Japan after Fukushima

The spread of nuclear power has been at the expense of suppressing information of the havoc that it wrecked on different communities says Professor Robert Jacobs, American Academic 

Aditi Agrawal Delhi 

On July 6, 2012, Professor Robert A. Jacobs from the Hiroshima Peace Institute (established on April 1, 1998 in affiliation with the Hiroshima City University) addressed a select gathering at Insaaf, an NGO based in Delhi, office. A select gathering of people including activists and professors working for the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) and journalists attended the talk. The talk was titled “Japan after Fukushima: Disaster, Victimisation and Social Mobilisation”. 

Professor Jacobs started by stating clearly that he was neither a scientist nor an expert on nuclear policy; he was a historian who studied the cultural aspects of nuclear testing. His primary focus of study was the nuclear culture in the USA, especially during atmospheric nuclear testing. He concerns himself with the question – what do the Americans think they are? He explores more about the cultural reception and interpretation of this science. 

The first point that he made in his presentation was that the history of nuclear testing is connected to colonialism, that is, these tests are usually carried out in colonised nations which don’t really have any political power of their own. This is why, the USSR carried out nuclear tests in Kazakhstan, the USA in Marshall Islands, France in Algeria and the UK in Australia and a number of Pacific islands. 

He highlighted the two categories in which the common experiences of the radiation exposure affected communities could be broadly divided:

  1. Health Issues: Professor Jacobs called these issues the most important affects as well as the most well-known and acknowledged ones.
  2. Social and Cultural Affects: The professor highlighted the adverse social and cultural affects that nuclear tests had on the communities that resided in the area. 

Due to nuclear testing, people are dislocated from their traditional homes leading to a disruption in their traditional lifestyle. He illustrated this with the example of people from the Marshall Islands. Undoubtedly, because of continuous nuclear testing in the region as well as the nuclear fallout from the Bravo nuclear test, the natives of Marshall Islands suffered from medical conditions caused due to exposure to radiation. Professor Jacobs pointed out that the natives here were primarily fish eaters and are now refugees on other people’s atolls, especially natives from the Bikini Atoll. Thus, these displaced natives were no longer land owners. They were and are now dependant on the food packages handed out by the government of USA. Because of the change in diet, a greater number of natives are now diabetic and all these factors have led to a loss of their traditional skills. 

History of nuclear testing is connected to colonialism, that is, these tests are usually carried out in colonised nations which don’t really have any political power of their own

In Australia, aborigines lived in Maralinga where the United Kingdom carried out their nuclear tests between 1952 and 1963. Very few communities received any kind of compensation. Among the aboriginal communities of Maralinga, it is a taboo to name the dead. Thus, when the British conducted surveys to find out about the affected and people who died due to radiation exposure and thereby work out a suitable compensation, the natives did not respond. Because of this, the British assumed that these communities had not been affected. 

Obon is a traditional Japanese holiday during which the Japanese honour their ancestors by visiting and cleaning the ancestral graves. For people who lived in the evacuation zones near Fukushima, this ritual cannot be carried on anymore because of the nuclear contamination. The graves of their ancestors will remain unattended. This has made people feel guilty for failing to uphold this ages old tradition through which they honour and pay their respects to their ancestors. People have been suffering from depression due to the loss of this custom. They have been feeling disconnected from their past, their land, their ancestors. Their sense of self is lost. People have lost hope.               

On the one hand, when nuclear tests are carried out by the military, no reasons are given to the people who have to be displaced simply because they are carried out by the military. On the other hand, nuclear power generation is an industry, a business. Thus, they depend on people’s support and heavily rely on their pubic relations’ mechanisms. The media concentrates on the disaster but the required rehabilitation is ignored by the mainstream media outlets. 

Quite often, the prevalent radiophobia in victims is undermined. The governments discredit this very valid fear as a consequence of paying attention to conspiracy theorists. The government of Japan lied to the people and the media post the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. There were 3-4 meltdowns in the reactors. For the first two months after the disaster, the word “meltdown” wasn’t used in the media. It is only after the Fukushima disaster had taken a backseat globally, TEPCO acknowledged the meltdown but due to passage of time, this was carried as a small article in most of the newspapers, just besides the tonnes of classified advertisements that plague corporate driven newspapers globally. Some people were evacuated into regions with more concentration of contamination. People were lied to and were treated as dispensable entities. This is where the first victimisation of people occurred – during their exposure to radiation. Information about gamma radiation was released in the press but news about alpha emitting particles, which cannot be detected by the Geiger counter, was withheld. Alpha emitting particles can be particularly dangerous for humans if inhaled or ingested and for electronics, which make ample use of silicon. 

when the British conducted surveys among the Maralinga Aboroginal community to find out about people who died due to radiation exposure and thereby work out a suitable compensation, the natives did not respond. Because of this, the British assumed that these communities had not been affected

On being asked if the information was withheld by the government to prevent further panic among people in an already chaotic scenario, Professor Jacobs replied that maybe that motivated the string of abrupt decisions that were taken by the Japanese government but at the same time, one must not forget that the very planning of this nuclear plant, which lies in an earthquake prone area, just besides the ocean, was flawed. Keeping back-up generators in the basement, which was flooded because of the tsunami, was a foolish step. It might be self-serving to believe that these panicky decisions were taken in order to prevent escalation of disorder but the negligence of the safety standards at the Fukushima-Daiichi was a major contributing factor in the disaster. 

Professor Jacobs talked about Global Energy Power Research, an organisation funded by the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation. Described as a ‘virtual think tank on the web’, it has interviewed a few victims of the Japanese nuclear disaster. Citing once such interview titled “Coming Back from a “Radiation Panic” = The experience of a housewife – Realising my own discriminatory feelings was the moment of awakening”, Professor Jacobs highlighted the absolute apathy with which the government and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) sought to discredit the legitimate trauma and fears of the victims. In this interview, Ms Yuka Shirai has attributed her anxiety about the nuclear meltdown to a mid-life crisis and how she was thrown into a ‘radiation panic’ by all the information that she gathered from the internet. Through systematic brainwashing, all her fears about radiation were labelled as a result of all factors under the sun except the Fukushima disaster. (Link for the interview: http://www.gepr.org/en/contents/20120507-03/

‘The information sources were all people who were becoming well-known by spreading dark and tragic information. There were a lot of different people, from anonymous sources to university professors and researchers. Looking back on it, I think I believed a lot of strange people, but at the time, I thought they were right. As for people labelled as “government scholars” who were disseminating accurate information, I was certain they were wrong, and I ignored them.’ 

The very legitimate anxieties and queries of the Japanese were suppressed by the government and TEPCO. The evacuees also faced discrimination throughout Japan. Moreover, even the health effects of a nuclear disaster are not immediately visible. For instance, the second generation of Chernobyl victims developed cancer. In a very daring but obviously successful PR move, TEPCO kept on deriving solace from the fact that the Fukushima disaster was ‘not as bad as the Chernobyl disaster’. 

To a question asked about the role of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the professor said that the IAEA worked to legitimise the actions taken by the Japanese government. 

On being asked if the world media was also responsible for spreading panic by printing wrong information, he said that there was no doubt about that; fuelled by a need to earn as much money as possible, the newspapers printed anything and everything that could boost their during the disaster. He also stated that the nuclear energy power projects are being supported by the governments all over the world mainly because of the amount of money that is involved in these projects. 

Thus, in this capital driven world, human life is obviously a second priority and the continued advocacy in favour of nuclear power project, according to Professor Robert Jacobs, is a testimony to that.