Gordon Edwards critiques Canada's proposed Deep Geologic Repository

This blog post consists of a “guest appearance” by the veteran Canadian activist Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. On June 23, 2014, Dr. Edwards wrote a letter to the Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency as part of his application to intervene at public hearings (scheduled to begin September 9, 2014) regarding the proposed Deep Geologic Repository [DGR] for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste—to be located less than a mile from Lake Huron.
The CCNR has been a mainstay of the opposition to nuclear in Canada since 1978. The CCNR website describes itself as “dedicated to education and research on all issues related to nuclear energy, whether civilian or military—including non-nuclear alternatives—especially those pertaining to Canada.”
I have the impression that the CCNR may not be receiving as much attention as it deserves in this era of social media and interactive, multimedia websites. The CCNR website has the simplicity of early web design; however, the no-frills approach is not a weakness. It makes it easy to find the valuable resources on contemporary and historical issues. The main thing is the high value of the content. Anyone who is serious about nuclear education will not be put off by the lack of frills.
I found the letter below posted on a Facebook page and wanted to help it circulate more widely. Dr. Edwards wrote it in response to those who have suggested that he is merely a mathematician and not qualified to speak on nuclear energy issues. His response is a convincing defense of his qualifications, but, more importantly, it is a concise and incisive description of all that is wrong with the idea of burying nuclear waste. He explains clearly how the main problem is the way that the problem is framed by the nuclear industry—with its assumptions and its chosen terms that come pre-loaded with semantic prejudices. The process is infected from the start by what psychologists call “motivated reasoning.” Proponents start with an objective that needs to be validated, so they create hypotheses and collect data while wearing conscious and unconscious blinders that lead them only to their desired conclusions. In the process, logic fails and the proponents are unable to distinguish between fact and opinion, unable to see that their conceptual framework has led them to a dangerous dead end—as if the argument itself is stranded and irretrievable at the end of a dark shaft in a deep geologic repository.
I contacted Dr. Edwards to obtain permission to publish his letter. He hopes readers will follow up by reading other documents on the CCNR website and of course by getting educated and active before the upcoming hearings on the Deep Geologic Repository proposed for Ontario’s nuclear waste. If you want to publish the letter in another source, please don’t alter the text, and provide proper citation and context.

date: June 23, 2014
to:     Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
re:     application to intervene at the hearings on Deep Geologic Repository [DGR] for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste

I am a mathematician, originally a graduate of MPC (Mathematics Physics Chemistry) at the University of Toronto in 1961 with a Gold Medal in Math and Physics.
My Ph.D. topic was proposed to me by one of the greatest mathematicians in the world, Alexandre Grothensieck, my PhD supervisor was the brilliant Brazilian/Canadian mathematician Paolo Ribenboim, and my external examiner was one of the greatest mathematicians that Canada has ever produced, Irving Kaplansky.
I was subsequently hired by the Science Council of Canada to conduct an ambitious study into the Role of the Mathematical Sciences in Canadian education, business, industry, economics, government and scientific research—the results were published in seven volumes.
It is a striking feature of the OPG proposal that its justification is almost entirely based on mathematical models and estimation procedures that are exceedingly simplified and largely unvalidated through real life experience—especially on the time scales that are envisaged.
A hypothetical engineered repository that remains impervious to outside influences as well as internal forces, and that even resists the intrusions of all living things including humans, is exactly that: a hypothesis. In science, and in applied mathematics, a hypothesis or a model that cannot by its very nature be tested against reality remains just that—a hypothesis that may be right or may be wrong, but for which there is no scientific methodology to decide which alternative is correct.
The deliberate abandonment of highly toxic man-made materials that remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years cannot be ethically or scientifically justified based on such hypothetical reasoning, especially when the experience of the last 75 years demonstrates that we humans have more often been wrong than right in our prognostications for safe abandonment of nuclear wastes.
As a scientifically-educated lay person on nuclear matters, I have one characteristic that seems to be in short supply in the nuclear establishment (including the regulatory agency) and that is distinguishing between what we WANT to be true and what we KNOW to be true.
The nuclear establishment wants reactors to be safe, and therefore they conclude that they ARE safe. Indeed, across the front cover of the 2009 Annual Report of the CNSC, six words are emblazoned—FACT: NUCLEAR IN CANADA IS SAFE. A regulatory agency that cannot distinguish between a fact and an opinion is hardly in a position to insist that the public accept its decisions as reliable or objective.
That same nuclear establishment wants the burial and abandonment of nuclear waste to be accepted as a perpetually safe solution to the industry’s number-one public relations problem.
By calling the abandonment process “disposal” (a word that has no scientific meaning but is based solely on human intentions) the industry wants the public to accept that they are protecting humans and the environment as if by some magical enchantment (uttered in arcane mathematical language) that cannot be broken by the forces of nature or by any other agency.
But this is not true science, it is an elaborate form of self-assurance and wish-fulfillment—utilizing mathematics as a magic spell to protect us from any rude realization of what could go horribly wrong once monitoring has ceased and retrievability has become practically impossible.
Indeed, why would anyone want to retrieve the waste unless a significant amount had already escaped into the environment? But by then retrieval is likely to be far too late for the situation to be corrected, for the migration of wastes out of the repository is probably well underway and cannot be arrested. The damage can only be limited, but not really reversed or even adequately contained.
In sum, I believe I may have something of value to offer to the panel on these topics.

Dr. Gordon Edwards
June 23, 2014

The only thing I would add to Dr. Edward’s letter is that the viability of an engineered repository may no longer be only hypothetical. The WIPP facility in New Mexico was a test of the hypothesis, and the recent failure there showed, after only fifteen years of operation, that deep burial of nuclear waste is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution that can hold up over thousands of years.

Related news:

Chad Selweski. “Senators urge Kerry to fight Lake Huron nuke waste dump.” Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, Michigan). June 24, 2014.

Joseph Trento. “Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster.” DC Bureau. June 5, 2014.

Sasha Pyle and Joni Arends. “Reader View: WIPP accident reveals serious problems.” Santa Fe New Mexican. June 2014.

Other posts on this topic:


Blind Faith, Port Hope and Public Charity for a Corporate Citizen: The Nuclear History of Port Hope, Ontario

Blind Faith, Port Hope and Public Charity for a Corporate Citizen: The Nuclear History of Port Hope, Ontario

Since the 1940s, nuclear weapons tests, power plant failures and uranium mining have left radioactive contamination at hundreds of sites around the world. Whether the contamination is from weapons tests, accidents, or just reckless routine operations, the story of the affected people unfolds in much the same way, as if it were a formulaic plot for a generic television soap opera. Communities that have been chemically contaminated follow much the same script, but radiation adds some distinctive elements to the situation.
Radiation is invisible, and it has always been imbued with a diverse range of magical powers in science fiction. Ironically, in a very real sense, radiation does make people invisible (the phenomenon is fully explained by Robert Jacobs in Radiation Makes People Invisible)[1]. Once groups of people have become victims of a radiological contamination, they are, in addition to being poisoned, marginalized and forgotten. Their traditions and communities are fragmented, and they are shamed into concealing their trauma. When contamination occurs, there is a strong impulse even among many victims to not admit that they have been harmed, for they know the fate that awaits them if they do.
The victims are helped in this denial by those who inflicted the damage on them because nuclear technology, both for weapons and electricity production, has always been treated as two sides of a single national security problem that requires secrecy and the occasional sacrifice. Its workings must be hidden from enemies, terrorists and citizens themselves. Thus governments have never been interested in helping their citizens investigate nuclear accidents and environmental damage left in the wake of nuclear development.
As secretive programs of nation states, nuclear complexes operate free of any governing body that could provide checks and balances. In this sense, they are a more intractable problem than the corporate villains that are occasionally held in check by government supervision. The American tobacco industry was eventually forced into retreat by government, and it had to pay enormous damages to state governments for health care costs, but the nuclear weapons and energy complexes still operate free of any higher power that could restrain or abolish them.
Thus it is that hibakusha (the Japanese word for radiation victims) become invisible. When a new group of people become victims, such as in Fukushima in 2011, they feel that they have experienced unique new kind of horror. For them, for their generation, it is new, but for those who know the historical record, it is a familiar replay of an old story. The people of Fukushima should know by now that they are bit players who have been handed down a tattered script from the past.
A case in point is Blind Faith, the superb 1981 book by journalist Penny Sanger, about the small irradiated Canadian town of Port Hope on the shores of Lake Ontario. (See the timeline at the end of this article)[2] In the 1970s it faced (and more often failed to face) the toxic legacy of processing first radium, then uranium for nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. In a saner world this book would not be out of print and forgotten. It would be a classic text known by everyone who has ever had to share his town with a dangerous corporate citizen. Then there would be no surprises when a nuclear reactor explodes or a cancer cluster appears somewhere new. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the victims themselves fall over each other in a rush to excuse their abuser, beg for a continuation of jobs and tax revenue, and threaten the minority who try to break the conspiracy of silence.

Blind Faith is available on a website dedicated to the history of Port Hope. Since it is out of print and over thirty years old, I asked the author if she would allow its free distribution as a pdf file. She gave her permission, but of course the common sense rules apply. If you want to sell the book, ask the author for permission. If you redistribute it free, in whole or in part, do so with proper citation.

Read it in a web browser: 

Free download (permitted by author):

Penny Sanger, Blind Faith (pdf) (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1981), 135 pages. 

On the back cover of the 1981 paperback edition of Blind Faith there was an endorsement by the late great Canadian writer Farley Mowat, who passed away in the spring of 2014:

Penny Sanger has written a fascinating and fearsome account of the emotional turmoil that engulfs a small town when it discovers that its major industry is a threat to the health of its citizens. This is a classic account of how economic power enables industry to ride roughshod over those who must depend on it for their daily bread.

Although I wrote above that Blind Faith illustrates universal truths about what happens to communities contaminated with radiation, there are always unique aspects of the situation that come into play. In this case, we see the extreme complacency and obliviousness of Canadian society to the role that the country played in the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The uranium refinery in Port Hope was a key element in the Manhattan Project. It was the main facility for refining uranium ores from the Congo and northern Canada. However, as a subordinate nation in the American-led war, Canada just had to go along in complete secrecy. As was the case even in the US, there was never any debate in public or in elected legislatures. Canada was just taking orders and didn’t have to feel responsible. Canadians are still largely ignorant about their complicity in making the bombs that fell on Japan, as they are about being one of the sources of the uranium that was in the reactors of Fukushima Daiichi.
Another factor in our sense of irresponsibility is the comfortable delusion that all bad things are done by the evil empire south of the border. We’re the good guys, with universal health care and multiculturalism.
The Port Hope refinery began operations in the 1930s to produce radium from uranium ore. The ore came from the recently discovered rich deposits in the Port Radium mine on the shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. This mine would later become one of the primary sources of uranium for the first atomic weapons, but in the 1930s radium was the only product that had value for its use in making luminescent paint and medical applications.
By the 1930s it was well understood that radium and uranium mines were extremely dangerous. The high lung cancer rates of miners in Czechoslovakia had been noted for a long time, but there were others who failed to acknowledge any connection. Marie Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, and she never acknowledged that her numerous health problems had been related to the vials of radium that she carried around in her pocket or perhaps to the unshielded x-ray machines she worked with.[3] Today her diaries and papers still have to be stored in a lead box.
Because there was no consensus on the dangers of radium by the early pioneers (DNA wasn’t even understood until the 1950s), there were few safety controls in place when radium became an industrial product. Radium paint workers got sick and died for mysterious reasons, as did workers in processing plants like the Eldorado Mining and Refining facility in Port Hope. Almost nothing was done to protect workers or properly dispose of the waste product. The wastes were isolated in a dump, but when that became problem, the dirt was sold as fill to unsuspecting (or unscrupulous) buyers and used at construction sites all over town.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that a few citizens of Port Hope started to notice radioactive wastes turning up in various locations. This new awareness was the beginning of bitter social divides that would be familiar to anyone who has followed what has happened in Fukushima prefecture since 2011. The enormous implications of the necessary cleanup forced political and economic powers to downplay or ignore the dangers, and ostracize anyone who dared to threaten real estate values and tarnish the image of the community. The mayor even boasted of what a great role the town had played in the Cold War by refining uranium so that America could beat back the Soviet threat, as if the contamination had been worth it.
There was a minimal recognition of the need to do something about the worst hot spots, to placate critics and relocate residents in the worst danger. Everyone agreed, for example, that something had to be done to clean up a contaminated school, but for the most part the problem was denied in favor of keeping the town’s biggest tax payer and employer satisfied. At the same time, the federal government was not motivated to do anything that would set back the expansion of the nation’s nuclear energy program. The Darlington and Pickering nuclear plants were built nearby in this era on the shores of Lake Ontario.
By this time, Eldorado was no longer selling uranium for American nuclear weapons, but it had become a major player in the uranium fuel market. It would provide the fuel for the large fleet of CANDU reactors that Ontario was building, and by the 1980s Eldorado was privatized, turned into Cameco, and was then selling about 80% of its output to the US where the uranium was enriched for use in light water reactors. Thus a full acknowledgment of the extent of the problem—the cost of cleanup and the health impacts—would have jeopardized the refinery’s role as a major supplier in a growing nuclear energy industry. Eldorado might have seemed like a wealthy giant to outsiders, but the uranium business was perilous and changing rapidly. Just as the public was becoming aware of the extent of the pollution, Eldorado was stuck in long-term contracts that were a bargain for its customers but disastrous in a time of soaring costs.
The situation presented especially difficult obstacles for opponents because Eldorado was a crown (publicly owned) corporation. One obstacle was secrecy. Since 1942, the operations of Eldorado have been state secrets, and much remains locked up in archives that are yet to be opened to historians.[4]
The other problem was in the fact that the government had no interest in investigating its own corporation, and because Eldorado was a federal crown corporation, the province of Ontario had no authority to investigate it for environmental crimes. Thus complaints from citizens ran into this dead end.
Similar situations in the United States, such as at the Rocky Flats plutonium pit factory, involved the Department of Energy hiring large defense contractors like Rockwell to manage the plant. This meant there was a possibility the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigations could act if enough public pressure were applied and evidence of crimes became apparent. As much as the American nuclear weapons complex was a monstrous crime against nature, there is at least something redeeming in the fact that the American system of government consisted of various institutions that could sometimes keep the others in check. In the dying days of operations at Rocky Flats in 1989, the EPA and the FBI raided the facility which was then operated by Rockwell under contract for the Department of Energy. The US government essentially raided and prosecuted itself.[5] Unfortunately, no such checks and balances existed in Canada’s nuclear industry. The federal government and its crown corporation had a monolithic grip on the historical records and on decisions about environmental safety and health related to radiation. There was no outside force that had legal authority to prosecute them and force them to divulge information.
There are some further details in Blind Faith that stand out in my memory. They are unique to the Port Hope story, but also typical of stories of other irradiated and poisoned communities.
At one point, a doctor in a nearby town grew alarmed at the number cancer cases that appeared in his patients from Port Hope. He tried to bring the issue to the attention of health authorities, but was slandered and opposed by city officials to a degree that he found alarming. He had foolishly thought that his efforts to speak up for public health would be appreciated. Instead, city officials made a pathetic attempt to sue him for defaming Port Hope, and when that immediately failed, they complained to the provincial medical association. They had thought that this would succeed in getting him stripped of his license to practice, but they were quickly rebuffed by the medical association that found no fault in a doctor expressing his opinion about a serious public health concern. Such was the sophistication of the strategies of the town fathers as they floundered for ways to preserve the tax base.
Eldorado and the federal government, and even the Workmen’s Compensation Board were equally combative in the lawsuits that former workers eventually managed to bring to court. Lung cancer was the only health issue that was admitted for consideration in the lawsuits, and once it became a legal battle, all ethical considerations went by the wayside. It became a matter of winning at all costs, of admitting to absolutely no wrongdoing no matter how absurd the defendants had to appear. The government lawyers played hardball, abandoning any thought that the government corporation owed anything to the citizens who had lost their health working on a project so essential for national security. The government side was not too ashamed to engage in extreme forms of legalistic hair-splitting. For example, the victims were forced to prove their exposure, but everyone involved knew that the only party that had the information were the defendants, and Eldorado did its best to conceal it. One victim was denied compensation because the records showed his cumulative exposure was 10.8 working level months. Expert witnesses were brought in to say that the threshold of danger to health was 12 working level months.
Another segment of the book that stands out is that in which Penny Sanger was able to discover that at one time, before the contamination was known by townspeople, the Canadian military had used Port Hope as a training ground for operating in the aftermath of nuclear warfare. The military knew what the citizens of the town didn’t know at the time: there were sizzling hot spots of various sizes all over town, so it made for an ideal training ground for soldiers who would have to map radiation levels and move through contaminated terrain after a nuclear attack. After the training exercise, they might have bothered to tell the locals about what they were living with, but the contamination remained a secret until residents started to figure it out for themselves.
As the years of legal struggles and activism dragged on, there were signs that the government was tacitly admitting to the scale of the problem, even if it refused to accept legal responsibility for health damages. The management of Eldorado was routed, and it would eventually be privatized and turned into Cameco. The refinery became the object of pork barrel politics when the federal Liberals came back to power in 1980. They announced that the more dangerous uranium trioxide operation would be relocated to Blind River, a town in the north that had voted Liberal. Eldorado wanted the refinery kept in place close to markets. (I wonder if anyone saw the ironic symbolism of progress in the names; going from hope to blind—a fiction writer couldn’t have come up with anything better).
One stand-out account is that of a widow whose husband, a long-time Eldorado worker, had died of lung cancer at age 50. He had worked at Eldorado for over twenty years, during the era when workplace monitoring and standards were non-existent. Her husband was no longer there to say whether he too was “philosophical” about it and “couldn’t be bitter about it” like his wife and his daughter claimed. The widow said that in spite her husband’s shortened life, they were grateful for the good jobs and university education that the children were able to get. Thanks to Eldorado, they had come up in the world. Thanks to dad so agreeably sacrificing the last thirty years of his life.
Penny Sanger passed no judgment on this thinking, but I find it to be a rather nauseating example of working man’s Stockholm syndrome. The victim has internalized the values of the captor, and lost self-esteem and critical thinking skills in the process. The bereaved family slumps over and shrugs pathetically that they “can’t be bitter about it.” They’ve internalized the value that children have to go to university to live worthwhile lives, and it’s alright if parents have to kill themselves to accomplish this goal. If indeed going to university is so valuable, it’s obvious that in Canada there have been other ways to get there.
It seemed to never occur to any of the Port Hope boosters that there were dozens of similar towns in rural Ontario that had found ways to survive without hosting toxic industries. I know a family of Polish immigrants who landed in Port Hope in the 1960s, and they managed to get by without working for Cameco. The children had the sense to leave town after high school when they saw their friends going straight to grim lives working with the yellowcake down at the plant. One of them managed somehow to get a couple of university degrees after he left town.
This lack of imagination among the terminally hopeful applies more widely. Not only do company towns fail to imagine less toxic ways to live, but large nations also fail to imagine new paradigms for energy and economic systems. Perhaps the widow’s tale is a metaphor for something bigger.
Port Hope’s troubles with its radioactive legacy didn’t end with the privatization of the refinery and other varied forms of resolution that came about in the 1980s. A cleanup was done in the 1980s, but twenty years later hot spots were still turning up, and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission finally admitted the extent of the problem and committed taxpayer funds to a billion-dollar decontamination project which is presently underway—an amount that is, ironically, about the same as the budget for the new Chernobyl sarcophagus under construction now.[6][7]
There is further irony in the fact that while the Fukushima and Chernobyl exclusion zones have become the famous global icons of radiation-affected communities, the Port Hope disaster has no place in Canada’s national consciousness.[8] There is little public awareness of the history, and the present billion-dollar decontamination project has received scant media attention and no public alarm over the high cost. Meanwhile, opposition parties in Ontario have focused in recent years on stoking citizen outrage over cancelled plans to build gas-powered electric generating stations. That loss was comparatively little, amounting to only a few hundred million dollars. The same can be said of the province’s plan to spend $20 billion or more to refurbish nuclear power plants to operate them beyond their originally planned expiry dates. This issue receives little attention, as none of the major political parties wish to use it to stoke debate with rivals. Nuclear energy has almost completely vanished from political discourse.
Meanwhile, Cameco has continued to practice its philosophy of good corporate citizenship by funneling all its uranium sales through Switzerland in order to avoid Canadian taxes. The company is in an ongoing legal battle with Canada Revenue Agency, while it has warned stockholders it may owe as much as $850 million in back taxes[9]. Note that this amount falls a bit short of the cost of the decontamination project in Port Hope, but it would provide a big chunk of it.


1. Robert Jacobs, “Radiation Makes People Invisible,” Simplyinfo.org, 2013. http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?p=12245

2. From The Toronto Star, April 2011:

1930s: Crown corporation Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. begins refining radium, used for treating cancer, and uranium that helps the Manhattan Project develop the first atomic bombs.
1940s-1960s: Low-level radioactive byproducts and other toxins from the plant enter the environment through use of contaminated fill, and to some extent through sloppy transport, and water and wind erosion in storage areas.
1970s: New concerns prompt the Atomic Energy Control Board to scour the town in search of hot spots. Cleanups are undertaken in dozens of locations.
1988: Eldorado is sold to the private sector and becomes Cameco.
1990s: Worried about health effects, citizens begin taking an active part in nuclear license reviews of Cameco and ask the federal government to study the effects of radioactive waste in the town.
2001: Ottawa pledges $260 million for cleanup. An estimated 1.2 million cubic meters of soil contaminated with low-level radioactive waste and industrial toxins will be dug up and trucked to a new storage facility north of the town.
2002: A federal study finds that death rates, including cancer deaths, are no higher in Port Hope than elsewhere in Ontario.
2004: Families Against Radioactive Exposure (FARE) is formed to counter Cameco's plan to produce a more potent fuel known as enriched uranium. It demands an environmental assessment of the proposal by a review panel, but the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says a screening is sufficient.
2005: Dr. Asaf Durakovic, research director of the Uranium Medical Research Center in Washington, D.C., agrees to carry out a study of Port Hope residents for evidence of illness resulting from exposure to radioactive materials.
2007: The study finds small levels of radioactive elements in the urine of four of the nine people tested, including a child younger than 14. More calls follow to put the town under a health microscope.
2009: In spring, the nuclear safety commission reiterates that no adverse health effects have occurred in Port Hope, and that its cancer rates are comparable to other Ontario towns.
2010: In fall, the cleanup begins with a trial dig in a backyard.
November 2010: Acclaimed anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott calls the presence of contamination in Port Hope “a disaster” and says the only solution is to relocate the 16,000 residents.
2011: A full-scale cleanup will begin later this year, lasting a decade and costing at least $260 million. The final scope and price tag are unknown. [In early 2012, the federal government announced that it was going to cost a little more: $1.28 billion! And it was being touted by local conservative member of parliament Rick Norlock as a fantastic job creator.]

4. Peter van Wyck, Highway of the Atom (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010). This author describes the obstacles still in place for scholars wishing to access information in the archives about Canada’s nuclear past.

5. Kristen Iversen, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Broadway Books, 2012).

6. Carola Vyhnak, “Warning Port Hope a toxic time bomb; the only solution? Move,” The Toronto Star. November 9, 2010.

7. Jayme Poisson, “Port Hope set to start ‘pushing dirt.’” The Toronto Star, April 18, 2012.

8. The situation is the same in numerous places in many countries. For a sample, see the maps in The Wall Street Journal series of reports Waste Lands. Every country that has mined uranium or developed nuclear weapons and nuclear power has a similar list of contaminated lands.

9. Geoff Leo, “Ottawa accuses Cameco of multi-million dollar tax dodge,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, September 19, 2013.


Voices from Chernobyl: Vigil for a Dead Girl on a Door

 A much too common interpretation of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters is that health impacts were minimal, and that the victims received humane treatment and compensation for their losses: no harm, no foul. The nuclear industry gets an all-clear to carry on. This view is without empathy for the sociological impacts of such catastrophes. As Robert Jacobs puts it so succinctly, “Radiation makes people invisible.” His essay bearing this title is not about comic book characters given magic powers by radiation. It’s about the way that radiation victims (hibakusha) become invisible to the institutions that harmed them and are marginalized in societies they once belonged to. Radiation may cause real health effects or death, but in addition the victims also suffer loss of homes, community, identity and traditional knowledge. They suffer discrimination in various forms. They become medical subjects rather than patients. That is, it might be better to say they become medical objects. Medical tests are often conducted only to collect government data rather than to benefit the patient. Finally, they suffer immeasurable grief and anxiety and are told in the end that if they still have concerns, they must be suffering from “radiophobia,” even though no such term is recognized in the field of psychology to describe people who have experienced radiological disasters.
The official conclusions of these tragedies usually look only at cancer deaths, or the survivors of thyroidectomies who can look forward to “full and productive” lives on hormone therapy. Other health effects are ignored, and the social and psychological effects are brushed aside. One of the reasons for this neglect could be that the people responsible for it come from a rootless culture that extolls only an imagined future and material progress (either a capitalist or a socialist utopia), and prides itself on the “mobility of the workforce,” a term which really means a people set totally adrift. It is difficult for such people to understand those who have attachment to land, communities and traditions; to understand why, when a community is destroyed, some people are not satisfied with a minimal compensation package and being told to start over somewhere else.
The Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich collected Chernobyl survivor testimonies during the 1990s and published them in 1997. The English translation of Voices from Chernobyl appeared in 2006 (reviewed previously here). The following testimony excerpted from this book was given by a man who had no knowledge of a sociological theory that describes how “radiation makes you invisible,” but his story gives a perfect illustration of Robert Jacobs’ formula for the outcome of radiological disasters. The notes in parentheses refer to examples in the testimony:

1.    Loss of health or death (black spots on skin, death of daughter)
2.    Loss of homes and community (evacuation from Pripyat)
3.     Loss of identity (employed to unemployed, normal person to “one of them”)
4.     Loss of culture and traditions (the tradition of keeping the family door, placing the deceased upon it)
5.     Discrimination in housing, employment and marriage (being labelled “one of them”)
6.     Becoming medical subjects or rather objects of study (the test results are “not for you”)
7.     Grief and anxiety (death of daughter)
8.     Blaming the victim (“My daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it.”)

I hope the author and publisher will regard this long citation as fair use. I am assuming they are not terribly concerned with making money off these tales of suffering that belong to the people who experienced them. Like Mr. Kalugin, the man who tells his story here, I want to bear witness also--to just having heard his story.

from Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich (2006), pages 31-33


I want to bear witness ...
It happened ten years ago, and it happens to me again every day.
We lived in the town of Pripyat. In that town.
I’m not a writer. I won’t be able to describe it. My mind is not enough to understand it. And neither is my university degree. There you are: a normal person. A little person. You’re just like everyone else-you go to work, you return from work. You get an average salary. Once a year you go on vacation. You’re a normal person! And then one day you’re turned into a Chernobyl person, an animal that everyone’s interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and now you can’t. People look at you differently. They ask you: Was it scary? How did the station burn? What did you see? And, you know, can you have children? Did your wife leave you? At first we were all turned into animals. The very word “Chernobyl,” is like a signal. Everyone turns their head to look. He’s from there!
That’s how it was in the beginning. We didn’t just lose a town, we lost our whole lives. We left on the third day. The reactor was on fire. I remember one of my friends saying, “It smells of reactor.” It was an indescribable smell. But the papers were already writing about that. They turned Chernobyl into a house of horrors, although actually they just turned it into a cartoon. I’m only going to tell about what’s really mine. My own truth.
It was like this: They announced over the radio that you couldn’t take your cats. So we put her in the suitcase. But she didn’t want to go, she climbed out. Scratched everyone. You can’t take your belongings! All right, I won’t take all my belongings, I’ll take just one belonging. Just one! I need to take my door off the apartment and take it with me. I can’t leave the door. I’ll cover the entrance with some boards. Our door--it’s our talisman, it’s a family relic. My father lay on this door. I don’t know whose tradition this is, it’s not like that everywhere, but my mother told me that the deceased must be placed on the door of his home. He lies there until they bring the coffin. I sat by my father all night, he lay on this door. The house was open. All night. And this door has little etch-marks on it. That’s me growing up. It’s marked there: first grade, second grade. Seventh. Before the army. And next to that: how my son grew. And my daughter. My whole life is written down on this door. How am I supposed to leave it?
I asked my neighbor, he had a car: “Help me.” He gestured toward his head, like, You’re not quite right, are you? But I took it with me, that door. At night. On a motorcycle. Through the woods. It was two years later, when our apartment had already been looted and emptied. The police were chasing me. “We’ll shoot! We’ll shoot!” They thought I was a thief. That’s how I stole the door from my own home.
I took my daughter and my wife to the hospital. They had black spots all over their bodies. These spots would appear, then disappear. About the size of a five-kopek coin. But nothing hurt. They did some tests on them. I asked for the results. “It’s not for you,” they said. I said, “Then who’s it for?”
Back then everyone was saying: “We’re going to die, we’re going to die. By the year 2000, there won’t be any Belarussians left.” My daughter was six years old. I’m putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: “Daddy, I want to live, I’m still little.” And I had thought she didn’t understand anything.
Can you picture seven little girls shaved bald in one room? There were seven of them in the hospital room ... But enough! That’s it! When I talk about it, I have this feeling, my heart tells me, “you’re betraying them.” Because I need to describe it like I’m a stranger. My wife came home from the hospital. She couldn’t take it. “It’d be better for her to die than to suffer like this. Or for me to die, so that I don’t have to watch anymore.” No, enough! That’s it! I’m not in any condition. No.
We put her on the door ... on the door that my father lay on. Until they brought a little coffin. It was small, like the box for a large doll.
I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl. And they want us to forget about it.
Nikolai Kalugin, father

from Voices from Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich (2006), pages 31-33

See also:


India Idle No More

As the nuclear industry ramps up its efforts to sell nuclear technology to developing nations such as Turkey, Vietnam and Qatar, the path of nuclear development followed by Pakistan and India provide some important lessons about the price that is paid by people of developing nations for this ill-conceived notion of progress. This is not to say that the developed nations went nuclear with the complete consent of their citizens, or with due regard for their safety, but citizens there were at least empowered to a degree that avoided some of the worst possible abuses and reckless expansion of nuclear technology. In contrast, the bomb and nuclear power plants came to Pakistan and India when these nations still faced significant problems in increasing living standards, providing education, and eliminating corruption.
For the English-speaking world, there are few ways to hear the voices critical of nuclear technologies within countries such as Pakistan, China, Russia and India. One exception is Dianuke.org, which was launched by P.K. Sundaram in the weeks following the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. He was following a PhD program in disarmament studies at the time, but found the university where he was enrolled was too pro-nuclear power for his liking. He put his formal studies aside in order to devote his energies to anti-nuclear activism. He has been involved with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, but he wanted to curate a new resource that would concentrate more on the hazards of India’s plan for rapid development of nuclear power plants. Since 2011, Dianuke has evolved into one of the best online sources of information about India’s nuclear history and its present conditions. Writers from India and from overseas have contributed articles on a wide variety of topics.
The Western anti-nuclear movement is well-informed about the enormous challenges of the nuclear legacies left in the USA, Canada, France, the UK and Germany, but the problems encountered by non-Western nations are perhaps of a different nature, and relatively little has been written about them in Western languages.
Unlike Western countries, India went nuclear at a time when hundreds of millions of people lived in poverty and lacked access to education. India didn’t possess colonies from which it could extract uranium, or remote islands in the Pacific where it could test weapons. Instead, it had to expose its own people, on its own territory, to the hazards of developing uranium mines, nuclear weapons and power plants. In Western countries, considerations of possible resistance from an informed and empowered citizenry (to the extent that it existed) acted as a limiting force on what governments would consider imposing on the home territory. In India, the abuses of citizens have been much more stark and alarming than what occurred in the West. The same could be said of the USSR, China and Pakistan where citizens have had little protection in the way of wealth, democratic rights and legal systems that functioned in their best interests.
It is exceedingly difficult to find critical information published in English about nuclear programs in China, Russia and Pakistan. The Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy concentrates on weapons and peace issues, but seems to steer clear of criticizing the deployment of nuclear power plants in both countries. The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum have spoken out against nuclear power plants, but this is only one of the many issues that concern them. They are not an anti-nuclear group per se. The Bellona Foundation in Norway has covered the nuclear legacy of Russia and the ex-Soviet republics, and The Epoch Times has covered the environmental impact of Chinese nuclear tests in Lop Nor, but these exceptions just underscore how little has been written in English about the legacies of what might be called (for lack of a better term) “peripheral” nuclear states.
One could say that P.K. Sundaram capitalized on the fortunate status of English within India as a lingua franca to connect both a domestic and an international readership to critical information about the state of India’s nuclear energy program. He also launched the site when the Fukushima disaster coincided with increasing levels of local resistance to nuclear power plant development, most notably in Koodankulam. This is not to say that he was the first to work on this issue or publish in English about it. At Dianuke you can find back issues of the journal Anumukti which published its first issue in 1987. 
As Dianuke became known internationally, Mr. Sundaram made important connections with activists in other countries. He was interviewed in 2013 on the popular podcast Nuclear Hotseat (#102), he has visited anti-nuclear activists in Germany and Australia, and he will come to Hiroshima in 2014 to participate in the annual commemoration on August 6th. Presently, you will see no “donate” button on the Dianuke website, but of course the question of how to sustain this activism is something that Mr. Sundaram would like to discuss with any individuals or groups that could support his work (Dianuke contact). However, the future tolerance of such activism is uncertain, as the new government of Prime Minister Modhi has announced plans to curtail the work of “mysterious NGOs.” The New Indian Express reported on May 25, 2014 that the government has noted that “the NGO sector in India was vulnerable to the risks of money laundering and terror financing, and details of accounts with returns were important to ensure that foreign funding was not misused or diverted for any activity which could be detrimental to the national interest.” It all depends on whether opposition to nuclear energy will continue to be perceived as seditious and detrimental to national interest.

Update: This just in  from The Indian Express (2014/06/07). India takes a shot at foreigners who would be concerned about human rights abuses there: "The NGOs become the central players in setting the agenda, drafting documents, writing in the media, highlighting scholars-turned-activists and lobbying diplomats and government."

The list below is a sampling of articles from Dianuke. I’ve had the honor of contributing two of them: