Nagasaki and Hiroshima Remembered
As we remember the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let’s also remember all those impacted by radiation as a result of nuclear testing and nuclear accidents. Earlier this year, I visited Fukushima city and the surrounding areas. The March 2011 triple disaster of the massive earthquake, tsunami and the explosions of the Fuksuhima Daiichi nuclear power plant killed almost 16 000 people.
Victims of Fukushima are now referred to as hibakusha, a term that was first used to describe people struck by the atomic bombings in Japan. The triple disaster has left 260 000 people still living in temporary housing settlements. Around 70 000 people will never be able to return home due to radioactive contamination. Hundreds and thousands more continue to live in areas with extremely dangerous levels of radiation and many people, including young children, carry Geiger-counters with them wherever they go.
Driving towards Fukushima city, our Geiger-counter alarm went off, alerting us that the levels were now dangerously high. The people I met there told me that many children now live totally indoors, and are never allowed to play outside because of the high levels of radiation. People are living with huge fear; wanting to take comfort from the reassurances that they are being given by government officials that they can safely live there, but also realizing that what they are being told isn’t the truth. Thyroid cancer in children is very rare (usually between 1 to 3 children per million). But the Fukushima local Government confirmed in May this year that of the 170 000 children in the area, 50 children have developed thyroid cancer – which is something like 250 times what could be considered ‘normal’. The family I stayed with in Sendai City – about one and a half hours drive from Fukushima – have two young girls aged 9 and 4. I heard two weeks ago, that they have also been diagnosed with thyroid cysts.
As we met in a small church, two young men dressed in work overalls with gloves on were ‘decontaminating’ the back yard – scraping off top soil, and removing all the branches and leaves of the trees. They placed the contaminated material into large bags, but these sit stacked high across the region as the authorities don’t know how to dispose of them.
In my meetings with local residents of Fukushima, they weren’t particularly interested in talking about our earthquake. What they really wanted to know about was, how did New Zealand become nuclear free? I was reminded by how fortunate that Christchurch is – that we are nuclear free and didn’t have any nuclear power plants to worry about during our earthquakes. The people in Fukushima were particularly interested in our local initiatives; the nuclear-weapons free zone stickers, declaring schools, streets, suburbs, indeed our whole city, nuclear free. Our actions provide real hope for them as they face their own struggle to have their voice heard, particularly in opposing the re-opening of the nuclear power plants in Japan. May we never take for granted our own nuclear-free history and the people who have worked tirelessly to ensure that we do have a country that continues to encourage and bring hope.
And let’s ensure that other stories of hope are also told. In particular this year, we acknowledge the courage of the Marshall Islands which was the site of 67 nuclear tests. Earlier this year, they announced that they are suing the nine countries with nuclear weapons at the international court of justice at The Hague, arguing they have violated their legal obligation to disarm. The Marshall Islands argues it is justified in taking the action because of the harm it suffered as a result of the nuclear arms race.
May we remember all those who struggle each day due to the impact of radiation from the atomic bombs, from nuclear testing and nuclear accidents and continue to stand in solidarity with them.
Jill Hawkey is a former director of Christian World Service, the development arm of the Conference of Churches of Aotearoa/New Zealand.