On Sunday March 13 in a statement to the Japanese nation, Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises the worst Japan has faced since World War II. Japan is today the third largest economy in the world, a high-technology leader and a pioneer in research capacities in many natural science and engineering fields. The exposure to a range of natural disasters (volcanic activity, extreme weather conditions, earthquakes, tsunami) is a matter of daily life on the Japanese archipelago, and civic preparation and discipline in the face of disaster is exemplary. Moreover, the Japanese government has continually developed its capacities for dealing with disasters, with lessons learned from covering up past nuclear accidents and slow responses during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. The present Prime Minister made his first important political mark in 1996 by admitting responsibility (then as Minister of Health and Welfare) for a scandal involving transfusions of blood contaminated with HIV. It is hard to imagine a nation more technologically or politically prepared for the unlikely combination of natural and technological disasters now unfolding.
The safety measures foreseen for the reactors along the northeast coastline took earthquakes and tsunami into account. Admittedly safeguards were designed for lower magnitudes than the 9.0 earthquake that hit the region on March 11. Seismic sensors did effectively trigger an immediate shut-down of all the reactors in the region. The ensuing tsunami rather than earthquake itself is now thought to be the most likely cause of the interruption in cooling procedures within the reactors. According to reports today in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, citing Japanese government sources, parts of the heating rods have been exposed through the evaporation of coolants inside the reactors, and present measures are aimed at keeping the casing walls cool enough to keep them intact. Swiss experts cited by the NZZ assume that the infusion of sea water, even if it keeps the casing cool enough to prevent radiation leading from the core into the atmosphere, will render the reactors forever unusable. As the Japanese Ambassador to Germany, Shinyo, Takahiro reported last night during the Anne Will show, it remains to be seen whether these measures will re-affirm the relative safety and reliability of nuclear power or lead Japan to reconsider its 40 year commitment to this energy source.
Although earthquakes and tsunami have continually hit the Sanriku coast, with casualties reported since the 19th Century, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0, being 130 miles at sea, launching a large and fast tsunami, hitting a group of nuclear reactors was an unimaginable risk a week ago. The events in Japan underline a number of issues which have occupied social scientists for the past 25 years in relation to complex technologies and their high consequence risks. First of all, scale, and not likelihood, is the most relevant factor in analyzing risk, since even one very unlikely failure can launch a disaster of epic proportions (Perrow 1985). Second, the importance of scale shapes the governance of high consequence risks. As the current events demonstrate too well, weighing the safety risks against the economic benefits is a matter of political and social priorities, rather than a case of statistical modelling or risk assessment.
How can we interpret the parallel drawn by Prime Minister Kan between the present crisis and the end of WWII? Was he framing the current crisis in light of Japan's first nuclear crisis, and thereby opening the way for a reconsideration of Japan?s commitment to nuclear energy? Or was he referring to the great efforts of the Japanese people in reconstruction, perhaps also the re-birth of the Japanese construction state?
ARD 2011: Anne Will. Sendung von 13. März (replay available at http://daserste.ndr.de/annewill/videos/annewill2773.html).
NZZ 2011: Anzeichen für Kernschmelze in weiterem Reaktor? Montag, 14. März, Nor. 61, pp. 2-3.
Perrow, Charles 1985: Normal Accidents -- Living with High Risk Technologies. Boston: Basic Books.
Author: Karen Shire, Professor of Comparative Sociology and Japan Studies, Speaker, DFG Graduierten Kolleg 1613 Risk and East Asia