Radiation Makes People Invisible (Part 1)

This is part one of a 3 part series to run Mon-Wed this week. Dr. Robert Jacobs of the Hiroshima Peace Institute (and SimplyInfo member) authored the series.

Radiation Makes People Invisible

Robert Jacobs

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. 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.

A Rongelapese victim of the Bravo test in 1954 taken from a US government publication
A Rongelapese victim of the Bravo test in 1954 taken from a US government publication

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.

(Part 2 tomorrow)

(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)
Robert Jacobs is an associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University in Japan. 

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