Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fukushima Ghosts

Fukushima Ghosts 1, oil on paper, 76x56 cm

The fiasco at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will haunt Japan and the world's nuclear industry for a long time to come. The web is rife with rumour and anecdote, largely because the Japanese government, meteorologists, and most of all, TEPCO, are so parsimonious with information, let alone frank and open disclosure.

So, for example, the chief of the Meteorological Society of Japan has drawn flak from within the academic circles over his request for meteorologists to refrain from releasing forecasts on the spread of radioactive substances from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I guess that's because of the numerous animated maps of the fallout moving over Canada and the US were populating Youtube and made plausible by reports of levels of Iodine-131 in Californian water 181 times higher than normal. Michigan was reporting elevated wind-born Iodine-131 levels. Now even Europe has fallen into line and stopped prognostications.

Or the case of Professor Toshiso Kosako  who resigned in disgust a few weeks back as nuclear advisor to Japanese Prime Minister because the government simply moved the goal posts for nuclear exposure for children despite the Professor's stern warnings. So now the children around Fukushima play in radioactive playgrounds.

And so stories circulate about TEPCO's inept handling of situation as they lurch from crisis to crisis due to an apparent incapacity to take quick executive decisions, assume irresponsible for the turn of events, and to stop worrying about the 80% share plunge and care a little more about the anonymous workers in the front line battle to contain disaster.

For example, this account dated 15 May:

"The crap coming out of this disaster is nightmarish. A temp worker that had truck driving experience took what he was told was a job driving truck for the tsunami clean up. He was put on a bus and taken to Fukushima to do liquidation work that had nothing to do with driving a truck. A guy that was a sub contractor was put to work installing hoses. He had no plumbing experience and the connections required some level of plumbing knowledge. The people he was working with dropped the hose in radioactive water in the turbine building because they were heavy. Then they had to pick up the hose to move it. He got hit with the wet hose in the back of the neck. The protection suits they were wearing are not waterproof and he has contamination they can't remove on the back of his neck."

So while the Keystone Cops run the site containment measures, the first deaths are starting to trickle in. A worker died on May 14. The place he was working exposed to him to 0.17 millisieverts of radiation. Butch geeks who love to parade their cool savvy delight in doing their Sievert sums to prove he was not actually a radiation victim.

No, he died of heat-stress and possibly a heart attack. He was 60 years old, worked longer in that heat-containing Hazmat suit than he should have, carrying heavy debris, and collapsed at the scene.

TEPCO is hiring older workers. By the time their cancers appear many years from now they will either already be near-dead from some other cause or have a difficult time proving in a court it was working for TEPCO that was the cause. Old age will claim them and tidy up for TEPCO. Maybe they are trying to spare young workers still in their reproductive years. Just part of the no-win that is Fukushima. Meanwhile with similar set of beliefs and a sense that their generation is responsible, elderly retirees are volunteering to rebuild the cooling systems

They say there were no ambulances or medics on standby at the scene, despite the risks of such dangerous work environment and the age of the workers. No helicopter to rush some-one, any-one, this old gent, to hospital. So he rode in a car to hospital for 2 hours instead. DOA. So they say. 

Meanwhile, despite the moratorium on weather maps prognosticating the drift of Iodine-133, assorted sources have been calculating likely deaths from Fukushima. To date it has released about 10% as much radiation as Chernobyl. It is reported that crops up to 75 miles from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant were found to be unsafe to eat, and tap water in greater Tokyo – home to 30 million people – has also been contaminated by fall-out.

Already, says Arnold Gunderson, Fukushima is going to kill 200,000 from increased cancers over the next 50 years. John Large, a British nuc­lear engineer, predicted the eventual toll could exceed 500,00. The International Atomic Energy Agency has its own formula for projecting population deaths - 0.05 fatal cancers per Sievert of radiation released. Chernobyl released an estimated total collective dose of 600,000 Sieverts over 50 years. Chernobyl was located in a sparsely populated rural region. Fukushima is in a densely populated urbanised region. Time will tell.

In my Fukushima series of paintings (still on-going) i have been using the Hazmat suit as a motif and metaphor (see previous post). Now i need to expand my understanding.

The Hazmat suit is not only the armour of anonymous worker-samurai. It is also their shroud and coffin.

They die in there - from pride, over zealous sense of duty, macho determination, lack of training, inadequate supervision, insufficient back-up, poor executive planning, stingy allocation of funds to do the job at hand.

They die from weary old hearts working on a heart-breaking task in a heart-broken region of Japan.

The ghosts of Fukushima are released. They already haunt the land.

Fukushima Ghosts 2, oil on paper, 76x56 cm

UPDATE 10-1-12:
Fukushima Ghosts I has just been published by Kosmos Journal. Read the details HERE.



  1. Harry, my hat is off to you not only for this hauntingly powerful series you are doing in reaction to the horrors in Japan, but also for your commentary that goes along with your intense paintings. You move me.

  2. Thanksm Nicki. I must say, the topic has swallowed me in more than i imagined at the outset. Which is great from the point of view of art-making .... at last a sustained theme and evolution of work instead of the disparate self portraits of last year.

    But i think i'm near the end of my run. Anyway, i'm off to Europe in a few weeks, so that will be a full-stop for my work and series.

  3. Your images in this series are unfortunately haunting... and horribly wonderful...

  4. Thank you so much, Marian, for that has been my aim - to make disturbing yet beautiful images - beautiful to engage the feelings, distubing to make the viewer think.

  5. Hi Harry,
    I'm the coordinator of the French magazine "Sortir du nucléaire" (Phase nuclear power out !), published by the French antinuclear network (non-profit non-governmental 100% independant organization, fully funded through grassroots support)
    I fell across your Fukushima paintings, which I find very moving and beautiful.
    Would you be so kind as to authorize us using pictures of your paintings in our antinuclear publications ?
    Please answer me by e-mail only, at xavier.rabilloud [at] sortirdunucleaire [dot] org.
    If you agree, then please send me high definiton files (300 dpi, biggest dimensions you can) so as to enable us using it in pretty good formats.
    Hoping for your acceptation, I thank you warmly in advance.
    Best regards,

  6. Hi Xavier, welcome to my blog. I pleased you find my Fukushima series moving. I will be in touch by email shortly.

  7. Harry, this continues to be a wonderful, provocative and important series - for us but I think also for you in your evolution as an artist. It's great to come along for the ride as you find all the layers of meaning that these powerful symbols possess, but it's distressing also that behind these disturbingly beautiful images exists so much unrelieved and unjust suffering. But just as American writers and artists questioned their role after 9/11 and discovered that yes, there is a need to render the worst as well as the best humanity has to offer, I would say keep at it, Harry, keep speaking this truth, because that is the only defense against the lies and even more deadly silence of Fukushima.

  8. powerful images... powerful writing...

  9. You are so right, Gabriella, this work is my exploration and learning (bumps and all) made public. I guess my tone in writing may at times sound more confident than i feel. In actual fact, it feels like i know nothing and haven't a clue where i'm heading.

    So getting onto a theme and sticking at it for a while is new to me. I think the theme is relevant, important and current and am busy quarrying my feelings, thoughts and imagination in service of my emerging art.

    But i suspect the outcome is not to a lot of people's taste, lol. And that's something else i need to learn - to plough on and follow my instincts if i am to develop an authentic voice (i brazenly aspire to more than the decorative).

    And your keen insight and encouragement in that journey have been so important to me, Gabriella. Thanks so much.

  10. Thanks Rahina. Glad you came by to check 'em out.

  11. I really do not care about the whole Fukushima tragedy.
    Being an Artist myself I can only say about your paintings "Gorgeous" keep it up. I am looking forw. for more many thanx.

    Highly Regards...JenJensen

  12. Welcome to my blog, Jen. I'm glad you're enjoying my work.

    Warm greetz

  13. I am impressed the way you capture the

    Greetings from Barcelona

  14. Thank you, Beatriz.

    Coincidentally, your comment comes on the same day as a copy of Kosmos Journal (see the update above) which contains a photo of one of the Fukushima Ghosts!