Most of us, I suspect, have a deep-seated distrust of anything “nuclear”. The infamy of the atom has many monuments to its name: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Mayak, Windscale. Nobody wants a reactor in their backyard — even if nuclear power is one of the few large-scale ways to wean ourselves from burning coal. (Irony of ironies: we spew more radiation into the environment by burning coal than we do with a well-regulated and well-designed nuclear plant.)
The key words, of course, are “well-regulated” and “well-designed”, and while there are probably plenty of the latter it’s becoming all too clear there isn’t nearly enough of the former. For bad design and poor regulation, Chernobyl stands as the grossest example of both in conjunction. In its shadow there have been other accidents, albeit not as well-known or with such widespread effects, but which illustrate all too clearly that the most pressing danger of nuclear power is not radiation but human ignorance.
A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness documents how negligence and corruption at a nuclear-fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, Japan caused that country’s worst nuclear accident to date. One of the workers there, a pleasant family man named Hisachi Ouchi, received a dose of radiation nearly ten thousand times the normal background level, and over the course of the next two months and some-odd days literally disintegrated under the eyes of his doctors. Most of us know of radiation sickness only from the exaggerations of bad science fiction movies, but Mr. Ouchi’s case is even more ghastly than anything dreamed up by any screenwriter.
The book is a companion volume to an award-winning NHK TV series that also documents the disaster in thorough-going detail. It opens with a cautionary rundown of the troubled road nuclear energy has traveled down since the first reactors and the first bombs were set alight in the Forties, but the majority of the work is focused on other things: how Ouchi was dosed, how his illness progressed, how his doctors fought to keep him alive (and how he himself apparently put up a valiant struggle to survive as well), and how those responsible for his death were brought to justice. The latter is not handled in great detail, if only because the guilt of those culpable was so cut-and-dried.
The plant Mr. Ouchi worked at had long been a disaster waiting to happen. The opening chapters document in remarkable detail how the work conditions there were not just once but twice removed from safe procedure. Ouchi and another worker poured uranyl nitrate solution into a precipitation tank — one not designed to prevent the mixture from spontaneously achieving a chain reaction, but which had been used many times before without incident as part of their twice-modified work routine. This time, they were not so lucky. Radiation alarms went off, Ouchi and his co-worker fled the scene and collapsed, and soon everyone from the NHK’s nuclear-power reporting team to the network of doctors in Japan that treated cases of radiation poisoning turned their eyes towards Tokaimura.
The most compelling parts of the book revolve around the quandaries faced by Ouchi’s family and caretakers, who wonder if they are doing the right thing by trying to keep him alive even when they know full well his chances were never more than slim to none. At first nothing even seemed to be all that wrong with Mr. Ouchi, but the doctors knew better, and soon their fears were all borne out. His white cell count plummeted, and the cell samples they obtained from his body showed every chromosome beaten and misshapen, as if attacked with hammers. Slowly, the doctors watched as what looked like healthy flesh suppurated and sloughed away, as his internal organs failed one after the other and he slipped into unconsciousness and coma.
From the outside, Ouchi’s decay and death probably sound like the makings of a gross-out horror story (or maybe an Uziga Waita manga). But the overall effect on the reader is one of deep sadness and loss, not mortification or revulsion. Even the photos of Ouchi’s condition inspire more pity than disgust: most striking is a shot of his arm a couple of days after irradiation, looking only mildly swollen — and then the same arm, weeks later, now leprous and blackened. The saddest and most disturbing moments are when we realize that Ouchi has been completely unprepared for the possibility that his job might kill him. At one point early in the timeline, when it’s already quite clear to all of us that he’s a dead man, he wonders aloud, “Is there a chance I might get leukemia from this?”
There is not much space devoted to the question of culpability, but again that may only be because what justice could be done had already been done. The plant managers were found guilty of criminal negligence and did not appeal their sentences — but the book quite rightly senses it was all a rather Pyrrhic victory. Japan generates a good deal of its power through nuclear plants, but if they’re run with the same combination of buck-passing and cultivated ignorance masquerading as solidarity as the Tokaimura fuel plant was, Mr. Ouchi may well be joined by others. Some might say they were lucky in that the accident didn’t happen in an actual nuclear reactor. I say, if you need to invoke luck to talk about something like this, you’re already doomed.