Wednesday, July 20, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: A SLOW DEATH: 83 DAYS OF RADIATION SICKNESS by NHK-TV "Tokaimura Criticality Accident" Crew, 2008 English Translation by Maho Harada

Published by Vertical Inc., New York

September 30, 1999:
Three workers at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, Japan are exposed to high amounts of neutron beams during a criticality accident.

This is a book about a man named Ouchi whose chromosomes were destroyed by a blast of neutron rays while working in unsafe conditions in a uranium processing facility in Tokaimura, which is north east of Tokyo. For 83 days, a crack team of doctors, nurses, and medical experts from several countries try to keep him alive. Because Ouchi's chromosomes have been destroyed, his body cannot generate new cells to replace the dead ones. His skin falls off. His mucus membranes disappear. He is in constant pain. He suffers massive internal hemorrhages and the medical staff have to constantly pump fluids and nutrients into his body to keep him alive. His organs fail, one by one, and their functions are taken over by various machines. As he literally melts before their eyes, Ouchi's doctors and nurses question whether or not what they are doing is the right thing to do. That is to say, are they actually helping him, or are they just endlessly prolonging his agony?

This is a slim but tough book. It goes into gruesome but necessary detail about the deterioration of a human body afflicted by neutron beam radiation. It is told in a straightforward reportorial style that goes into thoroughgoing technical detail but not so much that the average reader cannot follow along. It also gives space to the emotional turmoil the medical staff underwent as they battled to keep Ouchi alive.

In some ways, this is a book about the dangers of atomic radiation, but it is also a strange kind of existential novel where the main character's mental state is largely unknown at the height of his suffering, and therefore the crucial question of whether or not to go on living is displaced onto the nurses and doctors. Ouchi was under heavy sedation for much of his sickness to alleviate his agony and he was unable to communicate in any detail what his thoughts and feelings were. The book seems to suggest that had he been awake his suffering would've been monstrous. The medical staff did what they thought was best even in the face of a hopeless situation. Their mission, as they understood it, was to save a man's life and battle his sickness to the last.

This book is derived from a television documentary originally broadcast by NHK in May 2001. I haven't been able to find any clips of it online, but I imagine it must be a harrowing viewing experience. I also wonder if there has been an effort to suppress it from being aired by powerful interests.

This was a very small scale accident compared to the ongoing nuclear disasters afflicting Japan this year, and so I would not compare Ouchi's situation with the present cataclysm. But considering the reports of clean-up workers being overworked and overexposed by their employers, and the seemingly endemic problems that the Japanese government and the nuclear industry overall have with getting their stories and their numbers straight, I think this book is valuable for zeroing in on the suffering of a single human being. Now multiply that suffering by a few million individuals. It's incomprehensible, but every individual person affected by the tsunami and the nuclear accidents this year is undergoing, to a greater or lesser degree, some ordeal, some kind of suffering. Workers in the clean-up effort are very much at risk for severe radiation poisoning and related illnesses.

Nuclear accidents are not new. There also seems to be a problem on the part of the authorities with facing these problems, or, at the very least, giving an honest account of them. I would like to believe that books and other media are a way of keeping governments and business interests honest, of exposing corruption, incompetence, and systemic failure, but I also know that a book like A Slow Death is not a bestseller. Not even close.

Nuclear power offers a potential way out of many of the energy crises facing humanity. There are also great dangers involved through incompetence, mismanagement, and corruption. Political and business leaders seem to be all too cozy with nuclear interests, and nuclear plant designs seem to get fast-tracked with a minimum of oversight on issues of safety, durability, and overall harmonious design of structures in relation to geographic location. And, to be fair to the Japanese government and business interests, I'm not sure what defense exists against a tsunami that sweeps away vast numbers of cars, trucks, houses, shipping containers, tanker ships, and the earth itself.

All that seems certain is that people are suffering now, and more will suffer in the future, no matter what books get written, no matter how insightful the analyses and conclusions are regarding the dire consequences of nuclear accidents and natural disasters, and the predictably mediocre efforts of governments and corporations to do PR damage control, juggle the numbers, and pass the buck to future generations.

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