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The Radiation That Makes People Invisible: A Global Hibakusha Perspective via The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

Radiation makes people invisible. We know that exposure to radiation can be deleterious to one’s health; can cause sickness and 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, including those who 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 relationships to their families, to their communities, to their hometowns, to their traditional diets and even traditional knowledge systems have been 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 weapons testing, from nuclear weapons production, from nuclear power plant accidents, from nuclear power production or storage, or, like the people in the community where I live, 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 with victims in radiation-affected communities all around the world. Our research has revealed a powerful continuity to the experience of radiation exposure across a broad range of cultures, geographies, and populations. About half way between beginning this study and today the triple disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant occurred in Japan. One of the most distressing things (among so many) since this crisis began is to hear 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 actually, deep historical precedents suggest that the future for the people who lived near the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns is predictable.

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Sickness and mortality– Sickness and even death are the results of exposure to high levels of radiation that people have come to expect. It is important to recognize that there are many different ways that people can become ill after exposure to radiation. Those exposed to high levels of gamma radiation 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 surviving the nuclear attacks. Kuboyama Aikichi, the radioman of the Japanese tuna fishing boat the Daigo Fukuryuu Maru, died six and a half months after his exposure to high levels of gamma radiation from the Bravo nuclear weapon test conducted over 100 km from where the boat was anchored in the Marshall Islands (all other crew members suffered radiation sickness). A nuclear weapon gives off a very large burst of gamma radiation that lasts a very short time, but if the body is exposed to high levels, it can cause illness and death relatively quickly. High levels of radioactive fallout from a nuclear detonation can also create significant gamma exposures at distances far from the explosion, as was the case for the crew of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru.

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 with the fallout. In the case of Chernobyl and Fukushima,the two greatest civilian nuclear power plant accidents to date, these came down over large areas as the plumes of the explosions settled back to Earth (in Fukushima the plumes came down over 100 km from the plant, while in the case of Chernobyl the plumes came down primarily across the border to the north in Belarus, but also contaminated areas as far away as the UK and Sweden). Alpha emitting particles cannot penetrate the skin as gamma radiation can, but they are internalized through inhalation or swallowing or through cuts in the skin (a basic primer on the differences between alpha, beta and gamma radiation can be found here).

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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 so high that continued habitation could be dangerous to health. In these cases people lose their homes, often permanently.

For communities that have to be abandoned, the bonds that have been built up and that sustain the wellbeing of the community disintegrate. 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. The communal structures that sustained them are destroyed: shopkeepers who know them, neighbors who can be relied on, the simple familiarity of communities. What is lost when a person is no longer able to eat an apple from a tree planted by a parent or grandparent? Tony Hood, a former uranium miner from Gallup, New Mexico, spoke of the sense of loss when contemplating the necessity for his Navajo community to abandon their homes because of uranium contamination, “Our umbilical cords are buried here, our children’s umbilical cords are buried here. It’s like a homing device.”2

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Loss of traditional knowledge– In some remote places survival is dependent on centuries old understandings of the land. In Maralinga, Australia the areas where the British conducted nuclear tests between 1956 and 1963 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 locations. But can knowledge gathered over millennia be effectively applied to radiation disasters?

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Discrimination– People who may have been exposed to radiation often experience discrimination in their new homes and may become social pariahs. We first saw this dynamic with the hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who found it very difficult to find marriage partners, since prospective spouses feared they would have malformed children, and found it difficult to find jobs since employers assumed that they would be chronically sick. Hibakusha children, moreover, often become the targets of bullying. It became very common to attempt to hide the fact that one’s family had been among those exposed to radiation.6

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Radiophobia and blaming the victim– Since it is often the case that who is and isn’t exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, especially to internalized alpha emitting particles, is unknown, large numbers of people near a radiological incident of some kind worry about their health and the health of 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 FukushimaNorthern Japan, all of these people are dismissed as having undue fear of radiation, and are often told that their health problems are simply the result of their own anxieties. In some cases that may be true, but it is beside the point.

Read more at The Radiation That Makes People Invisible: A Global Hibakusha Perspective

 

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