In an energy-hungry world, the idea that something too small to behold can yield an almost infinite amount of energy, powering countless devices is utterly seductive. So is the idea that one could, at will, wreak or threaten to wreak complete destruction on those one deems enemies. Thus, nuclear energy and weapons have held us in thrall for almost a century.
Seventy-four years ago, humanity witnessed the first use of atomic bombs in war—the attacks on Hiroshima (Aug 6) and Nagasaki (Aug 9). The explosions served their purpose of ending World War 2 but left behind generations of damage to people, their lives and the environment.
Documented extensively in art, literature and dedicated exhibits, nothing has spoken more powerfully about their profound impact than the testimony of Hibakushas, women who survived “by some miraculous chance,” as Setsuko Thurlow put it in her 2017 Nobel Peace Prize lecture. She was 13 when Hiroshima was attacked and this is what she saw: “Processions of ghostly figures shuffled by. Grotesquely wounded people, they were bleeding, burnt, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing. Flesh and skin hung from their bones. Some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands. Some with their bellies burst open, their intestines hanging out. The foul stench of burnt human flesh filled the air.”
In July 2017, after decades of campaigning, 122 participating UN member-states adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at a special conference. India did not attend the conference and has neither signed nor ratified the treaty. In fact, none of the nuclear-armed states attended the Conference that negotiated the treaty (which nevertheless is binding and symbolises global consensus on this norm).
Two women, Beatrice Fihn and Setsuko Thurlow, received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2017. This reflected the role of feminist and women’s peace organisations in the global coalition whose persistence resulted in the treaty. The visual history of resistance to nuclear energy and weapons is replete with images of women protesting installations across the world, from Greenham Common to Jaitapur and Kudankulam closer to home. Why have nuclear weapons—and nuclear energy—been a feminist issue?
Feminists are concerned with their human impact. People were killed instantly by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and survivors left to live with burns and other health effects. The fear of multi-generational health consequences remains. The Fukushima meltdown reminded us these range from an increased cancer risk to post-traumatic stress disorder. This is the issue families in Kudankulam have raised to no avail. Communities are entitled to be apprised of the personal and ecological risks involved in the presence of nuclear installations and their effluents. Women stand at the forefront of anti-nuclear protests as they want their families and communities to be safe.
Scientists wrote about ‘nuclear winter’ in the 1980s, describing the actual impact on human communities and natural resources of even limited nuclear strikes. Scholar-activists like M V Ramana wrote about this in the context of India-Pakistan geography, discussing the flows of dust, wind and water that make political boundaries irrelevant. Little of this work reached the public because science and technology of nuclear energy (and weapons) have come to be tied to the defence and security establishment. The frames of reference, rules of exchange and punishment of dissent are all determined by this nexus; so, it is possible for the Idinthakarai protestors and others to be charged with sedition. However, to challenge those who assert our nuclear weapons are not festival spectacles, is anti-national.
Feminists are accustomed to reading and challenging the violence of power politics and discussions of nuclear policy are exactly that. The science is deemed too complex for common citizens and few try to explicate it because shared knowledge is shared power. Decision-making is based on presumed expertise and cannot be devolved, least of all to communities. Secret transactions and agreements reinforce the privilege of access to knowledge and the decision-making process. Deals are struck between governments and corporations as if local communities do not exist.
Patriarchal binaries pervade nuclear politics—by and large, the experts and decision-makers are men; the absence of debate and devolution excludes and dismisses women and other marginal groups; and the lack of transparency enables the myth-making around nuclear matters, making it possible for people to still believe that a limited nuclear exchange is viable, even just in rhetoric.
The allocation of social resources is also a feminist issue. Nuclear energy is said to be cost-effective; yet we have inadequately researched cheaper, cleaner and safer alternatives. Spending public resources, the government makes decisions about land appropriation for these large installations without regard to livelihoods or heritage. Facing disruption and displacement, in site after site, for instance, in Chutka, Madhya Pradesh, communities have challenged and resisted and women have been the visible vanguard of the protests. Gendered insecurities, women’s agency and their invisibilisation are feminist concerns.
The lessons of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima lie before us, impossible to ignore the way we have ignored reports from communities around existing installations and from remote test sites. Guilt that we benefit from nuclear energy should not blind us to its unjust politics or to the frightening, ridiculous persistence of blind faith in nuclear weapons.
Political scientist and a member of the Women’s Regional Network