Learning from Fukushima: Efforts to Explain What Went Wrong in Japan's Nuclear Disaster Are Doomed to Fail If They Seek to Separate the Social from the Technological. Recognizing That All Aspects of Sociotechnical Systems Are Intertwined Is Essential to Developing Wiser Technology Policies

Article excerpt

Disasters prompt us to seek lessons. After the tragic trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear failure at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in March 2011, many people have turned to Japan to understand what went wrong and how to prevent such an event from recurring. As we approach the first anniversary of the earthquake, there still seems to be little agreement on what these lessons should be. Some point to the relatively minor release of radioactive material and the outdated design of the reactors to argue that nuclear power is safe, whereas others take Fukushima as blatant evidence that nuclear power remains unsafe. Germany responded to Fukushima by accelerating its nuclear exit, but France reaffirmed its strong commitment to nuclear energy Moreover, as with previous nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, lessons tend to fall within one of two categories: those that blame technology, such as the reactor design, and those that blame social factors, such as poorly conceived regulations or corporate greed.

We argue that it is impossible to separate the social and technical features in a complex operation such as Fukushima. Nuclear power is best understood as a thoroughly hybrid entity in which the social and technological cannot be separated from one another for analytical or policy purposes. Technologies such as reactors, risk models, and safety mechanisms are embedded in social values and practices; similarly, national identity, risk regulation, and corporate culture are materialized in the production and operation of nuclear power plants. Acknowledging these irreducible linkages, we critique several analyses that apply a strictly technical or social lens to Fukushima and illustrate how a sociotechnical approach results in a more realistic and useful understanding of events. This more complex account uncovers a different set of lessons and points to novel responses that include participatory technology policy, global nuclear governance, and a more reflexive approach to modeling.

It's not just politics

One common refrain has been that Fukushima happened because politics interfered with technology, leading to political biases in risk assessments and safety reports as well as inconsistent regulation by industry-captured government authorities. According to this narrative, political influence should be prevented by shifting power to regulators and expert scientists, who are assumed to be objective and independent. Politics should be excluded.

In contrast to this storyline, we argue that the failure at Fukushima was not just that decisions were political, but that they were asymmetrically and incompletely political. A technological system should not be seen as political only when things go wrong. Rather, political values and interests are continually part of nuclear operation, including periods of normal management and robust technological performance. From a sociotechnical perspective, the challenge is not to exclude politics but to ensure that political agendas and channels are transparent, explicit, and open to debate.

As in all other nations, nuclear power in Japan has always been deeply political. In the aftermath of the nation's disastrous defeat in World War II, several Japanese politicians were looking for ways to build the country's legitimacy and demonstrate its technological capacity. For the later prime minister and nationalist Yasuhiro Nakasone and for media mogul Matsutaro Shoriki, who in 1956 became the first head of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, nuclear power was a vehicle for national prestige and honor. To involve its citizens in its nuclear agenda, the Japanese government designated October 26 as a Day of Nuclear Power to commemorate the first successful operation of an experimental reactor at Tokai in 1963, exactly seven years after Japan joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The state offered incentives to communities willing to host nuclear power plants, undertook publicity campaigns to promote atomic energy, and mandated the inclusion of "safe nuclear power" visions in schoolbooks. …