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Learning life lessons in 83 days of death

by Steve Finbow

Reviewed by Steve Finbow A 35-year-old-man lies unconscious in a University of Tokyo Hospital intensive-care unit. He has been irradiated. Losing up to 20 liters of body fluids per day, the skin on half of his body is blackened, blistered, and falling off, his internal organs have failed, he is being kept alive by machines.

A SLOW DEATH: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness, by the NHK-TV “Tokaimura Criticality Accident” Crew. Vertical, 2008, 141 pp., $19.95 (cloth)

He is one of three victims of a criticality accident at a uranium-processing plant in Tokaimura. Doctors, surgical teams, and nurses constantly monitor his condition. His family sleep in an anteroom. All wait for signs that he will pull through the massive blood transfusions, the viruses and molds that have invaded his body, the stem-cell transplants, the skin grafts, the comas, the heart attacks, and the marauding phagocytes.

Reality check: From the moment neutron beams — the most powerful form of radioactive energy — passed through his body, he was a dead man. There are no uncertainties. The only release is death. So, why has he been kept alive for so long?

This is a strange book and not solely because of its subject matter. Vertical has published a textual account — accompanied by gruesome pictures — of NHK’s award-wining May 2001 documentary about Japan’s worst nuclear-radiation accident that occurred in September 1999. Prefaced by a short history of nuclear weapons, reactors and technology, this book of nonfiction is careful not to proselytize on behalf of either the nuclear lobby or the antinuclear movement.

Rather, it asks searching questions, the main one being: Was this an attempt to save the life of a man or an opportunity to document the effects of radiation poisoning on human beings?

If a major accident at a nuclear power plant occurred, what happened to Hiroshi Ouchi could happen to all of us. “A Slow Death” goes some way to explain that the response of hospitals and hospital staff is a means to assure the population that emergency services can cope with such a situation. They cannot. Exposure to neutron beams mutates and destroys human chromosomes. The human blueprint is lost forever.

Probably the most terrifying illustration in the book is the first. Forget the hemorrhaging, the disappearing mucus membranes, the black and swollen epidermis, this plate shows a mock-up of Ouchi and his colleague Masato Shinohara pouring uranium from a bucket into a funnel — they look like they are mixing a giant cake.

“A Slow Death” is a timely account of nuclear power, medical research and integrity. Invoking Hiroshima, Nagasaki, experiments conducted by Unit 731, and the aftermath of Chernobyl, the book nimbly steps through an ethical minefield and asks: With the worldwide depletion of fossil fuels, do we invest in nuclear power despite its inherent apocalyptic dangers? After exposure to a lethal dose of radiation, do we let a person die, do we assist that death, or do we keep that person alive knowing that he is nothing more than a human guinea pig?

One procedure in the treatment of Ouchi involved the use of his sister’s stem cells to restore his ability to generate blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Recently, surgeons in Spain have, for the first time, partly created an organ from a patient’s own stem cells, enabling her to have a replacement windpipe without fear of her body rejecting the tissue.

Capable of opening the “gates of the universe” and creating living organs, science should be careful for, as J. Robert Oppenheimer observed, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”