Una cultura radioactiva Por Greta Struminger, Japón, crisis nuclear, crisis nuclear en Japón, crisis nuclear en Fukushima, Fukushima, catástrofe nuclear, radioactividad, radioactivo, producción nuclear, energía nuclear, energía atómica, Tepco, Tokyo Electric Power Company, planta nuclear, plantas nucleares, reactor nuclear, reactores nucleares, accidente nuclear, accidentes nucleares, cultura radioactiva, una cultura radioactiva, Ishibashi Katsuhiko, escala de Richter, 11 de marzo de 2011, viernes 11 de marzo de 2011, Organismo Internacional de Energía Atómica, OIEA, Taro Kono, instituciones centrales, Hiroaki Kano, división del trabajo, autoridades japonesas, daños colaterales, lógica de Estado, control de la energía atómica, sistema social, terremoto, seguridad atómica, seguridad nuclear, agentes de control, sismo, Japan, nuclear crisis, Japan’s nuclear crisis, Fukushima’s nuclear crisis, Fukushima, nuclear catastrophe, radioactivity, radioactive, nuclear production, nuclear energy, atomic energy, nuclear plant, nuclear plants, nuclear reactor, nuclear reactors, nuclear accident, nuclear accidents, radioactive culture, a radioactive culture, Richter scale, march 11th 2011, International Atomic Energy Agenc, IAEA, core institutions, division of labour, japanese authorities, collateral damage, State’s point of view, atomic energy control, social system, earthquake, seism, atomic safety, nulear safety, control agents.
After last March 11, every newspaper in the world was overflowing with articles featuring the events and culpabilities related to the sad episode of the nuclear crisis in Japan. The novelty of the catastrophe lied in the fact that what at the beginning seemed to be just an inevitable natural event, brought to light deep structural flaws in both the model of nuclear power production and the social system behind it.
Making a deep cultural reading of the phenomenon is important if we want to complement other interpretations, which fragmentarily focused on issues such us the corruption of the state agencies, companies' sheer profit motive, or the lack of sustainability of the nuclear power paradigm, among others. While valid, these points of view fail to identify the core problem underlying this kind of episodes, and, more importantly, they offer answers and alternatives which are partial.
In this article, we will revisit some of the strongest arguments included in these interpretations, but as indicators of the need for looking at the problem from a new angle.
One of the most striking aspects of this event is the lack of concern for public safety shown by authorities: this is by far not the first time Japan has experienced accidents with nuclear reactors, especially with those of Tepco (the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the Fukushima reactors). According to an article in the Spanish newspaper El País, from 1995 to this March incident, Japan has experienced several "accidents" in nuclear power plants –a fire, a couple of radioactive gas escapes, an uncontrolled fission process, a vapour escape, and a radioactive leak after an earthquake in 2007.
On the other hand, and to reinforce these factual indicators that something wasn’t working well, explicit warnings were made months and even years before by several individuals and organizations that had access to information regarding the Fukushima plant conditions and were knowledgeable enough to weigh up the risks. This is, for example, the case of Ishibashi Katsuhiko, a Japanese seismologist who had warned authorities about the great dangers of a major earthquake striking in the area of the nuclear plant. The scientist said that, built 40 years ago when seismic activity was relatively quiet, the facilities wouldn't be capable of withstanding earthquakes with a magnitude over 7.0 on the Richter scale. It is important to remember that last March 11's earthquake reached a magnitude of 9.0.
Even well known international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had issued warnings. And so did Japan's opposition parties, who claim to have repeatedly gone to parliament with concerns about nuclear safety issues.
The authorities' reaction -that of the Japanese government as well as of the plant's safety analysts and the scientific community in charge of evaluating the potential risks- was to underestimate the real dangers of an eventual earthquake of greater magnitude. Also worth mentioning, in 2006, unheard by his colleagues, Ishibashi Katsuhiko resigned from a government panel on reactor safety where he was working, saying the review process was “rigid and unscientific.”
Multiple warnings but no answer. How can this be explained? Undeniably, this is not mere ignorance but a case of deliberate negligence in the fulfilment of duties. However, we are not so much interested in carrying out a deep analysis of the reasons why those responsible did not take the necessary precautions (we could put forward, though, such hypothesis as corruption, corporative complicity, union condescension, dogmatic overconfidence in the virtues of the system, or even a mystical belief in the goodness of Providence); instead, we aim to analyse the role individuals -both isolated and grouped together- played in this episode.
Every collective activity of our times (given that it includes many members, and because its actions affect others) may be said to be composed of up to three control agents: company, State and citizens, either organized or not into different structures that are more or less formal, and have more or less resources. It is not news that the higher the controls, the lesser the chances of failure. It is also evident that the control agencies need to be independent from the controlled agents.
This focus in the citizens' role does not mean at all that we are justifying the actions –or the lack of action- of both governments and businesses; but in such cases where reality is actually threatening, even though others may not be up to scratch, the most sensible thing to do for each individual is taking every possible action in order not to be affected. And this is precisely what the Japanese failed to do. Blind faith in core institutions was the real incentive to chaos –it clouded all possible reaction or questioning that could lead to an intervention or to a guiding of management towards an at least more sustainable direction.
A naive faith that, based more in a hopeful "should be" than in a pragmatic sceptical analysis of what really is, ended up becoming immobilism and meekness before the episode and -even more strkingly- also after it. This can be clearly seen in the discourse of Hiroaki Kano, an electrical engineer who, after the tragedy and the government's request to "remain calm", said composedly: “It’s not my obligation to worry, it’s the government’s job to take care of this. So we don’t worry.” Maybe one more adverse symptom of the fierce division of labour, because even when it is truth this is the government's job, is it wise to surrender completely to its discretion?
The answer is no. A double negative if we are to examine the situation in two stages: prevention and emergency relief. The first dimension was analysed above; the second becomes self-evident if, for example, we take into account that a few days after the catastrophe, and in the midst of a low credibility atmosphere, the Japanese authorities indicated people within a 20km radius from the place of the accident not to leave home. Twenty kilometres is also the extent of the zone of exclusion established by the UN for its air travellers. At the same time, US citizens were barred from penetrating an 80km radius around the stricken plant. Other countries directly asked its citizens to abandon the islands. From a human risk perspective, the most sensible thing to do would have been to extend the danger zone to its maximum, but from a political convenience perspective, less extension equalled less psychological impact and less costs for an eroded credibility.
This makes one wonder about the logic underneath a system that allows the existence of certain forms of organization which look condescendingly -though not openly so- at what might be called "collateral damage". We are, again, in the realm of statistics, where all that matters is how to manage the big numbers while particular cases are left aside. This could be a good approach –and if not "good", at least acceptable– from the point of view of State policies, but it does not hold when we look at it from the perspective of those that are going to be counted as potential sacrifices to something that has been defined as "general well-being" upon the basis of doubtful cost-benefit calculations. When it is not you but others who pay for the risks, costs tend to be underestimated.
If we assume that the State does in fact allow itself to speculate with the probabilities of a mega earthquake occurring, it is nothing but sensible that all those that are not the State should group themselves as tight as possible as guarantors of other possible ways of reasoning.
An individual who appreciates his condition as such can fully understand the opposition between these two philosophies, and that's why, from his perspective, each decision will be considered according to a way of reasoning far from the hegemonic one, and this can bring about alternative results to those of last March.
Thus, the real issue would be to establish models which, based upon individuals' critical and active participation, could be up to the complexity of such a challenge as getting nuclear power in a safe way. However, there is a big question mark over whether society is culturally ready to get involved in promoting these new working dynamics, and the outlook is not really hopeful. The absentmindedness with which almost effortlessly each component of the system is assigned to a higher and supposedly better qualified authority, show a cultural whole eroded at its very basis. Technically perfect as it may be, any model built upon these bases with no reflection on its foundations is doomed to failure.
It is this kind of episodes which demonstrate up to what extent -and strictly in a theoretical aspect- a contraposition between two different mindsets and the complete lack of awareness of it can coexist, cancelling this way all practical action. When we finally get to understand that the level of risk tolerance we are putting up with is too high, that we are freely leaving complete control of some of the riskiest systems there are in the hands of a bunch of organizations of doubtful sense of commitment and suspicious liaisons, situations like this may be less likely to occur.