Almost seven decades after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, U.S. and Japanese scientists are still collecting and analyzing data from atomic-bomb survivors and their children, and publishing studies.

Share story


Ikuko Murai remembers when the American Jeeps would come after school to take her and other young survivors to a lab at the top of a hill. This was the 1950s, a few years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

“They examined my head and measured my height,” she said in an interview this week. “At that time, Japan still had nothing, so I still remember the candy they gave us, with Disney characters on the wrappers.”

Murai had been an infant when the U.S. bomber Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, unleashing the first nuclear weapon dropped in war. Now 71, she spends her days as a volunteer at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, donning a green shirt and explaining how she survived while the blast and radiation effects left 140,000 dead within months.

Such oral histories are a key part of World War II’s legacy. But in the years right after the destruction, American scientists knew that the bodies of Murai and other survivors would also have stories to tell about the bombing — and began collecting data on them.

Almost seven decades later, some U.S. scientists — working side-by-side with Japanese colleagues — are still up in Hiroshima’s foothills at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), collecting and analyzing data from hundreds of thousands of A-bomb survivors, their children and control subjects, and publishing studies on their findings.

While largely unheralded outside scientific circles, and unknown even to many younger Hiroshima residents, the researchers’ joint efforts are a unique example of how the two former adversaries forged a collaboration amid the ashes of hate and war, creating a project to benefit people worldwide.

With funding from the U.S. and Japanese governments, foundation scientists have produced a body of knowledge that has become the basis for radiation-exposure guidelines for X-ray technicians, airline pilots and nuclear-power-plant workers around the globe.

RERF studies have clarified the links between radiation and not just cancer, but also cardiovascular disease and other ailments. And researchers’ expertise has been tapped to deal with emergencies such as the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear-power plant.

“This is a treasure-trove for the world for research,” said Eric Grant, the foundation’s associate chief of research, who has spent two decades in Hiroshima. “There are basically no studies that have tracked such a large group for so long.”

For almost 60 years, more than 20,000 atomic-bomb survivors have been tracked in the foundation’s Adult Health Study, coming in every two years for physical exams, electrocardiograms, chest X-rays, ultrasounds and biochemical tests.

They are among 120,000 people in the foundation’s Life Span Study, an effort that tracks hospital and death records, aiming to investigate the long-term effects of atomic-bomb radiation on cancer and causes of mortality.

Participation rates in the study have hovered between 70 and 80 percent for decades, a remarkable feat, considering that subjects are not paid and do not receive any direct medical care from the foundation. Treatment is left to doctors at local hospitals.

The continued willingness of survivors to participate is all the more notable given that the foundation’s predecessor organization — a U.S.-funded entity, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) — was initially regarded by many with suspicion, even hostility.

“They would not treat the patients. So the people felt that we were guinea pigs twice — first as targets of bombing and secondly as a sample for scientific medical research,” recalled Setsuko Thurlow, who was 13 when Hiroshima was bombed.

“A close friend of mine as a child was taken to ABCC occasionally. In front of the (male) medical staff, she had to undress, totally naked,” said Thurlow, who ended up marrying a Canadian. “She still remembers the sense of shame and embarrassment and talks about it even today.”

That antagonism faded as the U.S. occupation ended, and conditions in Hiroshima improved. In the 1970s, the ABCC was reorganized into a nonprofit foundation, with binational oversight committees and funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and Japan’s Ministry of Health.

At its peak, the research center had more than 1,000 employees. Today, it’s down to about 230, and fewer than 5 percent are Americans, though they hold key positions, including vice chairman and chief of the statistics department, and serve on advisory boards.

Although the foundation owes its existence to America’s use of one of the most horrific weapons ever devised, current employees say they don’t feel burdened by historical tension on the job.

The march of time, the overarching U.S.-Japan alliance and cultural understanding built up over the decades — not to mention the camaraderie forged by doing groundbreaking science together — have bridged whatever chasms initially existed.

Kazunori Kodama, the foundation’s chief scientist, had a cousin who died in the bombing. Still, he said, “I never blamed the U.S. for my cousin’s death.”

Such a perspective is not uncommon among Hiroshima’s Japanese residents, though it often catches Americans off guard.

“I was surprised when I came here and found there was no palpable animosity related to the bombings in this organization,” said Harry Cullings, a Pennsylvania native who first arrived in the late 1990s and is the head of the statistics department.

“There are cultural differences — Americans are more brash and opinionated. … They are less reserved about being intellectually competitive in ways that might offend their colleagues. They are willing to get into big arguments,” he said. “In the Japanese culture, people are more reserved and respectful to each other but also less willing to debate — but that’s about it.”

On Friday, President Obama will visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial to lay a wreath and deliver remarks about the perils of nuclear arms. Residents of this port of 1.1 million are largely welcoming him with open arms.

Many Hiroshima natives see the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to their forever-scarred city as a fresh step for global disarmament efforts and a momentous move to cement the reconciliation between two mortal enemies turned allies.

To help ensure the foundation’s viability entails articulating a vision for the organization after the last A-bomb survivors die. Although there were more than 187,000 survivors alive last year, according to a Japanese government census, the youngest are in their 70s, like Murai.

“Twenty years from now, there will be almost no survivors left. So does that mean no RERF?” asked Ohtsura Niwa, a Stanford-trained researcher who took over as chairman last year. “No. We intend to keep on going, to do something for the next generation.”

The foundation plans to keep studying the children of A-bomb survivors to determine whether they have higher rates of cancer or other ailments that could be related to their parents’ exposure. There have been no discernible effects, but this cohort is now moving into the age range where cancer and other diseases become more prevalent, so researchers are keen to track them.

Beyond that, as new technology is developed, researchers hope to be able to apply it to their collection of biological samples.

Stored in more than 70 freezers at minus-112 degrees Fahrenheit, at least 900,000 samples of blood, urine and other material from tens of thousands of survivors of the blast and their children have been collected at the foundation over the decades.

The foundation’s extensive biosamples could also be a gold mine for researchers looking into questions of aging and disease that have nothing to do with radiation.

“Other questions can be asked of this cohort beyond just the scope that RERF has created,” said Grant. “There’s a very rich future for research here, not just in terms of radiation effects, but also in terms of aging in general. We can see our role expanding.”