2015/03/28

Japan's Lonely Brave Bureaucrat Speaks Out on TV Asahi

A former high level bureaucrat in the Japanese Ministry of Trade was one of the few public officials to bravely speak up for radical change in the wake of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown catastrophe. The Economist was one of the first in the English language media to report on Shigeaki Koga’s radical proposals for reform of national energy policy. In September 2011, The Economist reported his views:

"I believe this is the final chance for Japan to change," Mr. Koga said in May, when I asked him during a wide-ranging interview why he was speaking out. "If I shut my mouth and obtain a good post in the ministry—even if I did that, in a few years Japan's economy would plunge," he said. "That is why I am taking on risks, and I don't care if I have to resign. Because if I don't speak out, Japan will not change. It is meaningless for me to be in the government if I cannot advocate reform."

Since this time he has been shut out of meaningful participation in reform, but he has been a regular guest commentator on news programs. He has been a regular on TV Asahi’s evening news program Hodo Station, but things took a bad turn in January, when, taking inspiration from the “Je suis Charlie” frenzy, he held up a placard during the broadcast stating “I’m not Abe.”
At a press conference afterwards at the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club, Mr. Koga explained the way he was being excluded from further appearances on Hodo Station:

(Reporter) Mr. Koga, just to follow up on this because your case may be very important for the future of Japan. Could you tell us if you are officially and publicly being “sacked” from your job?

If I make any mistake in explaining this, it will bring about many problems. Even if I am scolded, I will be scolded only by TV Asahi. So it is not as scary as being scolded by [Chief Cabinet Secretary] Suga. Precisely speaking, there is no contract that guarantees exactly how many times per year that I will appear on Hodo Station. From TV Asahi’s perspective, they ask me to appear on a case-by-case basis. So, it is not that they are firing me. As far as I have heard, it is the producer who has the leading role in deciding which commentator appears on the show. As for me, I have been very busy, so the producer and I used to set a schedule for next three-month period. Basically, the producer asked me to appear about once a month, and as for the exact date of appearance, we agreed to decide two or three months ahead.
I heard that the head of the press bureau of TV Asahi had not been comfortable with my appearances since last year. But, after January 23, he ordered a strict prohibition on my appearances after April 2015.
I have not heard this from the head in person, so I would like to hear this from him in person.
This is how I understand the case. My appearance on March 6th and 27th were already scheduled. If they had canceled scheduled appearances, there would have been criticism. But since no appearances by me were scheduled after April, I think that is the reason why they decided to enact the prohibition in April.
A reporter at yesterday’s press conference by the president of TV Asahi told me that nothing has been decided yet about my future appearances. Moreover, the president maintained that he is not aware of any pressure coming from the Kantei [Prime Minister’s office]. (as reported by Japanese Perspective)



On March 27, 2015, Mr. Koga made what he said on air would be his last appearance on the show (now on Youtube). He had a rather tense exchange with the host, but managed to say some of the things he wanted to say. He countered the common wisdom that Prime Minister Abe is not accomplishing anything, and explained sarcastically that in fact he was pushing through his vision of a “beautiful Japan.” He then held up a placard that listed the three major goals the Abe administration has been working toward: nuclear technology exports, weapons exports, and gambling (or recklessness might be a better translation). Mr. Koga then gave his own advice that these three arrows of reform should be replaced by exports of renewable energy technology, peace and culture. Then he again held up the “I am not Abe” sign, explaining politely to his host that this time he did not trouble the Asahi staff to make the sign. This one he made for himself. He finished by holding up a placard with a quotation by Gandhi as he advised Japanese people to not be afraid to express their views:

Nearly everything you do is of no importance, but it is important that you do it. Changing yourself may not change the world, but for the world to stay as it is, it depends on you not changing.

Mr. Koga's proposals for changing national policy
goals to renewable energy, peace and culture.
Shigeaki Koga may be banished from certain media outlets for the time being, but I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of him.

UPDATE MARCH 29, 2015: Asahi Shimbun reported on the controversial broadcast the day after I wrote the above: Abe critic claims on air he was axed from TV program at behest of management.

Sources:

“The Good Bureaucrat.” The Economist. September 14, 2011.

“Shigeaki Koga Criticizes Abe Administration’s Pressure on the Media,”
Japanese Perspective, February 27, 2015

2015/03/06

Commucapitalism in Cold War Plutopia

Commucapitalism:
The Sovietization of Capitalism and the Merger of American and Soviet Ideals in Cold War Plutopia

On a recent episode of The Keiser Report (2nd. half of episode 723),[1] anthropologist David Graeber talked about his new book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. He discussed the way government and corporate entities have merged into a seamless bureaucracy in which it is impossible to make distinctions between the two. For example, corporations might apologize to their customers for the “red tape” of government regulation imposed on them, but the regulations are written by corporate lobbyists.
Graeber explained, “At this point the free market… and the government are so completely fused together that you can’t even tell them apart.” A prime example, one he discussed elsewhere in an interview in Salon.com,[2] was Obamacare: “You can’t tell if it’s public or private; and it’s partly government regulated profit-taking, forcing you into a profit-making enterprise [whether you like it] or not. And it creates completely unnecessarily complicated layers of bureaucracy.”
During the Keiser Report interview, Max Keiser commented, “It sounds like the Soviet Union back in the day when people were saying this is completely choked with this bureaucracy, this communism. There’s no entrepreneurism. There’s no growth.”
David Graeber agreed, adding, “I would call it the Sovietization of capitalism.”
By this he meant that there was a utopian ideal in communism, and whenever it failed, the system punished people who couldn’t live up to the ideals by stifling them with rules and bureaucracy. In much the same way, the utopian ideal of capitalism produces the same effect. He cites the example of banks that now need fees and penalties imposed on their depositors, not profitable lending, in order to make a profit. This is no different than a government charging a fee for a license plate. He drove home the point by saying further, “Someone figured out that they’re printing enough [euros] to give every individual in Europe 763 euros a month for a year. Well, why not give everybody in Europe 763 euros a month for a year?... How could that not be a better stimulus for the economy?” The answer was that if they adopted such a bottom up solution, there would be no fees to collect for the mandarins at the top.
In the Salon interview he said,

“There was this liberal fantasy in the 19th century that government would dissolve away and be replaced by contractual market relationships; that government itself is just a feudal holdover that would eventually wither away. In fact, exactly the opposite happened. [Government has] kept growing and growing with more and more bureaucrats. The more free-market we get, the more bureaucrats we end up with, too… It always goes up. It went up under Reagan.”

This ironic Sovietization of capitalism, has a parallel, and perhaps a cause, in the Cold War factory towns where the two superpowers built their atomic weapons. It turns out there is an extra reason why this new social structure is called a plutocracy. In Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,[3] Kate Brown highlighted the remarkable hybridization of the American and Soviet systems that occurred in these towns, which were an entirely new form of social organization created out of the existential dread of nuclear war. The differences between the ideals of the two systems can be seen in Table 1:

Table 1
Ideals of American Capitalism and Soviet Communism



American Capitalism
Soviet Communism
1
Property
private
state-owned
2
Individual Outcomes
unequal
equal
3
Economy
free market
directed by the state
4
Speech
free
state-controlled
5
Individual Motivation
enlightened self-interest
enlightened self-sacrifice
6
Value of the Individual
primary
secondary to the collective

Table 2
The actual values adopted in both of the superpowers’ plutonium cities: Richland, USA and Ozersk, USSR




Ozersk-Richland Hybrid Economic and Social Order
1
Property
state-owned
2
Individual Outcomes
unequal
3
Economy
directed by the state
4
Speech
state-controlled
5
Individual Motivation
enlightened self-interest
6
Value of the Individual
secondary to the collective


About Table 2

1. Property

The city of Richland, Washington emerged out of the desert for no reason other than the production of plutonium. There was a need to have high quality housing built fast for an elite of scientists and engineers, and it is believed that this gave rise to prefab housing and modern suburbia. However, the difference in Richland was that private home ownership was banned. The federal government had to give security clearance to every resident, and monitor their health for radioactive contamination. This would have been impossible if employees of the plutonium factory had been allowed to buy their own homes and sell them on the market to someone who lacked security clearance and an approved reason to be in Richland. Score a point for the Soviet system.

2. Individual Outcomes

For the first few years of the Cold War, the USSR was in a panicked rush to catch up to America in the nuclear arms race. It relied on soldiers and prison labor to build a plutonium factory, but it soon learned what the Americans had learned during the Manhattan Project. The best way to maintain security, quality of the product, and loyalty was to lavish highly educated scientists and engineers with a quality of life they could not get elsewhere. In both atomic cities, the perks were so good that many refused to leave even when they knew they were being contaminated with radionuclides. Score a point for good old American inequality of outcomes.

3. Economy

During the Cold War, American conservatism developed its rhetoric lauding free enterprise and deriding government interference, but this movement thrived during the time of greatest state intervention in the economy. Of course, this was the time when great corporations like Boeing, Dupont, and Rockwell emerged, but these existed only because of the massive government programs to build nuclear weapons and missiles, which in turn necessitated the interstate highway system (for evacuation of big cities) and the internet (to maintain communications after a nuclear attack). Score a point for Soviet-style state management of the economy.

4. Speech

Richland had a newspaper, but it was heavily censored and never ran stories that helped citizens question how the Hanford reactors were being operated. Score another point for the Soviet way.

5. Individual Motivation

We could say that the people who built the atom bombs were making a sacrifice for their country, but both nations had to shower their workers with extra privileges that they couldn’t get outside of their gilded cages. There was an element of sacrifice in the work, but success depended on knighting the workers with elite status. Score a point for the American way of better outcomes for all through enlightened self-interest.

6. Value of the Individual

Both plutonium cities left a legacy of the worst environmental contamination known to mankind. There were horrific accidents, deliberate massive releases of radiation, and reckless contamination of workers and residents in surrounding communities. The cleanup is an unresolved nightmare that stretches out to the crack of doom. In both places it was implicitly understood by management that this was war, and in this war lives would be sacrificed for the “greater good.” The ideals of the Enlightenment and of the American constitution say that the protection of individual rights must be the basis of the state’s legitimacy, but in the atomic cities of the USA and the USSR, it was individual sacrifice for the state that was required. Score 1 point again for the values of the USSR that emphasized the honor in dying for the motherland.

Cold War Scorecard: America 2, Soviets 4

Though it is common wisdom to say the America won the Cold War, it ain’t over ‘till it’s over. And how will we know when it’s over? The transformation of both nations in the early Cold War suggests that the two systems converged in ways that were seldom acknowledged. In fact, if we want to keep score by the categories of Table 2, the Soviet system had a clear victory. Perhaps this is why now, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, academics are taking note of a phenomenon called the Sovietization of capitalism.

Notes

[1] “The Keiser Report,” Episode 723, Russia Today, February 24, 2015.

[2] Elias Isquith, “David Graeber explains the life-sapping reality of bureaucratic life,” Salon, March 5, 2015.

[3] Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013).



2015/02/26

After the Apocalypse: The anti-nuclear film that wasn’t


As the fourth anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome approached, I looked back at an example of pro-nuclear spin that appeared in the media in the spring of 2011. Ironically, the pro-nuclear message discussed here is in a film about the horrors of atomic weapon blasts in The Polygon, the sacrifice zone in Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union detonated hundreds of nuclear and thermonuclear bombs. As the film was released in the spring of 2011, shortly after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, the director expressed views that were surprisingly similar to those of the nuclear energy sector—an industry that had a public relations campaign in full force during those months before TEPCO admitted having concealed that three core meltdowns had occurred in the first days of the crisis. I'm timing this article to also commemorate the birth of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear movement which is marked every year in Kazakhstan on February 28th.

After the Apocalypse [1] is a one-hour documentary that takes place in Semipalatinsk, a town in north-eastern Kazakhstan where the USSR detonated 456 nuclear weapons, many of them large-yield megaton hydrogen bombs. The camera goes to radioactive craters where herders still take their animals to graze. It goes to a museum where the pickled corpses of deformed babies sit in jars. However, the horror show of the past is not the main attraction. The film concentrates on the fierce struggle that still goes on today over the reproductive rights of the Kazakhstan hibakusha. The director, Antony Butts, follows a pregnant woman, Bibigul, whose wide-set eyes suggest chromosome damage. She wants to give birth despite the protestations of Toleukhan Nurmagambetov, a doctor who talks of the deformed, and too often abandoned, babies in the region as “monsters.”
1989. A Kazakh woman takes the microphone in the first anti-nuclear
demonstrations (Not mentioned in After the Apocalypse).
When the film begins, the viewer gets a sense that Dr. Nurmagambetov and his staff have made humane and heroic efforts to care for the severely deformed children abandoned to their care, and so we can somewhat sympathize with the stern and drastic positions they have adopted about the need for genetic passports—legal restrictions on who is allowed to reproduce. The doctor is well aware of the historical precedents in ancient Sparta and Nazi Germany. He knows his position is extreme, but outsiders who would judge him haven’t spent years looking after the doomed and abandoned infants in his infirmary. His belief is that genetic passports are genocide when applied to ethnicities, but sound medical practice when applied to individuals and diseases.
Siding with Dr. Nurmagambetov becomes more difficult as the film follows Bibigul through her pregnancy. She is determined to have her child, and she knows how avoid the clinic until it is too late to have a safe abortion. She also refuses to have amniocentesis to check for Down syndrome while there is still time to terminate the pregnancy. The film ends with the birth of her apparently healthy and un-deformed child.
While most of the film is a narrative of Bibigul’s pregnancy, it also has segments that are straight journalism. The director gives legitimacy to the scientific controversy over whether the birth defects in the region really were caused by atomic bombs. For most medical professionals and inhabitants of the region, denying the effects of the bomb blasts is a cruel joke, but one wouldn’t know this by viewing After the Apocalypse.
Deniers cloud the issue by suggesting that in the pre-atomic era the region was known for a high rate of birth defects caused by vitamin deficiencies in the local diet.
The controversy is presented through interviews with two scientists, Dr. Sergey Lukashenko from the Institute of Radiation Safety and Boris Gusev from the Semipalatinsk Institute of Radiation Medicine. As one might suspect by the name Institute of Radiation Safety, Dr. Lukashenko seems to have his job because his views assured he would fulfill the institutional mission to speak to the public of such a thing as “radiation safety.” In his short interviews he states:

At that time they were studying the after-effects of shockwaves and different types of damage caused by nuclear weapons, but now we only study things to do with radioecology. This place is the cradle of the Soviet Union’s atomic weapons research program. They did everything here. 456 bombs were tested… Kazakhstan is not a nuclear country. We don’t know any nuclear secrets. (9:00~)

His statement that Kazakhstan is “not a nuclear country” is true only if one accepts the political opinion that nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have nothing to do with each other. While renouncing nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan has made a very determined effort to be one of the world’s leading uranium suppliers, yet Dr. Lukashenko’s expertise in radioecology seemed to take no account of the substantial hazards left behind by decades of uranium mining.
Later in the film he performed a classic example of the radiation expert waving the “magic wand” to divert the public’s attention from the actual means by which organisms and ecosystems are affected by radiation. During a tour of the radiation museum he waves a Geiger counter at a piece for granite from ground zero of one of the Soviet bomb detonations. The Geiger counter screams when held close, but drops off to safe levels a few meters away because of the inverse square law. He tells the camera:

If the background level is 15 to 20, then 15 times higher than normal is not a lot. The existence of these objects [radioactive rocks and buildings at the sites of detonation] cannot be the cause of all the horrors that they show on TV—I mean the deformed people and so on. There is no way it can account for it. It cannot be the reason because the radiation is too low. (32:30~)

It is notable that he did not say “it is unlikely to be the reason.” Instead, he speaks with an angry and insistent voice, saying “cannot be the reason” about a point which cannot be determined with certainty. He shows here a faith in a scientific model of the effects of radiation that has been questioned for many years because it has consistently ignored the effects of internal contamination, as well as the chemical, as opposed to radiological, effects of nuclear wastes in the environment.
Dr. Lukashenko’s rant is meant to deflect attention from these concerns, and it does so by stating a point that his opponents would not dispute. When he speaks about gamma radiation falling rapidly at a distance, he's referring to some basic high school science--the inverse square law--that no one disputes. Nuclear opponents also don't dispute that that low, temporary doses of gamma rays present little danger. The issue of main concern is the damage caused at the time of the bomb blasts to the genomes of all creatures in the ecosystem. These were times of intense irradiation and heavy metal chemical  and radioactive fallout. They damaged the cells of people alive at the time, and because some of these cells were reproductive cells, the damage was passed on to future generations. Thus it is totally beside the point to draw attention to the fact that people are in no danger from the radioactive rubble at the old bomb sites. It is a distraction and a deflection of attention from the real concern, made out of a deliberate wish to deceive, or out of incompetence. 
The more authoritative voice in the film was that of the veteran scientist of the Soviet radiation research project, Boris Gusev of the Semipalatinsk Institute of Radiation Medicine. He stated:

We reported directly to Moscow. These are the records of illness. These [records] are from the most seriously affected villages next to the Polygon. We observed and analyzed the population. We investigated which were the main illnesses that were linked to exposure from radiation. We compiled them into risk groups and so on. All this data was top secret. When I was a doctor, a neuropathologist, back then all our life was on the road. We observed the population, we returned for a quick wash and shave, and then we were back out again. On the first floor where the hospital is now we had an enormous laboratory which processed this work. We knew precisely where the radiation was. We knew precisely how much of the different types of radiation people were being exposed to, what dose the population was receiving. That is, we were not idle. We knew everything.
But the most important thing was that willingly or unwillingly the people living in the regions of the Polygon had been pulled into this game between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union played the worst role, of course, because it allowed its citizens to live through the most real type of nuclear war. They were thinking about a preventive nuclear war—that if there was going to be one, then they had to know what would happen to people. And, therefore, no one was evacuated. Instead, they were observed to see how many would die, how many would become ill and so on.

Do you feel a little bit guilty that you took part in the Soviet Union’s experiment?

My good man, how far we are from one another. From a moral, ethical point of view and in knowledge of that time… You ask this question—and are probably correct in doing so—but there is no answer to this question. Simply, there isn’t one. I can’t explain it. And you will never understand what the former Soviet Union was. You will never understand this in your lifetime. (19:00~)
Over the last 15 years we have thoroughly analyzed all the material in the archives. We have made our conclusions and published our research. And at the same time we have continued our planned research on the population. Now a huge group has appeared, of 250,000 to 270,000 people. These are the children of parents who have been irradiated. We thought that everything would go smoothly, that chromosomal damage and genetic effects would be confined to only the generation of people who were irradiated, and they could not be inherited by future generations. But it turned out this was wrong. (46:18~)

The director inserts a text onto the screen after this statement, citing no expert opinion to support the claim, in order to cast doubt on what Dr. Gusev has just stated:

The vast majority of scientists do not believe that radiation damage in humans can be passed down the generations. But in Semipalatinsk many believe that radiation can cause “genetic instability” in later generations.

The same distortion of the “controversy” occurs in other parts of the film. Another text inserted into the film asserts, again with no citation:

There is no reliable evidence that nuclear testing caused the area’s higher than average birth defects. It could not have caused Bibigul’s appearance: her mother has the same facial characteristics and she was born before the [nuclear] testing started. Despite this, many in the medical profession in Semipalatinsk believe that women with “suspect genes” should not have children. (36:50~)

In spite of what is stated above about the age of Bibigul’s mother, Biken, the precise ages of the two women are never stated. Nuclear explosions first occurred in The Polygon in 1949, and Bibigul appears to be about 30 years old at most when the film was made shortly before 2011. If her mother had been born before 1949, she would have been over 30 by the time she gave birth to her daughter. In any case, even if Biken avoided genetic damage in the womb of her mother, Bibigul certainly could have been born from an ovum that was exposed to radiation, one that was in her mother in the 1950s during her childhood. Biken herself recounts (3:15~) how she witnessed the bomb explosions at the age of six and became ill from them. “It was definitely the nuclear effects,” she says, so there is no reason to discount the possibility that her ova (ova exist in the female fetus even before birth) were damaged by radiation.
     Another curious aspect of this issue is that in this film, which is ostensibly about the effects of nuclear weapons, the director focused on an outlier, a person with a serious genetic abnormality who was born before the weapons were detonated. Then he chose to save this information as a big reveal late in the film after the viewer has been led to believe that the abnormality was caused by nuclear bombs. Was Biken a "cherry-picked" research subject in this film? It would have been easier to find younger grandparent-child-grandchild lineages that started in the post-nuclear era (for example, three generations born 25 years apart in 1955, 1980, and 2005).
One of the first anti-nuclear demonstrations in Kazakhstan
in 1989 (Not mentioned in After the Apocalypse).
Antony Butts sometimes uses his subjects to support his view, but contradicts them and bends their stories at his convenience in order to dismiss the conclusion of medical professionals who have long and deep experience with the local situation. Even if the non-effect of radiation on this one family could be proven, it would be only one family. It would prove nothing about genetic damage in all of The Polygon hibakusha (who all have official documents identifying them as victims of nuclear explosions), yet Butts is willing to imply that he has untangled the mystery by filming the story of one pregnancy.  
One would think that a film about The Polygon would be the ultimate anti-nuclear film, yet it seems a nuclear advocate took up the topic as a challenge: What if we could show that even in the worst place imaginable no harm from radiation could be proven? But it failed to find an audience among either the pro or anti-nuclear crowd. This occurred because its conclusions are too pro-nuclear to gain sympathy from anti-nuclear audiences, but its images are too horrific for it to serve the purposes of the pro-nuclear lobby.
In spite of an apparent attempt at objectivity, the pro-nuclear bias becomes more obvious by the end. Dr. Nurmagambetov ended up looking like a heartless fascist, while the birth of Bibigul’s apparently healthy baby was used to imply that all is well in Kazakhstan. Antony Butts might have chosen to keep his own views hidden and let the film speak for itself, but in an interview in New Scientist [2] at the time of the film’s release, he stated some views that were straight out of the nuclear industry’s talking points. He showed that he agreed with Dr. Lukashenko, while he seemed to have not accepted what the veteran Soviet scientist had told him about the confirmed existence of 250,000 people with inherited genetic defects. He told the interviewer:

I was very surprised that the radiation did die off as much as it had. They tested 456 bombs—20,000 times the explosive power of Hiroshima—on this area. You go to the craters and sure, they’re radioactive. But if you’re a kilometer away from them, it’s nothing. It’s background level. When you have a nuclear war it’s actually quite habitable afterwards, so in one sense it’s not as scary as it’s been made out to be. Yet in another, there’s this other kind of fear—of long-term genetic damage.
The radiation is concentrated around the craters, but elsewhere there’s not enough radiation to cause these birth defects. So what is the reason? That’s where we get into controversial science. The epidemiological data that the Institute of Radiation Safety has isn’t perfect, but it suggests that children of the cohort that got irradiated live on average five to seven years less than those from a comparable socioeconomic group in an area that wasn’t irradiated. Is that due to the psychological stress, or, alternatively, could it be because of this obsession the locals have of protecting themselves from radiation with vodka?
There is this elevated level of birth defects; there’s no getting around it. There is a folic acid problem there—the whole area has a lack of greens and folic acid deficiency is linked to birth defects. But the scientists and doctors I spoke with said that folic acid deficiency could not account for so many birth defects, especially now as they’ve begun giving out supplements to little effect. This is where the science gets difficult. You can talk to scientists who will say it’s a load of rubbish, or others who will say that it’s been proven that radiation damage can be passed on in mice but that we’ve got to prove it in humans. I think this is crucial to nail down.
Yuri Dubrova, a geneticist at Leicester University, has a freezer full of blood from all of these generations from Semipalatinsk, down the line. It’s just sitting there waiting to be defrosted and analyzed when the time is right—and when the funding is there. I think the time is right now.
I think Semipalatinsk is particularly relevant [after Fukushima] because it explores the harrowing consequences of radiation exposure… All forms of energy creation are going to kill people. Coal kills millions of people per year with particulate pollution. Before we get really scared about radiation we need to understand the science and make an analysis. Do we go nuclear power or not? Instead of the debate being idiotic nonsense of rhetoric and fear, we should honor these people and let their deaths and lives mean something.

What are the main things that you hope people take away from your film?

There are two main points I hope to make. One is about a post nuclear-war world—and why nuclear weapons are bad. The second is how paranoid people are about something they know nothing about. In the absence of knowledge, fear thrives. This is especially important because we must choose a new form of energy, and a lot of us are writing off nuclear power because of fear. We have this golden opportunity to say, well how scary is it? Let’s give grants to these scientists and find out. Then we can choose to be frightened or not.

One wouldn’t expect a filmmaker to return from the Soviet Union’s nuclear test site speaking like a public relations man for the nuclear industry, but these comments have a remarkable similarity to the talking points that repeatedly appeared in editorials written by nuclear advocates in the weeks after Fukushima. The theme of fear is found throughout, along with the Chernobyl tropes about illness and death from fear, stress and vodka. Such talk suggests the main concern should not be eliminating an environmental hazard but rather managing our fear of it. Antony Butts then trots out the canard about deaths from coal, as if there were no other energy alternatives besides nuclear. Somehow he knows that the debate is “idiotic nonsense of rhetoric and fear” and not based on a solid half-century of research by numerous scientists who concluded nuclear was a technology to be avoided (see the reading list below).
The most dubious point is the suggestion that more research is needed, as if we shouldn’t believe what Dr. Gusev stated in the film about sixty years Soviet and Kazakh research leading to the discovery of 250,000 people with inherited genetic damage. Supposedly, we have to wait until the finding can be confirmed by a proper British researcher with a freezer full of blood from people of Semipalatinsk. The additional problem with this faith in British research is that it too would be dismissed by nuclear advocates who would say again, “This is where the science gets complicated. We just don’t know. It has to be nailed down when research funding becomes available.” No amount of unfavorable research findings could ever convince the nuclear lobby to quit its game.
Antony Butts’ ignorance on these matters points to a general pitfall of documentary filmmaking. The filmmaker might be an expert in his craft, but not in the subject of his film. We shouldn’t expect him to speak like an expert on a topic just because he spent a few months making a film about it. However, directors are often given the opportunity to speak as authorities, while the experts who have devoted their careers to the topic go ignored. Most directors attempt to be objective and not tell the audience what they are supposed to conclude about the topic, but the rule to go in with an open mind doesn’t mean that one has to proceed with an empty mind. It’s alright to read some books before turning on the camera (see the reading list below).
These comments that Antony Butts made before the debut of his own film raise serious questions about his pre-existing motives or who was out to influence him before, during and after the film’s production. Did he do any research? Did he learn anything about alpha and beta particles and the mechanisms of internal radioactive contamination? What about bioaccumulation in the ecosystem? These topics were never mentioned in the film. A commenter on the New Scientist website summed it up: “None of his points are relevant and it smells like propaganda from the nuclear industry.”
The director himself, or people who had his attention, may have thought it would be a great challenge to spin the worst nuclear horror story of all in a way that would leave audiences doubting that radiation is really the cause of poor health in the populations around The Polygon. The film may have been made as a counter to the much more comprehensive and contextualized film on the same topic released a year earlier: Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland. [3,4] Though After the Apocalypse tried to neutralize The Polygon as rallying point of the anti-nuclear movement, any film about this topic would always be too disturbing to be used as promotional material for the nuclear industry.
In 1989, the first major anti-nuclear movement was led by author Olzhas 
Suleimenov. Its name, Nevada-Semipalatinsk, was named after two nuclear 
test sites in the US and the USSR (Not mentioned in After the Apocalypse).
It is possible that there was no deliberate plot to shape the bias of the film. Antony Butts may have just worked independently and met a few people like Dr. Lukashenko along his way and found them, for reasons unstated, more convincing than the detailed and articulate explanations given by the Cold War veteran neuropathologist, Dr. Gusev. In the end, the film was quickly forgotten in the days just after the Fukushima catastrophe because, firstly, its subject matter was too grim for most people spend an hour with. Secondly, it could satisfy no one. For nuclear opponents it smelled of propaganda, while the nuclear industry had nothing to gain in encouraging people to see its disturbing images.

Notes

[1] Antony Butts (director), “After the Apocalypse,” Tigerlily Films, May 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kVBNiLqJlw (official trailer).
[3] Gerald Sperling, “Silent bombs for the Motherland,” Al Jazeera, July 25, 2010.
[4] Gerald Sperling (producer) & Rob King (director), Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland, 4 Square Productions Canada, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aUVQiKVKJQ
The photos featured above are stills from this film. Dr. Gusev was interviewed in this film as well, and he stated, “Oncological diseases and death in that group—that can be extrapolated to the whole irradiated population—were two times higher than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Reading List
The nuclear lobby might wish to label these books and articles as examples of the “idiotic nonsense of rhetoric and fear,” but they are all written by qualified scientists. Some of them lost government support for radiation studies as soon as they produced research findings that were troublesome for the nuclear industry.

Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (The New Press, 2007).
Benjamin Dessus & Bernard Laponche, En finir avec le nucléaire: Pourquoi et comment (Seuil, 2011). (Finishing with Nuclear: Why and How).
Gordon Edwards, “Consideration of Environmental Impacts on Temporary Storage of Spent Fuel After Cessation of Reactor Operation,” Docket ID No. NRC-2012-0246: submitted by The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, http://www.ccnr.org/CCNR_NRC_2013.pdf.
Ian Fairlie, “A hypothesis to explain childhood cancers near nuclear power plants,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity 133, July 2014, Pages 10–17. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0265931X13001811.
John Gofman & Arthur R. Tamplin. Poisoned Power: The Case Against Nuclear Power Before and After Three Mile Island (Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, 1979) http://www.ratical.org/radiation/CNR/PP/.
Gayle Green, The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation (University of Michigan Press, 2001).




2015/02/18

Bikini: La Bombe Anatomique

If people know about the American nuclear weapons that were exploded in the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, they tend to think the swimsuit of the same name is just a strange coincidence. There is no apparent connection, but actually it was more intentional and profound than one would at first think.
In July 1946, Louis Réard was told that his upcoming swimsuit design was something the world was not ready for, so, feeling he needed to make a big splash, he grabbed a name out of the recent headlines and called his two-piece creation the bikini. The swimsuit debuted on July 5, 1946 at the pool in the Hotel Molidor, Paris, just five days after the first of many nuclear explosions in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands.
In fact, the arrival of the bikini had the effect of a bomb in the fashion world. The reaction was so extreme that Réard even had trouble finding a model willing to wear it for the debut. At last, a nude dancer named Micheline Bernardini rose to the occasion and claimed her fame as the first woman to wear a bikini. Commentators stretched their imagination to relate it to all things atomic, saying for example that it was a “weapon of mass seduction” on the beaches and fashion runways of the world. By the early 1960s, the sexual revolution had arrived and everything changed. At the end of the decade it was standard beachwear in Europe and the Americas. 

In his book Hungary to Hollywood Express, Eric Plamondon describes the public reaction in 1946:

The press was in a frenzy about the first bombe anatomique, as it was called in publicity. In baptizing his creation with the name of the atoll where the most destructive weapon in history had been used, he said he was creating a “weapon of mass peace,” thinking that when we can see women strolling in bikinis, men will forget about making war. The day after the show at the Molitor pool, certain acerbic Parisian critics said that it was called the bikini because it would be the only thing left on the body after a nuclear explosion.[1]
Micheline Bernardini & Louis Réard
It would be easy to say that Louis Réard was just hopping on a popular marketing trend of the day, one that saw the word atomic overused with callous disregard for the victims in Japan and in the Marshall Islands. It appeared he was being falsely ingenuous in saying that a more peaceful world would come from a fashion that seemed to be deliberately designed to incite lust. It’s a given in biology that the sexual instinct is what drives male competition, and the historical record of powerful alpha males acquiring harems and mistresses attests to this fact. Evolutionary psychology claims that female desires are a part of the problem, too, inasmuch as women encourage male competition and show a preference for high-status men.
I have no way of knowing what Réard was really thinking, but I would like to think that he was being more sincere and serious than dimwitted fashion critics gave him credit for. Serious philosophers of the time were pronouncing that mankind had to change, that the bomb had changed everything, that civilization would not survive another war. But how were we to extinguish this aggressive tendency toward war? No one had an answer, but here was an apparently frivolous designer of flimsy swimwear pointing the way. If the selfish gene, the sexual instinct, was the root of all war, then he was right. We would have to get used to women strolling past half-naked, get over the male gaze, and think more deeply about what the bikini says about exposure and vulnerability in the atomic age. The bikini really is a work of art with strings connecting it to the Bikini Atoll.
The bikini was said to be a figurative bombe anatomique, while the atom bomb was too--it literally targeted the human anatomy, so this term coined by Réard was apt in ways he may not have understood himself. Radiation is an assault on the body. Hindsight tells us that the men who brought the bomb into existence were frighteningly reckless about the monster they were unleashing on the world. Scientists knew at the time that radiation posed serious dangers that were very difficult to control, but it wasn’t until the next decade that DNA was understood and the mechanism of genetic damage became clearer. The nuclear industry is still in denial about how bad the problem is, but I think Louis Réard had an intuitive understanding of the problem at the dawn of the nuclear age.

Later research revealed that women, children and especially fetuses are more sensitive than men to the effects of radiation[2], so Réard was very prescient when he asked us to see what his creation revealed. A high-cut bikini accentuates the lower abdomen, while a low-cut one, unlike any article of clothing before it, reveals it for all to see. And what is there to contemplate? Therein lies the crucible of life, yet despite all the other flesh on display, people in 1946 were most scandalized by the sight of the navel. The lovely taut belly framed by a bikini can be the pregnant vessel of three generations—the mother, the daughter, and the ova inside that daughter. And this is what was now exposed—to the radiation from global fallout and to the eyes of the civilization that had made the bombs. I like to think this is why Louis Réard believed the bikini should put an end to war.
A screen shot from my computer, 69 years after the arrival of the bikini:
Smart investors wanted for thorium ponzy schemes. Necessary nukes.
Question more indeed.
Notes

[1] Éric Plamondon, Hongrie-Hollywood Express, Le quartanier, 2011, p. 81. Cited in http://dagi.pagesperso-orange.fr/page-labombe-5.html

[2] For information on the higher vulnerability to radiation in women, children and fetuses, listen to these two episodes of Libby HaLevy’s podcast Nuclear Hotseat:

Episode 165: Interview with Dr. Ian Fairlie on leukemia rates of children living near nuclear plants.


Episode 191: Atomic Eggs: Increased female vulnerability to radiation.