyo and the area to the north;

17 March:  Israel made similar recommendations;

19 March:  many countries (UK, Germany, Austria, Italy, Australia, Czech Republic, etc) urged their nationals to evacuate Tokyo; Spain recommended leaving the area within 120km from reactors; the US recommended evacuating within 80km (50miles) of the Fukushima reactors.

During this period and immediately following public circulation in Japan through news media of these policies, criticism of foreigners intensified in Japan. Increasingly foreigners were stigmatized as damaging Japan with policies often labeled as hysterical There is a body of research on the stigmatizing of foreigners in Japan during and after diasters. Gradually, some Japanese began to question the reassuring statements of their own government about the condition of the Fukushima reactors; curiousity grew for information begin circulated by foreign governments and experts.

The Center for Geographic Analysis and the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard. Japan Sendai Earthquake Data Portal have archived social media and other possibly ephemeral documents (such as reports circulated by people in affected areas of Japan), web links, videos, or digital images. The portal also supports the exchange of geospatial datasets for relief and reconstruction efforts.

NASA Earth Observatory and many other earth monitoring scientific instruments around the world have collected and posted data on the earthquake and tsunami.

Japanese government data on radiation from the reactor failures of 11 March 2011 continues to be challenged. Public skepticism about those data continues and appears to be expanding. This is surprising in the context of a society with a hitherto very large public confidence in both engineering and the responsibility of the nation state to protect the public health of the citizens. Citizens demand local radiation monitoring, especially of food. Increasingly inexpensive monitoring devices are widely available on the internet. Many Japanese citizen science groups have been conducting radiation measurements and posting their findings on the internet.

Scientific research on radiation includes comparison with the Chernobyl reactor failures. Tatsuhiro Ohkubo, forest ecologist, Utsunomiya University, formed a collaboration with Sergiy Zibtsev, National University of Life & Environmental Sciences, Ukraine, Kiev, to study forests in Fukushima. Some engineers and scientists [biological, information, physical, social] are participating in new practices to find solutions for the problems generated 11 March 2011. The proactive engagements of these scientists and engineers include collecting measurements and posting those measurements in public spaces, such as the internet; they are going to villages to talk with local people about the problems. They are identifying alternatives to nuclear reactors; tsunami experts and seismologists revising their policy recommendations. Engineers, planners, and architects are redesigning ports and towns.

Finding Fault

A German documentary filmmaker reported on the workers charged with cleaning the Fukushima reactors, claiming that the workers were badly treated and had only rudimentary radiation monitoring and protection. Johannes Hano, is head of the ZDF studios Beijing; he is also responsible for reporting from Japan via the ZDF office in Tokyo. See his _Das japanische Desaster. Fukushima und die Folgen_ [The Japanese disaster: Fukushima and the consequences} Herder Verlag, Freiburg/Basel/Wien 2011, ISBN 978-3-451-30544-3.

Die Fukushima-Luge [The Fukushima Lie] by Johannes Hano, ZDF, March 2012,1872,8467619,00.html

Reports by investigative journalists and documentary filmmakers have explored the so-called *nuclear village* (genshiryoku mura) of government regulators, compliant academic experts, and corporate leaders. They assert that for many years a web of corruption enabled TEPCO to avoid any bad publicity and to not make any upgrades/repairs or meet government regulations. Meanwhile, Japanese governmental investigation of the Fukushima reactor failures cited Japanese culture as one source of the problem. See the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report, October 2012. Japanese


The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is about 160 miles (260 km) northeast of Tokyo.

Many find that exceptionalist claim annoying, not least because it suggests that no one is responsible. For a quick description of the problems with exceptionalism and the way it has been used in various contexts, such as in Nihonjinron, see

Furthermore, anthropologists are quite familiar with the errors of using culture as a so-called default explanation (often invoked when choosing to not provide other strong explanations).

Official financial records, radiation exposure, work, and erasure:
Notes on another kind of invisible work with radiation and the source of salaries

We are learning that in France, Japan, and South Africa, at the least, outsourcing labor is a way for nuclear power facilities to avoid keeping radiation exposure records for many workers. In a much more mundane case I have learned about missing data on radiation exposure. A few years ago for health reasons (subsequently resolved successfully) I sought data from physics labs in three countries where I had carried dosimeters (measuring radiation exposure) during my recurring visits at various intervals since the 1970s and provided the dates.

Of course, that lengthy time period covered both paper and digital records, complicating the retrieval task.  Nonetheless, radiation treatments have become widely available and patients are routinely asked about occupational radiation exposure, so I presumed that all such labs must have received many requests over the decades from individuals for longitudinal data about their own radiation exposure. I imagined that that the labs would have established routines for responding to such queries.

At only one lab were they able to retrieve all my records. Another lab could not find the records and apologized.  A third lab’s staff reported that they could find no records and suggested I must be confused about where I had been; to them no data meant I had had no relationship

I mentioned this erasure to various scientists who easily remembered my visits over the decades. They had not realized that the ontology of relationships with the lab was so tightly correlated with funding sources. If the dosimeter data keepers at a public basic research lab and a private nuclear power facility have the same relationship to the fieldworkers and day workers they admit to their sites, but do not employ, then I deduce that the policies are not determined on site, but by national governmental regulatory bodies and implemented uniformly, leading to cases that range from the ridiculous [mine] to the horrific [nuclear plant day workers].

Some would see this as yet another example of how power can be constituted at the intersection of capital, governmentality, biopolitics, and regimes of erasure (including data). This experience added another case to my searches for the forms and practices of erasure in archiving and accessing technoscience data. Historical ethnographies, oral histories, and emergency cleanup practices can expose the infrastructures of power embedded in archives, ignored by those historians who see institutional archives as the only source of legitimate historical data.

Radiation as wound and cure

This essay began with the Adrienne Rich poem claiming that Curie died denying her research was killing her, “denying her wounds came from the same source as her power.” Within a few years of her discoveries brachytheraphy, the precise placement of radioisotopes at tumors, affecting only a very limited area, began to be used at the Curie Institute to treat breast and skin cancers; the technique is still used. I received it in spring 2010; the treatment was successful.

The public response to radiation as both wound and cure has circulated for over a hundred years. Soon after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the “Atoms for Peace” policy was launched by US President Eisenhower. Some Japanese I know trace their interest in becoming physicists to that campaign. The competing representations of radiation as wound and cure for global society, as well as individuals, has persisted for decades. The irony of those dyads has also been exploited. Note the experimental rock band, Atoms for Peace, formed 2009 in Los Angeles.

Governments have tried to contain that discourse, as William Kinsella and his colleagues have reported in their studies of US policies about the plutonium production and processing facilty in the US northwest at Hanford, Washington. My essay has addressed what exceeds those efforts at discursive containment as radiation has escaped the systems designed to contain it.  I am arguing that the hybridity of the downwinders in the US southwest, veterans, farmers, native Americans, Hispanics, and Anglos, contributed to dismantling that discursive containment, but only after decades and the end of the Cold War. I ask how the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and regional identities are shaping the the formation in Japan of communities of social action that will force the Japanese government to eliminate its containment of radiation data. I ask if that containment will survive for decades, as it did in the United States.

My focus has been on enduring and growing public memory projects of those not taken as experts or officials, those experiencing epistemic injustice as defined by Miranda Fricker.

Eventually their public memory projects have exceeded the governmentality and biopower practices of the US government. The biopower data collected over decades has become public, the intellectual property of those whose bodies, lives, and lands were the source of those data.

Gradually, the downwinders learn to perform their expertise and gain their public rights to know; the surveillance and containment practices of governments and corporations are breached.  We can learn much from the Japanese and US downwinders together.

  1. Many thanks Sharon for this very well documented and provocative paper!
    I think we will have to discuss about epistemic injustice versus epistemic constraints.

  2. Bill Kinsella permalink

    Thank you, Sharon–you’ve mapped out a very large topic and some of its epistemological, cultural, and ethical dimensions. Beginning with the Adrienne Rich poem and at a number of later points in your essay, I was reminded of Kenneth Burke’s poem, as well, which says the humans are the creature that is “rotten with perfection.” Like Madame Curie, we’ve distilled and refined a physical force with such perfection that it cannot not affect us in return.

    A key theme in your essay is silence, or forgetting,or more actively, erasure. One can be silent due to lack of awareness–there seems to be nothing to say because there is nothing to say about. One can forget because one wants to, or because one doesn’t do the work requires to maintain a difficult memory. Or we can work actively to obscure, deny, contain, or reframe. Atoms for Peace was a reframing; military secrecy at the Nevada atomic tests or at nuclear production sites such as Hanford was a form of containment; quantitative epidemiology that insists on narrowly defined forms of data can be both containment and denial.

    Your story of your own “lost” exposure data illustrates the paradox of our nuclear governmentality. We’d expect the labs where you worked to be masters of record-keeping: every physics student is taught to keep meticulous experimental records, to record all the details, and to preserve the laboratory notebook. But when it comes to exposures of lab workers, uranium miners, fishers who happened to be in the way, or anthropologists who visit the sites of nuclear knowledge production, the records are not as highly valued.

    After helping us recall the hostory of nuclear erasures, you use the later part of your essay to make the link to Fukushima. That’s important, because Fukushima still provides an opportunity to intervene. The methods of fact-finding, representation, and storytelling have not yet become sedimented: we have an opportunity to remember differently. Let’s hope we can.

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