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Conceptual Session I: Understanding the Nuclear

Please post comments on this session below.

25 Comments
  1. Kath Weston permalink

    On the question of museums and where the memory of nuclear disaster should be kept, how would people feel about funding art projects that keep memory alive, instead of something permanently located in one placre like a museum? The image of the paper-cuts from Shizukawa brought this possibility to mind. Could something like this help bring the anti-museum and pro-museum people together?

    • Scott knowles permalink

      Thanks for this Kath–does anyone want to meet early tomorrow and continue the conversation about disaster and memory?

      • unixj4zz permalink

        I can help!

        It should be useful for the DSTS toolkit to have ways to address relationships between memory, attention (framing of the present) and imaginative projections (utopia and dystopia) in respect to the nuclear past, present, and future of Japan (and other countries).

  2. Daniel Aldrich permalink

    The field of nuclear power sits at the intersection of local livelihoods, demography, and economic interests and national energy policies, vast redistributive frameworks, and decades-long planning. The 3/11 compounded disaster revealed the way that local communities rely on the subsidies provided by the Dengen Sanpo for their continued existence and the differential effects of the radioactive contamination on local towns, villages, and cities. Those communities which directly host a nuclear power plant by and large kept their commitment to nuclear power because of their dependence on the tens of millions of dollars (US) flowing in. Those slightly further away now see nuclear power in terms of its negative externalities, not its economic benefits. Further, civil society as a whole has been altered by the disaster. Higher levels of activism, new citizens’ referenda, lawsuits, and mass protest characterize an energized civil society. These new channels of citizen input along with citizen science are altering the nature of local and national civil society in Japan.

  3. I am interested in the politics of uncertainty. There is a great deal of uncertainty about nuclear power and nuclear accidents. Similarly, there is a great deal of uncertainty about social orders. Yet this uncertainty can often work in the favor of particularly powerful groups. A historical analogy from the United States is the effective use of tobacco companies to discredit medical advice on harms; contemporary climate skeptics offer a similar function for powerful fossil fuel companies. So in the case of nuclear power, who benefits from uncertainty? I’m not entirely sure, though calls for more knowledge tend to benefit experts who are likely to be funded to perform this work. Similarly, the claim that we need to know more can work against the interest of those who work for social justice, as it implies that we need to wait for more knowledge before acting.

  4. unixj4zz permalink

    /What is so special about the nuclear/?

    From an anthropological perspective, it speaks to a sense of invisible agency, subjective feelings of powerlessness for not having the tools and/or knowledge to detect it and/or avoid it, potential embodiment of risk, and constant perception of the presence of a latent hostile force (Kath’s paper speak to these issues with her discussion of Intimacy). In respect to human perception specifically, the nuclear speaks to a difference that produces differences: the very basic distinction and definition of the nuclear/non-nuclear – beyond the legitimacy of those who classify – is at the very basis of a series of transformations (of perception, of relationships, of institutional organization, of political culture). From an epistemological perspective, the nuclear speaks to the limits of our current forms of knowledge and practice in science and engineering. It points to the inverse of the sociotechical systems we inhabit: disorder and lack of control in dystopian futures, imaginative projections of apocaliptic scenarios.

  5. Tatsujiro Suzuki permalink

    “Fear of radiation risk” is certainly a factor that makes “nuclear” unique. That fear is associated with risk of nuclear weapon. Three things that I mentioned(secretiveness, elitism, and power) make “nuclear village” unique are also important. Degree of uncertainty is not unique to “nuclear” as many emerging technologies are also very uncertain. Social discrimination of nuclear victims is real, and very difficult to solve (it may also be associated with “fear of radiation”.)

  6. Scott Frickel permalink

    Following Diane Vaughan’s work on organizational culture and unruly technology at NASA, our discussion of “the nuclear” brings to mind the missing questions of organizational culture and organizational secrecy. What STS does best is push analysis ‘upstream’ into the contexts of expert practice and decision-making. The organizations that design, produce, and manage nuclear power are quintessentially ‘secret’ organizations in two senses: they carefully guard and contain knowledge and they are themselves carefully guarded – access to their culture and their knowledge practices is largely inaccessible to social scientists. There is no chance (I suspect) that open hearings of officials, engineers, and other nuclear workers will bring to public light the internal dynamics of organizational culture that precipitated disaster prior to and following 3.11 such as occurred in the aftermath of the Challenger shuttle disaster and the Congressional testimonies that produced the material for Vaughan’s study. The knowledge generated from analysis of thousands of pages of expert testimony in her case will not materialize for Fukushima; in that context, talk of ‘organizational learning’ seems painfully naïve. Here, STS confronts state and corporate power in a very raw and intractable form.

  7. Yasuhito Abe permalink

    The concept of sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff and Kim, 2009) might help us understand the Nuclear in the post-Fukushima Japan. While the authors focus primarily on analyzing the role of states in shaping sociotechnical imaginaries by utilizing the concept, however, I am under the impression that we may also need to take into account the role of different kinds of media (including mass media/the Internet/social media) in shaping them following the nuclear disaster.

  8. Jen Schneider permalink

    I think I would emphasize how radiation is managed, described, and invoked by different groups of experts or citizens as being particular to the nuclear project.

    For example, following 3.11, nuclear engineers in the US struggled to translate radiation measurements to the mass media and the public (via the media or social media) because the methods of measurement themselves were hard to commensurate—globally, different radiation experts use becquerels, rads, sieverts, rems, etc., and it is confusing and difficult to translate between these tools.

    They then also had to do the explanatory work of describing radiation exposure comparatively (this is how many sieverts you get from background radiation, from an x-ray, from spending an hour in front of the gates at Fukushima Daiichi, etc.). They had to negotiate competing narratives about how much radiation was being emitted from the Fukushima reactors at different times, and explain how different radioactive elements have different half-lifes, and also how different pathways of exposure matter. On top of that, they have little agreement amongst themselves about what constitutes tolerable doses and what the long-term public health and environmental effects of this disaster will be.

    And that’s just the radiation experts. We can also look at how particular citizens in the US responded to the crisis by purchasing KI pills, or how activists marshaled competing forms of evidence and rhetorics to counter “official” narratives, or how fears about radiation connect nuclear power with nuclear weapons legacies.

    At the end of the day, debates about nuclear seem to boil down to long term radiological effects, which lead us to ask questions about technocracy, expertise, data production, energy/environment trade-offs, governance, ethics, and costs.

  9. Management of nuclear technology creates a paradox for social, technical, and humanities studies in practical contexts. Nuclear technology represents a ery large-scale, complex, sociotechnical problem. While it holds promise for providing energy for advancing social and economic development, it also holds extreme danger. The technology is not well understood, especially in the management of nuclear waste. The design, implementation, and assessment of nuclear technologies for civilian use is characterized by a very high degree of uncertainty across multiple disciplines. Understanding this technology and its potential uses and failures is fundamentally a process of distributed cognition. No single discipline can provide all the knowledge that is needed; no single set of instruments can provide all necessary measurements. No single nation has all of the intellectual resources to solve this problem in a humane, responsible way. It requires a global commitment to a continuing, iterative process to understand and manage this potential risk/resource.

  10. Scott Knowles permalink

    In discussing the nuclear there is no way to avoid the concept of apocalypse, the destruction of all life–the end times. It is the only disaster scenario (nuclear war) in which the complete destruction of humanity (potentially) happens within a single day.

    No matter how far we move into a post-Cold War age, the fear of nuclear apocalypse waits just below the surface, behind the scenes–and in some political cultures (North Korea) it is ever-present. Denying nations nuclear weapons is still a major litmus test of global governance, and a key test for any aspiring Presidential candidate in the US is his/her willingness to use nuclear weapons in a “worst case scenario.”

    As we discuss managing nuclear power, learning from mistakes, ensuring a safer future we are always just a moment away from the realities of the nuclear–the wastes that are waiting for future generations and the fact that re-militarization and weapons stockpiling (and use) are still possible.

    The darkness, the futility, the irrationality of modernity is embedded within the nuclear. The sword of Damocles is always there.

    Sorry to be so pessimistic. It must be the end of a long day . . .

  11. Nicolas Sternsdorff permalink

    This comment is in response to the prompt that the nuclear question is unique for the pervasiveness of uncertainty about it. Uncertainty is not something unique to nuclear science/accidents. Disasters disrupt previously established trajectories, and it can be difficult to asses how one should proceed when assumptions about how things work/react are upended.

    For the non-technical public, I think that the invisibility of radiation has an effect on the feeling of uncertainty. Radiation is a pollutant that cannot be captured with the human senses: it has no smell, no color, no telltale sign that it is around us. We are dependent on machines to tell us whether it is present, and some technical knowledge is necessary to interpret the results and figure out whether it is at dangerous levels. Likewise, we are equally dependent on the machines to know when the imminent threat is over.

    This dependency on machines raises questions of access and power: who has the machines, how are they communicating the results, and the ability of non-state actors to conduct parallel measurements.

    Radiation is not alone in being an invisible pollutant. There are other pollutants that are also elusive to the human senses, and I would venture a guess that this elusiveness is partly why they evoke such feelings of uncertainty.

  12. Ryuma Shineha permalink

    Firstly, concerning the 3.11 context, in my opinion, we have to think not only nuclear itself. Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear, each disaster have thier characters and reinforced thier uncertainty and damage each other.

  13. Sonja Schmid permalink

    I wonder how “special” a nuclear disaster is in the context of possible research directions for something we might call “Disaster STS”. Yes, radiation is invisible, but for all intents and purposes, so is lead in my drinking water, dioxin in the air, and hormones in the milk I consume. As Beck would argue, our very experience of modern, industrial disasters, is profoundly mediated by science and technology. The consequences of a nuclear disaster can transcend generations, but so can the consequences of a chemical spill or the effects of prolonged air pollution. The nuclear exceptionalism argument, in my view, seems to rest not so much on the phenomenological nature of ionizing radiation, but on the fundamentally dual-use nature of nuclear fission (and fusion), that is, its origin in weapons of mass destruction. We may not be on the brink of apocalypse as we were during the decades of the Cold War, but the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals still pose a number of similar problems as the commercial nuclear industry (shielding, continuous security of materials, life-long maintenance, the threat of loss, theft, or misuse of radioactive materials, e.g.). In other words, “the nuclear” isn’t all that special without our use or potential uses of “the nuclear.” But, what’s the use, intent, and/or value of “normalizing” “the nuclear”? How would such a move affect, e.g., anti-nuclear groups? Would it be rhetorical, practical, institutional, both? Who would champion the normalization of the nuclear (or would they)?

  14. Kohta Juraku permalink

    I am a a little bit uncomfortable with the discussions in this session, because it became something too frank brainstorming, while the previous sessions have been carefully structured by Atsushi’s deliberate chairmanship.

    I think some of the questions raised here are too far from the points and arguments made by pre-circulated papers and discussions of session 1 & 2. For me, there was a too big jump from those sessions to this session. I am afraid that this way of “conceptual” discussion just “resets” what we intellectually accumulated today.

    I would not like to write something in response to the list suddenly and very rapidly created at this moment. At least, we need to select a set of promising perspectives from this list, considering the discussions made in previous sessions.

    • Cathryn Carson permalink

      I share Juraku-san’s sense. It feels like we’re going back to our own positions and underlining them. In that sense I especially admire his willingness to say this.

      I’m also frustrated with the voice I’m writing in. It’s feeling like a performance more than a discussion. The performance probably comes in because my approach and my assumptions make me an outlier in the group, and I feel the need to go back to something disengaged and safe.

  15. Cathryn Carson permalink

    I want to play off Chris Jones’s and Scott Knowles’s comments on the integral connection of our discussions to nuclear weapons and apocalyptic scenarios of destruction and war. As a nuclear historian, I take those connections for granted. And clearly some historical actors themselves claimed the nuclear era to be exceptional — both in the unparalleled power of (especially thermonuclear) weaponry and the potential for planet-scale destruction. This is part of my fascination with the intellectual history of the 1950s.

    And yet … how those elements of nuclear exceptionalism actually make a difference in discussions of nuclear power — that I find frustratingly hard to pin down. The continuity from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Fukushima was something I heard Juraku-san reflect on in the months after 3/11. And yet it seems to have been rather less socially available, less effective in mobilizing thought or action, than those who drew nuclear-historical continuities would have expected. I admit I was skeptical from the start, since my dominant narrative of the development of nuclear power in Japan is about the self-assertion of state and industry, not about the experience of nuclear victimization.

    I also find it tantalizing to suggest that scenarios of nuclear apocalypse matter for understanding Fukushima. They do for me, but in ways that are anchored in very personal experience (learning to fear thermonuclear war in the Reagan years) rather than historical assessment. I have not seen arguments I’m persuaded by for historical continuity in the experience of other people, not just my own.

  16. Norio permalink

    Social discriminations are serious issue. Cause of discrimination in Fukushima should be carefully observed. Envy to generous support usually cause discrimination. Japan has thick research results about discrimination on a caste. In the very fast stage, the discrimination was based on wrong cultural understating, and those wrong understanding were gradually corrected. And their living condition was very bad, and those who were discriminated got many support from the government to improve their living conditions. And finally those wrong understanding and living condition was improved. However, the discrimination remains. It is nof for physical and psychological aspect, but the envy for those generous support. I am really afraid that same things happens for the impacted people of Fukushima, not for physically impacted but for the envy to generous support. In the really, those things happens. I am really afraid that temporary community of victims can be the place like community of a cast segregation.

  17. Tamiyo Kondo permalink

    Today’s discussion raise me a question that how we could utilize the all level of institutional knowledge,based on past experience, to form future knowledge.
    One of the difficulities for regeneration from nuclear accident is that there is always
    uncertainly for everything.
    However,this situation is similar to neighborhood recovery process after natural disaster in terms of its process and methodology.
    There is no scientifically correct way and process to recover from disaster.
    During disaster recovery phases, the difficulities we face is trade of between sustaining daily lives and disaster reduction.
    This makes consensus building difficult amoung diverse popluation in one community.
    What is happening in Tohoku region after 3.11 is that experts from Kobe try and want to
    transfer the lesson learnt from Kobe’s experience,which could be called as one of social knowledge,however ,what local residents want to know for their present planning process is not knowledge formed by past but real experience, such as what local residents in Kobe have experienced.
    The following research question to answer is when and how we can utilize the social knowledge to
    improve present situation.

  18. Reiko Hasegawa permalink

    The nuclear is a highly divisive issue. The opinion towards nuclear energy or risk related to radiation exposure often sparks controversies and sometimes vivid reactions both from the scientific community and the population. Particularly the view on the low-dose exposure risk is highly contentious among experts, hence creating confusion and even tension among the families and communities alike in Fukushima today. Two years on from the accident, this ‘individualization’ of radiation risk apprehension and the authorities’ emphasis on the 20 mSv/year threshold as a new safety standard is marginalizing a part of the population, who is suspicious about such authority’s reassurance and thus anxious about the risk, and threatening the social cohesion and sense of solidarity within affected communities. This divisive character of the nuclear is transforming the Fukushima nuclear disaster into a major social disaster.

  19. Laura Beltz Imaoka permalink

    This is in response to the degree of uncertainty and lack of recognized, accepted measures between fields and institutions, which makes devising plans and policies difficult. I continue to think of this from the framework of neoliberal ideology and governmenality, the Foucauldian view of liberal government useful for understanding “neoliberalism.” Today we have a greater reliance on privatization and personalizaiton of welfare than before as the State entrusts to private entities, including the media, to emphasize active citizens who are suppose to “enterprise” in pursuit of their own empowerment and well-being. Individuals thus take responsibility for a range of risks (uncertainties), from bankruptcy, identity theft, terrorism, to weather emergencies, and I wonder what place nuclear risk has alongside these and whether it can be qualified as different in terms of how we personally manage it or how it is being managed. Perhaps it is arguable that it needs State involvement, a paradox to neoliberalism, yet citizens are still engaged in protecting themselves, etc. Also, does this framework (of neoliberalism) work adequately for other countries? In Japan, I get a sense that mistrust in the government may be more novel, or at least it is being proposed as such in terms of nuclear energy.

  20. Aya Okada permalink

    Thoughts on Dr. Suzuki’s point on the importance of addressing social discrimination against nuclear victims. I think this question can be approached in an interdisciplinary manner: understanding how such discrimination takes place (sociology), how such discrimination differs or shares similarity with other forms of social discriminations in Japan (sociology/anthropology), strategies to deal with such discrimination (psychology, public policy), on what knowledge and perceptions do those who discriminate ground their behaviors on, and where does that information come from (sociology, media/communication).

    Thoughts on Paul’s point on differentiating han-genpatsu and han-kaku. I’d be interested in asking, what has been the response of civil society, both national (Japanese) and international? From the perspective of civil society and social movement, the Fukushima incident was one of the turning points in how the Japanese public advocate towards the government. I’d be interested in following up on the effect of such new moves.

  21. Is it useful to talk about “the nuclear”? Is that an essentializing move, a reification?

    A quick and off the cuff response:

    Perhaps “the nuclear” is an artifact of the 20th century. How could it not have been radically salient? We can mark the emergence of “nuclear discourse” around the beginning of the century, as physics defined a new scientific territory and the implications began to unfold. “Nuclear” things were novel, potent, mysterious, seemingly inevitable, with military, geopolitical, industrial, economic, and many other aspects emergent. We’re meeting in a building and a laboratory right now that owes its existence to “the nuclear.”

    20th century thinkers such as Martin Heidegger (QCT) and Ulrich Beck made frequent use of nuclear examples to argue that modernity has fundamentally changed our relationship with the “natural” world and with ourselves. Even Derrida, who sought so hard to decenter meaning, put the threat of nuclear extinction at the center of 20th century meaning (“No apocalypse, not now”).

    Will the salience of “the nuclear” now fade, supplanted by new technologies that also present themselves as novel, potent, mysterious? (genetic engineering, collective intelligence via CMCs, and the like)? Consider earlier transformative technologies such as writing, print, fossil fuels, automobiles, CMCs. Each was transformative, but perhaps there’s been a tendency for them to recede from interrogation over time. Of course, nuclear disasters have a way of keeping “the nuclear” on our radar.

  22. When asked to meditate on the significance of “the nuclear,” two things come to mind, both reflecting different ways of conceptualizing and understanding the significance of “the nuclear.” First is the phrase “the nuclear option,” derived from images of nuclear warfare, which is used to signify “the unthinkable,” a horror beyond contemplation.

    Second is a tension in the physical and linguistic notions of what “the nuclear” means. The word “nuclear” comes from “nucleus,” a hard core, reminiscent of the classical “billiard ball” metaphor of elementary particle physics. Such an object is visible, knowable, bounded, predictable, relatively static, and controllable. What could be more mundane and unthreatening? On the other hand, the companion of “the nuclear” is “radiation,” perhaps more reminiscent of the weirdness of modern physics — invisible, diffuse, in constant flux, with seemingly capricious effects that include agonizing, disfiguring illness and death. What could be more esoteric and terrifying? It strikes me that, though mostly not consciously, actors in contests (political, epistemic) over nuclear power and radiation, depending upon their perspectives and objectives, invoke one or the other of these metaphorical ways of understanding what constitutes “nuclear radiation.” One can say, “look, this is known through a mature science and managed through a field of engineering that is decades old. We can identify, measure, understand, and manage nuclear power/radiation/risk.” Or one can point to the difficulties of containment, the uncertainties of “grasping” (in every sense) nuclear power/radiation/risk, and the dread of dealing with an invisible, diffuse and capriciously lethal force. (In a literary vein, the latter reminds me of Delillo’s “Airborne Toxic Event,” and Bhopal and Chernobyl occurring shortly after the publication of _White Noise_.)

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