By Julio Godoy* | IDN-InDepth NewsInterview
BERLIN (IDN) – Robert Jacobs was born 53 years ago, at the height of the cold war, amidst the then reigning paranoia of nuclear annihilation of humankind. In school, he was eight years old. “We learned about how to survive a nuclear attack. We were told that the key to survival was to always be vigilant in detecting the first signs of a nuclear attack.”
45 years later, Jacobs, Bo for his friends, is one of the world’s leading researchers on the social and cultural consequences of radioactivity on families and communities. Bo holds a PhD in history, has published three books on nuclear issues, and is author of hundreds of essays on the same matter. He is also professor and researcher at the Graduate Faculty of International Studies and the Peace Institute, both at the Hiroshima City University, Japan.
Back in the early 1960s, Jacobs learnt at school that “The first thing we would perceive (on a nuclear attack) would be the bright flash of the detonation. Teachers told us to always be prepared for this flash and to take shelter. I remember going home that day and sitting on the steps in front of my house in suburban Chicago and just sitting there for an hour waiting for the flash.”
This dreadful experience marked Jacobs’ life, for it led his studies and professional life towards analysing the consequences of the nuclear age on humankind.
“We live through a slow motion nuclear war,” he says, referring to the sheer amount of nuclear and radioactive material stored across the world, which will be part of the global ecosystem for millenniums to come.
As professor at the Hiroshima City University, Jacobs spends most of his time in one of the two cities (along with Nagasaki) destroyed by nuclear annihilation in the final phase of World War II (1939-1945). He is a privileged witness of the social and psychological responses of society to such a tragedy; furthermore, the nuclear accident of Fukushima (in Mach 2011) has given him again a excruciating opportunity to analyse social, psychological, and bureaucratic reactions to such catastrophes.
What made you pursue an academic career on nuclear issues?
Robert Jacobs (RJ): My choice of a career working on nuclear issues is the result of a childhood in which I was very afraid of nuclear weapons. When I was 8 years old we learned in school about how to survive a nuclear attack. I don’t remember the specific format, I don’t think it was the classic Duck and Cover material but it was similar. We were told that the key to survival was to always be vigilant in detecting the first signs of a nuclear attack. The first thing we would perceive would be the bright flash of the detonation. They told us to always be prepared for this flash and to take shelter. I remember going home that day and sitting on the steps in front of my house in suburban Chicago and just sitting there for an hour waiting for the flash.
Vigilantly waiting for the flash. I imagined the school across the street from me just dissolving. I imagined my house, and all of the houses on my block dissolving. I imagined my whole town just dissolving into white light. I became terrified. I think that this was partly when I became aware of my own mortality and that I would die one day, but it was very connected to nuclear weapons. The way that I dealt with this fear was to find books in the library about nuclear weapons and read them. Throughout my childhood I read everything that I could find about nuclear weapons. Since I had such a strong fear, my means of dealing with it was to learn whatever I could about the thing that terrified me. I have never stopped this process.
As staff member of the Hiroshima Peace Institute you are first-rank witness of the severest nuclear catastrophe of modern times. Fukushima typifies several dangers of all things nuclear: The difficulties to control the technology, the recklessness of administrations, both private and public, and the fact that radioactivity does not respect national borders. How do you see the catastrophe?
RJ: I see the catastrophe as absolutely horrifying and ongoing. There is no discernible end in sight to this tragedy, radiation will continue to seep into the Pacific Ocean for decades. I think that there were many instances of negligence that facilitated the disaster. The design of the reactors and site was bad. The maintenance of the plant was neglected for decades. Adequate emergency procedures were never designed or enacted. In many ways, this highlights the problems not just of nuclear power but especially of privately run, for profit, nuclear power plants. In this case profits are raised by lowering costs, a process which both facilitated and accelerated the disaster. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) notoriously has neglected its nuclear plants in honour of increasing profitability.
Beyond this, I would say that we also see illustrated here that the decisions to build nuclear plants are national ones, but when they have problems they are always global in scale. When one considers the time scale of some of the radionuclides that enter the ecosystem from nuclear disasters, they will stay in the ecosystem for thousands of years (as will the radionuclides in the spent fuel rods when they operate without a meltdown). These radionuclides will simply cycle through the ecosystem for millenniums. These toxins will remain dangerous for hundreds of generations and will disperse throughout the planet. At Fukushima the benefits of the electricity generated by the plants will have lasted barely longer than one generation while the sickness and contamination resulting from the disaster will last for hundreds.
‘Cold shutdown’ catastrophe
How do you evaluate the government’s handling of the catastrophe, for instance, the fact that only 12 square kilometres around the site have been evacuated?
RJ: The government’s handling of the disaster is a second disaster. Virtually every decision has been driven by two things: money and public relations. The decision to evacuate only 12 square kilometres was driven by concerns of cost and not by concerns of public health. When the government mandates evacuation they incur financial responsibilities. This is why they limited it to 12 km. They made a “suggested” evacuation area of 20 square kilometres.
Why the difference? Mandatory vs. suggested? The area between 12 and 20 km where evacuation is suggested means that the government bears no fiscal responsibility for those evacuees. If they evacuate, it is their own decision, and must be done at their own cost. These people are in a terrible bind. They know that they must evacuate because of the levels of radiation, but they will receive no assistance. Their homes are now worthless and cannot be sold. They are on their own. They have become both contaminated and impoverished. The other thing guiding decision making by the government is public relations.
While they knew that there had been a full meltdown on the first day of the disaster, and three full meltdowns by the third day, they denied this for almost three months. The reason this was done was to control perceptions. They managed to keep the word “meltdown” off the front pages of the world’s newspapers during the period when they were focused on Fukushima.
When the government acknowledged the meltdowns almost three months later the story was on page 10 or page 12 of international papers. This is a success for them. At the end of 2011 they declared the plants in “cold shutdown.” This is insane. The term cold shutdown refers to the activities of an undamaged and fully functional reactor. A reactor whose fuel has melted and is now located somewhere unknown beneath the reactor building, and that must have water poured on it for years to keep it cool are not in cold shutdown. This was just a way of saying to people that the event was over and everything was under control–absolute conscious lies. These concerns, costs and perceptions have guided the government’s response far more than public safety has.
Loss of livelihoods
How does the tragedy affect the food supply?
RJ: The government has set “legally acceptable” levels of contamination in food. For example, there is a legally allowable level for caesium in rice. So if some rice is contaminated above this legal level it is not removed from the food supply, but rather is mixed with uncontaminated rice until it is below this level. This is a process for moving contaminated food into the food supply, not excluding it.
The reasons for this are cost. Many thousands of people have lost their livelihoods because of the disaster. Many farmers, fisherman and others have lost the value of their businesses because of contamination, with no fault of their own.
What is to be done about these people? One solution would be to compensate them for their lost businesses, but this would cost a lot of money up front. The other solution is to try to keep their businesses viable. To do this you keep them at work, you continue to bring their agricultural goods and fish to market and support their businesses.
In this case you end up with increased costs to public health because of exposure to radiation, but those cost come in the future, they are on the backside, in 10-20 years. So bringing contaminated food to market reduces short term costs and pushes the consequences into the lives of politicians in the future. But by far the most disastrous thing is to allow so many children to remain in contaminated areas. All children should be removed from contaminated areas immediately, but that would, alas, cost money.
Tradition and radioactivity
For the relatives of the mortal victims of the Fukushima accident, the fact that they cannot tend and worship the graves of their relatives constitutes a further penalty. Can you tell me something about this Japanese tradition and how radioactivity impedes it?
RJ: There are a few things to think about in relation to this. First is the Japanese holiday of Obon. This is a very old traditional holiday in which ancestors are celebrated and thanked. During this holiday many people return to the towns where their families are from and conduct very old rituals. The family goes to the site of the graves of their ancestors and clean and decorate their graves. They invite the spirits of their ancestors to return to visit with the living family for a few days. The family tends to spend this time together building both connections to the past and to each other. At the end of the festival the spirits of the ancestors are escorted back to the cemetery.
For those whose home towns are in the contaminated area, this ritual can no longer be observed. They are unable to honour the spirits of their ancestors in traditional ways, and the graves of their ancestors are untended. This can have a devastating psychological affect. The notion that ancestors are no longer being honoured, no longer being invited to join together with the living, and that they will spend eternity with the dishonour of graves untended by their descendants can damage families and individuals.
For many people, these are rituals that have been observed in their families for hundreds of years, for many generations, and it is they who have broken this chain. How will the ancestors know that they are not being disrespected, but that the descendants have no choice? Having worked with many radiation-exposed communities around the world, I know that many people are able to manage the distress that this causes for a few years, knowing it is not their fault. But over decades of neglecting ancestors people tend to feel a visceral sense of their own failure to honour their ancestors. Additionally, when the tsunami occurred, some people were unable to claim the bodies of their relatives and give them a proper burial as their bodies were recovered very close to the nuclear plants and were considered “nuclear waste.”
‘Second class citizens’
What other humanitarian consequences has the catastrophe provoked?
RJ: There is almost no way to calculate this. Many families have divorced over conflicts about whether to move or to stay, whether to eat local food or not. Many children are unable to play or spend time outdoors because of contamination. Many wear dosimeters that record their exposures (they don’t alert the children to the presence of radiation, merely record the exposures for later diagnostic purposes) and they will grow up with a sense of being “contaminated.” Children in families that move away have been experiencing bullying and discrimination. Many people have no idea if they have been exposed to radiation, but are aware that they have been lied to repeatedly; about whether they will be able to return to their homes, about the dangers of radioactivity, about nuclear power in general.
My work with radiation exposed people around the world has shown that those exposed to radiation often become “second class citizens.” They are shunned, they are lied to, they are observed for medical information but rarely informed of this information, and they are marked as contaminated for the rest of their lives. In this way they are denied the dignity that other members of the same society expect.
Now to nuclear weapons: Western countries in possession of the bomb have over the years carried out experiments in faraway locations, in Oceania, in the North African deserts, not near London or Paris… It is an extraordinary abuse, and yet such countries have never been made accountable for the damages they have caused…
RJ: I view nuclear testing as linked to military colonialism. Nuclear powers tend to test in the far reaches of their military empires and contaminating people with little political power or agency to protect themselves. As is true in general, colonialists rarely have to face any consequences for their exploitation. This is an extension of the brutalization of the colonized by the colonizer.
When we look at the history of colonialism, the British have entirely retained the great wealth that came from the slave trade, when the French lost Haiti, Haiti was forced to pay compensation to the French for their “loss.” In the case of the nuclear powers, we can see this dominance both sustained and rewarded. Consider the Security Council of the United Nations, its five permanent members are the first five nuclear powers. Obtaining nuclear weapons has earned them a permanent veto over “lesser” countries. Those exposed to radiation from nuclear weapon testing have almost never been given any health care or compensation for loss of life or the contamination of land and food sources. It is criminal.
Nuclear ignorance – nuclear fatalism
You work and live in Hiroshima, one of the two cities which directly suffered the unspeakable effects of nuclear weapons. Despite such horrors, still present in our lives, the world nuclear powers, from the U.S.A. to Pakistan, have accumulated some 30,000 nuclear heads capable of destroying the Earth several times. And yet, nobody seems to be scandalised about it. This lethargy, is it ignorance or fatalism?
RJ: Both. Most people don’t ever think about nuclear weapons. Most didn’t think much about nuclear power until Fukushima. For most people nuclear weapons are abstract – they have never seen one, they don’t understand how they work – as poet John Canaday has said, most people experience nuclear weapons through stories, and for many those stories are Hollywood movies in which there are rarely consequences from nuclear detonations (besides killing aliens and destroying asteroids).
But it is also true that many people don’t feel that they can do anything about nuclear weapons. They are never a topic of public debate in the politics of nuclear nations, they are at the deepest, most secure parts of large militaries. And most people really have no idea of how much of their tax monies are being spent on nuclear weapons in nuclear nations. This, by the way, is where I feel that the stockpiles are vulnerable. As wealthy imperial nations decline, the billions spent annually on nuclear weapons will be questioned. They are rarely questioned in terms of desirability since many people living in nuclear armed countries feel that the weapons either protect them or help to establish their nation as one of the big players.
Can you imagine such a child terrified by the possibility of nuclear annihilation, as you were yourself today, in Israel, in Iran, in Korea, in India, or Pakistan?
RJ: Yes, it is possible for me to imagine such an experience in today’s world, for instance Kashmir where the military stance between nuclear armed India and Pakistan is very visible. But I do think that it would be different. In the modern case the child would be imagining such a thing, piecing it together through what they hear at home and around the community. When I was young it was presented as formal education in the school system, so I didn’t have to imagine it myself at all, I was being trained to think about nuclear war.