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The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster: A look back 100 years

By Marjorie C. Malley

This weekend we remember a tragic, terrifying accident that potentially affected not only Japanese citizens, but the entire planet. Dangerous radioactive substances were released into the atmosphere, making the region around the plant uninhabitable, and contaminating the drinking water and the food chain.

What may not be as well known is that dangerous accidents involving radioactivity are not a modern development. These problems came up very early in the new science of radioactivity.

Discovered in 1896, radioactivity was a mysterious, puzzling phenomenon which became immensely popular within a few years. Its invisible rays, seemingly inexhaustible energy, and surprising powers fascinated and frustrated researchers, who could not find radioactivity’s cause. When hopes were raised that radioactivity might provide a cure for the era’s scourge, cancer, the medical profession scrambled to get radioactive substances, and scientists and industrialists cooperated to produce them.

A radium bomb. (ca. 1935-1938). Cigarette card. Source: NYPL.
These activities and the radioactive materials were not regulated. Safety precautions were minimal or non-existent. Other than its ability to burn the skin, the new phenomenon seemed harmless — no one could see or feel any effects from it.

Yet, sudden explosions became part of the scientific and industrial milieu surrounding radioactivity. As pressure built up in glass containers for radioactive materials, these vessels sometimes exploded, sending glass shards and radioactive debris all over the area and onto the workers in the vicinity. These accidents were troubling, but not primarily because of safety concerns. Rather, the explosions wasted valuable materials, and compromised future experiments by making the entire laboratory radioactive.

A high profile industrial scandal in the early 1920s involved phosphorescent paint containing the powerful radioactive element radium. Luminous paint was a popular feature for watch and clock dials. Clock and watch manufacturers employed young women, who were considered best suited for careful, precise work, as dial painters. These workers used their lips to make sharp points with their brushes. For fun, they painted their faces and fingernails with the glow-in-the-dark material.

Soon the dial painters began coming down with strange debilitating and disfiguring illnesses that destroyed bone and teeth and sometimes killed the workers. It became obvious that their illnesses were related to their occupation, yet the factory owners stonewalled, denying any connection and refusing to compensate the victims or to require safety protections for them. It took years of legal battles before any compensation was paid or even rudimentary standards were enacted.

Even after this shameful episode, charlatans and the well-meaning alike continued to sell health products that supposedly contained radium. The preparations that were advertised honestly caused horrible illnesses and deaths in the 1930s that attracted widespread attention. Still, change came slowly.

Many scientists, medical therapists, and uranium miners developed cancer in the early twentieth century, and even died from their exposure to radioactivity. Then as now, resistance to change was powerful. Causes included ignorance of the dangers; enthusiasm for the field and its possibilities, leading to haste and disregard for possible problems; absence of any regulation or standards; commercial interests that opposed costly or inconvenient changes; and bureaucratic obstacles, especially for government and professional entities.

Some of these factors were still operating with the Fukushima disaster nearly a century later. For instance, most residents were unaware of the dangers the reactor posed, information from government and industry was not forthcoming, and a surprisingly small region was evacuated after the accident. It’s not clear that much progress has been made in the year since the accident to protect or to inform citizens. Many feel they must take matters into their own hands.

How much responsibility lies with the government, with commercial interests, and with individuals to be informed about hazards presented by science and technology? To make changes? Will the obstacles to change always be with us?

Marjorie C. Malley is the author of Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science. She was involved with science and mathematics education for many years, including teaching, curriculum development, and consulting. Her publications include articles on radioactivity, luminescence, the nature and history of science, and biographical subjects. Dr. Malley was a member of the review panel for the National History Standards and is a past chair of the Education Committee of the History of Science Society.

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