EnviroLab Asia Complicates Nuclear Narrative

On Friday, Sept. 18, EnviroLab Asia, the Pacific Basin Institute and the Pomona College Asian Languages and Literature Department co-hosted a screening of the documentary "Nuclear Nation" at Rose Hills Theatre. The documentary provided an in-depth and powerful depiction of those displaced by the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the biggest nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl. Following the 96-minute film, members of the audience had the opportunity to hold a Q&A session over Skype with director Atsushi Funahashi.

"Nuclear Nation" follows the lives of several refugees from the coastal town Futaba. Following the disaster, residents are forced to simultaneously relocate, adjust and mourn the deaths of loved ones. The documentary poignantly places scenes of Futaba’s heartbreaking abandonment and subsequent deterioration with relatable human moments.

“I think that it shines a light on an issue that everyone hears about but overlooks and underestimates,” Akira Nagao PO '19 said.

Last semester, the Henry Luce Foundation awarded $100,000 to the 5Cs, a grant that will now support a new project called EnviroLab Asia. The venture is defined as “a laboratory for cross-disciplinary research and experiential learning,” combining the fields of Asian studies and environmental analysis. The ultimate goal is to put these two areas of study to use overseas. Though the program is new, it is already making an impact on campus. 

The documentary does more than just raise awareness—it addresses the perennial nuclear controversy, that of risk versus reward. Throughout the film, the people of Futaba are subjected to the constant feeling of being displaced and belonging nowhere. Their lives as they knew them are effectively gone. The people voice discontent with their situation through protests and demonstrations, despite that, as one woman stated, “We know it’s no use.”

Tokyo will continue to use nuclear energy to power its massive demand for electricity, and others will continue to be at risk from it. Now, almost two years after the documentary’s release, the town of Futaba remains abandoned under dangerous radiation levels, and people wishing to visit must obtain a return permit. Many have come to terms with the realization that they will never be able to return.

“By making this movie, I’m asking the audience to think, what is the real cost of a nuclear disaster?” Funahashi, the film's director, said during his Skype interview.

Indeed, Funahashi took the Fukushima disaster beyond sensational headlines and scientific articles, instead delving into the lives of those who suffer the consequences when nuclear power goes awry.

These kinds of interdisciplinary consequences in response to environmental disaster are what EnviroLab aims to examine. Pomona professors Kyoko Kurita and Char Miller and Claremont Mckenna College Professor Albert Park, along with many other faculty members from the 5Cs, have been working hard to ensure that EnviroLab is a success.

Last spring, a small group traveled to Singapore to solidify the details for EnviroLab. The group met with several scientists, non-governmental organizations and representatives from Yale-NUS, a liberal arts school founded by Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Yale-NUS will be partnering in this endeavor with the Claremont Colleges.

“We are hoping to send about a dozen faculty and a dozen students," Kurita said in an interview with TSL. " And after a gap year next year, we plan to apply for a larger Luce grant to make this initiative even larger, more extensive.”

Although EnviroLab Asia has only recently begun, it already has ambitious plans set for 2015-16. This year, EnviroLab is accepting applications for student fellows to visit environments such as coral reefs and island habitats in Singapore and Malaysia in January 2016. Student research clusters aim to directly address environmental issues and spread awareness.

EnviroLab research efforts will also examine the palm oil industry and its contribution to deforestation and wildfires, having a detrimental impact on biodiversity and aquatic life. EnviroLab plans to research this issue and consider possible ways to address the problematic effects of the palm oil industry.

While it may seem difficult to relate to incidents and environmental issues thousands of miles away, Funahashi asked us to think about materialism and the negative impacts we ourselves unthinkingly impose on the environment.

“The electricity we are using everyday is based on someone’s sacrifice," he reminded us. "This is the sad reality.”