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Investigating 3.11: Disaster and the Politics of Expert Inquiry

Investigating 3.11: Disaster and the Politics of Expert Inquiry

Scott Gabriel Knowles

Department of History and Politics, Drexel University

“They should have been saying that nuclear energy was dangerous.  Instead they said that nuclear power was safe.”[1] 

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.

In a lengthy 2012 PBS interview Hatamura emphasized the point that TEPCO had no plan for complete loss of power at the plant—despite the known seismicity of the region, and the evidence that the site of the plant was also vulnerable to tsunamis.  How is such an oversight to be explained?  The governmental regulatory bodies responsible for nuclear safety apparently did not require such planning, and so it was never done—simple as that.  Hatamura points out that this type of failure to plan for a horrible, yet still foreseeable, disaster rests not only in the narrow calculations of profit for TEPCO, but more broadly in the truth that the Japanese government has for decades taken great pride in the resiliency of its electric power grid.

With the full report due out in mid-2012, it is unclear on this first anniversary of the disaster what the ultimate impact of the Hatamura investigation might yet be.  All interviews were voluntary, “without compelling legal force,” and according to Hatamura, “determining responsibility wasn’t one of our goals.”  The inquiry is also apparently focused narrowly on Fukushima.  As the New York Times noted, Hatamura “also said the panel’s findings should not affect debate on the safety of Japan’s four dozen other nuclear reactors.”[2]

This is precisely the point at which most disaster investigations end.  Systematic failures in high-risk technological systems are documented.  Systematic failures in regulation and in political leadership are mourned.  Lessons learned, a regulatory shake-up (in this instance the removal of nuclear safety oversight from one agency to another), and it’s time to move along.  This is the point at which the U.S. government’s “Failure of Initiative” investigation into Hurricane Katrina found lots of flawed policies and bad communication, shrugged its shoulders, and called it a day with only the director of FEMA forced out of his post.  This is the point at which the 9/11 Commission found flawed policies and bad communication and ordered a wrong-headed reorganization of American disaster policy to focus entirely on terrorism.

Though the Hatamura investigation is designed to restore both Japanese and international faith in the nation’s technical and regulatory abilities, he is also emphasizing that he wants a final report “that would meet the approval of someone looking at it 100 years from now, and that they would be able to say that we had truly learned an important lesson from that time.”  In other words, this inquiry is also aimed at impressing future scholars of technological failure, a pitch into the far future tense for the efficiency and even-handedness of this investigation, trapped as it is in the heat of the political moment and the raw memory of the worst cascading disaster ever to strike an industrialized nation.

STS Perspectives on Disaster Investigations

Investigations such as this one are an expected, necessary stage in the life cycle of a technological disaster—a normal outgrowth of the very techno-scientific mode of thinking that brings high-risk technological systems into existence in the first place.  Learning from failure is central to the epistemologies of science and engineering, but there is an added value for expert investigation in such instances—it provides “neutral” and methodical oversight to the legal, political, and cultural processes of sense-making and blame-laying.  When scientists and engineers leave the lab and enter the investigative team they assume a temporary role as arbiter of disputes that have often become (often instantaneously) hopelessly politicized, wielding “facts,” and scientific method in the name of rational blame assignation.

Stephen Hilgartner beautifully summarizes the contributions of STS research to the analysis of disaster investigations, finding seven recurrent themes that I have condensed and modified slightly into three main propositions.[3]

1) Disasters are not “natural,” and they are not aberrant—in industrialized societies technological disasters are the products of risk-taking that reflects the high value placed upon profit, prosperity, and power.

2) Political legitimacy in the modern state relies in no small part on the successful management of high-risk technological systems; likewise legitimacy also relies on restoring material order and public faith in the ability of government and industry when disasters occur,

3) Disaster investigations work to soothe public fears and restore faith in experts; yet, investigations may reveal negligence that opens the door to sustained critiques of corporate, regulatory, and/or governmental leadership.  With so much on the line, disaster investigations may result in multiple parties trying to shifting blame one to the other, with associated efforts to limit the power of investigators, thwart their work, and distort the evidence necessary to draw conclusions.

An invitation to serve on a high profile investigative committee reflects very nicely on a scientist or engineer’s professional standing.  Yet, a dilemma arises.  Perform a narrow investigation and state “the facts,” avoid casting blame or framing policy prescriptions; or, seize the moment and the media oxygen by using an investigation to raise broader issues and make specific recommendations for reforms that place private firms and public officials on the hot seat?  Taking the first road might be safe, but it might also very well make the expert complicit in an attempt to cover up serious issues of public safety.  Take the second road and the expert leaps into the choppy sea of politics, a place where neutrality, (the very reason he was invited to investigate in the first place) is useless, even naive.  It’s impossible not to feel some empathy for the technical expert who decides to enter such a deliberation—either out of a love of country, her scientific discipline, or his concern for victims and for public safety.

As critics of such historical processes, though, STS scholars have analytical tools that help us see the disaster investigation and the technical expert for what they are—players in a drama that will ultimately determine an acceptable narrative of the disaster.  Facts are good, but facts (when did the reactor melt down, what was in the safety manual?) will never overwhelm the more irrational, contingent, and highly contextual demands of a society to have what its most powerful actors deem appropriate.  As Sheila Jasanoff argues: “What we know about the world is intimately linked to our sense of what we can do about it, as well as to the felt legitimacy of specific actors, instruments and courses of action.”[4]  With this caution, we might reflect that disaster investigations are themselves conditioned by the very forces that created the risk and enabled the disaster in the first place.

Breaking New Ground: The NAIIC and RJIF Investigations

On December 1, 2011 Kiyoshi Kurokawa co-authored an editorial in the Japan Times characterizing the Fukushima disaster as the country’s “third opening” (the Meiji Restoration and post-WWII Allied occupation being the first two).  In Kurokawa’s view it was the moment of a society collectively waking up:

“While the authorities failed to deliver substantive action, individuals started to act. Many donated money for the first time and participated in voluntary activities; scientists gathered to offer credible information and explanations via Twitter; voluntary individuals in various regional areas monitored radioactivity levels and gathered data through the Internet that they made immediately made public; and parents organized and demanded that the authorities measure ground and food radioactivity levels in kindergartens and schools, which quickly became the norm. Japanese citizens now strongly demand transparency, so that they can judge how to protect themselves.”

To Kurokawa, the disaster opened the way for tired traditions of one-party rule and faith in bureaucracy to give way to government transparency and a robust civil society.[5]  An independent-minded doctor, science policy expert, and education reformer who has taught at the University of Tokyo and UCLA, Kurokawa has not been afraid to decry what he sees as a dangerous adherence to rigid tradition in Japanese business and government.  One week after publishing his editorial he was named by the Japanese Diet to head an unprecedented investigation—a second government-chartered Fukushima-inquiry—and the first ever charged by the Diet to be fully independent of the government in its membership.  In fact, anyone with a connection to TEPCO, government, or regulatory agencies is barred from participation.

The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) is quite different in conception from its predecessor, the Hatamura investigation, primarily in that the Diet has granted it subpoena power, and that NAIIC must provide concrete recommendations on preventing future nuclear accidents.  It is seemingly not out of the realm of possibility that Kurokawa will take this opportunity to weave his broad-based call for government reform into a forceful (actionable even?) rebuke of TEPCO and an indictment of Japan’s flawed nuclear regulatory process.


How do you evacuate the world’s most populous city?  That scenario, a complete removal of 30 million people from metropolitan Tokyo was on the table in March, 2011, as political leaders scrambled to understand what might happen if a large radiation release and unfavorable wind conditions put Tokyo directly in harm’s way.  “I think that’s mission impossible,” says Yoichi Funabashi, head of a third major Fukushima investigation—this one sponsored by a private policy think tank, the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (RJIF).  “Even though they came up with this worst case scenario,” says Funabashi, “actually they could not do anything to respond to this worst case scenario because to evacuate 30 million people from [the] Tokyo metropolitan area is simply impossible.”[6]  This leaves us with the chilling image of Tokyo’s residents bathed in radiation, a post-Cold War apocalyptic nightmare.

Funabashi is the former editor of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and his investigative team has thus far leveraged its freedom from government and its  “public intellectual” status to gain perhaps unexpected access to top government officials, including Naoto Kan, prime minister at the time of the disaster.  It was Kan who ordered the TEPCO workers (and ultimately national defense forces) to stay at the Fukushima site and take whatever steps necessary to keep the reactors cool and avoid an even more catastrophic event.[7]  The major conclusions of RJIF are thus: the possibilities of technical failure were never fully realized through clear planning, technical skill was in short supply at TEPCO, communication breakdowns between central TEPCO management and Fukushima was evident as the disaster unfolded, and the ultimately the government lost faith in TEPCO and took decisive action to order the cooling of the reactors and spent-rod cooling facilities.  These findings corroborate those of the Hatamura commission.

However, Funabashi’s team has also taken the broadest view of the three major investigations thus far, focusing not only on the narrative of the disaster itself, but going well beyond it to evaluate Japan’s system of government-business interaction.  According to Funabashi:

“The relevance of these accidents and related damages are not restricted solely to the technical and operational collapse of nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants. They also highlight a governance crisis involving corporations along with municipal and central government agencies, as well as something inherent in the way Japanese citizens think. We believe it is important to carry out a rigorous review of these points and thus draw lessons in order to rebuild Japan’s “national foundation” in areas such as future energy policies and national security policies, as well as with regard to national governance and leadership.”[8]

At the core of this critique is a strong challenge to the nation’s “myth of absolute safety,” a long-propagandized mantra of risk-free nuclear power.  Like its like-minded allies in the NAIIC panel, the RJIF investigators may very well be poised to recommend that Japan not restart its still-shuttered nuclear reactors.  This would mean continued hardship in a nation that has struggled with draconian conservation measures since the disaster struck last year.  It might also, as NAICC and RJIF seem to indicate, lead to meaningful government and business reforms, and an invigorated, grass roots movement for a new Japan—more open to new ideas, less bureaucratic, more sensitive to local politics, and less trusting in the mythical infallibility of high-risk technology.

It is worth noting in closing that the NAIIC and RJIF investigations, while focused in part on matters of technical explanation, are not composed of technical experts with strong commitments to the socio-technical status quo of “big nuclear” Japan.  At times in modern history technological disaster investigations have actually mirrored (provoked even?) societal unrest that was fomenting a break with tradition and designing a new way forward.  Such was the case with the investigations following New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, and also with the Kemeny Commission after the Three Mile Island Accident in 1979.  In the first case the United States was beginning to finally reckon with the need for a more humane industrialization; in the second the nation was about to turn its back (still turned) on the construction of new nuclear power plants.  If NAIIC and RJIF become more populist in their educational, media, and direct civic engagement efforts, they may very well fall into line with these historical precedents.  They may, in other words, break out of the more common mode of disaster investigations in which the investigation calms the public for a return to high-risk business as usual.

As Japanese public opinion over the past year has shifted markedly away from support for nuclear power (70% favoring its reduction or elimination)—could the NAICC and RJIF investigations be enough to close the gap between public opinion and public policy?  With 87% of the public reporting a negative assessment of the government’s communication efforts after the disaster, there may never be a better time to transform a disaster investigation into something more (if not revolutionary) profoundly evolutionary for post-Fukushima Japan.[9]

Special thanks to Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky for assistance with this article.

Scott Gabriel Knowles is the author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (2011).  He is an associate professor of history and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry at Drexel University.

[1] “Yotaro Hatamura: Was Fukushima an Accident Waiting to Happen?”, PBS, Frontline, 28 February 2012,

[2] Hiroko Tabuchi, “Japan Panel Cites Failure in Tsunami,” New York Times, 26 December 2011,

[3] Stephen Hilgartner, “Overflow and Containment in the Aftermath of Disaster,” Social Studies of Science 37:1 (February 2007): 153-158.  See also: Lee Clarke, Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Kim Fortun, Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Scott Frickel and M. Bess Vincent, “Katrina, Contamination, and the Unintended Organization of Ignorance,” Technology in Society 29: 181-188; Scott Gabriel Knowles, “Lessons in the Rubble: The World Trade Center and the History of Disaster Investigations in the United States, History and Technology 19:1 (2001): 9-28; Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[4] Sheila Jasanoff, ed., States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and the Social Order (London: Routledge, 2004), 14.

[5] Hiromi Murakami and Kiyoshi Kurokawa, “Fukushima Crisis Fueling the Third Opening of Japan,” Japan Times, 1 December 2011,  See also: Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, “What Caused Japan’s Triple Nuclear Meltdown? One Unprecedented Committee May Find the Answers,” Japan Subculture Research Center,; “Nuclear Crisis Panel Must Calmly Find the Truth,” The Yomiuri Shimbun, 9 December 2011,

[6] “Lessons from Fukushima,” On Point with Tom Ashbrook, 5 March 2012,

[7] Martin Fackler, “Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis,” New York Times, 27 February 2011,

[8] “A Message from the President of the Rebuild Japan Foundation Initiative,”  See also: Yoichi Funabashi and Kay Kitazawa, “Fukushima in Review: A Complex Disaster, A Disastrous Response,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68:9 (1 March 2012, online),

[9] Matthew Penney, “Nuclear Power and Shifts in Japanese Public Opinion,” Japan Focus, 13 February 2012,

Scott Gabriel Knowles is the author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (2011). He is an associate professor of history and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry at Drexel University.

  1. Scott’s essay on disaster investigations highlights the importance of accessing and understanding local cultures of risk analysis that in turn inform the ways post-disaster investigators are assembled and do their work. A few questions come to mind that may be interesting to discuss. Given that many have been debating, if not anticipating the nationalization of Tepco since 3.11 (most recently last week by Yoshihiko Miyauchi, the CEO of the leasing company, Orix Corp.), how does the discourse of nationalization specifically color the investigations? The history of corporate nationalization in twentieth-century Japan spanning wartime may provide interesting analytical light. Investigating investigations surrounding different kinds of scandals in Japan might also be valuable to situate nuclear disaster investigations in the history of large-scale technological, environmental, and medical controversies and their investigations in Japan. To name a few: the Olympus financial scandal of last year; the unsanitary conditions at Snow Brand Milk Products Co. that led to 14,000 illnesses in 2000; Minamata disease that stemmed from mercury pollution produced by Chisso Corp. in the twentieth century; the revelation of HIV-tainted blood products in the 1990s, and others previously mentioned in this online forum.

    Investigations, as this essay points out, are an necessary step in technological disasters, but with the amount of attention given to the nuclear disaster, and the equation of “3.11” with “Fukushima,” how may these investigations actually serve as symbols or mechanisms of closure for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami? Perhaps, the investigations specifically focused on the nuclear issue also play another role in the face of 3.11 as a day marked by multiple disasters to delay closure for others through a diversion of attention. These are ongoing questions about scholars’ positions, roles, responsibilities, privilege, and politics in choosing how to study, address, and name events. Investigations also seem important to discuss further in terms of financial compensation. It will be interesting to see how the dispensation of financial compensation to victims, both officially certified and unofficial (for instance, those who were not in the designated evacuation zone but voluntarily moved) will be carried out in the longer term.

    Last, this essay reminds me of a topic that has yet to be fully examined by scholars in history of science or STS — the role of scientists and engineers as expert witnesses in Japanese courts. The time seems ripe for scholarly analyses that delve into Japanese court records to understand the admissibility of scientific evidence in Japanese legal cases, which would certainly help bring these analyses of official-scale reports and newspaper reportage fit for the Japanese public and international consumption, into greater conversation with what goes on at more of a mundane level. Does anyone want to take a stab?

    Lisa Onaga

  2. Thanks for these very helpful comments and ideas for further research! One thing, particularly, that I would be interested to follow up on immediately is the “victim compensation” issue. After September 11 a Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) was established by the US Congress (about $7b paid put to date) to ward off lawsuits against the airlines involved. Still unresolved are outstanding health claims–the WTC disaster could still go down as the costliest industrial accident in US history. The James Zadroga Act was recently signed by President Obama in order to re-open the VCF for people who have health issues related to working in/around the WTC collapse site after September 11. This is a decade later and these claims are still emerging.

    Can the Japanese government forestall such a situation? I’ve seen some of the paperwork required for compensation, and it looks pretty onerous. Can people suggest sources to follow up on this?

    Scott Gabriel Knowles

  3. Scott,

    Thanks for this excellent article, especially given tha tit was written amidst all of your efforts to pull together this Virtual Conference. While I’ve been working with you in pulling together this event, I didn’t realize that you had been following the events in Japan so closely. What you write here will certainly be helpful, especially to for folks outside of Japan who are or are thinking of studying the disaster.

    I would be very interested in also hearing from someone like Scott Frickel or Wesley Shrum, in terms of how they also see 3.11 disaster investigations as unfolding in ways that are either similar to, or different from other events such as Hurricane Katrina. Clearly, each disaster affects different populations/ demographics, and everything from national/political context, to the specifics of the risks and death/injuries involved in a given disaster must, as you suggest, inform how the investigations unfold. From what I recall from last year’s 4S meeting (and Wesley Shrum’s presentation in particular), I guess the post Katrina investigations produced similar disagreements among the different investigative commissions. What contributes most to such disagreements? Assuming the post 3.11 investigations produce similar disjunctures, what other U.S. disasters produced similar disagreements, whether about the causes, or perhaps more importantly, the political implications of the disaster? (Did the Challenger investigation lead to something similar in the US?)

    By the way, an acquaintance of mine in Tokyo who is very interested in our conversation here provided us with the following information, based on a recent article published in the Yomiuri Shinbun:

    “Many Japanese committees organized after the Fukushima disaster failed to keep meeting minutes, although it is mandated by the law. So, they are putting together the memos and notes of attendees, and constructing meeting minutes. As they become available, I had an interesting observation.

    “Mr. Kan, then the prime minister, is a graduate of Tokyo Institute of Technology and Engineering. So, I was wondering why he does not appear to understand nuclear reactors and their possible behavior when the cooling system was shut down. It now appears that he had accurate and good views.

    “His first concern was to bring portable generators to the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. About 50 trucks tried to carrying generators to the site; however, none of them got through because roads are damaged to allow the passage of those heavy trucks. Apparently, generators were too heavy even for army helicopters. Mr. Kan was criticized of the “micromanagement” when he asked the dimensions of generators. I think his concerns were right, and it is a pity that there were nobody to understand him, and help to bring generators to the site. Perhaps, 100 medium-size generators would have done the job of providing electricity to essential pumps.

    “He then asked Dr. Madarame, the chairman of Nuclear Safety Committee, if hydrogen explosion might occur. Dr. Madarame, a professor of University of Tokyo, said there is no oxygen inside the nuclear reactor, and hence there would be no hydrogen explosion. A few hours later, there were hydrogen explosion outside the nuclear reactor. Mr. Kan’s tragedy is he did not have competent people around him to help. TEPCO tried to hide bad news. At one point, TEPCO tried to pull out all workers from the site because of the radiation. Mr. Kan went to TEPCO, and insisted on that they cannot pull out workers. Now the “minutes” reveal that they even discussed the plan for evacuating Tokyo. They were aware of the possibility of nuclear meltdown at a very early stage. At that time, Mr. Edano, the chief of cabinet staff, kept saying on TV that nuclear reactor had 10-cm stainless steel wall, and hence no radioactivity or melted fuel rod will come out.

    “In retrospect, US and Japanese government had about the same information. US reacted based on information, and Japanese government chose to hide information. In retrospect, this saved the panic. 15 million people trying to get out of town in panic would have created uncontrollable chaos.”

    Atsushi Akera
    Department of Science and Technology Studies
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

  4. Jose Holguin-Veras permalink

    I would ike to offer the perspective of a person that investigates disasters on a regular basis.

    I think it is important to recognize that “disaster research” encompasses a very wide range of cases. This fact is not explicitly acknowledged, though it may be considered implicit, in the piece by Prof. Knowles. From what I gather, the focus is on what may be called “post-disaster official inquiry.” However, this is only one of the many manifestations of “disaster research” though it could be the most visible.

    I would like to offer a complementary perspective of “disaster research” that is the antithesis of the “post-disaster official inquiry.” This is the perspective of disaster researchers at the ground level, that no media bothers to report.

    My guess is that in any large disaster (and particularly in catastrophes) there are anywhere between 100-150 independent disaster researchers converge to the site to explorithe problem from multiple perspectives. This includes social scientists (who invented the field) investigating gender issues in disaster response, emergent groups and their role in the response, lessons from the humanitarian logistic effort (what I do), structural engineers studying the seismic response of buildings, oceanographers, etc etc. etc. Although some of these researchers may have received some funding from research funding agencies like NSF, many other do not, and you could even find what may be called “emergent” researchers. The latter group are individuals that in the aftermath of a disasters get caught in the vortex of interest that follows, and get increasingly involved in the study of one aspect of the problem: I am a member of this tribe, what you may call the tribe of the “lost souls” :-).

    The unique element of this is heterogenous group is that only a relatively small portion become part of what one may call an “official” investigation, though for practical reasons people seek the collaboration of colleagues with knowledge of local conditions. Moreover, many of us shy away from being perceived as part of an “official” effort as this will influence, and in some cases, bias the input we receive from others. Most of the field researchers I know value their independence.

    Some of these field researchers start their work immediately after the event occurs (like me), others arrive weeks, and even months later. Thus, the environments in which operate, and the pressures we are under, are very different. In almost all cases, one has to contend with the desires of: politicians to protect (or enhance) their images, of agency incumbents interested in ensuring they are portrayed in the best light, of technical staff (of the very same agencies) that are interested in promoting a particular point of view, tons of individuals that want the truth to be known, volunteers to push for change, etc.

    This is a complex and dynamic coctail of forces that put disaster researchers in situations that, more often than not, no academic training can prepare us for. Many of my colleagues (and I): (1) have been chased by police and local authorities that may perceive our questioning as anything between “annoying” to downright “dangerous” (in fact, I played real-life “cop-and-robber” once until the police found me and my colleague and kicked us out of the facility where we just had completed very enlightening interviews); (2) routinely face all sort of obstacles to get access to the site and people that we want to reach; (3) submit ourselves to really difficult situations as quite frequently we don’t even know when we are going to sleep (I slept once in a brothel, which was the only place where I found a bed); (4) rarely get recognition for our work … etc etc

    I could write a book about adventures and misadventures… trying to find the “…truth…” Why do we get into that? It is not fame or the possibility of fortune because there is neither in this line of work. We do it because we believe that under the clouds of misery and despair that disasters bring, there is a tiny ray of hope: that we could learn lessons that could help in future disaster response operations.

    I hope these comments complement the perspective offered by Prof. Knowles.

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