The failure of cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant following the earthquake some 20 times more powerful than it was designed to withstand was last week classified by the International Atomic Energy Agency as the third worst incident in nuclear history after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
Many pixels have been lit over this issue already and most of the debate follows the predictable splits along socially conservative and liberal politics. Nuclear power is perhaps the ultimate conservative political device because of its long lead times in construction and decommissioning and unique reliance on state legitimacy through various legislative and political provisions. Thus, a few points need to be reiterated in the face of patronising calls for "an informed public" and rallying cries by pro-nuke advocates to unmask "liars".
Firstly, expertise in nuclear physics does not equate to expertise in radiation dispersion. At the level of philosophy of science, all the greatest excesses of western science are embodied in nuclear physics: true representations of nature, an ignorant and/or irrational public that must be disciplined; in short, epistemology where "just the facts" must first be known, then people can form a rational opinion about the topic.
But nuclear physics is not nuclear engineering and nuclear engineering is not radiation science.
Damage at the Fukushima plants may thus far be confined to reactor core and containment structures — but they don’t exactly have a camera in there, and there are a number of risks that must be honestly dealt with. Even though nuclear advocates have bet the proverbial farm on the integrity of containment, expert opinion on partial core meltdown remains divided. (For more on that scenario, see Joe Romm).This is reflected in conflicting national advice from Japan on one hand advocating a 20km exclusion zone, and the US, France, Brazil and others recommending their nationals leave or stay 80kms away. French authorities have classified the situation at INES 6 — between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Experts claiming to hold "the facts" during an unfolding crisis tend to obscure such social contingencies as workers’ willingness to be exposed to radiation or the economic imperatives behind risk management plans.
It’s worth noting here that once highly radioactive cesium and iodine elements are released into the environment, entirely separate bodies of knowledge are needed to deal with their movement. Because such releases are relatively rare, knowledge about the movement of radiation through the atmosphere, soils, plants and animals is basically a form of bricolage. Field testing radiation leakage models would hardly pass any Ethics Committee, so risk management of public health radiation is based on extrapolations and models that deserve public scrutiny. We’re in the terrain of what Bruno Latour calls "matters of concern", rather than "matters of fact" here. (See, for example, the Union of Concerned Scientists.)
This isn’t to say science should be suppressed or excluded — it’s indispensable to eventually addressing those matters of concern
Secondly, nuclear institutions have a poor record of disclosure. One of the reasons earlier incidents were so damaging was that authorities were incredibly secretive about what was happening. TEPCO’s secretiveness and, reports that it has falsified safety records, is unsurprising in this regard. There are institutional reasons for this, but it reflects a broader issue with modern science. Nuclear physics brings with it a completely impoverished sociology of trust: people are assumed to either hold or not hold information about a topic. The only role of science is to fill any perceived void there. This is the "deficit model" of scientific citizenship.
In reality, as much key science studies work has shown, this "deficit model" can actually harm good science. Local publics have sophisticated models of trust about science and technology built from many sources — they parse the interests behind official reports of incidents in a rational manner.
Brian Wynne’s classic study of Cumbrian Sheep farmers after the Chernobyl disaster exemplifies the need to be attentive to local specifics. The main point from that study was that the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant was nearby and many accidents were covered up. As a result, local farmers held little trust of nuclear authorities. When the Chernobyl meltdown occurred and radiocesium was blown across Europe, UK authorities used a set of crude models to determine how long it would take the radioactive elements to decay around local farms. The scientists overlooked key local characteristics of the problem of radioactive fallout, using models that assumed an alkaline clay, rather than the wet acidic peat of the Cumbrian Fields. In the meantime, the stories fed to farmers were revised, information withheld and they were basically screwed around by restrictions on grazing
The bottom line is that regulatory science should (but for obvious institutional reasons rarely does) be conducted with openness and humility where possible.
Finally, energy policy is a political matter: Nuclear scientists might dream of a linear process from "science to society" (as with tropes of energy "too cheap to meter" from the "peaceful atom"), but energy policy is not just a logical problem to be solved according to a set of mathematical principles. Planning requires these, but they’re not sufficient. Nuclear power carries with it the authority of science, but requires the social legitimacy of democratic institutions. For better or worse, Sweden placed a moratorium on further nuclear power plants following the Three Mile Island incident. Such decisions must be respected if made in a fair way.
Nuclear power plants have political consequences insofar as they are part of inflexible technological networks with incredibly long lead times, incorporating mining, reprocessing, disposal and electricity transmission. This is of course a criticism that could be made against other energy technologies. It is only by suppressing the political consequences of nuclear engineering (of which there are many! — this post hasn’t even mentioned weapons proliferation) that one can claim an expert "unbiased". And that’s a recipe for a debilitated public sphere.
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