Saturday, March 11, 2017

Radiophobia on the Anniversary of Fukushima Daiichi’s Catastrophic and Ongoing Nuclear Accident

You can also read this post as a pdf at dropbox:

Reuters has a story, re-ran by the Asahi Shimbun, about Fukushima mothers' efforts to measure radiation levels in food to protect their children. The final segment of the article addresses mothers' perceptions that authorities are attempting to downplay the risk of radiation, particularly for children:
Reuters. (March 11, 2017). After Fukushima disaster, mothers don lab coats to measure radiation. The Asahi Shimbun,

Since official screenings began following the nuclear accident, 174 children in Fukushima prefecture have been diagnosed with--or are suspected of having--thyroid cancer, according to figures from Fukushima's local government.

Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reporting in 2015 that an increase in thyroid cancer is unlikely, the mothers insist there is value in their work.

...."In general, the issue of nuclear power is not really talked about much these days. It was talked about after the accident for about a year or so, but today, conversations mentioning words like 'radiation' don't happen anymore," Funemoto said [a mother of two who measures strontium levels in local food].

"But I think the reality is different. The radiation isn't going to go away. That's why I'm doing this. So many places are still damaged. This idea that it's safe and that we shouldn't be anxious doesn't really add up."

Ai Kimura, another mother agrees. "My parents think I'm a bit paranoid. They keep saying, 'it's okay isn't it?" she said.

"But what if there's a chance that in 10 or 20 years time, my own child gets thyroid cancer? And I could have done my bit to minimize the risks. My children are mine and I want to do whatever I can to protect them."
This story resonates with my greatest fear. As a mother, my greatest concern from the earliest moment of the disaster was the well-being of children.

I had been studying the crisis communication used to manage public perceptions of the financial crisis and the BP oil spill. Based on these analyses, published (here and presentation available here), I have lost faith in authorities' public relations, which I've found systematically tends to prioritize the economic and political power of consolidated complexes over the interests and long-term sustainability of our society.

The plight of Fukushima mothers is so representative of the DISPOSSESSION of the population and sustainable life on earth more generally.

The science of radiation safety is highly contested and the foundational studies upon which safety is predicated (ABCC) are fundamentally FLAWED, as I've documented along with many historians of science.

Below find an excerpt of a recent book chapter I contributed to a collection on social contagion. In this chapter I explore across time how women's concerns about their children have been "hystericized" within a psychodynamic framework that allows pro-nuclear authorities to trivialize and dismiss fears about radiation health effects by describing them as "radiophobia."

Radiophobia was developed in the 1950s but it continues to be used today by nuclear activists, as illustrated in this example below:
David Ropeik. September 2, 2016. The Dangers of Radiophobia. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 72(5),
Deep fear of nuclear radiation is widespread, yet research on radiation’s biological effects finds that the level of alarm far exceeds the actual danger. 
This “radiophobia” has roots in the fear of nuclear weapons, but has been significantly reinforced and inflamed by accidents at nuclear power plants. 
Radiophobia does far more harm to human health than the radiation released by nuclear accidents. In some cases, the harm results from disaster response. 
The influence of radiophobia on society’s energy choices poses great additional dangers.

Ropeik's definition captures the deployment goals for radiophobia:  (1) trivialize fears of radiation safety by (2) designating concerns as alarmist and damaging to health (via stress) and (3) damaging to "society's energy choices."

In my chapter, excerpted below, I trace the origins of radiophobia and efforts to engineer consent for nuclearity (see Gabrielle Hecht's definition) after the apocalyptic force of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs turned public opinion against atomic energy.

I show how the articulation of fears about radiation as "radiophobia" allowed authorities to marginalize and discredit alternative formations of radiation risks, although these efforts were never fully successful because each new nuclear accident produced empirical evidence that challenged the dominant exposure models.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, medical and government authorities deployed the radiophobia "meme" to discredit communications about radiation safety that circulated rapidly across the media, contagiously in fact, raising alarm about fallout effects, particularly for the children who live in the Fukushima region.

Majia Nadesan (in press). "Radiophobia” and the Politics of Social Contagion. In Breanne Fahs, Eric Swank, Sarah Stage, and Annika Mann (eds.). Transforming Contagion: Risky Contacts Among Bodies, Nations and Disciplines. Routledge.

ABSTRACT: This chapter explores the nuclear establishment meme of radiophobia, defined in “expert” pro-nuclear discourses as irrational fear of radiation, arguing it was developed and promulgated as an antidote to Cold War fears of atomic annihilation and adapted to combat concerns about radiation contamination stemming from catastrophic nuclear accidents, especially the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima nuclear crises.

The chapter argues that radiophobia operates by trivializing, feminizing, and hystericizing fears of ionizing radiation, while offering as an antidote rationalized conceptions of radiation health effects that are highly politicized and contested.

OPENING PARAGRAPH: The metaphors of “contagion” and “pollution” have long been deployed to describe mass media disseminations of oppositional discourses, or memes, contesting dominant frameworks of risk and/or technocratic assessments of hazards.

Although Richard Dawkins first articulated the framework of informational memes that disseminate mimetically in 1976, his conception has evolved significantly to incorporate more culturally rich conceptions of contagious social information (Blackmore 1998).

The epidemiological metaphor of contagion captures the political dimensions of mimetic transmission because contagious ideas that challenge institutionally established ones are regarded by the proponents of the latter as polluting, contaminating, and/or cancerous.

Understanding social contagion has achieved special urgency in the Internet era because of the technology’s democratization of production and the speed and scope of Internet disseminations. Recently the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research aimed at studying “social epidemics” of propagating and “misinforming” memes.

Research findings will likely be deployed to combat Internet memes designated as both contagious and polluting (i.e., “misinforming”). However, as one might imagine, there are deep politics implicated in designations of truth and misinformation in the battles for public opinion and for influence over the official historical record.

Of particular relevance in understanding Internet battles for public opinion are established dis-information tactics aimed at promulgating false information, such as artificially engineering scientific dogmatism around hazards whose risks are fraught with scientific uncertainty.

This chapter demonstrates how scientific dogmatism is deployed in the nuclear establishment meme of “radiophobia,” a concept developed during the Cold War by proponents of atomic weapons testing to discredit expert and popular fears concerning radiation safety by trivializing, feminizing, and “hystericizing” them within a psychodynamic framework.

The gendered nature of this term is not unrecognized; radiophobia was first defined in 1951 as the irrational fear of radiation that most specifically afflicted women of reproductive age—particularly in terms of the uterus and its dysfunctions. Radiophobia was again deployed to discredit expert and popular concerns about radiation risks, particularly reproductive risks, in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima nuclear crises.

Detailed analysis of the Fukushima crisis discloses that radiophobia operates dogmatically to negate scientific uncertainty about risks from chronic exposure, bioaccumulation, and hot spots, especially for children. Japanese mothers are the meme’s primary targets today, requiring them to navigate competing memes about radiation safety in their efforts to protect their children from disputed, but potentially significant, biological risks....


...Despite their lack of voice, concerned mothers were in the past, and remain in the present, the primary protagonists in the contestations over radiophobia. The meme was designed to vaccinate healthcare providers and other expert authorities against mothers’ concerns and potential anti-nuclear activism. Radiophobia’s psychoanalytic and technocratic language aimed to minimize mothers’ agency and discipline their resistance to atomic authorities’ assurances of radiation safety.

Although hystericized by radiophobia’s proponents, mothers’ tentative inquiries and undisciplined departures re-invigorate marginalized voices concerning ionizing radiation’s health and ecological consequences in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis.

Mothers’ efforts to protect their children amplify the significance of scientific contestations over dose-models, special vulnerabilities, and transgenerational effects for people living in contaminated arenas. Rising incidents of thyroid cancer and nodules among young people in Fukushima disrupt the radiophobia meme, lending support to dissenting accounts.

The question of whether Fukushima children’s thyroid cancer derives from Daiichi-sourced radiation is debated at length and across years on the international stage and in the pages of scientific journals. In the meantime, Fukushima mothers strive, below the mainstream radar, to find the truths that will promote their children’s health and healing, fearing that it is already too late.


  1. You are a true hero, Majia! Thanks for the excellent analysis here, and your more than 6 years of work to protect children. It is so true that the pro-nuclear activists feminize and hystericize those with logical conclusions about radiation, conclusions based on their own studies. It is brutal madness for anyone to be living in Fukushima, and by lying to the parents there, they are killing the children.

    Miss you,

    1. No Nukes! It is great to hear from you. I hope that life is treating you well. And thank you for the kind comment. Be well!