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Post-Fukushima: Signaled And Silenced Aspects Of Nuclear Safety Regulation

Marja Ylönen,
University of Jyväskylä

“The paper has been removed at the request of the author, most likely in preparation for publication, but you may contact the author for a preprint or reference to the published article.”

Marja Ylönen is post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her research interests include environment, risks, science and technology and regulatory challenges to nuclear safety after the Fukushima accident. She has co-edited Neoliberalism and Technoscience. Critical Assessments (Ashgate 2012). 

  1. Sharon Traweek permalink

    I found this to be a very useful exegesis of current technocratic concepts of safety & security, plus their limitations, showing that the education of nuclear physicists and engineers is not adequate for the task of analyzing social phenomena.

  2. Cecilia Manoliu permalink

    I think the article point out important issues connected with the nuclear energy sector. I was wandering how much safety/security regulations are the result of the strong connection between Japanese bureaucracy and energy sector. I’m referring especially to the amakudari system where high ranking bureaucrats after retirement find a second job in the private sector many going to the energy sector. One example is Tokio Kano who first worked for TEPCO, then entered politics and help the writing of Japan’s national policy on energy to finally go back to TEPCO.
    One might be reluctant to take strong measures against its former employer or possible future employer. How much is the result of a different perception on safety/security between different actors and how much the perception is altered by the established relations between politics/private sector?

  3. I’d add that the essay opens with a very useful review of literature. It implicitly reminds us to pay attention not only to what gets excluded when accoutns are written by others, but also where we ourselves (in STS) might find it hard to retain a critical focus under the general pressure to “normalize” an accident after it occurs. I think the method employed here, namely content analysis as anchored by a specific set of research questions, is well matched to your subject and the broader goal of upholding critical inquiry, via a look at the discursive constructrs in official reports. I’m interested in reading the middle part of the essay that lays out how this was done.

    Cecilia’s response suggests perhaps an alternative mechanism. Your essay points primarily to disciplinary habits and blinders–how experts constitute an understanding of risk–whereas Cecilia asks whether the institutional tradition of /amakudari/ tends to create social bonds in a way that makes critical dialogue more difficult. I don’t think one operates to the exclusion of the other, and perhaps it is as interesting to ask how the two are interleved in practice.

    I’m also intriqued by the concept of how things can be “signaled” and “silenced.” I often dabble with semiotics, and from a semiotic standpoint, it is interesting to view these reports as a system for creating signs (patterns of signification) that asserts what is relevant (and elides over what is not). I guess much of what occurs here unfolds through the practices of expert authority that are all too familiar–whether it’s with official discourse about the (absense of) hazards of hydrofracking; or the kind of official positions that those involved with environmental justice campaigns have had to often contend with. On the other hand, I guess you’re working here to reveal the specific mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that establishes “safety” in the nuclear sphere…

    Thanks for a great essay!

    Atsushi Akera
    Department of Science and Technology Studies
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
    Troy, NY

  4. Phil Brown permalink

    As I believe I mentioned at our Copenhagen/SHOT workshop, there are other structural patterns potentially at work here.

    First, the number of inspectors for just about every field of endeavor except overseeing the expenditure of central government funds in every significant city and prefecture is small. This is as true for banking as it is nuclear energy.

    Second, quite apart from /amakudari/, the initial rotations of new bureaucrats to provincial areas may well put a green employee in direct contact with company representatives who they are expected to oversee, and who will wine and dine them from the start, creating indebtedness. Many of these people will be more knowledgeable and senior than the new bureaucrat, making for a knowledge-based “intimidation.”

    Third, this may be compounded by the training of these young bureaucrats even before they enter government service. A standard pattern for training engineers was to provide a rather basic training in college, with advanced training taking place within a company or the bureaucracy. While training in the former may be highly technical/scientific, what of the bureaucrat’s training? My sense, from interviewing a large number of young bureaucrats years ago is that their training and job rotations stress development of general knowledge that assists in working across bureaucratic divisions rather than specialized technical competence. If this is the rough pattern within nuclear regulation, then bureaucrats are likely to suffer a knowledge deficit from the beginnings to the ends of their careers, and their value to companies under /amakudari/ would be their knowledge of how the government itself operates — where to apply pressure, suasion, etc.

    Finally, and on a different matter, my discussions with a handful of nuclear engineers at OSU suggests that they, at least, are aware of their lack of work/experience in thinking about what they call “social risk” associated with nuclear issues. Unprompted, they raised the issue in our conversations. So maybe, at least in the American academy, there is a new openness to move beyond mechanical and health risk to thinking about other forms of risk associated with nuclear power generation.

    ‘Nuff for the moment.

    Phil Brown
    The Ohio State University

  5. Marja Ylonen permalink

    Hi Sharon, Cecilia, Atsushi and Phil,

    Thank you very much for your encouraging and insightful comments that are useful for my current and future study. In my paper I aim to reveal some mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion with regard to the understanding of safety. I refer to the technical education that plays a role in institutional practices of nuclear safety regulation at national and international level.

    The Amakudari system sounds interesting social phenomenon. It would be interesting to study how common phenomenon Amakudari system is among the safety regulators in different countries.

    Phil mentiond important structural patterns as regards safety regulation. It would be important to analyze those patterns and to make comparisons between different countries with regard to education, training, rotation, knowledge-gaps etc. among nuclear safety regulators.

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