A New Interview with 'Atomic Daughter'

Courtesy photo

M.T. Silvia

Last Tuesday marked the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Alameda Community Radio's program "News & Views" aired an interview with M.T. Silvia, who produced and directed the award-winning, 80-minute film, Atomic Mom, a documentary about two women, both mothers: an American scientist and a Japanese survivor, who make peace decades after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Pauline Silvia, M.T.'s mother, worked as a biologist for the US Navy where she researched the effects of radiation on animals. For most of her life, and congruent with the Navy's directive, Pauline said nothing about her work to anyone, despite her daughter's deep curiosity and anti-nuclear activism.

When she was in her mid-70s Pauline was driving with M.T. from San Francisco International Airport when she pointed to a large, beige, windowless building near Candlestick Park.

"That's the RAD lab," Pauline said. She explained that she'd worked at the Navy's Radiological Defense (RAD) lab for four years.

Growing up, M.T. knew her mother worked on something secret and mysterious. She probed further to learn more.

Her mother was reluctant to speak at first, but over time, she opened up.

What began as a daughter documenting her family's history blossomed into a deeper understanding of the Atomic Age, her mother's brief role that left an enduring legacy in both women's lives, and the film.

Atomic Mom tells a complex story and asks profound questions. It looks at a nuclear industry responsible for the displacement of Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and "downwinders." It also focuses on the devastation of land and ocean environments, cultural upheaval and the project's continued secrecy.

The film discusses features of America's popular culture of the 1950s and '60s that extended to fashion, hairstyles and leisure time.

A trend in the developing gambling mecca of Las Vegas treated guests to all-night parties and, at dawn, unobstructed patio-views of atomic blasts at the nearby Nevada test site.

Pop music of the era included Sheldon Allman's Crawl Out through the Fallout (he tells his paramour he'll "kiss the radiation burns away") and Radioactive Mama (he assures her she "will reach critical mass tonight " ) . Elton Britt's Uranium Fever declares his intention: "with a Geiger counter in my hand / I'm going out to stake me / some government land."

In December 2011, M.T. traveled to Japan for the film's premier. She met many Hibakasha (bombing victims) who shared deep misgivings about nuclear power's latest devastation: the Fukushima Daiichi disaster that is breaking up once tightly-knit families as generations disagree about how to keep children safe from radiation.

M.T. says, "The fact is, we are all downwind of this story and we have been for many years…and we continue to put ourselves at risk."

Listen to clips from the film, music from the era and the extended interview with the film-maker at alamedacommunityradio.org. Visit atomicmom.org for information on how to watch Atomic Mom.

Susan Galleymore is managing director of Alameda Community Radio.


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