October 22, 2014

Interview with Michelle Gin, PSR National Student CoordinatorOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Can you tell me about your history with the bike tour?
In 2012, I had been working with Iowa PSR on the coal campaign for 1 ½ years when Dr. Maureen McCue said “You should do this [bike tour in Japan]!” She thought I’d be a good representative for the U.S. on behalf of PSR. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) was looking for someone because there was a lack of representation of U.S. students in the IPPNW Student Movement. With nearly no prior knowledge of nuclear weapons, I was drawn by the idea to learn about a new topic, to travel, and to meet fellow activists. Plus, I wanted to learn, especially as an American coming from a country that had bombed Japan.  That was my first bike tour. I trained for months, cycling every day and over my lunch hour to prepare for the challenging journey up and down the Japanese mountains. I had no idea that IPPNW would have such a significant impact on me! I’ve been involved in the organization since then. In the U.S., PSR students are so vastly spread out that we don’t get to see many faces of activists. So, to see activism around the world has been a way to re-ignite my passion to advocate to prevent what we cannot cure. The next year I participated in the German IPPNW Small Arms Bike Tour, and the following year I became the Lead Coordinator of the International Peace Bike Tour in Kazakhstan.

How did you end up get involved as an organizer of the tour this year?
In 2013, I organized a Nuclear Weapons Inheritance Project (NWIP), the South Asia Dialogue, in Nepal as part of the IPPNW Student Movement. NWIP’s aim is to raise awareness about the political and humanitarian consequences of security policies relying on military power and nuclear weapons. The conference also focused on empowering younger generations to undertake disarmamBikeTourGroupent activities on local, regional and international levels. We taught non-confrontational dialogue with participants from India and Pakistan, and it was hosted in Nepal, because it is neutral territory. There were also participants from South Asia, because that region will be impacted by a nuclear weapons fallout. Because of that experience, organizing and leading an international team remotely, I was brought in to organize the Kazakhstan bike tour.

What were some highlights from the trip this year?
Real, uncensored conversations with locals was quite the highlight. One of the most striking things I remember was locals who said they could see the plume from the nuclear weapons testing in their small village. They told us they didn’t know what was happening: they thought they were under attack. The Soviet government told them they were just earthquakes. I tried to put myself back in time in their shoes, living in poor conditions, seeing a giant plume in the distance and having your government lie to you. All records were destroyed by the Soviet Union before Kazakhstan gained independence, so it’s hard to find information on how many people were affected. According to IPPNW, 467 atomic and thermonuclear devices were tested in Kazakhstan at the Semey testing site. The first nuclear explosion was in 1949 and then continued over a 40-year period.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The other highlight, unrelated to our cause, was visiting Bayanaul National Park. It was beautiful; there were mountains, trees, and a lake clear enough that one could see the bottom.

Can you talk about the atomex meter shown in your photograph?
The group first wentBikeTourMeter to the town of Kurchatov near the testing site. We went to a museum to learn about the history of the nuclear testing facility. The town was named after the scientist who conducted his research and the nuclear testing. After the museum and lunch, we packed ourselves into vans and drove, or should I say bounced along, a very bumpy road. We stepped out of the van, near a half-demolished cement building that demonstrated the strength of the nuclear weapons. The site had a ground reading of 7.1 microsieverts per hour. For reference, in the U.S., an average person receives 3 millisieverts background radiation per year (1000 microsieverts = 1 milliseivert) and a full-body CT scan of an adult exposes one to 10 millisieversts of radiation. Our guide said we would continue our journey to the epicenter. To do so, we were required to wear close-toed shoes, which only the men had, so only they went on. They were given thin face masks to wear, too. The reading was 16 microsieverts per hour at epicenter. When we got back to where we were staying, we threw all our clothes into the laundry and all the men into the showers!

Are you a currently a student health professional?
Yes, I returned to school for my MPH in Maternal and Child Health at the University of Minnesota with interdisciplinary concentrations in Public Health Policy and Health Disparities.

I know you are involved in a PSR project with the “Reach the Decision Makers” program. Can you talk about that?
Reach is a program that provides fellowships to promote science and health-based policies at the US EPA. I’m on the Reach “radiation team.” We are working on the advance notice of proposed rule-making to revise a rule on how the EPA regulates radiation. The EPA was looking for comments by people with health backgrounds by early August. We compiled our thoughts on how risk vs. dose should be measured and tried to develop stricter policies around radiation to protect the public’s health. It was looking like the EPA was creating something more relaxed, and we’re trying not to let that happen. The others on my Reach team are more experienced with the issue of radiation, so I’m the one who’s checking the information so that an everyday person can understand what’s being written. Catherine Thomasson, Executive Director of National PSR, was the one who connected me to Reach because she knew the Reach radiation team was looking for a final member. I’m learning more about a field I’m interested in, so it’s mutually beneficial.

What is your thought about the level of interest and knowledge on nuclear weapons among younger PSR members?
I didn’t know much about nuclear weapons before 2012 because it seemed like it was from the Cold War era. I was wrong. It is an issue of today and our future to survive on this planet. The human consequences of nuclear weapons not only impacted the generation that developed weapons, but will impact our generation and future generations. From a public health perspective, the existing environmental and human health consequences that come from them, as well as the potential use of nuclear weapons that would to lead to nuclear famine, impacting 2 billion people on the planet, is something we must prevent. If used, nuclear weapons will impact global climate change and that’s what puts 2 billion at risk: the food and water supply will be affected for all those people. We have too many nuclear weapons ready to launch at a second’s notice. The U.S. has accidentally dropped nuclear weapons on ourselves through transport, and we have had several near-misses of launching nuclear weapons in our history.

Though popular topics among students are global climate change, green hospitals, fracking, etc., I hope students will also educate themselves and others about nuclear weapons. There is a link. Nuclear weapons can be related to climate change, famine, an increase of heat stroke patients in one’s ER, and many more issues our Student PSR members will face.

What would you like PSR members to know about students?
PSR members are critical to the development of future PSR members. To help grow the next generation of PSR members, we must invest our time and energy to develop students’ skills to be active in PSR. Student PSR members and chapters require strong mentorship from our existing PSR members. Take the time to reach out to a student group and offer to share your expertise and story. If around students in medicine, public health, nursing, public policy, law, communications, etc., introduce them to PSR because it is important to find allies across all disciplines to make positive and lasting change.

What would you like student PSR members to know about PSR?
Student PSR is a unique organization as compared to its fellow student organizaBike Tour 2014 2tions, because once a Student PSR member is no longer a student, they do not fall out of the organization, but move onto becoming a PSR member.

Can you talk about attending the IPPNW World Congress like after the bike tour?
After the bike tour, I attended both the Student IPPNW Congress and the 21st IPPNW World Congress, held August 27-30. The Student Congress had about 50 participants from more than a dozen countries, while the World Congress had about 300-400 attendees from even more countries. The Student Congress was a really great way to energize students from around the world and build lifelong connections to work across borders.  Throughout the Student Congress and World Congress, there were many workshops about the nuclear testing at Semey, about emergency disaster relief, Fukushima today, and the small arms treaty. I presented a workshop, Maternal and Child Health Outcomes from Nuclear Radiation, and was thrilled that my workshop was very well attended.

Would you like to share anything else about your experience this summer?
The cultural experiences were fantastic: we would cycle into small villages where they had never seen foreigners before and be welcomed by elderly women dressed in traditional clothing singing Kazakh songs while gently tossing candies at us.

Cycling through the country was beautiful! It’s not often you’re surrounded by the Kazakh steppe, a cross between savannah and desert.

Hearing individual stories of people affected from the nuclear weapons testing in Kazakhstan was very moving. I hope that sharing those stories in our home countries will impact our fellow students to become more proactive on the issue of nuclear weapons abolition.