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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Fukushima and the institutional invisibility of nuclear disaster

Black smoke at Fukushima
Daichi, 24th March 2011.

Photo: deedavee easyflow via Flickr.
The Ecologist | Dec 20, 2014 | John Downer

Speaking at press conference soon after the accident began, the UK government's former chief science advisor, Sir David King, reassured journalists that the natural disaster that precipitated the failure had been "an extremely unlikely event".

In doing so, he exemplified the many early accounts of Fukushima that emphasised the improbable nature of the earthquake and tsunami that precipitated it.

A range of professional bodies made analogous claims around this time, with journalists following their lead. This lamentation, by a consultant writing in the New American, is illustrative of the general tone:

" ... the Fukushima 'disaster' will become the rallying cry against nuclear power. Few will remember that the plant stayed generally intact despite being hit by an earthquake with more than six times the energy the plant was designed to withstand, plus a tsunami estimated at 49 feet that swept away backup generators 33 feet above sea level."

The explicit or implicit argument in all such accounts is that the Fukushima's proximate causes are so rare as to be almost irrelevant to nuclear plants in the future. Nuclear power is safe, they suggest, except against the specific kind of natural disaster that struck Japan, which is both a specifically Japanese problem, and one that is unlikely to re-occur, anywhere, in any realistic timeframe.

An appealing but tenuous logic

The logic of this is tenuous on various levels. The 'improbability' of the natural disaster is disputable, for one, as there were good reasons to believe that neither the earthquake nor the tsunami should have been surprising. The area was well known to be seismically active after all, and the quake, when it came, was only the fourth largest of the last century.

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