NOTE: During the last decade I’ve explained the value of nuclear energy to thousands of people, including skeptical friends and family. A recent Seattle play inspired me to download what I’ve learned about nuclear power into this blog. I hope this somewhat therapeutic process for me provides readers with new and perhaps challenging insights. I’d love to hear back. Thanks for reading!
Part 1 of a 6-part series
Seattle Play Takes Poetic License, Fuels Nuclear Fear
I recently participated in a post-show panel discussion. When asked, “What resonates most about this play?” Reed Flores, assistant director for Lucy Kirkwood’s Tony-nominated The Children, responded, “The death of the cows.”
The play’s slow-moving script made for an emotional moment when Robin, performed by Hamilton Wright, after days of covering up the truth, confessed to his wife Hazel, played by Jeanne Paulsen, that Hazel’s beloved cows were dead. Their demise – eventually implied for all of the characters – is caused by lethal radiation from a Fukushima-type nuclear accident on the English coast that produces slightly-worse-than Chernobyl-like results.
For ticket-holders who don’t know what they’re getting into, no worries. A lobby banner with the headline, “An Accidental Disaster,” provides the storyline. At greater length, it also explains the 2011 Fukushima crisis, described accurately as causing “a level 7 nuclear emergency, on the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl accident.”
Fukushima: the rest of the story
The banner doesn’t reveal that Fukushima released only a fraction of the radioactive material spewed forth by the egregiously ill-conceived Chernobyl reactor. According to the World Health Organization, the highest recorded dose rate outside the Fukushima facilities is too low to cause a public health risk.
The banner highlights contaminated water, soil remediation and evacuation, yet omits the prevailing science behind these issues.
According to Tri-Cities scientist Jim Conca, diluted and pre-treated tritium-laced water is no more radioactive per gallon (14 tall water glasses) than a bag of potato chips; it can safely be released into the ocean. Popular Mechanics reports that untreated water flowed to the ocean for months after the accident, exposing marine life to less annual radiation than an airline passenger receives on a single international flight.
The Japanese government is also relocating billions of tons of topsoil from the exclusion area that scientists say is safe, but residents want gone, to potentially use elsewhere as landfill for public parks.
And an overly aggressive evacuation of people – both in scope and duration – has come under scrutiny.
In 2016 Japanese prosecutors linked the chaotic evacuation of more than 100,000 area residents to 44 deaths. These were mostly the infirm and bedridden, abandoned in their homes by fleeing caregivers, left to die of dehydration or hunger. Recent government figures place evacuation-related fatalities – none from radiation – at more than 2,200, including 85 suicides.
Pets and livestock were also left behind. Cows in the exclusion zone that didn’t starve to death – about 1,400 – became “commercially worthless.” By government order, another 1,500 were put down by lethal-injection. None died from radiation poisoning. In fact, thanks to the affection of a group of farmers who chose to defy government instructions, as of 2016 about 200 cows still survive.
Like Hazel’s stage cows, farmers view these exclusion-zone animals as family. Similar to Wright’s character, Robin, a small group of farmers have traveled into the zone several times weekly since the accident to feed their cows.
The key difference is that the fictional Robin secretly buries his cows. The Japanese farmers are not only nourishing their herds, they’ve placed them into a university study to track their health in hopes of preventing future unnecessary euthanizations. (An outbreak of white spots remains unexplained.)
Farmers call them “the cows of hope.”
“For those who are worried or not confident about resuming cattle raising, I hope what I'm doing will encourage them," says the farmer, Takeshi Yamada. (NHK)
The general public, however, tends to be less hopeful. That’s because most of us lack familiar reference points for benchmarking radiation levels, leading to “the Godzilla effect” – the perpetual fear of cancers, birth issues, food chain contamination and other radiation-based health scares.
Kirkwood chooses to leverage this psychosocial anxiety through ‘the cows of hopelessness.’ Her dead cows are framed in a façade of reality to propel her narrative of nuclear energy fear and despair into the emotions of her audience.
“No one [at Fukushima] was killed by radiation,” according to the New York Times, “because levels outside the plant itself were too low.” The worst affected areas as of 2016, according to CNN, radiate 50 millisieverts per year. That’s precisely the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s dose limit, with significant safety margins built in, for U.S. nuclear industry workers.
“It only later emerged that the radiation received by the public had been trivial,” reports The Guardian. The less-than 1% of evacuees exposed to the highest radiation dose received just one-third of what we all receive, on average, from naturally occurring background radiation.
An emergency official rests curbside on a road passing through the coastal city of Kamaishi, where the 2011 Japan tsunami killed 1,250 residents after waves surmounted Kamaishi’s mile-long, 200-foot-deep breakwater. Designed to block the highest tsunami, it was the world’s deepest breakwater, completed in 2009 after three decades of construction at a cost of $1.5 billion. Fukushima plant owners have been criticized for failure to construct a 52-foot seawall at the recommendation of the Japanese government. Given what we now know about the Kamaishi breakwater, it is unlikely such a wall would have prevented the accident. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Patrick Fuller)
The theater banner’s most contextually odd omission is of the more than 18,000 people who died that day. Entire grade schools were washed to sea. The real disaster – from the tsunami, not Fukushima – is a human tragedy of such massive proportion that it’s difficult to wrap our emotions around it.
Perhaps someday a gifted playwright will tackle that challenge.
For now, we’re left with the sad cow experience, originally scheduled on stage at Seattle’s REP Theatre through March 15 – closed early by the very real coronavirus.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR | April 5 · Take a look at radiation histories · "... heart rending stories from Japanese of deaths from evacuation, loss of businesses, divorce, suicide and top-soil. This made me realize that regulatory action was the problem, not health risk." – Dr. Antone L. Brooks, Kennewick
Read Part 2, Back to the Cows.