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Fukushima Catastrophe at 6: Normalizing Radiation Exposure Demeans Women and Kids and Risks Their Health

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Since the election of President Trump, certain words have taken prominence in our lexicon: “alternative facts”, “gaslighting”, “normalization”. But the techniques these words represent have been used by the nuclear industry and its purveyors in government since the Cold War love affair with nuclear weapons began.

And as we deal with the continuing fallout 6 years after the Fukushima, and 31 years after the Chernobyl, catastrophes began, the nuclear industry continues to put these techniques to good use. They have labeled “radiophobic” those who question nuclear power or who refuse to move back to contaminated areas or eat contaminated food. They shame people into taking health risks and socially isolate those who refuse to comply. They sell the lie of decontamination despite the fact that what has been decontaminated one day, may be recontaminated the next.

Women and children are often the focus of these “normalization” techniques. And they are the ones with the most to lose including supportive social and familial structures, and ultimately, health. Females, children and pregnancy pay a disproportionate price for nuclear energy because they are especially vulnerable to radiation damage. When a catastrophe like Fukushima happens, they become targets: targets of gaslighting, social isolation, radiation damage.

Japan’s radiation refugees

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimates that as of Nov 2016, the number of people displaced because of the earthquake, tsunami and radioactive contamination remains at 134,000. Of this number, 84,000 are still displaced around Fukushima, where evacuation orders are not yet lifted around the reactor.

In 2017, Japan is lifting evacuation orders and basically forcing people to move back to towns that were, and still are, contaminated with radioactivity from the ruined Fukushima nuclear reactors. Those who return are promised a one-time sum for doing so. For those who will not go back, the Japan government will cut off compensation. The IDMC frames the issue as a horrible choice: return to risk or try to reintegrate elsewhere without any resources. Greenpeace, in their February 2017 report, demonstrates that the uncertain risks and unpredictable nature of radiological contamination mean there is no return to normal.

Taking radiation into your psyche, as if it is normal

Radiation is associated with disease, even at low levels. Nuclear power proponents incorrectly contend that if you think you are sick from radiation exposure, it is all in your head and your health problems resulted from your worry. In other words, it was your fault, not theirs. They term it “radiophobia”. This pernicious label was first coined in the United States in the 1950’s. Like much of the initial Cold War nuclear policy, it attempted to “normalize” nuclear technology so that above ground atomic bomb tests could continue unhindered.

In fact, an opinion piece in the Western journal of surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, a medical journal which addressed women’s health issues, blamed caretakers for inciting fear of nuclear weapons in children. In the piece, entitled “RADIOPHOBIA; a new psychological syndrome,” the author claims “Anxiety-ridden parents or teachers who fear atomic bombs probably project the same fears to their children…” And that this “conditioning amounts to psychological punishment”. In essence the author, who was not a qualified mental health practitioner, was accusing these parents of abuse. The not-so-subtle implication was that radiophobia was a woman’s disease that she passed to any children she contacted.

The unscientific radiophobia label has persisted through the larger nuclear power catastrophes. For instance, according to a Macmillan dictionary entry, “Chernobyl has left an enduring legacy of opposition to nuclear power, now often referred to as radiophobia by technical experts…” However, the targets of this dismissive and derisive label are not just those who oppose nuclear power. The mysogynistic overtones of the radiophobic label are clearly present as the Fukushima and Chernobyl catastrophes continue to unfold.

In the wake of a nuclear catastrophe, exposed women and children are specifically berated into silence. If they continue to express concerns about health impacts, they risk becoming social outcasts. In this context, radiophobia is a social label used to stigmatize, not a scientific or medical diagnosis. In the case of Japan, radiophobia is called “radiation brain mom“. This epithet particularly refers to women who question whether food is contaminated; and it implies that they are irrational, overly emotional and unscientific, merely for asking the question.

Radiophobia accusations at Fukushima put children and women’s health at risk

After Fukushima began, doctor of psychosomatic medicine, Katsuno Onozawa, was interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun in 2013. As an actual expert on psychosomatic disorders, she stated: “children were exhibiting a range of symptoms including sore throats, nosebleeds, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches and rashes…” Yet these symptoms were written off as “radiophobia” and the mothers were accused of making their children sick by worrying. “Many reproach themselves, thinking, ‘Maybe I’m the one who’s strange,’ and become depressed.” She concludes: “If we say ‘it’s safe’ despite the risks only to erase fears, then we simply leave in place the danger that defenseless children may be contaminated.”

For the record, here are some symptoms of short-term, higher radiation exposure: “nausea, vomiting, headache, and diarrhea…swelling, itching, and redness of the skin” Many around Three Mile Island complained of similar symptoms following the partial meltdown there. The higher the radiation dose, the quicker the symptoms manifest. Children are more vulnerable to radiation exposure than adults, women more vulnerable than men.

In Japan, the “radiation brain mom” label has resulted in a self-censoring of concern about radiological contamination, leaving women and children unprotected after exposure to the initial radiation cloud. Subsequently their health is continually put at risk from food and environmental contamination. “Silence was not imposed by an iron fist of government, but rather wrapped around people like soft velvet, gently making women feel that they had to be silent.”

Taking radiation into your body, as if it is normal

Since the Fukushima catastrophe started, recommendations for radiation exposure limits in Japan were increased by 20 times. The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) sets non-binding recommendations internationally for post nuclear catastrophes. Their limit is 1 mSv per year in addition to background radiation. This effectively would double the dose from unavoidable natural background, which is already 0.8 to 1 mSv per year. However, according to the IAEA, 1-20 mSv per year “is acceptable and in line with the international standards and with the recommendations from the relevant international organisations, e.g. ICRP, IAEA, UNSCEAR and WHO”.

Therefore Japan is, under controversy, encouraging resettlement in areas up to 20 mSv/yr. The increase in the allowable exposure limit occurred after contamination created wide-reaching negative economic impacts. Before the radioactive release contaminated Fukushima province, it was a center for organic farming and the “eat locally” movement. Since the contamination, consumer instinct has been to avoid Fukushima products.

Since studies show cancer and other disease impacts can occur within the range of natural background, clearly, the decision to allow a higher exposure level had nothing to do with health. Instead, it was an economic decision that took advantage of the fact that many diseases induced by this radiation exposure may not show for years, or may show as hard-to-attribute subclinical impacts, masking radiation’s disease-causing role. For those health impacts that do appear, nuclear proponents can always fall back on the argument that “it is all in your head”–i.e. radiophobia.

International agencies and industries normalize eating contaminated food to save face and money.

The ICRP is guilty of encouraging radiation ingestion, despite known risks. One recommendation is the encouragement of growing, selling and consuming, contaminated food, as an economic imperative for those in contaminated areas.

ICRP has also supported an effort in the wake of Fukushima called ETHOS that encourages “practical radiation protection culture” (PRPC). ETHOS was an effort originally started with the French nuclear industry, after the Chernobyl catastrophe began, when they realized that the cost of evacuation and compensation was starting to impact the nuclear industry’s financial and public standing worldwide.

Encouraging PRPC is a cowardly way of saying it’s too expensive to move people away from contaminated areas or allow them to eat clean eat food, so officials need to tell people there is no health risk from contamination. This is done under the guise of empowering the local populations by providing them with monitoring equipment, training, and a sense that eating contaminated food is okay. Mothers in Belarus were trained to measure the radioactive contamination of their children and to accept a certain level, resigning them to the fate of living with and eating radioactivity.

ETHOS goes one step further in claiming that individuals bear the responsibility to keep themselves safe from radioactive contamination with little to no help or resources from the industry that caused the contamination in the first place. Now, ETHOS is in Fukushima, protecting the nuclear industry from those whose lands it has defiled and whose lives it has marred.

The U.S. will be no different

For those who are hoping the U.S. will somehow escape the radiation normalization process, think again. We are learning from Fukushima and Chernobyl that international bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) or ICRP will provide no support for clean food and relocation to uncontaminated land should we suffer a nuclear catastrophe.

We are further learning that our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that decontamination is a lie. Using very colorful and demeaning language regarding radiological cleanup, an EPA employee said in 2013 “‘U.S. residents are used to having ‘cleanup to perfection,’ but would have to abandon their ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentality in such cases. ‘People are going to have to put on their big-boy pants and suck it up…'”.

Dove-tailing on this egregiously tone-deaf statement, EPA proceeded to institute “protective” action guides (PAGs) meant to provide levels of acceptable contamination in food and water subsequent to a radiological incident. A radiological incident can include a catastrophic release but also lesser releases from transport accidents, for instance. The limits EPA recommends are hundreds to thousands of times higher for some radionuclides than previously allowed. Exposure could continue at these levels for years, endangering women and children the most. Just like women have been resigned or bullied into silence at Chernobyl and Fukushima, we can expect the same modus operandi here.

UN Human rights instruments offer women and children radiation protection when other  national and international agencies fail to

Women and children are more susceptible to radioactivity, therefore any attempt to label women as irrational for fearing radioactivity is ludicrous. The fact is, women and early life stages are not protected by the recommendations of international experts. Women and children have, and will continue to, pay a disproportionate price for the use of nuclear power, it’s routine radioactive releases, and the catastrophes it causes.

Increasing allowable levels of exposure post accident for economic convenience or to tamp down fear is unacceptable. Encouraging women and children to eat contaminated food appears to be in violation of Article 24 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), particularly the principle of needed access to “adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution”.

Women’s voices should count for more, not less

Women are often the most concerned about social health, and are the first and most vociferous in protecting public health following a nuclear catastrophe. And science shows they should be. Women and children are more vulnerable to radiation’s impacts and the life-stage of pregnancy is uniquely sensitive. They pay the highest price for nuclear power and it releases, so their voices should count for more, both in the energy decisions we currently face and in how we protect those whose lives are upturned by nuclear catastrophes.

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