Reading Writing and Radiation

Disarmament Education in the 21st Century

We need to stop all this nuclear madness in our world and step in and protect our past, present, and future. 
 – Marcus, High School Academy of Urban Planning, Brooklyn, New York

Now I want to do something about this situation. Before, I didn’t care about it a lot, but now after seeing and hearing about the tragedy I want to do something to prevent it from happening again. 
 – Mohammed, Brooklyn International High School, Brooklyn, New York

Young people today are growing up with scant awareness of nuclear dangers.  When the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down, so too fell an awareness of nuclear dangers that continue to grow.  Although there are far fewer nuclear weapons on the planet, there are still enough to destroy our world many times over.  And unlike the superpower arms race, dominated by the US and former Soviet Union, nuclear proliferation has long-since spread from the Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council to India and Israel, and to Pakistan and North Korea.  The proliferation focus has most recently shifted to Iran, which has the worlds ‘safest’ nuclear arsenal, because it does not yet exist.[2]

Youth Arts supporter, author and activist Joanna Macy, argues that “the danger constituted by nuclear weapons is greater now than at any time in our history.  We do an immense disservice to young people and their future, unless we provide them with a confident understanding of nuclear issues.”[3]

It is true that we live with radiation everyday. Radiation naturally comes from the sun and from the earth. We are exposed through x-rays, on airplanes and through nuclear medicine, which can be life saving for those suffering from cancer. But natural radiation and the nuclear medicine of human-made radiation are not the same as the radioactive isotopes used for nuclear weapons and nuclear power production. Even though there was extensive, and often inhumane, research conducted on atomic bomb survivors after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we still don’t fully understand the latent and direct effects of radiation exposure, let alone inter-generational anomalies.

Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, the father of health physics, was a long-time member of the nuclear establishment. He worked on the Manhattan Project and also at the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee. He later became an opponent of nuclear weapons production when he realized that the US nuclear industry was suppressing the dangers regarding radiation exposure. Dr. Morgan pioneered research that suggests there is no safe level of radiation. More recently, the National Academy of Sciences report on “Health Risks From Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation,” asserted that there is no “safe” radiation dose and that any dose of radiation may be harmful.[4]

Even in war, there are just some boundaries that people shouldn’t cross. 
 – Randy, High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry, Manhattan

Are students discussing these grave and present dangers, the very problems that they will inherit?  And not only nuclear weapons, but their close relative nuclear power and resulting nuclear waste require basic comprehension from today’s youth.  Where disarmament education is missing in the curriculum, educators need to fill that gap.  Of course there are brilliant, dedicated teachers the world-over who spend time and energy teaching about nuclear issues and other ‘reality studies’.  Still, how can we better provide young people with a ‘confident understanding’ of the nuclear threat?  And how can we make this a condition for life’s preparedness, like reading and writing?  And radiation?

[1]The quotes throughout the article are from New York City high school students, upon hearing the testimony of survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Hibakusha Stories is an initiative of Youth Arts  New York that brings atomic bomb survivors into the classroom, into the lives of young people and from that interaction students create artistic responses to help contribute to the global movement for nuclear weapons abolition.

[2] Siegel, Jonas and Saranaz Barforoush. (April 2013) “Media Coverage of Iran’s Nuclear Program: An analysis of U.S. and U.K. coverage, 2009-2012”, Center for International and Security Studies, Maryland University.

The report is online.

[3] Macy, Joanna.  Phone interview. 10 May 2010.

[4] National Academy of Science (2006). BEIR VII: Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.