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Nuclear Bodies: The Global Hibakusha



In the fall of 1961, President Kennedy somberly warned Americans about deadly radioactive fallout clouds extending hundreds of miles from H‑bomb detonations, yet he approved ninety‑six US nuclear weapon tests for 1962. Cold War nuclear testing, production, and disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima have exposed millions to dangerous radioactive particles; these millions are the global hibakusha. Many communities continue to be plagued with dire legacies and ongoing risks: sickness and early mortality, forced displacement, uncertainty and anxiety, dislocation from ancestors and traditional lifestyles, and contamination of food sources and ecosystems. Robert A. Jacobs re‑envisions the history of the Cold War as a slow nuclear war, fought on remote battlegrounds against populations powerless to prevent the contamination of their lands and bodies. His comprehensive account necessitates a profound rethinking of the meaning, costs, and legacies of our embrace of nuclear weapons and technologies.
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The Global
Robert A. Jacobs
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Millions of people around the world have suered harm from
radiation since the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Their bodies form part of the fabric of ecosystems where nuclear fallout
deposited radioactive particles—whether from nuclear weapon testing,
nuclear power plant accidents, or the production of materials used in both
technologies. These exposures have led to deaths, illnesses, forced evacu-
ations from homes and communities, continued habitation in radiologically
contaminated landscapes, tainted food sources, and endless anxieties and
emotional distress. The experiences of these “global hibakusha” have been
largely invisible to us because they happened primarily in colonial, post-
colonial, or remote parts of our world, or to people with little political
recourse. (Hibakusha is a Japanese word denoting a survivor of the attacks
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
Based on its belief that nuclear weapons were likely to be used in warfare
after 1945, the United States conducted large-scale studies to understand
the medical consequences of exposure to radiation from the detonations
of these weapons. The studies focused on the large bursts of external ra-
diation (primarily gamma waves) that ravaged human bodies in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, but they ignored radioactive particles that cause harm when
internalized inside of the body. The radioactive waves remain close to the
hypocenter and last less than a minute, while the radioactive particles can
travel far downwind and remain dangerous anywhere from a few hours to
millions of years later, depending on the specific chemistry of the particle.
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World War III never happened, but the detonation of more than two
thousand nuclear weapons in “tests” did happen. During these tests, the
external waves of radiation were contained to the test sites; however,
mushroom clouds heavy with radioactive particles drifted downwind, where
those particles could “fall out” and aect the health of living creatures.
Long-lived fallout particles embedded into the ecosystem and will continue
to pose threats to health: plutonium will remain dangerous for over two
hundred thousand years, and uranium particles for more than one million
years. Areas where particles fell out in large amounts near Chernobyl and
Fukushima are still vexed by 137Cs (cesium-137), a particle that remains
dangerous for over three hundred years; easily transports through water,
plants, and animals; and has shown up consistently in food produced in
downwind zones decades later. Millions of people live in places where these
disasters happened; whole communities have been devastated and many
The invisibility of these global hibakusha is manufactured in both science
and politics. Studies of the hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki built
models of risk on external exposures and ignored the internal exposures
that would become far more common. Since the global hibakusha’s expo-
sures do not fit our health models, we are unable to see them as enduring
risk from radiation. Politically, nuclear weapon states do not want to ac-
knowledge that weapon eects like fallout—which are designed for use in
warfare to sicken and kill—constitute actual warfare when inflicted on
people during “tests.” This is not information that emerged slowly; aware-
ness of the health impacts from fallout is what originally led nations to
establish their test sites far from the elite populations in their societies.
Some nuclear weapon states never tested in their own countries; others
established test sites upwind of ethnic minority populations. Countries like
the United States, the United Kingdom, and France tested large thermo-
nuclear weapons on small Pacific islands and atolls that were either colonial
or postcolonial trust territories. Awareness of the risks to communities
downwind drove those siting choices; little care was given to the actual
people living there.
Conversely, nuclear power plant accidents happen in developed nations
to communities with some measure of political agency and access to in-
formation. The perceptions about radiation of these populations are more
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actively managed, in part because of their rights to compensation. For
these people, the studies of the hibakusha from Hiroshima and Nagasaki
are invoked to convey that levels of radiation in zones downwind from
explosions, such as at Chernobyl or Fukushima, are too low to be of
medical consequence. However, explosions from nuclear power plant ac-
cidents also raise clouds of radioactive particles into the air and deposit
them downwind. Defenders of nuclear power dismiss downwinders’ health
concerns and describe people living in contaminated areas as suering from
an irrational fear of radiation, which they pathologize as “radiophobia.
When a nuclear disaster happens upwind of your home and fallout clouds
deposit radionuclides into your environment, anxiety is a rational response.
Communities in need of information and assistance are instead routinely
chastised for reacting to the toxic disaster thrust upon them.
The risks from radioactive particles and their behavior in ecosystems
were well-known from the start. Senior Manhattan Project scientists had
considered using radioactive particles as an oensive weapon against the
Germans in World War II long before nuclear weapons were successfully
manufactured; they discussed aerosolizing radionuclides so that enemy
soldiers would internalize lethal amounts through inhalation. In 1946,
after the first American postwar nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, sci-
entists made extensive studies of the behavior of fallout particles in the
waters, soils, and biota of Bikini Atoll and strategized how to best weapon-
ize these eects to both kill and psychologically terrorize an enemy popu-
lation. Throughout the Cold War, military planners on all sides designed
attacks that would weaponize fallout radiation to massacre enemy popula-
tions. All of this took place while simultaneously asserting that these same
fallout clouds posed no health risk to people living underneath them
downwind from test sites. They behaved as though the direct use of fallout
radiation in warfare was strategic and calculated, while indirect exposures
from testing, production, and accidents were “inconsequential” and “below
health concerns.” In fact, the eects of fallout do not change depending
on the intentions of the party doing the irradiating.
The Cold War was, in part, a limited nuclear war conducted against
these communities. We imagine that the nuclear war didn’t happen because
we had been envisioning the protagonists attacking each other, but the
two thousand weapons detonated during the Cold War had profound
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impacts. The eects on global hibakusha communities—early mortality,
disease, displacement, contamination of food sources and ecosystems—
constitute a limited nuclear war. The fact that the locations where this
happened are on the periphery of our political consciousness is why we
are unaware of what happened, and also why they were chosen in the first
As the Cold War nuclear arsenals continue to threaten human civilization
today, the radiological risks to human beings also extend beyond the
twentieth century. Many of the radionuclides produced for our weaponry
and electrical generation have deposited all around the world and will
continue to migrate through the ecosystem long past our own mortality.
We are on the temporal front lines of countless generations of human be-
ings for whom these particles, and millions of tons of radioactive waste,
have been stitched into our planet. Much of the waste is classified as high-
level and will remain dangerous to living beings for more than one hundred
thousand years. It is currently located on every continent (except Antarc-
tica), although primarily in the global north; we plan to bury the most
dangerous of it—the spent nuclear fuel—half a kilometer underground in
dozens of sites in an attempt to contain the risks. Deep geological storage
sites are already under construction in many countries, including Finland
and Sweden, and many more are under design. These will present a risk
to thousands of generations of human and other beings. We wrestle with
what instructions to leave beside the waste—instructions we imagine will
help protect people in the future—oblivious to the fact that the presence
of our waste in their world is itself the message.
Hundreds of thousands of metric tons of this high-level waste is here
now. We cannot keep it out of the future; in a sense, it’s already there. But
we can do a better or worse job of management. Being responsible about
our waste means centuries of funding the facilities necessary to contain it
(whatever methods we settle on) and remediating the sites of our produc-
tion, testing, and accidents. We must compel numerous administrations
in multiple governments to fund these remediations and storage sites for
centuries. We have already made the central mistake, manufacturing hun-
dreds of thousands of tons of radioactive toxins that will remain harmful
for millennia, and so we have to commit our societies to responsible stew-
ardship. The most important thing we must do is to stop making more
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nuclear waste: we must abolish nuclear weapons and abandon nuclear
Our invention of nuclear power plants to produce plutonium and the
subsequent invention of nuclear weapons seemed like a powerful path to
eectively achieve some immediate outcomes. It turns out we were open-
ing the door to a millennia-long journey, and none of our descendants can
opt out: we’ve made the choice for them. Now we must be more mindful
about what we have done and are to do. If we are unwilling to see where
we have been, we will have little understanding of where we are going.
Has our brutality called us to stewardship? Or has it just extended that
brutality into multigenerational-temporal violence? This book seeks to
shine light on elements of our recent history that we have buried away,
how our actions have already inextricably shaped the future, and what
choices remain to us.
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