As I See It: Gov't must delve deeper into radiation exposure from Bikini Atoll incident

The Daigo Fukuryu Maru is pictured at its exhibition hall in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 26, 2014. (Mainichi)
The Daigo Fukuryu Maru is pictured at its exhibition hall in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 26, 2014. (Mainichi)

Sixty years have passed since crew members of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a tuna fishing boat based in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, were exposed to radiation following a nuclear test that the United States conducted on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. At the time, the Japanese and U.S. governments played down the damage caused by the incident, announcing that the Daigo Fukuryu Maru was the only vessel affected by "death ash" even though nearly 1,000 vessels, including Japanese freighters and fishing boats, may have been exposed to radiation.

Now, the Japanese government is underestimating Fukushima residents' exposure to radiation following the outbreak of the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, while making haste to restart idled atomic power stations across the country. This suggests that the history of placing priority on national policy over people's health is being repeated in Japan. The government should conduct a detailed survey on people's exposure to radiation in the Bikini Atoll incident and learn lessons from the case.

In January this year, Hajime Kikima, 69, a doctor living in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, examined an 88-year-old retired employee of a company that owned the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, and felt that his patient was suffering from the effects of a radiation-related disease. The patient was involved in work to remove water from the tuna fishing boat over a period of two months after it came back to the Yaizu fishing port. At the time, he felt dizzy and lost a considerable amount of his hair, but did not receive any treatment. After he passed the age of 60, the patient suffered from stomach and colon cancer as well as a thyroid gland disorder. Workers at a local public health office who looked after crew members of the boat are also reportedly showing symptoms suggesting they had indirect exposure to radiation.

A health ministry survey shows that 856 fishing boats across the country dumped fish they caught because of the nuclear test on Bikini Atoll. Some researchers point out that over 1,000 vessels were affected by radiation from the nuclear test in one way or another. A citizens group in Kochi Prefecture, where about one-third of fishing boats operating around the atoll were based, claims that many former crew members of these vessels are suffering from cancer or other diseases. The organization has joined hands with Hiroshima University in investigating whether and how former crew members' exposure to radiation has affected their health.

Not everyone affected by radiation in the incident is known. If the government had conducted an extensive survey, the results could have helped conduct better surveys on Fukushima residents' exposure to radiation following the nuclear plant accident.

The government should have identified those who are suspected of having been exposed to radiation in the Bikini incident and examined their health conditions. However, the testimonies provided by those involved in efforts to get to the bottom of the incident highlight the selfishness with which the United States, a nuclear superpower, attempted to cover up the incident, and the cowardliness with which the Japanese government went along with such attempts by Washington.

At that time, less than a decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the United States feared that the Bikini incident could ignite anti-U.S. and anti-nuclear sentiment. Amid the Cold War, Washington was extremely wary about details of the nuclear test on Bikini Atoll, such as how fishermen operating nearby were exposed to radiation, coming to light. The Daigo Fukuryu Maru is now on display in Tokyo thanks to a preservation campaign by citizens, even though the United States had proposed that Japan sink the fishing boat for the purpose of protecting secrets.

In January 1955, less than a year after the incident, Washington paid a total of roughly 720 million yen to crew members of fishing boats and people in the fisheries industry across Japan as "consolation money." Since then, Tokyo has maintained the position that the matter has been settled. That same year, Tokyo and Washington signed an agreement on bilateral cooperation in promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and Japan enacted the Atomic Energy Basic Act, based on which the country began nuclear power development as a national policy while drawing the curtains on the Bikini incident.

Sixteen of the 23 crew members of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru have already passed away. Most of them died of liver cancer and other liver ailments. The majority of medical experts believe that the crew members were infected with hepatitis C through blood transfusions as part of their treatment. However, the government recognized the death of only Aikichi Kuboyama, 40, chief radio operator of the vessel who passed away six months after the nuclear test, as being directly related to the incident.

"The Japanese government has followed U.S. nuclear policy because of the bilateral security arrangement and for economic reasons, and has turned a blind eye to its own people's exposure to radiation," says Hiroko Takahashi, a lecturer at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, who conducts research on atomic bombs and U.S. nuclear tests.

"The government has failed to proactively release the amounts of radiation that Fukushima residents have been exposed in the nuclear crisis. Its attitude has remained unchanged since the Bikini incident.

Following the Bikini incident, Yaizu-based fishermen were forced to discard fish that they had just landed at the local fishing port. Local residents reportedly tended to regard the Daigo Fukuryu Maru as a nuisance. Some local residents even looked coldly at crew members of the vessel saying, "Fish in Yaizu are no longer selling well because of you."

One of the former crew members, 87-year-old Susumu Misaki, opened a tofu shop after the incident. One local branded his tofu "nuclear weapon tofu." The Bikini incident dealt a serious blow to the nation's fisheries industry as a whole.

Now, the agricultural and fisheries industries in Fukushima Prefecture face harmful rumors about their products, and it is ordinary citizens who are being made to pay for problems deriving from national policy.

Some people may have died even without knowing that they were exposed to radiation from the nuclear test on Bikini Atoll. Documents on the mariners' insurance program provide details on the crew members of ships, the period and locations of their operations and their health conditions. The documents are preserved at the Japan Pension Service, which falls under the supervision of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The government could clarify the causal relationship between crew members' exposure to radiation and their health problems if it closely reviewed those documents.

Kuboyama passed away after saying, "We should be the last victims of atomic and hydrogen bombs." To make sure that no more people will be killed by radiation, the government must get to the bottom of the Bikini incident. (By Yuta Hiratsuka, Shizuoka Bureau)

May 17, 2014(Mainichi Japan)

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