Nuclear Power: Total Communication Meltdown
by Abigail McEwen -- September 23rd, 2013
According to his calculations, it would take any leaked radiation five hours to reach him. It was early March in 2011 and the Tohoku earthquake tsunami was raging against the eastern shores of Japan. To the north of his laboratory near Tokai, a 46-foot wave had just toppled the protective seawall surrounding the nuclear reactor at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Soon, nuclear meltdown would occur.
Dr. Atsuo Kishimoto used this personal anecdote to open his lecture on “The Risk Policy Aftermath of the 2011 Tohuku Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Accident.” This lecture was the first in the Fall 2013 Power Lunch series, sponsored by the Duke Energy Initiative. On that Wednesday afternoon, the lecture hall was packed with a combination of law, business, and environment students and professionals (undoubtably, some of which had been drawn in by the promise of free food).
What brought me to this lecture (okay, besides the free food) was an interest in nuclear waste and its relationship to environmental health. While Dr. Kishimoto did not spend much time addressing nuclear waste and radiation exposure, his lecture gave some very interesting insight into the communication “roadblocks” that shroud the nuclear power dialogue (at least in Japan). A large part of the reason I chose to study at The Nicholas School was to supplement my science background with a better grasp on policy and regulation. I am fascinated by how communication occurs (or doesn’t occur) between these different worlds.
According to Dr. Kishimoto, the strong opinions on the two sides of the nuclear power debate are not a productive part of the risk policy framework. Opponents of nuclear power argue that the potential for contamination or catastrophe is too uncertain for the technology to warrant being used. In the face of this claim, proponents cannot adequately prepare for emergencies without contradicting themselves and appearing to support the very argument of the opposition. Essentially, any intense risk preparations make risk look inevitable. Who wants to support something that appears to be a disaster waiting to happen? (and for many, that is just what nuclear power is!)
This debate is further complicated by a barrier between the research scientists and policy makers. Most scientists are reluctant to draw conclusions in the face of uncertainty, but policy makers must make decisions even in the face of uncertainty. This results in a risk assessment approach that is either too cautious or not cautious enough. But according to Dr. Kishimoto, a more open, balanced dialogue can create an ideal level of precaution.
So why is it so hard to talk about nuclear power? Personally, I cannot seem to pick a side on the debate, nor can I think about the issue in an entirely logical manner. Radiation is a particularly terrifying form of toxic material, simply because it is so mysterious to most of us. We cannot see it and we have no control over the complex operations that govern it. And often, accidents or failures are catastrophic and come at a great expense to both human and ecosystem health. Images of Chernobyl and Fukushima are too easily scarred into our memories. In the face of these accidents, nuclear power becomes an incredibly emotionally charged issue. Given this, it is not surprising that people tend to have very strong opinions about nuclear power.
In a post Fukushima society, Japan has begun to address these communication roadblocks and improve their risk management framework. Meanwhile in the U.S., development of nuclear technology, and safety protocols and standards, has come to a halt. Our existing fleet of plants is past their prime. Is this stagnation a symptom of the same roadblocks described by Dr. Kishimoto? Do our strong opinions about nuclear power prevent us from making adequate progress on our own risk policy framework?
As Japan considers its energy future, maybe its time we start to talk about the roadblocks that exist within our own risk framework, before total communication meltdown occurs.