Professor Gutlove Researches Effects of the Fukushima Disaster

November 15, 2016

Professor Gutlove in Japan Researching the Fukushima Disaster

As Deputy Director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies (IRSS), SOM Professor Paula Gutlove brings people together to address diverse challenges, including societal healing from trauma.

With a background in clinical healthcare, School of Management Professor Paula Gutlove began her conflict management and negotiation career while in her healthcare training. Her transition from clinical healthcare began in 1979. After witnessing the radioactive disaster that year at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, as a surgery resident in New York City, she developed an interest in the impacts of nuclear power. 

“I remember listening to the radio, waiting for them to report whether a radioactive plume would come our way to New York City. If so, everyone would need to evacuate. Evacuating New York City would have been a daunting, if not impossible task,” said Professor Gutlove. 

This event inspired her interest in nuclear power, which then expanded to an interest in the nuclear arms race, the Cold War, and the potential for violent conflict more generally. These interests led Professor Gutlove to work with two related physicians’ organizations, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), and the US affiliate of IPPNW, the Physicians for Social Responsibility. After IPPNW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, physicians from Harvard Medical School invited Professor Gutlove to be the executive director of a new program they were creating, the Center for Psychology and Social Change. It was then that Professor Gutlove decided to stop her clinical practice and fully dedicate herself to programs on negotiation, leadership, conflict resolution, and post-conflict societal healing.  She eventually founded and continues to direct the international project Health Bridges for Peace, which brings together health professionals from different sides of conflict to work on common health concerns.  This work has taken Professor Gutlove to conflict zones all over the world, including in the former Yugoslavia, the North Caucasus, the Middle East, Iran and Pakistan.

Refugee CampsIn October 2016, Green Cross International invited Professor Gutlove, along with 17 other specialists from around the world, to join a study tour examining social, medical and technical issues in areas around the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which suffered an accident in March 2011. After an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the plant had three core meltdowns and released an abundance of radioactive material into the air and groundwater. Five years later, the government still has not informed the public about many aspects of the accident’s aftermath, partly because they don’t know. 

The trip started in Tokyo, at a meeting with experts on health effects and other aspects of the disaster. The group then visited towns such as Tomioka, 10 km from the damaged reactor site. Professor Gutlove saw ghost towns where people will not be able to go back for the foreseeable future. The topsoil in many areas is so radioactive that government has been scraping it up, bagging it, and trucking the bags to dumps covering vast areas of land, in piles topped off with large plastic tarps. Thousands of people were evacuated to radiation refugee communities. 

One town on the trip was Katsurao, where only people over the age of 50 have been allowed to return. This outcome illustrates a widespread problem. Generations living together in villages have been split up. Since the level of radiation in some locations where radiation refugees have been resettled is not safe for children, older generations who have been resettled there have become so depressed that municipal authorities conduct a daily suicide watch. In other areas that haven’t been evacuated, the children who live there have many restrictions to avoid radiation contamination.  They can only walk on a paved path, not on soil that may be contaminated. They cannot play in the grass or pick flowers because everything that grows is radioactive. What was once an agricultural society is now struggling for a source of income. 

Professor Gutlove and MegumiBefore going to Japan, Professor Gutlove met with Simmons Trustee, Atsuko Fish, the founder of the Japanese Women’s Leadership Initiative (JWLI).  Mrs. Fish helped arrange for Professor Gutlove to meet with Megumi Ishimoto in Japan.  Megumi came to Simmons in 2013 to take part in a JWLI training program.  When she returned to Japan she founded a number of projects, including Grass Roots Tohoku, which includes a program that gives radiation monitors to families. As a way to educate civilians despite governmental secrecy, these devices allow people to monitor radiation hotspots and determine safe areas in which to live.  Such programs both inform and empower local citizens and help them and the society in which they live heal from the trauma of the disaster.  Professor Gutlove plans to work with Megumi, and others, to develop a range of societal healing programs for the areas affected by the Fukushima disaster.  From Professor Gutlove’s research, society-wide (psychosocial) healing is needed after a major disaster to ensure a healthy, stable community and avoid future conflicts.

Professor Gutlove’s institution will continue to disseminate her findings from the study tour. “At this point, it is important to learn as much as we can about the disaster and the attempts to recover, and to spread the news about what we learn,” says Gutlove.