The reality of radiation damage must not be subject to the “seal of confidentiality”

by Tomomitsu Miyazaki, Senior Staff Writer

Dr. Hans Bethe, the American physicist who played a leading part in the Manhattan Project, the wartime effort that produced the atomic bombs, once said that the seal which makes information confidential “is the most powerful weapon human beings have ever created.” Did Dr. Bethe intend this as criticism against the U.S. government and military for seeking to conceal facts that would be inconvenient to them?

Dr. Bethe’s remark was made to a colleague while working on the bombs and appears in “Classified Hiroshima-Nagasaki: U.S. Nuclear Testing and the Civil Defense Program,” a book written by Hiroko Takahashi, an assistant professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, part of Hiroshima City University, and an expert on American history.

Incidents involving radiation damage have continually been subject to “the seal of confidentiality.” Some people, for instance, sought to sweep the devastation of the atomic bombings under the rug or minimize the destruction to whatever extent they could.

That “seal of confidentiality,” however, is not always the creation of government or the military, but the product of time itself. For example, decades after suffering exposure to radiation, many people develop cancer. When they seek out incontrovertible evidence of the cause of their illness, it is often too late. Typically, the party responsible for the damage shows indifference, and the victims are forced to suffer in silence.

Because of this, it is encouraging when individuals move to reveal hidden truths.

Two such truth-tellers are Masatoshi Yamashita and Hideaki Itoh, who have been working to uncover the damage caused by a U.S. hydrogen bomb test that took place in 1954 at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Mr. Yamashita, a former high school teacher in Kochi Prefecture, and Mr. Itoh, a director at Nankai Broadcasting Company in Ehime Prefecture, have conducted painstaking research. This autumn they reported the details of the damage in a newly published book entitled “Kaku-no Umi-no Shogen” (“Testimony of Nuclear Ocean”) and the documentary movie “Hoshasen-o Abita X Nengo” (“X Years after Radiation Exposure”), which was based on a TV program.

Their findings indicate that the “Daigo Fukuryu Maru” (“Lucky Dragon No. 5”), a Japanese fishing boat, was not the only boat affected by the radioactive fallout from that hydrogen bomb blast. The “ashes of death” fell on as many as 1,000 boats, and a significant number of crew members have died from cancer and other related causes. I am full of admiration for the two men’s efforts to disclose what had been made confidential by both time and the governments of Japan and the United States.

After learning that the damage caused by the atomic bombings was greater than he had imagined, Dr. Bethe became a strong proponent of nuclear disarmament after the war. When you realize you have erred, you should admit the mistake with good grace and move forward to help forge a better future, and Dr. Bethe set a fine example. Following his example, we must not allow the damage done in Fukushima to be hidden or forgotten.

(Originally published on November 22, 2012)