2012/02/21

A voice that must be heard

- Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb

In previous posts I’ve argued that the eyewitness testimony of radiation victims provides some of the most reliable data to make judgments about the hazards posed by the present disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. Subjective accounts are often dismissed as being anecdotal, but in an age when hard data gets cherry-picked, filtered and turned toward any desired interpretation, it starts to make more sense to listen to the common message that comes out of thousands of historical eye-witness accounts that get offensively dismissed as "anecdotal."
Today, Japan’s Mainichi News (2012/02/21) carried a story about Matashichi Oishi, the last surviving member of the crew of the Lucky Dragon #5 (Daigo Fukuryu Maru) which was caught in the fallout of the American Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test held in 1954 near the Bikini Atoll.
Mr. Oishi describes how he was covered in ash and pulverized coral from the explosion, receiving a dose that was estimated later to be 2,000 to 3,000 millisieverts. To put this in perspective, keep in mind that the annual permitted dose for children in Japan was raised after the Fukushima accident from 1 millisievert per year to 20, which is 1/100th of the amount Oishi received in a single incident. Nonetheless, no one knows how Oishi’s experience will compare with the experience of a child born this year in Fukushima.
In addition to the hard science, the social science revealed by Mr. Oishi’s experience is perhaps the most valuable lesson to take from his life story. When news of the incident escaped the veil of nuclear secrecy, the reactions of the American and Japanese authorities, followed by the treatment by Japanese society, prove once again that radiation victims are assaulted twice – once in the initial exposure, then again in their pursuit of justice.
The head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, at first denied the fallout that landed on the Lucky Dragon #5 was radioactive, then he accused the crew of being a “red spy outfit.” Even though they told the Japanese that the ship was not contaminated, the US government quickly banned imports of tuna from Japan. The incident soon grew into a diplomatic nightmare, as it was the second time in less than a decade that Americans had victimized Japanese citizens with atomic weapons. As a nascent Japanese anti-nuclear movement became mobilized by the affair, the pro-American LDP government and the US government came to an agreement about how to arrange an "ex-gratia" settlement (one that gives condolence but does not admit guilt). The US paid $2 million dollars to the Japanese government, little of which was received by the victims. The ship’s captain died of acute radiation sickness soon after the incident, and his widow received $2,500. Mr. Oishi received a settlement of 2 million yen (about $25,000 at today’s exchange rate).
After the Lucky Dragon incident, the Japanese government established the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, which Mr. Oishi visited from 1957-1992. He said he stopped going when he became dissatisfied with their attention to his case. “My liver cancer was detected at a different hospital,” he said, “I began to feel that for the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, we were merely research subjects [as opposed to patients]. Based on what I’ve seen and heard about the slow response of the national government to the plight of people in Fukushima, I get the impression that things haven’t changed. Unless we try to learn from the lessons of past radiation victims, I’m afraid that our painful experiences will be repeated.”
Mr. Oishi outlived all of his crew mates, most of whom died in middle age, but he has had numerous health problems and says he has stayed alive only because of the numerous medical interventions he has had. He takes 30 kinds of drugs each day, and has the same health problems described by the Chernobyl liquidators and other Chernobyl victims, as well as other victims of weapons fallout: cataracts, arrhythmia, angina, asthma, liver cancer, infections, and a lung tumor. Various governments and UN bodies deny that these symptoms are the effects of radiation exposure, and the Japanese government has been no different. Mr. Oishi was never recognized, like the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as officially a radiation victim. He received only the same health benefits as any other Japanese citizen.
Someone might be tempted to hold Mr. Oishi up as an example of how little harm radiation does, saying, “Think of the amount of radiation he received, and look, at 78, he’s still alive!” This way of thinking about radiation’s effects counts only the deaths, as seen in the optimistic reporting about Chernobyl that claims only a few deaths were ever confirmed as directly related to Chernobyl. 
Leaving aside the emotional pain of the bereaved, another way to look at it is to say the deaths are the least of our concerns. The dead are gone and there is nothing more we can do for them. The thing we should be concerned about is the impact on the living – not that lives were ended but that they were filled with suffering and shortened. Mr. Oishi’s tale speaks to this point. What society would tolerate, on a moral level, this suffering for the sake of energy and security, and what society could afford the treatment for the victims of a large nuclear accident? But in fairness to nuclear advocates, we have to admit that this question applies to all forms of energy. The byproducts of fossil fuel burning also shorten millions of lives, a fact which millions of modernized and prosperous Chinese citizens are now painfully aware of.
The current Japanese government has reluctantly announced plans to make lump sum payments to evacuees of the Fukushima crisis so that they can get on with their lives, and this seems sensible and overdue to outside observers, but Mr. Oishi’s experience reveals something that may be a peculiar Japanese phenomenon. The government is perhaps aware that if they are helped to resettle elsewhere, victims of radiation will suffer not only discrimination, but also envy and resentment. It is not always easy to predict their future and conclude whether they will be better off leaving or staying. Mr. Oishi experienced discrimination toward himself and his daughters for having an irradiated bloodline, but he was also resented for his “lucky” windfall compensation payment. The little reported aspect of the Lucky Dragon incident is that the wide-scale testing that Japanese scientists did in the following months revealed that hundreds of fishing boat crews were affected, as was the entire catch of fish from the South Pacific. Fallout was detected on produce and in rainfall over Japan. It was the first time that fallout data had been made known to the general public, and this incident is seen now as the beginning of the end of atmospheric testing.
     Because so many fishermen had also been affected, they resented that only the Lucky Dragon crew received compensation and attention. Otherwise, Mr. Oishi grew annoyed that friends and relatives pestered him to co-sign for loans, so he left his small town for the anonymity of Tokyo. But since the 1990s, and more so since the Fukushima crisis, Mr. Oishi has chosen to step out of his anonymity and speak publicly to honor the memory of his deceased crew members, and all radiation victims. He feels that what he has to say no is no longer just “someone else’s pitiful story.” He added, “What are we going to do about radiation, and about nuclear power? We can’t leave it up to the leaders who don’t want to lose in international competition, because they will resist seeing the health effects of radiation exposure as significant. The public must think this through with raised awareness, or this problem will remain unresolved forever.”
What is most significant is that Mr. Oishi is also speaking for millions of victims like himself whose suffering has been dismissed, or at best, neglected for decades. The American government later admitted that hundreds of fishing boats were hit with fallout from the Castle Bravo test. The bomb yield was larger than expected, and the wind also blew in an unexpected direction. The Lucky Dragon was exceptional in that it got back to a country with a sufficiently vital media and political culture that could turn its story into an international incident.
In addition to the fishing boats affected by this one bomb test, the natives of the South Pacific Islands were affected by numerous British, French and American tests, not to mention the military personnel from these countries. There were victims of Soviet bomb tests in Kazakhstan, British bomb tests in Australia, Chinese bomb tests along the Silk Road, and victims of various nuclear reactor accidents, some large and famous, some small and little known. Finally, there are the uranium miners, and nuclear workers who lost their health doing nuclear fuel processing for bombs and power generation. Resolution 275, a US Senate resolution designating October 30, 2011, as a national day of remembrance (that almost no one remembers or even knows about because it went largely unreported) for nuclear weapons program workers who were “left with debilitating illness that far too often led to their premature deaths,” according to Senator Harry Reid.
Mr. Oishi’s final judgment of the Japanese National Institute of Radiological Sciences is worth reflecting on as we wonder exactly what the Japanese government is doing to help Fukushima Prefecture. The government has promised to establish the best program to monitor the health of citizens for the coming decades, and since government officials deny there is a risk, the purpose of such an expensive program could only be to make a show of responsiveness and to prove a desired conclusion. This is what they do instead of helping people move away to safer locations.
     One can’t help but think that the plan is to repeat the process of the official UN research on Chernobyl. The government will control who can do the research, and then the research parameters, data selection and final interpretations will be massaged to yield the foregone conclusions that confirm the safety of nuclear energy. In the end, the people will feel as Mr. Oishi did, as research subjects rather than as patients, unless we follow his warning: think this through with raised awareness, or this problem will remain unresolved forever.

Other Sources:

Oishi, Masashichi. The Day the Sun Rose in the West: Bikini, The Lucky Dragon and I. University of Hawaii Press. 2011






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