By John Downer
The third anniversary of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns occasioned a new round of US media scrutiny. Among the leitmotifs of this coverage was a story that pertained less to the disaster itself than to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) efforts to manage the public’s perception of it. Particularly notable in this regard were a slew of internal NRC emails obtained by NBC reporters via the Freedom of Information Act, which shone a light on the regulator’s response to the unfolding crisis. The emails suggest a systematic effort to obfuscate or downplay implications of the accident that might be detrimental to the nuclear industry’s credibility at home: a high-level decision to disavow prior NRC concerns about the seismic vulnerability of US plants, for instance, and a policy of ignoring questions about the potential effects of meltdowns on US soil. NBC’s revelations could not have been surprising to most seasoned nuclear observers. As early as July 2011, the Wall Street Journal
was reporting on private NRC emails suggesting that the industry and its regulators were actively hiding evidence that many US reactors were at risk from earthquakes that had not been anticipated in their design. At the same time in the UK, The Guardian published an archive of internal UK government emails that showed the nuclear industry working closely with civil servants to downplay the Fukushima accident and keep it from delaying proposed plants.
It is easy to see why US and UK nuclear regulators would be concerned by a disaster in Japan. The entire logic of Western nuclear policy, planning and legislation is premised on the idea that meltdowns like Fukushima’s are either: a) literally impossible, or b) so unlikely as to be beyond political consideration. The US, for example, takes the latter approach. By invoking quantitative risk assessments, it formally categorizes meltdowns as ‘hypothetical’ events that are ‘theoretically possible’ but too improbable to warrant genuine policy consideration – much like alien invasions or catastrophic meteorite-strikes. This determination then underpins almost all its discourse around nuclear power. It is implicated, for instance, in formal cost-benefit analyses, which ignore the possibility of accidents when weighing the economics of different energy options (e.g. OECD 2010). It is implicated in its emergency response planning, which is framed around small leaks rather than Fukushima-scale meltdowns. It is implicated in planning decisions, such as the in the ‘clustering’ of multiple reactors in single sites where the failure of one can imperil the others (as was the case in Japan). It is even evident in a substantial body of its social science research, which routinely treats ‘nuclear risk’ as an established property, to be contrasted, or reconciled, with public perceptions of that risk.
The understanding that meltdowns will not (or cannot) occur is so foundational to this discourse that the appearance of three reactor meltdowns in a single week (all at the Fukushima site) could have unequivocally upended the way industrial societies conceive and manage nuclear risks. The accident’s outsized dramas – which upstaged even the momentous earthquake and tsunami that instigated it – only seemed to confirm the intolerability of nuclear disasters, while simultaneously undermining assertions that such disasters were too improbable to merit consideration. Long-standing critics of nuclear power could hardly have looked for a clearer vindication of their fears. It would have been easy to imagine that that atomic energy would have little future post-2011.
For all this, however, the credibility of nuclear energy proved surprisingly resilient to Fukushima. Some nations retreated from reactors after the accident. Japan, for instance, was gripped by a groundswell of public opposition to atomic power, while Germany resolved to
abandon reactors entirely. In most instances, however, dreams of ‘nuclear renaissance’ lived on.
Prior to Fukushima, 547 reactors were either proposed, planned or under construction throughout the world; a year later, this number had increased to 558. In early 2012, the NRC issued approvals for four new reactors – the first since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Around the same time, Britain and France signed a formal agreement paving the way for a new generation of reactors in both countries. In these nations and more, the expert and public consensus on nuclear energy ‘escaped’ the touch of Fukushima, just as it escaped that of Windscale in 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and countless other brushes with disaster.
The durability of the nuclear industry’s credibility speaks to the flexibility of risk as a concept, and to the nature of the structures in which it is embedded. It was achieved, in large part, through the promulgation of narratives that framed the disaster in two ways:
i)By arguing that Fukushima was ‘exceptional’, and, as such, did not undermine reliability calculations proving that meltdowns should be beyond consideration. and/or…
ii)By arguing that Fukushima showed meltdowns were more ‘tolerable’ events than formal risk assessments had previously imagined (thereby implying that the reliability of reactors is less essential and inviolable).
These narratives – which internal correspondences, such as those released by NBC and The Guardian show being framed – were constructed and disseminated at the highest levels, shaping policy discourse and reverberating throughout the mainstream media. This chapter will discuss their logic and their consequences. Section 2, below, begins by briefly outlining and then critiquing the argument that Fukushima was ‘exceptional’. It argues that Fukushima reveals more significant and generalizable vulnerabilities than narratives of the disaster usually suggest. Section 3 is the heart of the chapter. In three parts – each focusing on different ways of construing the disaster Ñ it outlines and critiques the argument that Fukushima was ‘tolerable’.
The accident, it concludes, was more costly and alarming than publics are encouraged to believe. The concluding section of the chapter consists of two parts. The first asserts that it is reasonable to construe Fukushima’s public portrayal as a form of denial, and tackles the thorny question of agency. Drawing on two sociology literatures – ‘Agnotology’ and ‘Science and Technology Studies’ (STS) – it offers different perspectives on how and why narratives about Fukushima have come to be misleading, and considers their relative implications. The second and final part draws on the conclusions of the first to reflect on nuclear resilience. Outlining five ways in which protecting the credibility of nuclear experts from disasters undermines the practices that protect people, it argues that the resilience of nuclear authority compromises the resilience of nuclear infrastructures.
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