December 18, 2012
From Hiroshima to Fukushima

Dual Threats of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power

By Robert Gould, MD, SF Bay Area PSR President

To see the referenced photos, please download the print version of this special newsletter issue here.

At the end of August, Patrice Sutton and I participated in the extraordinary 20th World Congress of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) held in Hiroshima. We hadn’t been there since the World Congress was held in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1989. I had forgotten how scenic Hiroshima and the surroundings were: numerous densely forested hills bordering multiple rivers converged on the Delta that was the site of the atomic detonation [Pic. 1]. The Congress was located within the extraordinarily beautiful Peace Park where the eerie remains of the old industrial prefecture building and its dome skeleton provide unforgettable testimony to the devastation of 67 years ago [2]. The Park remains an incredibly moving place, replete with memorials throughout to the 210,000 people who perished by the end of 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki [3].

For me, the Peace Park’s most compelling site remains the Hiroshima Peace Museum where there are numerous exhibits commemorating the bombing and its victims, including the chilling display of the famous watch that was found, stopped at the 8:45 am time of the bombing [4]. In addition, since 1989 the museum has been remarkably transformed to provide a more accurate accounting of Japanese war crimes during World War II, including Hiroshima’s historic role as a leading military-industrial port, which included poison gas factories using Korean slave labor.

In addition to providing a comprehensive review of the deadly impacts of the bombing, the exhibit also covers a wide variety of historically controversial issues dating from the recovery period. This includes the stigmatization of bomb victims, delays in providing appropriate medical care to them [5], and the decades-long delay in recognizing the claims of Korean and other slave laborers who suffered the same health issues as the surviving Japanese Hibakusha [6]. Also displayed was information regarding the historical integration of Japanese military forces under the nuclear umbrella of its military alliance with the United States [7,8]. This has included secret deals with the U.S. to permit, but “plausibly-deny,” the transit and stationing of U.S. nuclear-capable forces within Japan, of renewed import given current U.S. aims to incorporate Japan and other Asian nations into a growing Pacific alliance to “contain” China.

When exiting past the endless graphic displays of the effects of the nuclear inferno in Hiroshima [9], a visitor would certainly be motivated to sign the global petition for a Nuclear Weapons Convention avoided by the nuclear weapons powers [10].

The Congress featured numerous presentations focusing on the challenges facing all of the IPPNW affiliates around the world in moving towards a world without nuclear weapons. There was much discussion about the evolving role of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), which is allied with powerful global movements for the elimination of nuclear weapons such as the Mayors for Peace, an organization for which former Hiroshima Mayor Akiba has provided such exemplary leadership. Mayor Akiba and many other speakers reminded us of the continued opposition of the nuclear weapons states (NWS), such as our own, to fulfill their explicit obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to move speedily towards nuclear abolition.
Throughout the conference, sessions on nuclear weapons dovetailed with those examining the continued deadly toll of small-arms violence throughout the world, particularly impacting our IPPNW members from Africa. IPPNW co-President Robert Mtonga, from Zambia, together with other IPPNW colleagues working on these issues, spoke compellingly about the challenges to eradicating the scourge of the global small-arms traffic fueled by arms traffickers and their national sponsors [11].  This was exemplified by the recent failure of a UN Arms Trade Treaty due to the lack of support by the great powers, including the United States, whose overseas weapons sales now constitute more than three-quarters of the global arms market.

I participated in a PSR-sponsored workshop regarding the Obama administration’s military and nuclear weapons policy, together with National PSR board member and longtime arms-control diplomat Edward Ifft, and with former National PSR president John Pastore. Dr. Ifft gave a detailed presentation of the present prospects for arms control from his insider perspective. Dr. Pastore examined present impediments to disarmament while reminding us of the critical work of his father, Senator Eugene O. Pastore, in influencing President John Kennedy to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which forbade the above-ground testing of nuclear weapons [12]. In my own presentation, I explored the latest developments of U.S. foreign and military policy. I discussed what I regard as the dangerous anti-China “Pacific shift” of the Obama administration, which presages additional decades of profligate military expenditures, and continued nuclear modernization projects beyond the over $180 billion already planned for nuclear weapons programs through the end of this decade [13].

In tandem with sessions covering nuclear weapons issues, this year’s Congress also contained many sessions devoted to exploring issues of nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, including a workshop organized by current PSR National Board President Andy Kanter, President-elect Jeff Patterson, and Board member Ed Ifft. A number of plenary speakers, including those representing the Japanese government and nuclear industry, presented information that, in my view, tended to minimize the health dangers of the radioactive releases, particularly ongoing contamination of water, soil and food. One speaker suggested using sunflowers to absorb radioactive materials for the purpose of soil remediation, although final disposition of such tainted flowers was not discussed [14, 15].

This overall downplaying of radioactive hazards was effectively countered by experts from our German, Swiss, and Australian affiliates [16]. Such an exchange was unprecedented in IPPNW meetings, and even more significant given that many within our Japanese affiliate (JPPNW), while always united in their opposition to nuclear weapons, have been, at least until Fukushima, largely supportive of Japanese nuclear power programs, and historically resistant to IPPNW’s overall opposition to nuclear power.

Debates about the short–and long-term environmental and public health impacts of the Fukushima disaster persisted through a special symposium held in Tokyo a few hours following the conclusion of the Congress in Hiroshima [17]. At this public symposium, presenters were much more critical of the record and responses of the Japanese government and the utility giant Tepco, which ran the Fukushima complex.

On the next day, a number of us took the bullet-train from Tokyo to Fukushima City, from where we took a bus tour through the countryside [18, 19] where numerous verdant fields and nearby homesteads remained deserted in the wake of the evacuations that displaced over 100,000 people in the region. In this area, as confirmed by delegates who brought their own Geiger counters along, ambient radiation levels remain slightly elevated in a geographically irregular and non-uniform distribution. Throughout our tour, we saw scattered piles of contaminated soil beneath blue tarps, awaiting a still unresolved solution for permanent and secure disposition [20].

At one stop, we talked with an organic farmer in his soybean field, who indicated he was utilizing ducks within his ponds to eat worms that had ingested soil with elevated levels of radioactive cesium, as a form of “disposal” [21]. Afterwards we stopped at the village of Kamauichi, where a store sold food certified as safe by local equipment [22, 23]. Then we met with the mayor [24], who has been in the process of enticing evacuees to return to the village, which in some areas showed “normal” levels of radiation displayed on fixed monitors [25] but where within a short distance plastic tape was strung to cordon off still more-highly contaminated areas of the forests [26]. In such areas, mushrooms and lichen bioaccumulate radioactive materials such as cesium, posing a hazard to foragers.

From Kamauichi, we returned to Fukushima City, where our delegation heard a presentation from Dr. Suzuki, who has been conducting the Fukushima “Prefecture Health Management Survey” [27, 28]. This survey, including an initial thyroid workup of over 38,000 children, has demonstrated over 35% to have nodules less than 5mm or cysts less than 20mm, with 0.5% showing nodules greater than 5mm or cysts greater than 20mm [29]. It remains unclear as to the significance of these findings, for which data are lacking regarding thyroid hormone status, or multiple versus unifocal nature of nodules (the latter more associated with possible neoplasia).

According to Dr. Suzuki, there are now plans being developed for surveying “non-exposed” populations to develop a control group to compare findings, and to triage those with larger lesions or more worrisome radiologic characteristics for more timely follow-up exam. However, members of grassroots organizations we spoke to expressed concern about inadequate follow-up and urged us to work with our own health professional organizations to put pressure on the Japanese government to provide the resources to make English (and other) language translations of reports readily available. Such a step would facilitate transparency and better allow outside independent review. At present, research findings such as these have been inadequately translated by Japanese volunteers in NGOs, who have little time and resources to do this with so much on their plate.
Upon our return to Tokyo, a number of us participated in a press conference within the Japanese Diet (Parliament) building to report on our findings. The panelists included Dr. Arun Mitra of the Indian (IPPNW) Doctors for Peace and Development, IPPNW co-President Dr. Tilman Ruff of our Australian affiliate Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), PSR President-elect Dr. Jeff Patterson, and Patrice Sutton [30]. All of the participants spoke movingly about the health and social impacts of the Fukushima disaster. [To read the Patrice Sutton’s written testimony and IPPNW’s press conference statement, go to http://psrblog.wordpress.com and enter “Sutton” in the search box.]

I have always been intellectually and morally reinvigorated by participating in IPPNW World Congresses—by the quality of the presentations, and the global community of physicians and other health professionals striving to rid our planet of our most pervasive and fearsome threats to human survival. However, this conference and related activities graphically brought home to me the profoundly dangerous inter-relationship of nuclear weapons and power. As such, it underscored my own personal rededication to the cause of nuclear abolition and to advocate for solutions to global warming that do not portend the public and environmental health impacts of nuclear disasters waiting to happen, illustrated by the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear plants sitting astride earthquake faults in California. As always, we in PSR have enormous challenges ahead in helping to build a vital movement to establish a nuclear-free California, nation and planet.