1. The Price of Nuclear Development
Mar. 28, 2013
Chapter 7: No More Victims
Part 1: The Future of Nuclear Power
Part 1: The Future of Nuclear Power
During the sixties and into the early seventies, the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France engaged in a desperate race for supremacy in the field of nuclear weapons. The late Kanai Toshihiro of the Chugoku Shimbun, a tireless critic of this destructive contest, was deeply concerned about the way in which the power of nuclear weapons was expressed in kilotons and megatons, rather than in terms of environmental destruction and loss of human life. It would seem doubtful whether any lessons have in fact been learned from the victims of radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the warnings from Kanai and many others of the suffering caused at every stage of the nuclear development process, uranium mining, weapons manufacture, nuclear testing, nuclear power generation, nuclear fuel reprocessing, and radioactive waste storage still continue.
In this, the final section, we consider what path should be taken by Japan and the world in order to avoid further destruction by radiation in the future.
1. The Price of Nuclear Development
In their efforts to develop sophisticated nuclear technology, the world's leading nations have been left with a legacy of problems not likely to be solved in the near future. The most serious of these problems concerns the release of radioactive substances into the atmosphere and their consequent absorption by humans. Anyone who experienced the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be aware of their incredible destructive power in terms of searing heat and the force of the blast itself, even if they were not aware of radiation. On the other hand, most of the damage caused by nuclear materials since 1945 has been caused by exposure to radiation itself.
There is no way of knowing when radiation enters the body, and unless a person is subjected to a massive dose in a short space of time, the effects are not immediately obvious but may take years to manifest themselves. Added to this is the fact that radioactive contamination does not produce a distinct set of symptoms, making it difficult even for experts to judge whether a particular medical condition has been caused by radiation. When a person has been exposed to radiation even the most advanced medical techniques are unable to remove it. The effects of exposure to radiation may be passed down to the next generation, and this is the main reason why radiation is the object of so much fear.
As we started to investigate victims of radiation in other parts of the world, we realized that most of these people did not have access to anything like the medical care or welfare services that the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were able to benefit from. Instead they were living from one day to the next in constant uncertainty about their health. The most disturbing discovery was that the vast majority of radiation victims are not recognized as such by the very governments which are to blame for their suffering.
The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was the catalyst for an increased interest in nuclear issues all over the world. Ordinary people began to demand that governments take responsibility for the damage they had allowed to happen over the years, and previously unknown cases of suffering caused by radiation were uncovered one after another.
A typical example of this growing awareness of the dangers of radiation is the recent revelations concerning the Soviet nuclear testing site near the city of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, where for a long time it was forbidden to even mention the existence of damage caused by radiation. The renewed interest in nuclear issues after the Chernobyl disaster, however, coincided with the era of glasnost, with the result that investigations into radiation damage could be carried out with relative ease.
Through journalists' reports the Soviet people became aware of the extent of radiation contamination at the Semipalatinsk test site, and the Nevada-Semipalatinsk organization to oppose nuclear testing and assist radiation victims became known throughout the world. By exposing the lies perpetrated over the previous forty years, the popular movement eventually forced the Soviet government to announce in July 1990 that the site would be closed in 1993.
The growing interest in the problems of radiation was also felt on the other side of the world in the United States, where it was revealed around the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 that radiation had been both intentionally and unintentionally leaked from the nuclear weapons manufacturing complex in Hanford, Washington. This revelation led to another: that there were abnormally high incidences of cancer and thyroid conditions among the residents of the nearby towns. The Department of Energy (DOE), which had insisted that there were no effects from radiation leakage or experiments, was eventually forced to retract these statements when the local residents obtained incriminating documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
The uncovering of careless and irresponsible management at Hanford was the signal for a series of similar discoveries at weapons facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Rocky Flats, Colorado; and Savannah River, South Carolina. In the former uranium mining areas of New Mexico, radioactive waste abandoned in mines and refineries became an issue, with the result that, one after the other, nuclear-related facilities all over the country were persuaded by the DOE to release the results of medical surveys carried out on workers and residents.
As a result of the Chernobyl disaster the voids in the history of nuclear development are gradually being filled in, but there has been little progress made in provision of support for victims of radiation. In most cases this suffering has still not been publicly acknowledged by the governments concerned. Even in the case of American ex-servicemen involved in nuclear tests, who have recently become eligible for compensation, the amount is awarded in a lump sum for certain specific types of cancer, but no allowance is made from public funds for the day-to-day health care of these men. A law providing for compensation for the residents of towns downwind of the Nevada test site only passed Congress in October 1990, and like that concerned with ex-military personnel, it makes too little provision for their future medical care.
The medical expenses of A-bomb victims in Japan are mainly, though not completely, provided for under two laws, the Hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) Medical Law and the Hibakusha Special Welfare Law. Using rates applied in Japan we worked out the cost of supporting victims of radiation in the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1990 there were approximately 352,500 registered hibakusha in Japan. The annual budget for hibakusha medical care works out at \358,000 (approx. $2,750) per person.
According to our calculations, we estimated that 855,000 people in the United States were affected in some way or other by radiation, including ex-army personnel, employees of nuclear weapons facilities, and residents of the surrounding areas. In the Soviet Union the number of people affected by the Chernobyl and Ural disasters comes to almost two and a half million. Basing our estimates on these figures we arrived at an annual total of $2,344,670,000 for the United States and approximately three times that amount for the Soviet Union. What must be remembered is that these figures cover only medical care and welfare allowances for radiation victims and do not include other costs such as those for cleaning up contaminated areas.
Already claims are being made against the U.S. government. In July 1989, a court ruling ordered the federal government to pay $73 million in compensation to residents near the Fernald nuclear weapons plant in Ohio, on the grounds that property values had declined due to radioactive contamination from the plant. Similar instances of contamination are coming to light all over the United States, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the government to defend its policy against concerned groups claiming vast amounts of compensation.
Two other pressing problems faced by the U.S. government are the dismantling of aging nuclear weapons facilities and the disposal of almost a half-century's worth of nuclear waste. According to estimates from the DOE, the cost of these operations alone would amount to $200 billion.
The Soviet Union has already been landed with an enormous bill for its nuclear development program. By the end of 1989 the Soviet government had spent over 9 billion rubles on cleaning up after the Chernobyl disaster alone. A member of the Supreme Soviet, Yuri Shcherbak, who has been studying the aftereffects of Chernobyl, has estimated that the total cost of the accident including material damage and the cleanup operations could come to as much as 250 billion rubles, roughly equivalent to Japan's government expenditure for the fiscal year 1990. Shcherbak's estimate does not include the damage caused to other nations in the region by the disaster.
The British government is also facing charges of negligence and demands for compensation from those affected by their testing in Australia in the fifties and sixties, and before long France will be forced to count the cost of its nuclear testing policies in the South Pacific. Governments all over the world are beginning to pay the price for not encouraging more research into safer methods of harnessing the energy that nuclear scientists had succeeded in releasing from the atom. Unfortunately, the cost of negligent management is likely to place a heavy burden not only on the present generation but on our descendants well into the next century.