Living a Nightmare
Being a radiation-exposed person is a nightmare from which I cannot wake up. But people like Dr. Bo Jacobs make me feel less alone. I feel so fortunate to know him, and to read his work. His recent three-part essay “Radiation Makes People Invisible” is marvelous. He gets it.
Dr. Robert (Bo) Jacobs, a historian of the social and cultural aspects of nuclear technology, is a friend to Downwinders globally. For the past five years, along with Dr. Mick Broderick of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, he has headed up the Global Hibakusha Project. “Radiation Makes People Invisible” reflects his compassion and understanding for those of us the world labels as “Downwinders.”
Thoughts Prompted by Bo’s Article
As my readers know, my life has been turned upside-down by the health impacts of having lived next to the Hanford nuclear weapons facility as a child.
The illness, disability, and death that follow in the wake of exposure to nuclear weapons used in warfare, and to radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons production and testing activities, from uranium mining, and from nuclear reactor accidents are not pretty.
Death and Disability
Bo describes the catastrophic results that occur either immediately or within a few days of exposure the high-intensity gamma exposure generated by a nuclear explosion. The victims he notes are those who were near the explosion.
But the damage doesn’t end there. Death and disability from nuclear reactor disasters can reach very far and very long. Radioactive fallout from Fukushima deposited large quantities of alpha emitters, which can be internalized through inhalation, through swallowing, or through cuts in skin long after the event itself. Such alpha emitters can travel long distances, impacting people who live downwind from reactor accidents as well as close to the disaster. And most radiogenic diseases, such as thyroid and other cancers, thyroid and parathyroid disease and other diseases associated with radiation exposure, have a latency period in the human body. They may not show up until years after exposure that triggered them.
Loss of Home, Cultural Ties
Hanford and Nevada Test Site Downwinders like me have, for the most part, not experienced the loss of home and community seen in those displaced by the Fukushima or Chernobyl nuclear reactor disasters, or by Test Bravo in 1954 in the Marshall Islands. Levels of radioactive contamination in those areas were so high that cities and towns within vast geographic regions had to be permanently abandoned.
Even though some Downwinders aren’t faced with the trauma of sudden evacuation, they face loss of home and community in insidious ways. Jobs may be irreplaceable, and unemployment may result when families are forced to relocate. Traditional lifestyles, including farming or fishing, may no longer be possible, forcing people to become dependent upon state subsidies, which can seriously harm sense of self worth and well being. Loss of income earning potential often accompanies the cancers, and other disabling diseases associated with radiation exposure. Friends and family are eventually relocated to remote areas, further fracturing the community.
Even more heartbreaking, some families, like those in areas near the former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, must continue living within contamination zones. They continue to harvest crops from contaminated gardens, and eating meat from livestock grazing on radioactive grasses. They don’t have the money to move in some cases; in others, they don’t know the danger they’re in from the very air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they are consuming. In such instances illness and birth defects occur in generation after generation.
Although not addressed in Bo Jacob’s article, a group known as ETHOS has encouraged displaced families to repopulate contamination zones near Fukushima. These families are offered dosimeters and full body counters when they repopulate these areas, but the concern of many experts is that it is unsafe, particularly for children, the elderly, and anyone with suppressed immune systems, to live within exposure zones. “Safe” contamination levels in these areas are also the subject of controversy.
Part Two next week