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3.11 Virtual Conference

3.11 Virtual Conference: Looking back to look forward
11-12 March 2012
Begins 11 March, 8:00 a.m., Japan Standard Time (6:00 p.m., March 10, EST)

This virtual conference has ended. The content on this site is now permanently archived* at its site. You may still comment on any of the articles you read below by joining the Fukushima Forum Google Groups and posting your comment there. We hope to hear from you!

(*By agreement with the authors, the posts may be removed at an author’s discretion as they prepare their manuscripts for publication are are required or requested to remove their entry from an online forum.)

  • Below you will find the be “Featured Essays” for the 3.11 Virtual Conference.
  • Use the “[read more…]” links to read the full essays.




Nuclear nomads: A look at the subcontracted heroes

Gabrielle Hecht
University of Michigan

(Originally published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 9 January 2012)

In the days after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station last March, the international media celebrated the heroism of the “Fukushima 50”—the plant and emergency workers who exposed themselves to extremely high radiation levels to get the reactors under control. Their efforts, it seems, were doomed from the start. Three of the reactor cores melted down anyway. And the cleanup will take decades.

During much of this cleanup process – especially in its current phase –thousands of workers will be exposed to levels of ionizing radiation well in excess of internationally recommended annual limits. In fact, Japan raised exposure limits for both workers and the public, presumably in an attempt to reduce the number of cases that need to be documented as overexposures.

So how many emergency workers are there anyway, and who are they? Over 18,000 men had participated in cleanup work by early December. Some  hailed the workers as “national heroes,” men willing to sacrifice their lives for the future of their nation. A few investigative reporters and scholars, however, uncovered a different story. The vast majority of these men are subcontract employees, recruited among local residents rendered unemployed by the disaster, or among the thousands of day laborers who eke out an existence in the notorious slums of Japanese cities. In other words, these are not salarymen. [Read More…]

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Making a case for disaster science and technology studies

Kim Fortun (
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Scott Frickel (
Washington State University

As illustrated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico and the uncontrolled radiation release at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, technoscience is implicated in disaster in myriad ways. These two disasters were not only technoscientific in their origins, but also unleashed torrents of technoscientific activity, directly and indirectly.  These activities have included basic and applied research, policy innovations, technology development, the creation of new funding mechanisms, expert-lay collaborations, and the reorganization of scientific networks. These recent examples leave little doubt that large-scale disasters have wide-ranging impacts on technoscientific practices, knowledge, institutions and communities.  They also suggest that the social dynamics of science and technology are deeply implicated in how governments, industries, legal systems, affected communities, and other social institutions deal with disaster, risk management, emergency response, and longer-term recovery. To date, however, a synergistic body of STS research on disaster has not emerged.

This inattention to disaster is disconcerting because STS theory and empirical findings clearly have great relevance in efforts to better understand how technoscientific knowledge, experts, and institutions condition and respond to catastrophic events and impact disaster policy. Similarly, a focal effort to develop DSTS holds promise for moving STS in important new directions. The sudden and large scale changes that disasters trigger in ecosystems, societies and knowledge practices offer STS scholars unique opportunities to study the social dynamics of technoscience under highly atypical conditions.  [Read More…]

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Death, the Japanese tsunami, and historical memory*

Charles B. Strozier
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

(The short note is adapted from the book, Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses [New York: Columbia University Press, 2011].)

Kai Erikson distinguishes natural disasters of the past from what he calls a “new species of trouble” in the contemporary world. He emphasizes two factors. First, such new trouble is caused by other human beings, which makes it hurt in special ways and generates feelings of “injury and vulnerability from which it is difficult to recover.” Hiroshima and the Holocaust, 9/11, and the Japanese tsunami last year are striking examples of such a new species of trouble. Each has effects beyond and very different from the havoc wreaked in earthquakes, floods, and other forms of natural distress, even though often what appears to be “natural” can be devastatingly destructive precisely because of the ways poverty and other decidedly unnatural factors place human beings in unsafe places without adequate safeguards against disaster. [Read More…]

Erikson’s second point is even more compelling. The most important aspect of the new disasters, he says, is when they involve some form of toxic contamination. Toxic disasters violate all rules of plot. Some of them have clearly defined beginnings, such as the explosion that signaled the emergency at Chernobyl, the sudden moment of realization that opened the drama of Bhopal, and the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants. Others begin long years before anyone senses that something is wrong, as was the case at Love Canal. But they never end. Invisible contaminants remain a part of the surroundings, absorbed into the grain of the landscape, the tissues of the body, and, worst of all, the genetic materials of the survivors. An all-clear is never sounded. The book of accounts is never closed. [Read More…]

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Teach 3/11: participatory educational project puts the Kanto Tōhoku disaster into historical context

Lisa Onaga
(With contributions by Kristina Buhrman, Christian Dimmer, Chihyung Jeon, Honghong Tinn, and Tyson Vaughan; published in September 2011 issue of East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal. Proof of full article available with permission from Duke University Press—click here.)

From the Here and Now

My first visit to the countryside of Fukushima Prefecture took place in the early autumn of 2008. The occasion was a notable “return” to a historic center of premodern Japanese silkworm egg production for two busloads of members of the silk and sericulture industry, en route to the annual Silk Summit held at the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Onaga-san, look there.” I looked out the window and saw in the distance a large, white, rectangular building tucked in amid the greenery. “That’s a nuclear power plant,” the retired scientist told me. “If that explodes, we’ll die.” At the time, I was unsure what to make of this jolt of information. Wrapped up in my own thoughts about fieldwork and research, I had certainly forgotten that moment until now.

Place names such as Fukushima and T­ōhoku need little introduction today. Following the disasters that unfolded in Japan on 11 March 2011, people around the world have flocked to social media and news outlets, bearing witness to viral videos of the Kanto Tōhoku earthquake’s devastation and the horrifying tsunami that followed it. The tense play-by-plays of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima and speculations about health risks associated with their failure have focused intensely on the here and now, with good reason. As the hours melted together in those very raw early days of the triple disaster, a number of things seemed to become apparent to many of us Japanwatchers: a consternation with the media’s reproduction of facile if not circular explanations of how Japanese stoicism and civility stem from “Japanese culture,” which seemed to perpetuate a myth of homogeneity; a gulf in the quality of reportage between those with and without Japanese language skills or access to technological or scientific expertise; the use of ambiguous metaphoric language in the foreign press; and, perhaps most important, an overall challenge in ascertaining the lay of the land. [Read more…]


Spaces of uncertainty in the food supply after Fukushima

Nicolas Sternsdorff Cisterna
Harvard University

(Note: This post is based on research in progress, and I welcome feedback on how to proceed with this material.)

Tanaka-san (a pseudonym) is the head of one of the food coops based in Fukushima prefecture. We met at a consumer rights event, and I have visited him a few times to talk about the state of food safety in Japan. Coops are a strong force in Japanese food retailing  — a little over 30 percent of Japanese households belong to one. There are many kinds of coops, and the one that he runs has strong positions on food politics: they are against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP — a free trade agreement that could liberalize the Japanese agricultural sector), seek to reduce the use of additives and preservatives, and are concerned about the use of post-harvest pesticides in some imported crops. At the same time, they promote local products, and try as much as possible to support farmers and producers in Fukushima prefecture. To him, eating local does not mean Japanese products (kokusan), but to eat products from his prefecture. Moreover, as many coops do, they promoted their products as safe, reliable and healthy alternatives to the industrialized crops that are featured in supermarkets and the additive-heavy lunch boxes at convenience stores.

The accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant put Tanaka-san’s coop in a difficult position: how to continue sourcing safe food for their members in the face of radioactive pollution? One of the first things they did was to set stricter safety standards than those of the government for the amount of permissible pollution in their products. Immediately after the earthquake, the government raised the limit to 500 becquerels per kilo (bq/kg), which many consumer groups and food activists denounced as being dangerously high. [Read more…]


Kizuna: Examining the bonds of risk, tragedy, disaster and recovery in Japan

Christopher P. Hood
Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre, Cardiff University


11 March 2011 is a day which has gone down in infamy, or at least world history, as the original version of Roosevelt’s famous speech was written. For a day the world turned its attention to events as they were beamed live to screens. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook went into overdrive as all seemed to have something to say about what they were seeing. The conclusion of many, including the news networks which themselves seemed to be sucked to new low levels of reporting quality, was that it was ‘Like a scene out of a Hollywood movie’. This of course totally missed the point. What we were watching was reality. It is the Hollywood movies which have over time managed to find a means to reproduce the true horror of these devastating events.

As one event, the earthquake, was over, so others, the tsunami, came. When that seemed to be over, so the problems shifted to events at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Seemingly never before had a tragedy had so many different elements. Never before had it been so well filmed. But did all understand what they were seeing? Did the Japanese respond appropriately? [Read more…]


Notes from the debris field: “recovery” from Kobe, through New Orleans, to Tohoku

Tyson Vaughan
Cornell University

If you go to the tsunami-wrecked coastline of northeastern Japan a year after the disaster, you will see a rugged coastline of forest-clad, rocky mountains girding narrow valleys — scenery so spectacularly beautiful that you wonder why it took a catastrophe to bring it to your attention. You will see heart-breaking and frankly awesome devastation in the valleys, juxtaposed with untouched buildings and infrastructure at higher elevations. You will still see mountains of rubble, trashed cars and boats, gutted buildings, and broad fields of rectangular building foundations where once there were whole neighborhoods. You will see construction workers and heavy equipment and the uniform, cross-braced, prefabricated blocks of temporary houses, temporary shops, and temporary offices. You will meet kind and hard-working locals who will laugh and joke with you, and then tell you their personal stories of tragedy. With a shrug, the heroic determination to rebuild and move forward transforms into the acknowledgment that the quotidian tasks of carrying on are just the way things are now.

This is the environment in which the relentless, uncertain work of cleanup, reconstruction, and “recovery” is proceeding. This is “the geography of crisis and opportunity” (Edgington, 2010). Indeed, it is a virtual truism that catastrophes provide unique opportunities for both scholars and actors to apprehend, and potentially reform, otherwise “black-boxed” components of societies. [Read more…]


Analyzing the Fukushima nuclear crisis via uses of social media: a short essay

Yasuhito Abe
University of Southern California

For a year, the Fukushima nuclear crisis has often been reported as an “unprecedented crisis” by the mass media and blogospheres in Japan and beyond. The Fukushima nuclear crisis appears to be unprecedented if one looks at the surface features of the role of social media in the unsettled crisis. Indeed, the crisis showed that people living in Japan and beyond participated in knowledge production by harnessing social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. In particular, many people engaged in DIY (do-it-yourself) reporting of Geiger counter readings and distributed the collected data to those who were concerned about the level of nuclear radiation by using social media. The DIY reporting of pollution is undoubtedly nothing new, but I am curious as to how people widely produced, circulated, and consumed the collected data by using social media and how they used the data for their individual or collective ends.

It should be noted that the collected data are not necessarily utilized as a resource for collective action. Perhaps, the most well-known example can be an online community called Hakatte Geiger  ( Established by Gogo Labs, Inc. on June 17, 2011, Hakatte Geiger, for which the Japanese namesake inquires, “Will you measure [the level of nuclear radiation] by using a Geiger counter?” allows non-Geiger counter users to request volunteer Geiger counter users to measure nuclear radiation for them. The resulting reports are circulated via Twitter. However, an analysis of civic discourse at the bulletin board system (BBS) of Hakatte Geiger does not always indicate that people use the data as a tool for lobbying for policymakers or local government. Obviously, Hakatte Geiger users participate in providing or circulating locally specific knowledge on the level of nuclear radiation by harnessing social media, but one should not always romanticize their DIY reporting of Geiger counter readings as a fundamental resource for political activism.

[Read more…]


Investigating 3.11: Disaster and the politics of expert inquiry

Scott Gabriel Knowles

Drexel University

“They should have been saying that nuclear energy was dangerous.  Instead they said that nuclear power was safe.” 

This is the conclusion reached by Yotaro Hatamura, emeritus professor of engineering at Tokyo University and the man directing Japan’s first major investigation into the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  Organized by the government, Hatamura’s committee released an interim report in December confirming the generally understood narrative of the disaster.  A 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami of March 11, 2011 badly damaged the Fukushima Daiichi complex and cut its power supply, three of the six reactors melted down, and hydrogen explosions damaged three reactor buildings releasing a massive amount of radiation. TEPCO’s  (Tokyo Electric Power Company) technicians on-site lacked the training to handle the multiple simultaneous failures, and in the worst moments of the crisis leadership from Japan’s NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency), TEPCO executives, and top government officials was halting at best, devastatingly slow at worst.

[Read More…]

Fukushima Victimization 2.0

Dr. Robert Jacobs, Hiroshima Peace Institute/Hiroshima City University

One year ago, triggered by the Great Tohoku Earthquake, three operating nuclear power plants and one huge spent fuel pool from a fourth, non-operating plant, released immeasurable and catastrophic amounts of radiation into the air, onto the soil, into the groundwater and ultimately the sea nearby the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The nearby Fukushima Daini plants came very close to suffering three additional meltdowns as well.[1] Almost 100,000 people were evacuated, many after having already been irradiated, and most will never return to their homes.

The victimization of the Fukushima residents, and refugees has been intense. As the nuclear plants melted down over the course of a week following the 3/11 earthquake they were lied to repeatedly to avoid having them “panic.” While dwelling in the uncertainty of those lies, they were exposed to radiation that was spewing from the plant, and falling-out from above after a series of hydrogen explosions blew reactor building after reactor building apart, creating huge plumes of radionuclides. It has since come out that information about the trajectory and danger of these plumes was deliberately held from them, again to prevent them from panicking.
[Read More…]

Selected Conversations from the Google Groups Site

The moderators of this Virtual Conference may highlight certain posts that appear at the Google Groups site by reposting them here, below:

  1. Guven Witteveen permalink

    By way of visual illustration, I’d like to point virtual conference attendees to Chris Steele-Perkins’ two “streetwalk” before and after sequences at and in which he walks a single path a few weeks after the disasters and then again 6 months later. Every 20 paces he makes a photo.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 3.11 Virtual Conference: Looking back to look forward « An STS Forum on Fukushima
  2. Another Year of “Teaching the Disaster” through History of Science and Technology | Teach 3.11
  3. Virtual Conference – Historical and Contemporary Studies of Disasters – 18-23 September 2012 « An STS Forum on Fukushima

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