Forgotten in the Fallout: Women and Fukushima

FukushimaFukushima. It was a hot day in July, and I was standing in the middle of the road adjusting my camera in view of the Daichii reactor No. 2 when my friend Sonny delivered the news. International wires were buzzing with talk of Fukushima as the Japanese government revealed knowledge of a disaster far worse than imagined: 300 tons of contaminated water were surging into the Pacific Ocean every day since the tsunami broke land more than two and half years ago. I replied with a speechless stare and returned to what I was doing.

If we have scant evidence that nuclear power is a good long-term decision, then there’s even less to indicate that arguments in its favor consider the burden on women. In the case of Chernobyl (the world’s largest nuclear meltdown), the Soviet Union made few qualms—leave now and never return. Since they were left unaccounted, irradiated food and drink found easy passage through fallout “borders” and onto dinner plates. And although 27 years have passed since Chernobyl, there are locations in Belarus and Ukraine still too contaminated to support human life, while pervasive cases of thyroid and breast cancers, leukemia, prenatal and antenatal death, and other hideous complications have condemned a generation.

In the aftermath of Fukushima, the party line is more like “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Thousands of the displaced were moved into internment camps just outside “red zones” and remain there today, with little hope for a quick return. As the years roll by and contaminants sink deeper into area groundwater and soil, lives dangle in limbo. I met several women in Koriyama who lost their livelihoods as farmers. Now living in prefab housing blocks atop cement slabs, they say “it’s losing your children and the loneliness” that hurts most.

Maria Vitagliano, director of Green Cross International’s social and medical outreach program, has been instrumental in facilitating cooperatives to support displaced women and their families. Over the last four years, the NGO has worked in collaboration with the USC Global Health program to provide quantitative analysis on the health risks of life in contaminated areas. Vitagliano explains,

When I heard of Fukushima I thought of Chernobyl. When I came to visit this place I found the same situation—no information, no trust. If it’s a poor country or a rich one, a democracy or another, the reaction by officials is the same … the consequences [for people] are the same.

By couching the disaster’s unquantifiable repercussions into digestible data, she hopes that women will push back against nuclear power.

Vitagliano understands the relationship between environmental trauma, women and community. She’s spent the last three decades working with families in what she calls the “middle land” of man-made crisis—the place between before and after.  She recounts cases of women in Chernobyl who were forced to separate from spouses due to prolonged depression, alcoholism and domestic violence:

These women become responsible for all the work, while dealing with physical illness, and raise their young alone. When the economy is oppressed, the children grow up and leave them alone.

Women lose everything in this scenario. She expects this will likewise become a problem in post-Fukushima Japan, given the country’s strong matrilineal lines and deep stigmas attached to radiation.

Yet nuclear power proliferators want to sell it as a safe, effective option for humanity. On October 29, the Japanese giant Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. reached an agreement with the government of Turkey to build a nuclear reactor along the Black Sea—a $22 billion deal. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “Japan has a responsibility to share the lessons of the Fukushima disaster with the rest of the world and to promote nuclear safety.”

That’s an astonishing manipulation by a man who happens to hinge much of his economic policy and political legacy on his ability to export trillions of yen in nuclear technology. To say nothing of the way in which his administration negligently concealed information concerning the fallout of Fukushima, while continuing to endanger millions of lives as strontium-90, cesium-137 and radioiodine I-131 wreak havoc in the world’s oceans.

A 2012 Gallup poll found that women are far more opposed than men to nuclear energy. The late Donella Meadows, an environmental science professor at Dartmouth, wrote in 1993 that the nuclear industry had grown wise to female dissent, and in an effort to make power plants appear pretty, targeted advertisements to the constants in our lives: children and the environment. Indeed, advertisements were cleverly planted in Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Gardens and other lifestyle mags, with clean air and green grass and smiling children.

I think what the Gallup poll means to say is: Women understand that what happens in Fukushima happens at home. And not just in Japan, but in the U.S. The Open Journal of Pediatrics published a report in March 2013 that “days after the meltdown … I-131 concentrations in U.S. precipitation was measured up to 211 times above normal.” The highest concentrations were in five states bordering the Pacific Ocean, and the study noted that, ‘The number of congenital hypothyroid cases in these five states from March 17-December 31, 2011 was 16 percent greater than for the same period in 2010, compared to a 3 percent decline in 36 other U.S. states.” These were only preliminary findings, because the disaster is still occurring, and we do not yet know the effects on marine life and our food chain.

Standing in the midst of Fukushima’s fallout on that hot day in July, I had a visceral sense of the trouble at hand. Though assigned to produce a video for TIME with my partner, I couldn’t focus on work. Tears surfaced as I thought of the deserted towns we passed on our way to this place; the laundry left hanging on lines, schools shuttered forever, storefront windows broken (but their shelves unlooted) and brand new cars in their garages, too contaminated to touch. Then I looked out to sea. Somewhere beneath the shoreline, lethal radioactive water was gushing outward, with consequences for us all, particularly women.

“Paying Respect at the Fukushima Exclusion Zone” from Flickr user ssoosay under license from Creative Commons 2.0


SusieTaylorCropSusie Taylor is an entrepreneur and documentarian who reports on a wide range of issues in the developing world, with a focus on post-conflict transitions and women’s rights.


  1. I am in no way pro nuclear power. It is indeed a risk, especially since a lot of power plants are old and outdated. But as a physicist I am also appalled by all the misinformation that comes along with the anti nuclear power activism. The main issue with Fukushima, and to an extent Chernobyl, is not the fallout, but the irrational fear and fear mongering that follows.

    We live in a world full og natural radiation. From rocks, from space, and even from other living beings. Humans contain radioactive isotopes too, and sharing a bed with someone will expose you to radiation every night. This is not dangerous. Neither is the health risk from Fukushima even remotely comparable to the very real natural catastrophy that caused it. It is utterly ridiculous how the tsunami is forgotten while the focus is on an arguably serious incident, but with no radiation related fatalities (Chernobyl had 47) and a miniscule estimated increase in cancer risk. A risk estimate that is based on the assumption that exposure versus risk is linear, which there is little evidence to support.

    The consequences are still significant due to how societies handle such situations and how that affects local residents. Post Chernobyl distress has lead to a host of psychological issues and multiple suicides, not caused by the accident, but by fear and how people were treated.

    Journalists from my own country fled Tokyo in large numbers when it became known that radiation levels were increasing. The irony is that the natural radiation level in the city they returned to is twice as high, and the return flight itself causes several decades worth of the same radiation levels from space.

    So, while I agree that nuclear power is at best a necessary evil, very little of the activism surrounding it has anything to do with facts. A more fact based approach to handling such incidents would save more lives and money than closing down the plants. Especially if you replace them by coal, which in addition to the CO2 pollution, releases far more radioactivity than any nuclear plant does.

    • Audio Tactics says:

      Veronica, you are seriously misinformed or are just telling lies. There are estimates that up to a 1,000,000 people have died from the effects of Chernobyl. And there is clear evidence that the nuclear agencies have systematically tried to suppress the dangerous truth about nuclear power. There is reasearch which shows that even normally functioning nuclear plants are dangerous and when you start to factor in the obvious possibility of nuclear accident sthe risks are just overwhelming. If you would like to know more about why I think you are misinformed, I would recommend reading the following summary of studies based on Chernobyl:

      If indeed you are a neutral party like me (no affiliation to either pro or anti-nuclear groups or industries), then I would suggest that you really dig deeper to find the truth because it is important to the future of our planet.

  2. Keep trying Veronica… your misinformation is just one of the reasons why no one supports nuclear power any more.

    • I don’t support nuclear power. Read my post. I am just pointing out that the fear of radiation causes a lot of these problems, not the radiation itself. This is partially driven by irrational fear, like all the people who fled from Tokyo while not realising that the flight exposes them to significantly more radiation than staying there would. But also chasing people out of their homes far from impacted areas where the radiation is negligible is causing a lot of harm. Much more harm than the accident did. You out of hand dismissal of my post is a good example of how far the public perception of the problems associated with nuclear power is from reality.

    • Some numbets: No people died of radiation in the accident. Over 300000 people were evacuated, and 1600 people died during the evacuation (mainly sick and old people). According to the World Health Organisation the increased life time cancer risk of these people is so small it is probably not detectable. Certain types of cancer, like thyroid, is likely to have a detectable increase, which we saw after Chernobyl too, but this is an easily treatable form of cancer.

      If you want to see the really dark side of energy production, take a look at the north-western Russia. The usage of coal has devastated the area and its population as well as the incredibly irresponsible storage of radioactive waste from the Russian navy. Energy production is dangerous business, but in terms of fatalities nothing is more dangerous then conventional carbon based energy. Look it up.

      My objections to nuclear power is the problem with storage of dangerous waste and the potential for weapon production. These are serious problems that are in my opinion enough to avoid building such plants. The money are much more wisely spent in developing renewable energy.

    • Lala, I am intrigued by your absolutist statement with no evidence to support either claim – that no one (my, did you really talk to all of us?!) supports nuclear power or that Veronica has given misinformation. I am not disagreeing with you, I just want you to back up what you are saying with actual fact instead of opinion or headlines.

  3. Veronica is right. The worst of the problems of Fukushima have not been the radiation release but the appalling management of information and the lives of the evacuated by the government. Two weeks ago the IAEA pointed out to Japan that it is doing 20 times too much decontamination – clean-up far beyond what would save any impact on health. They would do better, said the UN, to concentrate on communicating the science of the situation and letting people go home more quickly.

  4. Veronica, I have a background in engineering myself, which is to say, I’m not a technophobe, albeit I continue to be appalled at the relative complacency of many in the technical and scientific community as this event has unfolded. I wrote nuclear energy off during TMI, but started to give it a serious look again when Stewart Brand and others argued that it might be our only chance, pragmatically speaking, of mitigating climate change. Fukushima however has given me pause. The situation there is, by all accounts, dire, and yet it’s not being covered on the national nightly news outlets. The amount of radiation being released into the air, the ground, the groundwater, and the Sea of Japan is by all accounts substantial, but of course what “substantial” means in this context is not entirely clear. Significant amounts of tritium, cesium, and strontium have been released and have shown up, almost surely b/c of this disaster, at experimentally-verified levels in seaweed and other oceanic flora and at vast distances from the actual site. And there is no remedy in the works as of this writing, beyond this “plan” to build a 100 ft deep wall of cooling tubes around the one-mile perimeter of the plant and keep the ground at a temperature of 40 deg F below zero for, oh, the next forty years or so (in an earthquake zone, no less). National Geographic has in the past two months raised their disaster rating from a level 1 to a level 3 (out of 7) while the event itself rates a 7 out of 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (thus far releasing anywhere from 10% to 30% to ? of what was released at Chernobyl). And this is without many scientists really knowing what the situation there is (not least b/c we don’t have a helluvalot of experience with this kind of meltdown, but also b/c TEPCO and the Japanese government are having a hard time being transparent, probably b/c they don’t wish to cause widespread public panic, esp. not on the heels of Tokyo having been awarded the 2020 Summer Olympics). In short, I think we ought to be very, very concerned about what’s going on at Fukushima.

  5. “Neither is the health risk from Fukushima even remotely comparable to the very real natural catastrophy that caused it.”
    Really… “Veronica”?

    Just lies from pro-nuke shill….either you know your entire post is a lie or you are Terribly Terribly misinformed. How disgusting that you would even use a word like irony for the wholesale contamination of millions. That background radiation is anything but Normal, it may be there but it was only made that way by man. Although they’re trying to make it normal, we’ve now raised the new “safe” background radiation levels to the level that used to be for nuclear power plant workers.

    Women Should be especially concerned about the effects on radiation, both on them and their children, their children to be, and their children’s children’s, many effects are passed on for generations Many of the isotopes are much more damaging to females than to males, Im guessing its cuz of the lady-parts, but then obviously I’m no doctor. Not to mention the damage radiation causes during pregnancy, lowered IQ, born with no brain or limbs or head and even worse deformities, On and On and On. Don’t take my word for it, everything I state is a radiation fact you can find yourself if you only look hard, know that they make it very very hard.

    I read a peer-reviewed study that says infant mortality is up 35% nationally In The US, and up 50% or more in many US cities. So are lung and heart deaths among the elderly in the US. Look at all the health effects of children in japan, 100% of children have lymph nodules now, massive city-wide nosebleeds, stunted growth, kids walking and playing in huge levels of radiation daily, eating radioactive food and forcing them to drink milk at lunch, and they’ve even found black reactor core rod dust all over japan. From The Core. The Japanese govt recently offered pregnant women or women with children from evacuation zones can get a new house absolutely free if they will just move to and live in fukushima. Score!!

    Pediatric thyroid cancer is Already emerging significantly in japan, much sooner then “they had anticipated”, and the state hospitals are telling women their children are fine but a private hospital finds cysts on the thyroid. Children got skinny immediately after but now they are all chubby, because the last numbers they tracked from a year ago stated 60% of children now have type 2 diabetes, which I now find out is caused by yttrium. Funny, I never hear them mention yttrium.
    I say find out, because they didnt tell us, they didnt tell them, they are still lying to japanese mothers, and in fact they lie not only by omission but by direct, and some might say criminal, commission.
    “A more fact based approach” would be appreciated, like maybe telling people the truth.

    Fukushima needs to be removed from tepco’s control, by force if neccessary, as they are a corrupt criminal organization closely associated with the yakuza so we know where the money is going and its not gonna stop, they have stated openly several times that their main priority is Tepco’s stock price and declined several efforts because they would be too expensive. An international coalition of scientists needs to be put in charge to attempt to bring about the best possible close to the worst disaster our world has ever known.

    Now there’s some facts for you “Veronica”.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful personal account of your experience.

    Radiation “fallout” not only effects women terribly; but radiation is also more harmful to girls than boys.

    Right now, more and more stories are being released from mothers in Japan saying their children are sick. Apparantly, there is quite a strong nuclear lobby in Japan that is trying to keep this information suppressed.

    Regarding Chernobyl:

    (1) Chernobyl was the cause of one million deaths according to the book: Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment by A. Yablokov

    (2) In addition, Chernobyl caused horrible birth defects. Watch the Live Symposium on the “Medical and Ecological Consequences of Fukushima Nuclear Accident” where Dr. Yablokov, Dr. Wertelecki, and researcher Tim Mousseau discuss the detrimental effects they’ve found to humans and the environment from Chernobyl.

    (3) Also, the highly recommended site called ENENEWS has been covering Japan’s nuclear crisis daily.

    (4) Japan should follow Germany’s lead and move away from nuclear energy toward Renewable Energy.

    Germany is hugely successful with Renewable Energy; producing the energy-equivalent of 40 nuclear power plants with Wind and Solar Energy alone!

    And Germany has only just begun.

    Renewable Energy could easily make nuclear energy obsolete.

  7. Fear mongering is worse than the effects of radioactive fallout? It’s the psychological reaction to radiation that is the real problem? Incredible. Here we stand perched on the precipice of extinction, and to the very end we still have some insisting everything’s just fine, nothing to worry about.

    If you Google fairewinds if a tree falls, you’ll be able to examine the testimony of those who were exposed to fallout from the Three Mile Island meltdown. The seriousness of the TMI accident is revealed from legal depositions buried in the NRC’s archives, and long suppressed by out of court settlements and non disclosure agreements.

    As you digest this testimony, keep in mind that the radioactive fallout involved here was from a short period of venting at TMI. If the spent fuel rods in Fukushima’s reactor 4 ignite, we could have an open air nuclear bonfire burning on Japan’s east coast for many years to come. It could also involve much more than the 400 tons of nuclear fuel at reactor 4, as a neutron flux could possibly ignite nuclear material in adjacent fuel pools.

    Not to worry though. The long standing agreement between the World Health Organization and the IAEA will serve to insure that casualties from such a calamity will be ignored and swept under the rug, just as they have been after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The deaths that follow will be nothing more than figments of our imagination, just a byproduct of irresponsible fear mongering.

  8. This woman physicist (my daughter is studying physics in college) is out of line. I have found that most women “get it” … that playing Russian Roulette with our DNA, with the world’s genomes is asinine and totally unnecessary. Nuclear power is not a “necessary evil” as the world’s pseudo-scientists have learned to parrot from their industrial pay masters, who invested unwisely (for us) in uranium ores in the 1940’s and 50’s. Nuclear power is the Great Hoax: it was never a good idea; it was never necessary to prevent global warming from coal emissions; it was never cheap or reliable; and it was certainly never, ever safe.

    The party line that irrational fears are the real danger from nuclear power would be comical, if this wasn’t the final trump card being played by a deeply corrupt but hugely well-endowed and duplicitous dying beast. The lies from General Electric (Global Exterminators) run deep; they had no problem dumping PCB’s into our rivers … so dumping poisons at an industrial scale into our oceans and atmosphere is nothing new for these out-of-control, all-powerful gangsters and hucksters. False science-confidence games are run by clueless people such as this Veronica, who evidently assumes she understands physics better than Einstein, Oppenheimer and Szillard. The evidence already bears out the truth about ionizing radiation; Japanese children are falling ill, and the lies don’t stop.

    Nuclear power is supported only by people who are paid well to remain blind to its obvious negatives.
    It is a sad reality that the profit motive has now trumped the survival instinct, and without high-placed defections, the future of life on Earth will follow a tragic and sorrowful path of disease and unnecessary death, as the scenario painted by honest scientists like John Gofman and Chris Busby plays out. Sometimes the dark forces of greed and indifference win; but this is no reason to stop trying to stop the inevitable. Even to the last moment I will cry out loud that “safe nuclear power” is an Illusion, a Cruel Hoax, and an unnecessary choice resulting in a poisoned planet and early, painful death for millions upon millions. Shame on these lying thugs of the apocalypse.

  9. Thank you for the insightful comments. Facts, not fear, should lead the discussion. U.S. Women in Nuclear wishes more technical women would speak out and dispell myths and correct misinformation so tht a healthy conversation can occur.

  10. Veronica,
    With death by radiation poisoning, its not instant. So you are looking in the wrong place if you want mortality figures. But you’re just a paid trol for the nuke industry, likely not even a woman.
    Fukushima power plants 1,2,3 are so hot no equipment can get near them. This situation will continue for 250,000 years until the radiation starts to decline. So continue your delusional ways and know you contributed to the demise of humanity. Life on earth eveolved because our atmosphere protected us from radiation from the Sun and space. What did we do? We reproduced the deadly radiation at surface.

  11. It’s quote amusing with all the conspiracy theories popping up here in response to my attempt to bring some facts into this.

    To restate: I do not support nuclear power. Radiation IS a real danger, and there are zones around both Fukushima and especially Chernobyl that people should not spend more than a short period of time in. Spending an hour at the worst parts of Chernobyl is still comparable to an x-ray. Radiation is as about accumulated dosage for the most part. I am not even saying that evacuation was not necessary, just that the additional panic from pure fear has cost significantly higher losses of life than the radiation ever did. I also find it highly problematic that in the midst of a massive natural disaster, all people care about is the power plan, which caused no deaths. In Europe pharmacies ran out of stock of iodine pills, which is just ridiculous.

    I have no connections to any form of nuclear industry. In fact I have no connections to any industry at all. I do research in high energy physics, a field that exposes me to low levels of radiation. My international travelling by plane exposes me to more radiation than my work in radioactive zones does.

    My point was simply to criticise some of the language in the original article. The actual topic is an interesting one and the whole fear-mongering part was entirely unnecessary.

  12. Just a quick reply to “dave”:

    “But you’re just a paid trol for the nuke industry, likely not even a woman.”

    If your actually read my comments rather than jumping right to the angry knee jerk response, you may notice that I have nothing to do with the nuclear industry and opposes the use of nuclear energy, both for the problem with waste, the risk, and because of nuclear weapons. I am a humanist and pacifist and strongly object to the use and production of weapons from hand guns to nukes. Not that this has anything to do with my gender anyway, but thanks for the sexist argument, on a feminist blog.

    As for the rest of your post, it is not connected to any factual conditions at Fukushima. It is true that the waste is long lived, but the fallout is not. If you’re actually interested (which I doubt) you can look up IAEA’s frequent status updates on the work. The last one is from less than a week ago.

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