Playing Around With Plutonium
Text by Mark Rainey
“Why on earth are we playing around with Plutonium?”, asked the poet Jotaro Wakamatsu. He posed the question in Disappearances, a poem about his visit to the abandoned city of Pripyat which had been evacuated in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. During his haunting account of walking Pripyat’s empty streets, he continually returned to the theme of Chernobyl being replicated elsewhere:
I wade through tall weeds,
In the playground of an abandoned nursery school,
Where radioactive particles take flight, no doubt,
and my lungs take some of them in
with the air I breath. No doubt, we’ll see
more cities, more places made to disappear.
My hometown’s disappearance may come today.
He also imagined the Chernobyl exclusion zone being mapped on to his own home in northern Japan. Wakamatsu is from Fukushima and the poem was written in 1994. Some have labelled Wakamatsu’s poetry as prophetic, although they are well wide of the mark. His poems, now collected in the book What Makes Us (2012), were attentive to the landscape and surroundings of Fukushima and its changing features following the installation of the Fukushima Daichii Nuclear Power Plant. These ranged from abnormalities in plant life that only an inquisitive local might notice, to the detection of Cobalt 60 in an elementary school’s playing field and to Wakamatsu’s own body hair falling off unexpectedly in clumps. His poem South Winds 2, penned in 2008, reads as a sort of dirge – listing the critical and major incidents at the Fukushima plant that were either covered up or left unreported until 2007. In this respect, the crisis at the stricken Fukushima Daichii plant was not so unexpected. Wakamatsu’s imagined mappings of the Chernobyl exclusion zone on Fukushima have now collapsed into the reality of a nuclear meltdown and mass evacuation.
Connections can also be made with the ongoing history of Hiroshima – the first city to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon. August 6th marked the anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city and with nuclear energy now a live political issue in Japan, protests against the nuclear industry took place alongside protests in the city calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. This year’s anniversary saw citizens march on the head offices of the Chugoku Electric Company in Hiroshima which has plans to build and re-commission nuclear power plants in the area. If August 6th is rallying date for anti-nuclear protest, it also offers reflection on the horrors of the bombing of Hiroshima. During the Peace Memorial Ceremony, held each year, the mayor of Hiroshima reads out a new ‘Peace Declaration’. Following the tsunami of March 2011, these declarations have also raised concerns over nuclear energy policy in Japan and connected the experience of Hiroshima and the Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) to the current crisis in Fukushima.
For family reasons, I often visit Hiroshima and following the ceremonies and protests on August 6th this year, I attended a low-key event on the banks of the Ota river. Here Buddhist priests lit incense and chanted in front of a make-shift altar. Hibakusha related their experiences of the atomic bomb and young Fukushima refugees spoke of having to uproot from their homes and begin a new life in cities including Hiroshima. The poet Wakamatsu was also in attendance. His work was read aloud by Arthur Binard and Tarou Yamamoto. Binard is an American Japanese-language poet and has translated Wakamatsu’s work into English, while Yamamoto is a young and well-known Japanese actor who has joined the weekly anti-nuclear protests outside the Prime Minister’s official residence in Tokyo. He has since received criticism from within the entertainment industry over his activism. Along the banks of the Ota river, listening to the stories of survivors, evacuees and the work of Wakamatsu read by Binard and Yamamoto, a sort of triad is formed: Hiroshima-Chernobyl-Fukushima.
But a holistic view extends well beyond this. When Wakamatsu’s question, “Why on earth are we playing around with Plutonium?” is posed, we must not only consider wartime bombings and plant meltdowns, but also nuclear weapons testing, uranium mining, plutonium production and nuclear waste disposal. Testing is indelibly linked to colonialism, taking place at national peripheries or colonial sites: the Bikini Atoll, the Algerian Sahara, Northern Australia and Kazakhstan to name a few. So too is mining. If the term ‘Hibakusha’ can be extended beyond the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to anyone suffering from radiation, then among the first Hibakusha were the Hopi and Navajo people of Arizona and Nevada whose land and people have been used in uranium mining since 1942. Likewise, both testing and mining have taken place on Indigenous land in Australia. (B. Wongar, 2006) Staggering financial sums have been poured into the problem of nuclear waste disposal – blowing a hole in the argument that nuclear energy is somehow cheaper than other forms of energy production. Onkalo, The Finnish government’s deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel, is estimated to cost over €800 million, while the UK government has set aside £72 Billion to decommission the Sellafield plant. (Observer, 2009) When Wakamatsu’s question is asked, the reply necessitates a consideration of the entire nuclear process, from extraction to disposal, and the human and environmental costs that lie in between.
Below is a link to a lecture by Dr. Bo Jacobs, from the Peace Institute at Hiroshima City University. Dr. Jacobs researches the effects of nuclear technology on culture and society. As part of this work he conducts ethnographic study on the often isolated communities that have been adversely affected by nuclear weapons testing and technology. The lecture was recorded on August 4th 2012 at the Hiroshima Jogakuin University. The lecture is introductory and was delivered to an audience of American and Japanese undergraduates attending a Peace Seminar. In it he presents and then critiques the dominant American narrative of the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. Through this he then ties nuclear weapons development to the increasing abstraction of military technology, colonialism and the geo-political balance of power.
“Sellafield: The Most Hazardous Place in Europe”. (2009) The Observer. Sunday, 19 April.
Wakamatsu, J. (2012) ひとの あかし/ What Makes Us. Translated by A Binard. Tokyo:
Wongar, B. (2006) Totem and Ore. Victoria, Australia: Dingo Books.