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


Susie is a freelance multimedia journalist and artist, focused on women in conflict/ post-conflict environments. She has worked for the The American Interest Magazine, Washington International Research Group, The CS Monitor, The Atlantic, TIME video, Words Beats & Life, and others. She's worked in The Balkans, South America, and most recently South and SouthEast Asia.