A question that haunts the newspaper and magazine reports is one I was taught to ask by my late father, Dr. Perry Melnick, a pathologist researching the effect of radiation on our cells. That question is how close the residents of an affected region – now especially Japan – came to being exposed to the mutilating effect of radiation on human genes. [Radiation's potential assault on genetic inheritance is one focus of my new novel Acts of Terror and Contrition: a nuclear fable. - see the side bar links. ]
Our awareness of the destructiveness of radiation grew exponentially in the aftermath of America’s atomic bombing of two Japanese cities at the end of World War Two, but scientific knowledge of those effects began to develop earlier in the twentieth century. In the 1930s, for example, my father published his research into “the deleterious effects of radiation on human subjects.” When the earthquake in Japan spurred the tsunami, the critical failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and the release of radiation into the environment, I thought about what my father’s response would have been.
The sloppiness of maintenance, the lax attitude toward the storage of nuclear material, and the risks taken by the nuclear industry and accepted by the Japanese government – all these would have earned my father’s censure. And he would be shocked by the generally cavalier attitude prevailing today toward the nuclear radiation generated by power plants – including those throughout the United States. My father would also have seen the disaster at Fukushima as an opportunity to alert us to our responsibility to eliminate from the planet poorly designed, sloppily maintained, and dangerously positioned nuclear energy installations. The Japanese crisis presents a “teachable moment,” an object lesson about radiation’s danger to future generations and to all organic life on Earth.
My own first lesson as a child about such dangers was a gift given by my Uncle Alvin to my family living then in Los Angeles; he was an economist working with General MacArthur during the occupation of Japan, and his present to us was a four inch square roofing tile found near the Sairenji Temple at the Hiroshima explosion center. I have it here before me. The tile is smooth and very hard, except that half of one side is darkened and eaten away by the immense heat of the atomic bomb explosion.
My second lesson was offered by my father in the early 1950s. He instructed me about the absurdity of my elementary school’s atomic bomb drills, when the bell would ring its alarm and we fourth-graders would assume a crouching position beneath our little desks. He explained in simple terms that the school and the whole city would likely be vaporized. Those who survived would bear the stigmata of radioactive fallout’s effects in their genes and so pass on a deformed genetic inheritance to the next generation. In the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, I remember his outrage at the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs, pumping bursts of radioactivity into the air we breathe.
Of course, my father did not reject all uses of nuclear radiation, for his research helped to validate its medical applications, notably in the treatment of cancer. But he would have insisted that the Fukushima nuclear disaster must serve to show us how irresponsible and immoral is an unthinking and passive attitude toward the dangers of radiation.
Thirty years ago, Jonathan Schell explained that “the fate of the earth” is at stake, and he eloquently called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the strict control of nuclear power. As research has revealed for a century, the consequences of multiple releases of radiation into the environment are a geometric increase in cancer rates and in irremediable genetic mutations. The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi should remind us that the destruction of the future is the risk we face.