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The Lessons of Fukushima

Truthout

Monday 28 March 2011

by: Hugh Gusterson   |  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | Report

As an anthropologist, I am always interested in what humans learn from their mistakes. Can humans change their behavior, thereby improving their chances of survival, not just through natural selection, but also through cultural learning? Or are we hardwired to repeat our mistakes over and over, like humanoid lemmings?

More to the point, what lessons will we learn from the nuclear accident at Fukushima, an accident thought to be impossible just two weeks ago?

Some people, many of them presumably already ill-disposed toward nuclear energy, have concluded that the lesson of Fukushima is that nuclear energy is inherently dangerous. Thus, Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post: “We can engineer nuclear power plants so that the chance of a Chernobyl-style disaster is almost nil. But we can’t eliminate it completely — nor can we envision every other kind of potential disaster. And where fission reactors are concerned, the worst-case scenario is so dreadful as to be unthinkable.” His colleague Anne Applebaum wrote on the same op-ed page: “If the competent and technologically brilliant Japanese can’t build a completely safe reactor, who can? … I … hope that a near-miss prompts people around the world to think twice about the true ‘price’ of nuclear energy, and that it stops the nuclear renaissance dead in its tracks.” (The nuclear renaissance comprises plans around the world to build as many as 350 new nuclear reactors, partly as a way of inhibiting climate change.)

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Japan, nuclear industry and risk communication: where is the TEPCO chief?

Daily Kos

by DemFromCT for Daily Kos

Mon Mar 21, 2011 at 09:45 AM EDT

Yesterday, I wrote a Sunday essay entitled Japan, nuclear industry and risk communication: unfinished business, which was about the risk communication issues Japan is falling short on.

Now, Reuters is asking:

Where is Japan’s nuclear power CEO? The head of the Japanese power company at the center of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters has all but vanished from the public eye.

And many Japanese, on a knife edge waiting to see if the nuclear power plant and radiation leaks can be brought under control, are beginning to ask where he is and questioning how much he is in control of the crisis.

Masataka Shimizu, chief executive of Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), has not made a public appearance in a week.

There’s a lot he’s responsible for, including overseeing the nuclear accident and taking care of the heroic workers trying to prevent a meltdown.

Reuters has some choice quotes:

“He’s making the low-ranking people do all the hard work,” said Satomi Aihara, a 46-year-old Tokyo resident. “I wonder where he’s hiding — it makes me mad.”Taro Kono, a prominent member of parliament with the Liberal Democratic Party and an opponent of nuclear power, was more blunt about TEPCO officials: “They don’t tell the truth … It’s in their DNA.”

Even Prime Minister Naoto Kan has been unable to hide his frustration. “What the hell is going on?” he was overheard telling TEPCO executives on Tuesday.

TEPCO officials say their boss is, understandably, busy.

I can’t help but think there’s a lot of people in Japan besides the news media that have even choicer quotes, including local farmers whose milk and vegetables are now contamined.

From the WSJ:

The search is being hampered by a shortage of equipment and facilities necessary for accurately measuring radioactivity in food. Also slowing the process is the absence of a central authority that can oversee the wide-reaching investigation and decide what steps should be taken.The samples are too low to have a health impact, Japanese officials said. But they represent another blow to another part of Japan’s economy resulting from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the resulting crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant

They also represent another blow to official credibility, one that cannot be ignored. The technical and health aspects of this are one thing. But this is no time for the head of the responsible company to be MIA or to cease explaining to the public where things stand. And I shudder to think what “absence of a central authority that can oversee” and make decisions means.

From National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, the distrust is clear:

Tokyo is almost certainly not telling us the full truth, which has been getting more and more embarrassing. And despite the outside sources of monitoring available, the truth may be far worse than we are being told, if history is any measure.It was especially noteworthy when, at a State Department briefing on Wednesday night, spokesman Mark Toner admitted that Washington was no longer following the guidance of its close East Asian ally. The U.S. government is now telling American citizens who live within 80 kilometers of the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to evacuate the area—the Japanese government is only asking people within 20 kilometers to leave. Previously, the United States had aligned itself with the Japanese recommendations. What led to that change? Toner was asked. “Well, I mean, obviously, it’s a very fluid situation,” he said.

Hirsh talks a bit about cultural differences between Japan and the west (shame v guilt), but arguably the big cultural divide is between the nuclear power officials’ lack of transparency and the journalists. So, the situation may be fluid, and we just don’t know about the final outcome, but we do know about TEPCO’s track record (see headline graphic prepared from Japan Times online archives—the red circle is today’s front page.)

From the WSJ:

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