A Disaster by the Sea

Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children is set in a small cabin near the sea, inhabited by two retired nuclear engineers, Hazel and Robin. The first lines of the play introduce a third character to the party: another retired scientist, Rose. Hazel, Robin, and Rose all worked together in the nuclear power plant near the cottage that Hazel and Robin now live in, but as we soon find out, a disaster has taken place at this plant.

A short time before the start of the play, there is an earthquake so large that roads and houses split. Following the earthquake, a tsunami hits, destroying the plant and the surrounding homes and buildings. As a result, radioactive materials are leaking into the area and into the people and animals living there. This radioactive material is known to cause severe cancer, and there is an “exclusionary zone” that is contaminated and uninhabitable.

Production photo from a performance of The Children at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2017.

As we follow Hazel, Robin, and Rose throughout the play, we learn more and more about what this disaster has done to not only Hazel and Robin, but what it has done to their friends and family as well. However, it is unclear why Rose is really there. As past relationships resurface, and secrets unravel, we eventually get Rose’s real reason for her visit in the last few pages. Rose is forming a team of older scientists to go into the destroyed plant and try to fix the radiation and the damaged nuclear facilities. Apparently, there is a younger team of scientists there now, but Rose thinks that it is unethical that people with their whole lives ahead of them should have to risk their lives cleaning up something that the older folks had started. Eventually, they all decide that they are going to return to the plant, facing almost certain death, and yet, the final scene is a serene vision of peace and harmony.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster

Fukushima: The nuclear disaster that shook the world - BBC News

On March 11, 2011, a major earthquake hit Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. The earthquake, later deemed the Great East Japan Earthquake, was measured at a magnitude of 9.0, which, according to the California Earthquake Authority, a 9.0 is a “violent” earthquake, causing considerable damage in “specially designed structure,” as well as “well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb” and “buildings shifted off foundations” (CEA). The earthquake was so powerful that Japan moved “a few meters east” and the coastline subsided half a meter (WNA). Following this earthquake, a 15-meter tsunami hit the coast, and, after damaging structures and causing many deaths, disabled power supply and caused the cooling of the three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a severe nuclear accident. Japan’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency originally declared the accident a level 5 on the International Nuclear Events Scale, but later, a month after the tsunami, raised the rating to a level 7 – “a major accident” (WNA).

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011.

After the entire site was flooded by the tsunami, three of the nuclear reactors lost ability to maintain proper reactor cooling and water circulation functions. This caused different radionuclides to be released into the air and to contaminate the land, sea, and everything surrounding the plant. One main radionuclide released was caesium-137, which has a thirty-year half-life (WNA), which means, according to Britannica, that it takes thirty years for one-half of the atomic nuclei of the radioactive sample to decay, or “the time interval required for the number of disintegrations per second of a radioactive material to decrease by one-half” (Augustyn). Basically, even after thirty years, caesium-137 will still be present in the air and in the land. Caesium-137 is also a strong gamma-emitter in its decay (WNA). Gamma-emitters have a high penetration power and high exposures can cause direct acute effects through immediate damage to cells. The probability of cancer induction rises with increased exposure (Arpansa).

Effects of the Disaster

In the wake of the earthquake and the tsunami, about 19,500 deaths were reported. Additionally, there were 2,313 “disaster-related” deaths related to the effects on the nuclear plant (WNA). Many were left without homes and were forced to live in temporary accommodation near the plant, and emergency response centers that are common in nuclear emergencies were absent from the situation because of “radioactive contamination.” The day of the earthquake, the government ordered an evacuation of all people within a 3km radius and an order to stay inside buildings in a 3-10km radius. The next day, March 12, the government ordered a 10km radius evacuation, and later that day, a 20km evacuation. In all, over 160,000 people were evacuated from their homes. However, it wasn’t until April 21 that the government set the 20km radius as a “no-go area.” Media reports have referred to “nuclear gypsies” – casual workers who were allegedly prone to receiving higher and unsupervised radiation doses. These workers were a part of this scene for at least four decades, and when the workers reached certain levels, they would be reassigned to lower-exposure areas (WNA).

            On April 4, radiation levels of 0.06 mSv/day were recorded in Fukushima city, 65km northwest of the plant. These levels are 60 times higher than normal, but “posed no health risk according to authorities” (WNA). Monitoring beyond the 20km evacuation radius on April 13 showed one location with up to 0.266 mSv/day dose rate, but elsewhere, no more than one-tenth of this. At the end of July (the earthquake and tsunami happened in March), the highest level measured within a 30km radius was 0.84 mSv/day. The “safety limit set by the central government in mid-April for public recreation areas was 0.09 mSv/day. People living in Fukushima Prefecture are expected to be exposed to around 10 mSv over their entire lifetimes, while those living further away would be exposed to about 0.2 mSv per year.

Ultimately, reports show that there have been “no harmful effects from radiation” on local people, nor any doses approaching harmful levels. However, some 160,000 people were evacuated from their homes and limited amounts of people weren’t allowed to return until 2012. As of July 2020, over 41,000 people remained displaced due to government concern about radiological affects from the accident (WNA), and the power station still releases radioactive waste into the ocean every day (De Ambrogi).

Map of deposition of radiocaesium (sum of Cs-134 and Cs-137) for the land area within 80 km of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as reported by the Japanese authorities (MEXT).

Geopathology and Generational Debt

Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children confronts many modern problems in a short, one-scene, three-character play. The topics discussed are difficult and some are traumatic for the characters, but all are sourced within one thing: generational debts and the creation of environmental problems by one generation that will affect the ones to come. There are more and more plays being written and performed concerning climate change and what it is doing not only to the generations who saw its beginnings, as well as future generations who will have to deal with the consequences. In response to these plays, scholars have been considering the advantages of performing issues of climate change and generational environmental problems in the theatre and the different lenses through which the texts may be examined.

Forced migration abstract concept vector illustration.

One such scholar is Una Chaudhuri, whose research explores what she calls, “ecospheric consciousness: ideas, feelings, and practices that attend to the multi-species and geo-physical contexts of human lives” (NYU). One specific idea related to ecospheric consciousness that Chaudhuri focuses on is that of geopathology, which she focuses on in her article, “The Silence of the Polar Bears: Performing (Climate) Change in the Theater of Species.” Geopathology, according to Chaudhuri, “refers to the many problems related to place – as nation, homeland, neighborhood, environment, border – that largely defined the past century of dislocation.” Additionally, the term seeks to name and recognize “the characterization of place itself as a problem, as a site of often-painful psychological impasse and as an ideological blind spot, with devastating consequences” (Chaudhuri 46). Lucy Kirkwood’s play, The Children, pays tribute to geopathology and the problem of place through the dislocation we see the characters experience, as well as in the psychological effects on the characters, and through the topics of moral responsibility and self-sacrifice.

The Disaster

In The Children, more than one disaster has occurred, whether it be natural or nuclear. First, an earthquake hits. Hazel claims she “saw the road cracked down the middle” (Kirkwood 11). Then, the earthquake causes a tsunami. Hazel says the tide was out for miles, and that when it was all over, the house was so flooded that she “waded through it up the stairs, the carpet squelching and something else, something dreadful, a smell a feeling a hopelessness” (Kirkwood 18). However, houses weren’t the only things that the wave hit. The wave also hit a nuclear power plant, the one that Rose, Hazel, and Robin all used to work at, and it damaged the nuclear reactors. This has caused severe radiation in a certain zone surrounding the plant, which the government has named the “exclusionary zone.” No one is supposed to live or go inside that zone unless they are working on the plant, or else they would risk radiation exposure as well as possibilities of severe illnesses like cancer. Because of this exclusionary zone, Hazel and Robin are forced to move out of their home and their farm because it is just outside the exclusionary zone. Hazel says that they were able to see the power station from their house, and about the possibility of radiation, she says: “I felt like I could see it the radiation hanging in the air a sort of a sort of filthy glitter suspended and I didn’t like it” (Kirkwood 11). They relocate to what Rose refers to as a cottage on the sea, and although it is only ten miles from their old house, Hazel claims that it “makes a world of difference to [their] peace of mind” (Kirkwood 12). However, although the move seems easy at first, as it isn’t too far from their home, all of the characters experience some kind of psychological effects because of it.

The end of self-sacrifice. The beginning of self-love and boundaries.

Psychological Effects

Each character undergoes something different in terms of their psychological reactions to the dislocation. Robin, for example, has been visiting their old cows every day. Robin and Hazel’s old farm is further down the coast, so the farm is inside the exclusion zone, and every day, Robin goes into the exclusionary zone to supposedly take care of the still living cows. However, we eventually find that the cows are dead, and they have been dead since the first time Robin went back to check on them. And every day, morning to night, he digs graves for them. It takes him “a few days to just do one so it’s been quite a, quite a slow process.” When Rose expresses sympathy, he responds: “No I sort of...I dunno, I quite enjoy it. I cry a lot. Sometimes I get to the end of the day and I realize I’ve been crying for...six or seven hours” (Kirkwood 53). It is obvious Robin has been suffering since the relocation, and the cows are dead because of the radiation, tying this instance even more to geopathology and the problem of place itself. Next, Hazel, perhaps less obviously, suffers in terms of psychological pain as well. When she is telling Rose about the damage to the house and about the disaster itself, she gets upset:

and I cried, Rose, I just sank down at the bottom of the stairs where the pencil lines mark the children’s heights and I was just...crying thank you because the mess the mess was just overwhelming It was overwhelming Rose.

(Kirkwood 18).

She is unable to even hold a salad in her hands, and during these lines, Rose takes the salad from her and shakes it dry for her, recognizing that Hazel has endured some trauma. Lastly, although we don’t experience it in the same way, Rose also shows signs of psychological damage due to the disaster. She is alone, in every sense of the word. She has endured breast cancer so damaging that she has had to have both of her breasts removed, and she still takes birth control to “annihilate” her libido. She has no family – no children, no spouse, no grandchildren, nothing. Concerning her libido, she tells Robin: “It just makes my life a lot easier. Not to want it in the first place” (Kirkwood 53). Clearly, Rose has had to deal with a lot in her life, and she has not escaped the psychological effects either.


illustration of a man giving the missing puzzle to a child, sacrifice concept.

After acknowledging the dislocation of the characters and the psychological effects the characters have because of it, another important part of the play is its idea about moral responsibility and self-sacrifice. It is eventually revealed that Rose has come to visit because she has decided that she is going to travel back to the plant and try to fix what is going wrong in terms of nuclear radiation. Rose tells the couple: “this morning there was a radiation spike. They should be pulling them all out [the scientists working there now] but they can’t, there are major leaks in unit 2, somehow there’s contaminated water flooding into the discharge channel” (Kirkwood 45). The problem here is that Rose thinks this is their fault as older scientists who used to work there:

We built a nuclear reactor next to the sea then put the emergency generators in the basement! We left them with a shit-show waiting to happen and no evacuation procedure! And then they were the ones standing in the dark, trying to fix something we could have predicted, we should have predicted, opening valves by hand, even though it was already too late! (Kirkwood 48-49).

The text raises the question: In which circumstances can we accept fault? In which should we accept fault? And how do we make up for it? Rose thinks the answer is self-sacrifice. She thinks that since she is older, and since she used to work there, she should be the one exposed to dangerous radiation on a daily basis just to fix things, rather than the younger, newer scientists with younger families and more life ahead of them. At first, Hazel and Robin push back at Rose for suggesting that they go back with her, but slowly, they agree to go, first Hazel, and then Robin. And yet, even after accepting that they are basically headed to their deaths, the play ends with a peaceful and serene scene in which the women do yoga and Robin smokes a cigarette, watching the waves come in and go out, just like the waves of life.


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