Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for March 2011

Nuclear Fears

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I got tested for radiation contamination at NIH-the National Institutes of Health.

In the fall of 1988, I was contaminated with Chernobyl radiation. It was two and a half years after the accident and I was nowhere near the nuclear facility. The contamination happened when I was sharing a meal with a Sami family in northern Sweden.

I had been photographing a story on radiation for National Geographic Magazine. I was in Sweden to look at the effects of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl on the animals and people who lived below the plume of radiation that swept over Europe soon after that catastrophic accident on April 24, 1986

I was a young photographer at the time. I had only worked a couple of years for the National Geographic. Radiation was my first international story and the first one where I dealt with complexities of science. I had little idea what I was getting myself into.

My contamination was found quite by accident. Several months later, I was at the Hartford nuclear plant in Washington State looking at their programs dealing with radiation detection. I photographed a woman receiving a precise radiation measurement called a whole body count.  Afterwards the technician asked if I wanted to go through the process for the experience. Always up for a new experience, I responded, “Why not?”

At the end of the procedure, the technician asked if I had been in Europe recently. In fact, I’d traveled a great deal that year, covering not only French nuclear power plants, but also Japanese A-Bomb survivors, workers at Chernobyl and in Sweden at nuclear waste storage facilities, radon gas leaks, and cleanup of a radiation accident in Brazil.  “Why do you ask?” I inquired.

“Because you are contaminated,” he replied. “You’re registering cesium-137 in your whole body count. The signature of the isotope is from Chernobyl.”

That long ago moment came back to me this week when I heard the news reports of fear sweeping through the Japanese populations living close to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

I know exactly what that fear felt like. I felt it—intensely—when I heard the technician utter those words, “you are contaminated”.

As a woman, several questions went through my mind all at once.  Would I get cancer? Would I die soon? Can I have children? What will they look like?

I knew I been exposed to radiation several times over the course of working on the story. After photographing in a Swedish nuclear storage sites located a mile under the ocean, I had to go through an isotope detector in order to leave.

Sweden’s nuclear facilities have strict standards. You are scanned as you go in, and you cannot leave if the scanners show more radiation than you had on entering.  As I attempted to exit through the scanner, alarms went off.  A display screen showed an outline of a human body.  There at the back of the head—my head—a light flashed as the alarm blared.

“You cannot leave. You have radon contamination in your hair,” the security people told me.

They escorted me to a decontamination shower. I scrubbed myself down–Karen Silkwood style—with a green soap. I got dressed and tried to leave. But once more, the alarms went off.

The security people said I could try one more time to scrub down, but after that, I’d have to have my hair cut off. So I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed.  I hated the thought of losing my hair. But the third time was the charm, and I walked out with my hair intact.

The damaged reactor at Chernobyl, two years after the 1986 disaster.

Soon after that event I was at Chernobyl on a media trip into the contaminated area. During the story, I carried a small radiation detector with me. It looked like a fat pen, and had a tiny digital readout. If the levels rose above normal the detector would begin to click. The bus carrying our group approached Chernobyl, entering a strange post-apocalyptic world. The earth was denuded of life. Only a single tree hung on and it too would soon be dead.

As we drove into the area, my detector started clicking. It began slowly, and then picked up the pace, clicking every few seconds, and finally erupting into an alarming cascade of “click-click-click-click-click-click-click.” This steady rhythm annoyed the Soviet official telling us media representatives that the area was now clean. He offered us cucumbers to eat that which been grown there. No one took a bite. We toured the plant and were allowed to photograph the so-called healthy workers. Then we walked on the edge of Pipyat.  Once home to 45,000 people, it was now a ghost city, uninhabitable for future generations.

The official said that all children in the region were healthy. Just a few years later the lie was exposed as children began dying of leukemia and babies were born with serious birth defects.

But I wasn’t contaminated on that trip–at least not in any way measured by the whole body counter at Hanford.

Swedish health workers test reindeer for radiation contamination following the Chernobyl disaster.

I returned to Sweden to cover the reindeer roundup conducted each year by the Sami people living in the far north of the country. I accompanied a health worker from Sweden’s public health department.  The first plumes of Chernobyl had swept across Sweden, settling into vegetation that reindeer and other animals ate.  The health department monitored radiation levels of the reindeer being slaughtered that year. The government set a level of radiation acceptable for human consumption of reindeer meet. But if the reindeer were above that level they were fed to minks.

I often wondered how that level was set.  And would the radioactive meat consumed by the minks eventually be transferred into the coats created by their fur when they were slaughtered?  I never found out.

I got to know the Sami who herded reindeers for food and income. They invited me to share their meals, so for two days, I ate with the people I was photographing. Because I knew of the reindeer contamination, I nibbled on reindeer jerky, but I consumed the main meal of moose meat. I have no idea why I didn’t think the moose would also be contaminated along with the reindeer.  I didn’t think much about it until my editor and I started to think about where I might have gotten contaminated.

When I came home from Hanford my husband took me immediately to the National Institutes of Health. They have one of the most sensitive radiation detectors in the world there, a chamber lined with thick steel from pre-World War II battleship that contain none of the trace radioactive particles released into the environment after atom bombs were developed in 1945. I was tested again, and indeed, I had internal contamination from Cesium 137.

The writer also received a whole body count at NIH, but was not contaminated.  We both visited Chernobyl together and ate the same foods. In fact, he had been to most of the places I had, except for Sweden. I deduced that I had been contaminated there.

What did that mean?

Nobody really knew for sure. The NIH officials told me the dose I had received would not kill me, nor would it strongly increase my chances of getting cancer. I had to believe them. They tried to reassure me, telling me that they found Cesium 137 in people who never had been to Europe but had eaten imported French cheese.  The cheese came from goats and sheep eating grass contaminated with fallout from Chernobyl.  I often wondered why knowing that would reassure me.

My husband and I went on to have two children. Through both pregnancies I worried about the potential health of my children. If they had been born with any defect or developed cancers as young children I would never have been able to forgive myself. If I had known what was going to happen on the radiation story, I would never have accepted it.

When I heard about the possible contamination in Japan, my first thought was they needed to get all the children and young women who hope to be pregnant out of there.  Then I heard the radiation had gotten into the food chain; vegetables, milk and water are contaminated.

No matter if the contamination levels from this accident are small, I have to wonder why we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past. I think of all the reindeer who had became contaminated because they ate lichen made radioactive from particles drifting slowly down from the Chernobyl disaster.

How much radiation exposure does it take to increase cancer rates?  I have no idea.  It seems that no one really wants to declare specific numbers.

Craters from nuclear tests dot the landscape of Frenchman Flats at the Nevada Test Site.

The U.S. tested nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert from 1951 to 1962.  There were sad statistics about those unfortunate enough to live down wind of the test sites.  In some cases entire families died from various cancers.  The connection was so uncontestable that in 1990, the US passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to compensate individuals who suffered from one of 20 diseases, mostly cancers, that the U.S government connected to exposure from the testing and other activities related to the nuclear testing.

The Centers for Disease Control reported that they expected to see over 212,000 additional cases of thyroid cancers from fallout caused by nuclear tests in Nevada.

So yes, Japan should be fearful of what may follow. The long-term consequences and hidden costs of nuclear power are a burden they will have to bear long after the cataclysmic events in Fukushima.

Remembering Kobe—Japan’s Last Earthquake

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A survivor of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe Japan anxiously waits as rescue worker search for her relatives.

Watching the amateur and professional videos of that horrendous tsunami hitting Japan, I felt that same cold dread  as when I saw the twin towers fall on 9/11.

It was impossible not to feel complete horror as the 24-foot high, 125-mile long tsunami slammed into the flat coastline of northeastern Japan. The towns and orderly farms were ground under by a giant liquid bulldozer, destroying everything in it’s pathway.

In front of our eyes lives were lost, families destroyed, fortunes forever changed.  Survivors will never be able to regain normalcy. How could they?  For those living through this calamity, the guilt of surviving when so many died will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Japan’s prime minister called it the worst disaster to hit the country since WWII.

This unfortunate series of events were recorded in unprecedented ways. Tsunamis have rarely been captured on film or video. Fast and deadly, those in the path of tsunamis can do little more than flee if they hope to survive. But as more and more video surfaced in the hours and days after the disaster, it seemed  everyone not swept away in the wall of water and mud had been recording the devastation on video cameras and cell phones.

The torrent of images reminded me of when I covered the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. 6,400 people died in that one city. Thousands were left homeless in the freezing January weather.

I arrived in Kobe eight days after the quake occurred. I wasn’t prepared for the personal way in which the devastation affected me. My mother is Japanese. My father, an American sailor,  met her in Japan in the 1950s. They married and I was born in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.

After moving to the United States, my mother took on the role of an American housewife and rarely discussed her culture.  As a child I didn’t connect  with my Japanese roots. But as an adult, I started visiting Japan to photograph stories for National Geographic magazine. I soon realized  even though I was raised in the United States, my first two years of life in Japan  had woven enough strands of the Japanese character into my soul, that it affected how I reacted to conflict and friendships.   It explains a character I have that I’ve never  understood,  a strong persistence even in face of pending failure.

Ironically, my  first trip to Japan was to  covered their nuclear energy program for piece on “Radiation”.  Japan was the  only country to have suffered attacks by atomic weapons.   Yet they also embrace nuclear power. It’s a dangerous embrace—even in the late 1980s when I covered the story, Japanese were concerned about the safety of nuclear facilities in their earthquake prone country. Interestly, we were not given access to any of their plants at that time.

In the wake of the tsunami, we see how those fears were well placed—the Daiichi nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture may have suffered a partial meltdown, and is likely ruined by emergency cooling efforts. The possibility of long-term contamination still lingers over the region’s devastated survivors.

Japan’s embrace of nuclear power has always baffled me. They are an energy-starved country.   But they are also dead center on an earthquake zone .  Any more quakes and tsunamis following this one could turn a mere disaster into Armageddon.

We, in the United States,  are no different. We have nuclear facilities on top of fault lines in California. One of the worst earthquakes to hit the US was in the early 1880’s, the New Madrid Earthquake,  reversing the flow of the Mississippi River and creating Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee.  It was felt as far away as Washington D.C.  and Canada.  Today, nuclear reactors are all through that region.

I thought about the Japanese nuclear reactors while  covering the  earthquake in Kobe.  The story I worked on looked at  the recovery efforts, but  because it would be published months after the quake, it also examined  how Japanese perseverance and it’s mono-culture moved it’s recovery along. Everyone was in it together.     I remember going to a “refugee camp” where thousand of homeless huddled in the gymnasium of a large high school. Tatami mats were lined wall to wall and strangers slept literally next to each other.

Japanese aid workers serve hot meals to Kobe residents after the 1995 earthquake.

Each day they served one hot meal—a bowl of soup. I photographed the serving of the meal.  People in line insisted I got the first bowl.  I was a guest. I was deeply moved that even in the midst of such tragedy their sense of hospitality was so ingrained into their spirit that they would offer  it to a stranger   under such stressful circumstances.    I was also amazed that I could walk by a devastated liquor store with yellow police tape around it and nothing would be taken. A jewelry story still had diamond rings untouched in its window. There was none  of the chaos and looting often seen when disaster hits other locations, including those in our own country.

Because it was the era of film,  I could still gather original images that no one else had seen weeks after the quake had hit.   There were no digital cell phones that could take and transmit pictures or videos instantly.  When I see the incredible images taken by “citizen journalists” coming out of Japan recently, it’s clear, the era in which I grew up in the professionally  has truly passed.

Maybe it is more of a transition than a passing.  My profession is in flux.  The way in which news is gathered has changed dramatically. New digital tools make it easy to capture events as they unfold before us. This most recent event,  occuring in the one of the most technological advanced countries in the world, proves it. We’ve seen intimate images of this disaster which  could never have been captured in previous times.  Most were taken by amateurs with cell phones and  transmitted onto the web for  the world to see.

There were  hints of that technology in 2004 with the  the Madrid train bombing, when cell phone images appeared on the front pages of major news publications. We saw it in Egypt this winter with what people called “the battle Google won.”  Cell phones in Japan captured video of the massive wall of water taking down buildings and sweeping people into oblivion. Those images will forever be part of our collective memory.

In the middle of al this tragedy, these technological devises also captured the strong human spirit   that I also encountered in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake. I have faith that the kindness, generosity and perseverance of the Japanese people will carry them through this difficult time. They may have to adjust to a new reality that includes living a more austere life and re-examining the placement of nuclear faciltiies.   If so, we, in this country, might do well to study that pathway and perhaps walk it ourselves.

Written by kasmauski

March 16, 2011 at 12:08 am

Sudan Photo Exhibit at U.S. Capitol

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Catholic Relief Services is staging an exhibit of my pictures from southern Sudan on March 10 and March 11.  The exhibit is on the U.S. Capitol grounds, at the Rayburn House Office Building, Independence Avenue and South Capitol Street SW, Washington D.C.  I’ll be at the opening reception from 4:00 to 6:00 PM on March 10.  I hope you have the chance to come by.

Written by kasmauski

March 5, 2011 at 4:17 pm