This month the media and social networks are busy remembering Fukushima on the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, but what we are really observing is the beginning of the work of forgetting Fukushima. Fukushima is taking its place alongside the many forgotten nuclear disasters of the last 70 years. Like Mayak and Santa Susana, soon all that will be left of the Fukushima nuclear disaster are the radionuclides that will cycle through the ecosystem for millennia. In that sense we are internalizing Fukushima into our body unconsciousness.
Forgetting begins with lies. In Fukushima the lies began with TEPCO (the owner of the power plants) denying that there were any meltdowns when they knew there were three. They knew they had at least one full meltdown by the end of the first day, less than 12 hours after the site was struck by a powerful earthquake knocking out the electrical power. TEPCO continued to tell this lie for three months, even after hundreds of thousands of people had been forced to or voluntarily evacuated. Just last week TEPCO admitted that it was aware of the meltdowns much earlier, or to put it bluntly, it continued to hide the fact that it had been lying for five years (I’ve written about the dynamic behind this here).
Lying about nuclear issues is not unique to Japan or Fukushima. It began with the first use of nuclear weapons against human beings, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When announcing the first attack President Harry Truman referred to Hiroshima as a “military base,” and said it was chosen specifically to avoid civilian casualties. Hiroshima was a naval base (in a country whose navy was already destroyed), but the truth is that the city was chosen to demonstrate vividly the power of the super weapon and the bomb was aimed at the city center, the area most densely populated with civilians. After the war the US claimed that these attacks, in which over 100,000 people were killed instantly, actually saved lives.
The most powerful legacy of Chernobyl, besides its long-lived radiation, is the widespread use of the word “radiophobia” by nuclear industry apologists to describe the public response to large releases of radiation: fear. Look for this word and sentiment in the many articles being published this month about Fukushima. When you see it, or read the claim that more people were harmed at Fukushima by their own irrational fears than by radiation, you are seeing the work of forgetting turn its cruel wheels. Behind those wheels are the shattered lives and emotional wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people whose communities were destroyed, and whose families were ripped apart by the Fukushima disaster. People whose anxieties will rise every time they or their children run a high fever, or suffer a nosebleed or test positively for cancer. People whose suffering-at no fault of their own-is becoming invisible. Soon when we talk about Fukushima we will reduce the human impact to a quibbling over numbers: how many cases of thyroid cancer, how many confirmed illnesses. Lost-hidden-forgotten will be the hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee their homes, in many cases permanently, and try to rebuild their shattered lives. Public relations professionals and industry scientists will say that these people did this to themselves (see here, and here). And the curtain will draw ever downward as we forget them.
This is the tradition of nuclear forgetting.