By Teow Lim Goh
On March 11, 2011, the day an earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Japan’s Honshu Island, I saw Allison Smith’s mixed media installation Piece Work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. At the center of the exhibit was a collection of Smith’s handmade renditions of cloth gas masks used during the First World War. Her intimate needlework suggested the domesticity of war, of women allaying their fears and anxieties through the repetition of sewing and knitting for the men on the battlefront. Gas masks protect their wearers from the invisible poisons in the atmosphere, but they also conceal identities and turn soldiers into contingents of anonymous bodies. As I looked at the rows of hollowed eyes inside a glass case, I thought that these cloth masks would be ineffective against chlorine gas—as well as in a nuclear disaster.
All that morning I followed the news reports out of Japan. The reactors had shut down immediately when the quake occurred, but the tsunami crossed a seawall, flooded the backup generators, and left the plant without power to run the cooling systems. The fuel rods began to overheat. The heat evaporated the water in the cooling pools and exposed the rods. The pressure in the reactors built up. The day after the quake, an explosion tore off the roof and outer walls of Unit 1. Two days later, an explosion in Unit 3 damaged its exterior walls. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant operator, initially tried to reassure the public that Unit 2 was stable, but four days after the quake, it suffered a blast that warranted a temporary evacuation of the plant. In an attempt to keep the fuel rods submerged in water, Japan began pumping seawater into the reactors, the nuclear equivalent of a Hail Mary.
After the war, we sprayed chemicals on our crop and range lands from the air.
Half a world away from the disaster I went about my life as usual. I went to work. I visited the art museum. I rode my bike around the prairie near my home. I made dinner. I did not rush out to buy potassium iodide pills, as many Americans did, but I felt a heightened alertness and a sense of vulnerability. The fabric of everyday life had ruptured, the routines of thought disrupted. I had a sense that a wall had crumbled and I had turned permeable. I was immersed in the present, but I also felt another kind of receptivity: I knew that if I were in the path of the fallout, I would be subject to its dangers. My body would absorb the radioactive iodine and potassium in the air. The poisons would lodge in my bones, my thyroid, and over the decades emit elevated levels of radiation and scramble the codes in my cells.
Smith cites the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s critical essay Terror from the Air as a touchstone for her art. Sloterdijk argues that the modern era began on April 22, 1915, when the German army attacked the French troops at Ypres with chlorine gas. This first act of gas warfare killed the enemy by making the atmospheric conditions untenable for life, a departure from traditional warfare in which soldiers impart direct blows onto the enemy’s body. “By using violence against the very air that groups breathe,” Sloterdijk writes, “the human being’s immediate atmospheric envelope is transformed into something whose intactness or non-intactness is henceforth a question.” That is to say, we can no longer take our atmosphere, the very air we breathe in order to live, for granted – like in a nuclear disaster.
The modern condition, Sloterdijk argues, is characterized by an anxiety about our environment. Gas warfare, he writes, “is about integrating the most fundamental strata of the biological conditions for life into the attack: the breather, by continuing his elementary habitus, i.e. the necessity to breathe, becomes at once a victim and an unwilling accomplice in his own annihilation.” In the Second World War, we saw this again in Auschwitz, where thousands of Jews were gassed; in the bombings of Dresden, where the intense heat cooked the flesh of those who hid in bomb shelters; and in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the radioactive fallout lodged in the bodies of those who did not perish immediately. After the war, we sprayed chemicals on our crop and range lands from the air.
Smith’s gas masks explicate this sense of danger. In the exhibition catalog, she says of the originals she saw at Les Invalides in Paris, a military museum, “To me, they seemed somehow lovingly made, and functionally inadequate. I was stuck with the recurring thought, ‘someone made this’, and I tried to imagine what that would be like.” In Piece Work she reenacts this act of making, reminding us of the role of craft in war. She also brings our latent anxiety about our environment into focus. And the masks are blank slates. We wear them to assuage our fears, but in doing so, we cover our faces and erase our individualities, our sense of self.
The day before the earthquake, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed Vermont Yankee’s license for another twenty years despite tritium leaks and the collapse of a cooling tower. The design of Vermont Yankee is virtually identical to Fukushima.
In the first days of Fukushima, the media reported that the crisis was not as severe as the 1979 partial nuclear meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island reactor. Then it likely surpassed Three Mile Island. And it could always turn into the next Chernobyl. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also invoked. The media relied on public memory of these linchpins of nuclear disasters to contend with the chaos in Fukushima. Despite all the efforts to whitewash the dangers of nuclear power, we still remember its catastrophic potential. Japan is the only country to have been attacked by nuclear bombs as weapons of war, yet contemporary science textbooks make no mention of the downsides of nuclear power. Fukushima reopened this rupture and revisited the nightmare of the bombs: blistered skins, charred bodies, a metallic taste in the mouth, high rates of cancer, children born with deformities.
As I watched helicopters drop water on the smoking reactors, I kept thinking of Chernobyl, which I had lived through as a toddler in London. I don’t remember the event directly, but my parents often tell the story of how they tried to find powdered milk on the supermarket shelves for my sister and me. London was at the tail end of the fallout, but Britain imports food from continental Europe, which was directly in the path of the prevailing winds. I also thought of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I grew up in Singapore, where the history textbooks and evening television dramas tell of the terror and brutality of the Japanese occupation. For my forebears, for my grandparents, the atomic bombs meant liberation from bowing to Japanese soldiers under the threat of beatings, massacres of Chinese men on the beaches, and an inadequate diet of sweet potatoes and yam.
The day before the earthquake, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed Vermont Yankee’s license for another twenty years despite tritium leaks and the collapse of a cooling tower. The Vermont Senate had earlier voted against this extension. The design of Vermont Yankee is virtually identical to that of the troubled reactors in Fukushima and it was not built to run for another two decades. Two weeks after the quake, I heard The Guardian reporter George Monbiot argue on Democracy Now that coal is a far more dangerous technology than nuclear power. He said that coal kills two thousand people a week in China, a far greater death toll than that from Chernobyl for 25 years. His tally from Chernobyl: 43. The Onion perhaps said it best, one week after the earthquake: “Nuclear Energy Advocates Insist U.S. Reactors Completely Safe Unless Something Bad Happens.”
The invisibility of the radioactive fallout meant that we could not trust our senses to assess the dangers in the atmosphere and were instead dependent on the authorities.
On the International Nuclear Event Scale, which assesses the severity of a nuclear accident, Three Mile Island ranks at 5, an “accident with offsite risk,” and Chernobyl at 7, a “major accident” and the highest reading on the scale. With explosions in four reactors, uncovered spent fuel pools, likely meltdowns in three cores, damaged cooling systems, erratic surges in radiation levels, and workers pumping seawater into the units with fire hoses, Japan initially rated the event at 4, an “accident without significant off-site risk.” A week later, they raised it to 5. Only a month later did they raise it to 7 while reiterating that the fallout was still less than that of Chernobyl. Around the same time, robots entered Units 1 and 3 to measure the temperatures, pressures, and radiation levels. It was still too dangerous for humans to begin repairs.
The invisibility of the radioactive fallout meant that we could not trust our senses to assess the dangers in the atmosphere and were instead dependent on the authorities. And in the initial days of the disaster, the official assessments varied wildly. The readings of the radiation levels fluctuated from next to nothing at the gate of the plant to levels high enough to warrant temporary evacuations. One day, Tokyo warned that the levels of radioactive iodine in its water supply had exceeded the recommended limit for infants, though still safe for adults; the next day, the water was all good again. The Japanese government evacuated a zone of twelve miles around the plant, while America recommended that its citizens living within fifty miles of the plant head south or leave the country altogether. At least chlorine gas has a distinctive smell and color.
The Japanese government also recommended that the people who lived between twelve and nineteen miles from the distressed plant stay indoors. The walls may serve as barricades of sorts against the poisons in the atmosphere, but no house is completely sealed off from the outside. Spaces need to be ventilated, air circulated. Perhaps some protection is better than none at all, but the authorities also reflexively saw the indoors as a zone of safety. In the face of danger, they ordered people into hiding, into isolation, into fear, the psychological equivalent of wearing a cloth gas mask. The home was no longer a place of rest and refuge; it became instead a fortress to keep ourselves apart. I saw the implicit message, one that we already take for granted in our destabilizing environment: Be suspicious of the unknown. Split yourself from the world.
Teow Lim Goh’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Open Letters Monthly, The Common Online, and The Philadelphia Review of Books, among other publications.