After Fukushima: An Interview with Dr. Robert Jacobs

The disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant following the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami opens a new chapter in Japan’s unique history of radiation exposure. Explosions, damage to cooling systems, and radiation release have led to large evacuations, fear of nuclear meltdown and concern over food and water supplies.

Japan’s hibakusha (victims of radiation exposure from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings) are vulnerable to cancer, infertility and pulmonary insufficiency long after the initial affects of skin ulceration, hair loss and menstrual suppression have worn off. Only the United States and France have more nuclear power plants than Japan. A thirst for power, the catalyst of Japan’s post-war economic growth, remains. But at what cost?

Dr. Robert Jacobs of the Hiroshima Peace Institute at Hiroshima University studies the social and cultural fallout of radiation exposure in Japan and around the world. He explains to PopMatters that today’s response to the crisis at Fukushima will have ramifications for generations to come.

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Last year saw the commemoration of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 65 years after the bombs were dropped. April marked the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. In light of the disaster at Fukushima and these anniversaries, is opposition to the use of nuclear technology in Japan growing?

After Fukushima it is, but before that I would say not. You have a generation that experienced the bombing and took nuclear exposure very seriously. Their influence has faded over the last decade or two; attendance in the Hiroshima Peace Museum is down every year. There’s a waning influence of the hibakusha community. There’s a growing concern about global warming and many bought the rhetoric that nuclear power was the best response. In general, people were warming up to [the use of nuclear power] until this crisis.

What is the reaction to the Fukushima crisis amongst the hibakusha?

The hibakusha community has faced criticism here in Japan and internationally for focusing so singularly on nuclear weapons abolition. There has been criticism that they have not been more involved in anti-military efforts in general, instead of restricting themselves to the use of a specific weapon. And I know there was criticism at the beginning of the Fukushima event that the hibakusha was not speaking about the dangers of radiation.

It illustrates what could be called a failure of the hibakusha community to globalize their concerns. The Chugoku Electric Company has been planning to build a plant 60 or 70 kilometers from Hiroshima. There has been opposition from the local community, but not from the hibakusha community.

Are you surprised by that?

Not based on the history of the community and their intense focus on abolition.

In Japan there’s a constitutional article, Article 9, which prohibits Japan from having a standing military and from being militarily involved in foreign countries. The Japanese Self-Defence Force is our military and is still one of the top-ten funded militaries in the world.

Now, for the first time, they have personnel stationed in Iraq as a humanitarian mission. I don’t know for certain but my understanding is that those military personnel are essentially staying inside a building surrounded by Americans because if one person was to be wounded it would threaten perceptions here in Japan.

The goal was successful participation in an international humanitarian operation to ease people’s distress. There was very little opposition to that in the hibakusha community. You would expect opposition to Japanese participation in an American military venture, but there was very little.

In collaboration with Dr. Mick Broderick of Murdoch University in Australia, Dr. Jacobs has set up the Global Hibakusha Project to link radiation-exposed communities from around the world.

There is a perception in Japan that when the hibakusha generation passes, nobody will be around to oppose nuclear weapons who has experienced them. And that’s completely inaccurate. There are lots of communities around the world who have experienced nuclear weapons, not through direct attack, but they’ve suffered the same things: exposure to radiation; dislocation from land.

There have been efforts in the past to reach out to sufferers of radiation exposure in Chernobyl and other areas, but the perception that the hibakusha will pass and there will be nobody left shows that the community has not succeeded to establish links with outside groups. These communities tend to be very isolated and not know that other people have experienced similar things.

When Fukushima happened, I thought, “This is a great opportunity for the hibakusha community to mentor others in Japan“, but it has not happened yet.

How do you intend to link these communities from around the world?

Primarily through the web. We’ve been taking research trips to these communities. We do oral histories and collect information from people. We encourage younger people, be they second- or third- or perhaps fourth-generation, to generate culture, to generate art surrounding this identity, to do interviews with smart phones, to generate music. We will then create a website to share that information.

Despite low popularity ratings for prime minister Naoto Kan before the earthquake and a troubled history of safety failures at nuclear plants, the Japanese public have put a lot of faith in their government to deal with the current crisis. Are they sufficiently informed about developments at Fukushima?

Absolutely not. There’s been very little transparency from the beginning. The event has been downplayed from the very start. The explosions in Reactor 1 and Reactor 3 were followed by statements that the explosions were planned and that the levels of radiation had gone down after the explosions. Now we know those explosions were associated with very large releases of radiation into the environment. So that was a complete lie.

The Japanese government and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) are monitoring the site. There’s no effective independent regulatory agency in Japan. The agency that oversees the nuclear industry is inside the ministry that promotes the nuclear industry. TEPCO and the Japanese government are releasing information now strictly about the measurements of iodine and caesium, not other more dangerous substances like strontium and plutonium. Obviously, they’re measuring the presence of these compounds, but the information is not being provided, and that is almost certainly because the information is not what they wish it were. By providing information on just iodine and caesium, you can focus the public on the information that’s been released rather than the information that’s being withheld.

The Japanese public has very little recourse for finding information from other sources. I think there’s been a failure to communicate and there’s a growing sense that the information is not being provided, but also that there’s nothing that can be done about it.

The Japanese government has been criticized for acting slowly following the tsunami. Is the recently released nine-month plan for shutdown at Fukushima a realistic plan?

Possibly. There’s so much uncertainty involved that it’s hard not to say a plan like this is a pipe dream. If everything goes well, if no further problems develop then, in theory, in nine months, they should be able to bring the release of radiation to a closure. This is dependent on creating new cooling systems and getting them functional. That will happen if a bunch of other things go right and don’t go wrong.

There have already been aftershocks that were larger than the plants were designed to withstand. This could happen again any time. Additionally, the reactors may be stable but they’re stabilized in a way that is just releasing radiation into the environment and they’re not deteriorating. That’s like a car teetering on a cliff but not falling over. It doesn’t mean things are going well, it just means they haven’t gone all the way bad, yet.

Apparently, workers have not been able to get in to Reactor 3 for some time because the levels of radiation are so high. Radiation levels are too high to enter the basement in Reactor 2. And they believe fuel has melted to the bottom of the containment in Reactor 2. So you have a situation where even a small quake could rupture the containment in Reactor 2, which would release fuel out of the containment completely. It’s possible that the situation may accelerate where the levels of radiation are so high that no workers can continue to work on the site at all, in which case, establishing new cooling systems, having them functional in nine months is a dream. It’s not necessarily bad to aim for that, but I certainly hope they have dramatic contingency plans.

In a recent article for The New Yorker James Surowiecki suggested that, “the long-term impact on the Japanese economy could be surprisingly small.” What will be the major effect on the Japanese economy as a result of the Fukushima crisis?

The loss of electricity. Those plants will never generate a watt of electricity again. And how that power will be regenerated is problematic because the only clear path is to build more nuclear power plants, which I don’t know if the people in that region will support.

If the situation spirals further out of control and if the plants go into full meltdown, which remains a possibility every day, then the economic impact could be devastating. Within 50 or 60 miles of the plant you have two million people. It’s debatable whether people should be in that area now, but if those plants went into meltdown they would have to be evacuated.

Japan has accepted emergency aid and support from the US and several other countries. Is the Fukushima crisis now an international matter? If so, how can the international community support Japan in the short term and in the long term?

From the moment the radiation began entering the environment it was an international crisis. Radiation doesn’t know borders. Now that there are large amounts of radiation entering the environment, entering the sea, now that radiation has been detected virtually around the world, it’s absolutely an international crisis.

What can the international community do? There could be rigorous support for purchasing Japanese products, lowering tariffs, things like that. But from a more humanistic point of view, the international community can provide support for monitoring radiation that would affect public health.

Primarily, aid from the international community will come in the form of aid for Japanese economic stability. That of course would be welcome, but there’s a danger of a trade-off between economic viability and public health. The international community will certainly come down on the side of economic viability. I hope that’s not done at the expense of public health, which is somewhat the case here already.

In Fukushima the conversation is different, but away from the immediate radiation there’s a great deal of concern about the food supply. There are a number of dairies that had their milk taken off the market because of the presence of radiation detected in the milk. At least twelve of those dairies were able to bring the level of iodine low enough that the milk is back in public consumption. That, to me, is very dangerous.

The government keeps saying we need to support all the businesses in Fukushima, we need to support the farmers and the dairies and the fishermen in this area. But the trade-off is that rather than compensating these people and the damage done to them by this plant, from either TEPCO and their shareholders or more likely from taxpayers, there is an effort to support them by purchasing the product and bringing it back into the food supply.

What is the current mood of the public in Japan?

There was the earthquake and then the tsunami. There was this tremendous loss of life. Japanese culture is a group-oriented culture so everybody felt that loss of life. Everybody knows people in Tokyo and has friends and family from that region. But there has not yet been the opportunity to mourn or to feel a sense of closure because of the ongoing crisis and uncertainty.

A few weeks after the Kobe earthquake there were stories of heroes and heroic action. We don’t have those stories this time. That lack of closure has created a lot of anxiety among a lot of people here in Japan.

Correspondingly, there was a lot of anger at foreign press coverage of Fukushima. People were saying negative things about the situation in Japan, a lot of which turned out to be true. But there are not a lot of demands in Japan for more accountability or more honesty. I think there’s a resignation to the power structure as it exists and not a strong movement to alter it or make demands upon it that are non-traditional.

People say they want other countries to continue to buy Japanese products, to not be afraid of them, yet here in western Japan, people don’t want to eat any food from Fukushima, don’t want to buy any products from there. That anxiety about radiation-affected products that we don’t want foreigners to feel, internally, everybody feels it and everybody’s acting on it.

The disaster has united, in the worst possible way, Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes and its reliance on nuclear power. How can Japan change to avoid a similar disaster in the future?

Our current system of energy generation and consumption is insane. It’s likely that we’ll fix the current situation to fit back into that insanity. We’ll probably build more nuclear power plants. If not then we’ll build coal plants. But nobody’s going to start a big discussion about reducing the use of energy. The kind of steps that would be necessary to have a sustainable industrial society into the future run counter to the solutions that will be offered here.

We have these gambling halls in Japan called pachinko parlors. Any pachinko parlor is probably using as much energy as the surrounding 50 or 100 homes. The wisdom is that the people who own the building are going to make money. But is it good for us as a society to allow that much energy to be drained for that purpose? Economic profitability is privileged. For example, we’re being asked to reduce our power usage, to turn lights out in our house and so on. But that’s being asked of private people, it’s not being asked of pachinko parlors.

There are vending machines everywhere in Japan. You can’t walk a block without several vending machines offering various things. Instead of saying, ‘Is that smart?’ Instead of saying it’s actually more important for homes to have lights on than it is for everybody who puts out vending machines to profit — we won’t have that discussion.

This is an opportunity for Japan, which is a highly technologic and innovative country, to pioneer the kinds of technologies that will be necessary for our industrial society to sustain itself. But I think it’s much more likely that we’ll simply reconstruct the system we had and call that functional. It’s likely to be a missed opportunity for Japan.

What will be the major social and cultural impact of the Fukushima disaster?

I’m typically talking to people 40 years from now, looking back on how this impacted them. When you have a population exposed to radiation, you have a lot of devastating impacts that are not health related but count for social and cultural reasons.

Fukushima is a farming region. You have families who have been on this land, on their land, for generations as far back as anybody can remember. Their identities are tied to this specific piece of land and to their identity as farmers. Now they’ll be displaced from this land, which they will never farm again, and they’re living in an apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo.

There’s a holiday in Japan called Obon. It’s a traditional holiday in which we respect our ancestors. During Obon, the dead ancestors return to Earth and they come to where they were buried. Everybody in Japan will go back to the villages they came from. They decorate the graves and they honor and respect and welcome their ancestors.

If you are no longer able to return to your village, if you are no longer able to fulfill the requirements of the ceremony, your ancestors are coming here and nobody is here to receive them, nobody is here to honor their involvement. The failure to uphold spiritual ancestral obligations can really devastate people’s sense of well-being. They will take it personally: “I’m not there for my ancestors.” That leads to the next thought: “Who will be there for me?”

You also have some of the bodies recovered from the tsunami that were in the exclusion zone. The bodies are radioactive so they are now toxic waste. People are not allowed to ceremonially cremate their dead relatives and have them interred because this is radioactive material. The failure to uphold familial obligations, the removal and dislocation from land, the disruption of one’s sense of identity has devastating consequences on people over time.

In the Marshall Islands, for example, the people were moved from Bikini Atoll and Alinginae Atoll have lived for decades as refugees on other atolls. They are always living a life of being other, of not ever being at home, that as second- and third-generation have never gone to their home island. Their experience of life is as a refugee on somebody else’s island.

I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of people being measured for radiation in refugee centers. For many, this is the beginning of their identity as radiation-exposed person. Here you have someone who is measuring the poison. They’re wearing a suit to protect them from you. It’s being photographed by someone and published because this is a freakish scene and other people want to see it. You are now somebody who needs to be protected against by special clothing, somebody who needs to be looked at by the rest of the world because people are afraid of you.

It continues into not being hired into jobs because of fear that you’ll be sick more than other people, not being able to marry because no one wants to have children with someone who has been exposed to radiation. The effects of this on people, on families, on communities ripples forward for decades and even generations.

Here in Japan, radiation-exposed people receive special healthcare, but the breakdown of community and identity? Nothing will be done about that. As one of the liquidators from Chernobyl said, these people will forever think of their lives as before Fukushima and after Fukushima, and it’s heart-breaking to watch that unfold.