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Fukushima: the context fallacy

April 1, 2011

Fukushima - Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently on a self-imposed break from the blog while I catch up with some essential life stuff, and so wasn’t intending to comment further on the developments at the Fukushima Diiachi nuclear plant in Japan. However, some comments in the media coverage of the incident have made me want to add my own microseivert’s worth of opinion, so forgive me.

There has been a particular argument doing the rounds amongst science experts, journalists and bloggers against those perceived to be over-reacting to the severity of events at Fukushima. The thrust of the argument is that the public have so over-reacted to the tiny nuclear risks posed by the Fukushima accident that this has blinded them to the very real humanitarian disaster taking place around the plant – namely the thousands who still lie buried, or alive but homeless, following the tsunami. The argument ends with an appeal for the public to stop panicking about nuclear power and get matters “into context”. The argument can be seen here, here, and here.

On the surface of it, who could argue with such a sentiment? There is a very real and massive human disaster in Japan at this time – and that is, without doubt, the after-effects of the earthquake and the massive Tsunami that followed it. In terms of immediate human need this dwarfs the problems at Fukushima. The Japan government has an appalling humanitarian crisis on its hands, which is only being hampered by the nuclear crisis . The amount of press attention devoted to the unfolding problems at Fukushima must be very frustrating to those who feel that the press should have all of its attention focused on where the most immediate and wide-scale disaster lies.

Yet I have found this line of argument irritating, and at times condescending. I’ll try to explain why.

At the heart of the argument is a fallacy that confuses a shared cause with a shared context. There are two disasters here. One is the massive flood following the tsunami. The other is the technical – and still unfolding – disaster at the nuclear plant. Both of these share a cause – namely the terrible earthquake. And yet their contexts are utterly different. The context for the tsunami flooding is a natural menace that threatens the Pacific Rim and – despite warning systems in place – can still destroy communities in an instant. The context for Fukushima Diiachi is decades old. It began in Hiroshima, not too far away. And it is a context that still has the power to make governments secretive, markets twitchy, and publics terrified.

In other words, it’s a huge social, political and economic issue, not a scientific one. No amount of superb graphics and eminent talking heads can dispel it without addressing the real problem – trust. The issue lies on a deadly fault line of public trust. Once shaken, it is impossible to patch up. This trust is shaky for very good and historical reasons. Numerous past disasters, disputed data and official cover-ups have eroded the reputation of a technology that most still believe can benefit society. Yet this can only happen if the nuclear industry opens itself up to full public scrutiny – with the full support of government and the full service of science. This means recognising – finally – that the ultimate arbiter of nuclear energy futures is not a politician, an engineer, a newspaper or a scientist, but the citizens who have to live with its benefits and its costs.

I discussed this matter recently on Twitter with UK Member of Parliament Jamie Reed, who once worked in the nuclear industry and is a staunch supporter of nuclear power. He echoed my sentiments. “Transparency isn’t choice, it’s necessity – it’s also about not hiding from the science or history”.

There’s plenty of science being bandied about at the moment. But science isn’t the real problem. The problem is that we’re not dealing with the history. That’s where the trust was lost. That’s what drives public attentions now. Only openness and meaningful engagement can remove this fear. It takes time and humility. And fewer graphs than you might think.

To conflate Fukushima and the tsunami disaster because they share a common cause seems reasonable, but it isn’t. Explaining away responses to threatened nuclear contamination as an “over-reaction” –  a small part of a greater crisis – is to deny the press and citizenry any space to respond to the historical contexts of nuclear power – which only ever seem to surface once power stations are burning and governments are mumbling sketchy details. Details which, I might add, change on an almost daily basis. If now is not the time to ask searching questions regarding our nuclear future, then when? Will citizens have to wait until their own local power station starts burning?

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