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Histories (and Futures?) of Nuclear Disaster Expertise

Sonja Schmid
Virginia Tech

March 11, 2011 started and ended with television footage of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I watched in horror as over the following days, one reactor building after another exploded. When images of the first helicopter dousing water appeared on the screen, I could not help but remember the plight of thousands of Soviet soldiers and civilians trying to contain another nuclear nightmare, some 25 years ago. Where were those people now who had dealt with the Chernobyl disaster? Could someone dispatch them to Japan and let them help fix things up? But with every explosion that shook the Japanese plant it became clearer: there was nobody—not in Japan, nor Russia, nor the United States—who had the relevant know-how, equipment, and strategy to handle a nuclear disaster. If there ever was expertise on how to handle nuclear disasters, we have either managed to lose it, or have no way of accessing it to respond to a nuclear emergency. Today, there simply is no international nuclear emergency capability.

Up until Fukushima, both the nuclear industry and the general public treated nuclear emergencies at civilian facilities as something too unlikely to occur, or, perhaps, too terrifying to seriously deliberate and prepare for. Trying to avoid all future accidents, nuclear industries all over the world made significant adjustments in the wake of Three Mile Island (TMI). In the United States, the nuclear industry created the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). Based on peer inspections, a highly confidential system of reporting safety violations, and a tenacious insistence on self-regulation, INPO takes credit for the impressive safety record at U.S. nuclear power plants. And yet, it took another nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, until an international organization for improving nuclear safety was created, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). Fukushima has demonstrated that this was still not enough. Not only do existing international nuclear organizations fail to prevent nuclear disasters, but today’s nuclear safety watchdogs have almost no means of responding to nuclear emergencies, either.

My new research project is driven by the question of how (or, perhaps more pessimistically whether) we can recover the (limited) institutional memory of nuclear disaster response: Is it even possible to develop an emergency response strategy that accounts for the uniqueness of each nuclear accident? And if so, how might the significant differences in technical designs, styles of operation, regulatory structures, and cultures of communication be overcome, and “standardized?” The handling of the Fukushima disaster has revealed and reinforced latent distrust in nuclear industry experts and the government agencies charged with regulating nuclear safety. Addressing this distrust will be difficult, but absolutely critical, when identifying or creating a group or agency that is both capable of assembling the needed expertise for effective emergency response, and that also is accepted as legitimate by the broader public.

In the wake of Fukushima, it was the US-based Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, INPO, who called for an international nuclear emergency response team. In early May 2011, against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis at Fukushima, INPO’s CEO at the time, James Ellis, proposed an international organization that would provide emergency response during accidents at nuclear energy facilities. Ellis envisioned “a robust, highly capable response team with pre-staged equipment interoperable both domestically and internationally.” This proposal was remarkable for three reasons.

First, neither Ellis, nor the organization he represents, are exactly household names. Ellis, a retired 4-star US Navy Admiral, was appointed president of INPO in 2005. Under his leadership, INPO has increasingly appeared in the public media, where it is usually portrayed as the guarantor of commercial nuclear reactors’ safety. But to take a proactive stand publicly was a clear departure from INPO’s standard procedure, which emphasizes confidentiality over transparency.

Secondly, it was unexpected that a proposal for an international emergency response team would come from an organization whose tasks were confined to the United States. Ellis clearly realized that a nuclear disaster response team would face tremendous challenges at the international level. He emphasized it would be necessary “to find the sweet spot between national sovereignty and international accountability.” The latter had already become an issue in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when liability for transboundary contamination from a commercial nuclear facility concerned legal scholars. National sovereignty, on the other hand, would be at stake where an international nuclear response group would dodge typical bureaucratic processes and override normal chains of command, in an effort to act with maximum speed and efficiency during nuclear emergencies.

Thirdly, the real surprise was that INPO would propose a shift from its 30-year outlook from an emphasis on avoiding the risk of nuclear accidents, to acknowledging the importance of an effective response to such events. Intentionally or not, by calling for a nuclear emergency response capability, INPO dealt a blow to the idea that the nuclear industry could be kept accident-free in the future. The proposal thus marks an important shift of attitude within the nuclear industry itself.

Although Ellis used terms not typically found in technical contexts, such as “sovereignty” and “accountability,” the nuclear industry in this country, and internationally, continues to propose technical solutions to a problem that clearly requires a more integrated approach. INPO’s well-intentioned proposal implies, but does not address, problems that STS scholars would identify, for example those of authority, credibility, and trust, not to mention public engagement, emergency preparedness, and community resilience. Technical solutions assume we know the answers to questions not yet articulated: How is the explicit and tacit knowledge that is necessary for the safe operation of a nuclear reactor different from the knowledge needed to respond efficiently to a nuclear emergency? Who determines what kind of knowledge would be necessary and relevant in a nuclear emergency? How can emergency response knowledge be captured, preserved, activated, transmitted, and successfully deployed across technical, economic, cultural, and other boundaries?

I plan to explore the challenges a nuclear emergency response team would face with an emphasis on the historical, organizational, and international dimensions of nuclear disaster expertise. I build on previous work that has looked at the history of nuclear expertise, especially as it becomes formalized in organizational routines, regulatory bureaucracies, and institutionalized training programs. Nuclear experts and their communities did not grow, and do not operate, homogeneously across the globe. At the same time, recent scholarship has expanded our appreciation of disaster expertise in general. Focusing on the history of expertise in comparative perspective (national, cultural, and institutional) further connects an STS research agenda with that of organization theory, area studies, anthropology, business, security studies, and public policy. I hope to engage existing pockets of expertise in other organizations: civil defense and natural disaster response, humanitarian relief organizations and homeland security. For the time being, I consciously eclipse the role of bottom-up public engagement, and focus instead on the (publicly accountable) subject experts in nuclear emergency response: Who will these experts be? What will nuclear emergency response experts know, and how will they learn? My preliminary conclusion is that existing organizations with subject expertise have negligible international authority and often have problematic rapport with the general public; and that training of nuclear emergency experts will need to emphasize creativity and improvisation.

Anthropologists who have studied nuclear workplaces consistently find that the ideal of absolute control ignores that individuals operating high-risk technologies often have to work around unexpected events, and that flexibility is thus part of their job. But the nuclear industry—in part driven by liability concerns—still considers it far more acceptable to introduce more rules and regulations than to concede that rule-bending and judgment calls are already an integral part of many a technician’s tasks at a nuclear plant; it would appear to be in the interest of overall nuclear safety to log and learn from these incidents, rather than conceal them. The flip side of control is improvisation. During an emergency, improvisation typically builds on site-specific expertise; it only thrives where local knowledge, personal experience, and creative solutions are valued and acceptable contributions to a common goal. When considering an effective international nuclear emergency response, the risks and benefits of improvisation should be seriously deliberated. It will be of paramount importance not just what technical details nuclear emergency responders know, but also what they have experienced and how well they can lead and cooperate. Such contextual, experience-based, “creative” expertise is invaluable and some of it still exists, for example, embodied by those “nuclear veterans” who witnessed and handled mishaps during the early atomic age.

The idea of international cooperation after a nuclear disaster is not new. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), set up in 1957 in Vienna, Austria, generated two landmark conventions after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986: the “Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident” (CENNA), and the “Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency” (CANARE) (IAEA 1986, 1986a). The latter document set out, for the first time, a framework for international cooperation, with the IAEA providing experts and equipment to facilitate prompt assistance after a nuclear disaster. In 2006, the IAEA created a “Response and Assistance Network” (RANET), a database of national capabilities to provide “specialized assistance by appropriately trained, equipped and qualified personnel with the ability to respond in a timely and effective manner to nuclear or radiological incidents and emergencies.” The Agency sets international standards for safety in nuclear plants and manages a dedicated Incident and Emergency Centre. Given its broad constituency and prior emergency response initiatives, the IAEA would appear to be the single most competent candidate among existing organizations to coordinate an international nuclear emergency response team. But the IAEA continues to struggle with a series of impediments. For one, the agency is under-resourced; its budget for safety and security combined amounts to a fraction of other international agencies’ resources. In addition, the agency’s mandate is complicated by its dual mission of promoting nuclear applications and monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Furthermore, the IAEA has no executive authority: its safety standards are recommendations only, and its nuclear emergency response program resembles what the sociologist Lee Clarke calls “fantasy documents:” these plans are ineffective for guiding action during an actual emergency; their main function is to assert others “that the uncontrollable can be controlled.” Worse yet, during the developing disaster at Fukushima, many perceived the IAEA as acting sluggishly, and as being in cahoots with the industry that some blamed for the catastrophe in the first place.

Another candidate is the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), an international organization that devotes its activities to nuclear safety. Founded in direct response to the Chernobyl disaster in the late 1980s, WANO operates at the level of nuclear power plant operators (i.e., utilities). The Association walks a tightrope between encouraging open exchange of information among its members, and keeping plant-specific reports confidential. Similar to the IAEA, membership is voluntary, and WANO has no executive mandate. The Association’s programs include peer reviews of nuclear plants, the exchange of operating experience, technical support, and professional development. In 1999, WANO signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding with the IAEA about cooperating on the set-up and management of incident reporting and analysis systems. The most persistent problem plaguing these systems has been the underreporting of critical incidents, thus the lack of learning from them, and the resulting repetition of avoidable problems. In April 2011, WANO set up a commission to plan a more effective mitigation strategy for future nuclear accidents, again reflecting the shift from accident prevention only, to prevention and mitigation. The recommendations included the development of a worldwide integrated event response strategy.

At this point, neither the IAEA nor WANO have the technical capabilities needed for an international nuclear emergency response team, or the personnel resources to staff one. More importantly, neither organization has any executive authority, and they both lack public trust: the IAEA due to prior inefficiency, WANO because of the confidential nature of much of its work. In the meantime, the US industry has set up a small national initiative that tries to model what an international response might look like. In June 2011, INPO, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI, a policy-oriented industry organization), and the Palo Alto based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) co-published a short position paper entitled The Way Forward, which outlined an integrated emergency response approach. The paper articulated eight strategic goals, listed six rather vague guiding principles aimed at improving response effectiveness, and identified a long list of key stakeholders, including the general public, industry, regulators, emergency responders, policymakers, and opinion leaders. Notably, the proposal did not acknowledge that priorities are likely to differ quite significantly among these stakeholder groups. The problem is that the proposal relies exclusively on industry and private capital, and does not consider systematically what kind of unique and novel expertise would need mobilizing to make an international nuclear emergency response group succeed. The Way Forward remains caught up in a technocratic rationality, and misses the less tangible social expertise and improvisational skills inevitably involved in any successful disaster response.

In the wake of Fukushima, existing nuclear safety standards are being reviewed and upgraded, and some countries have embarked on profound policy changes. Emergency preparedness in general and preparedness for a nuclear emergency in particular, are undergoing fundamental reassessments. Within the nuclear industry, an almost exclusive emphasis on accident avoidance has given way to a new strategy of accident preparedness and response. At the broader societal level, questions are being raised about what risks are worth taking, and who should participate in these decision-making processes. An international nuclear emergency response group will face significant challenges: First, someone will need to bankroll a highly skilled group of experts that may only be deployed once every other decade. Secondly, familiarity with different reactor designs, work routines, and organizational cultures would need to be created and nurtured—even if the level of standardization in the nuclear energy sector continues to rise internationally. And thirdly, concerns about national sovereignty will have to be settled to ensure effective international action in a nuclear emergency.

If an international nuclear emergency response group is a worthwhile goal (and it certainly appears to be) we need to create a credible organization—one that combines public legitimacy and executive vigor. We need to think hard about how nuclear emergency responders can learn not only the discipline and technical proficiencies indispensable for this task, but also skills that underscore flexibility and improvisation.


[1] This essay draws heavily on a book chapter, entitled “Nuclear Emergency Response: Atomic Priests or an International SWAT Team?” that will appear in April 2013 in Nuclear Disaster at Fukushima Daiichi: Social, Political and Environmental Issues, edited by R. Hindmarsh. New York and London: Routledge (Routledge Studies in Science, Technology and Society).

[2] Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission 2012.

[3] Nuclear Energy Institute, “INPO Chief Proposes Global Nuclear Response Group,” May 12, 2011, accessed June 12, 2012,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Malone 1987.

[6] Parr 2006, Schmid 2011, Hecht 1996, Perrin 1998, 2005, Onykiy & Kryuchkov 2005.

[7] Knowles 2011, Roberts2010, Dowty & Allen, Frickel & Moore 2006, Redfield 2011, Lakoff 2010.

[8] Parr 2006, Perin 1998, 2005.

[9] Karpan 2005, Parr 2006, Perin 1998, 2005, Roberts 1990, Weick 1987.

[10] IAEA 2010: 15. On March 15, 2011, the Japanese government did request IAEA assistance, but it is not clear whether the agency subsequently involved member states through RANET. “Fukushima Nuclear Accident Update (15 March 2011, 20: 35 UTC),” accessed June 12, 2012,

[11] Bunn and Malin 2009: 185.

[12] Clarke 1999: 16.

[13] Brumfiel 2011, Kurczy 2011.

[14] Accessed June 12, 2012,

[15] “WANO members unanimously approve new commitments to nuclear safety,” October 25, 2011, accessed June 12, 2012,

[16] “Cooperation in the post-Fukushima era,” World Nuclear News, 21 June 2011,  accessed July 28, 2012,; Bunn 2011; Braithwaite and Drahos 2000, 297–321.

[17] NEI, INPO, and EPRI 2012, 4–5.

[18] NEI, INPO, and EPRI 2012. The strategic goals relate to maintaining excellence (and morale) among nuclear plant workers; ensuring continued core cooling, containment integrity, and spent fuel cooling during emergencies; updating margins for protection from external events; the integration of accident management guidelines with security response strategies and external event response plans; and clear procedures for monitoring accidental releases and providing accurate, timely information to the public. The guiding principles call for the development of diverse, flexible, and performance-based equipment and procedures for beyond-design events that also account for unique site characteristics, for strengthening cooperation with federal regulators and non-nuclear emergency response organizations, as well as for more authentic communication strategies.


Brumfiel, G. 2011 “Nuclear Agency Faces Reform Calls: International Atomic Energy Agency’s Remit under Scrutiny” Nature, April 26.

Bunn, M. and M. Malin. 2009. “Enabling a Nuclear Revival – and Managing its Risks.” Innovations 4 (4): 173–191.

Clarke, L. 1999. Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press.

Dowty, Rachel A., and Barbara L. Allen (eds). 2011. Dynamics of Disaster: Lessons on Risk, Response and Recovery. London, Washington, DC.: Earthscan.

Frickel, Scott and Kelly Moore, eds. 2006. The New Political Sociology of Science: Institutions, Networks, and Power. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press.

Hecht, Gabrielle. 1996. “Rebels and Pioneers: Technocratic Ideologies and Social Identities in the French Nuclear Workplace, 1955-69.” Social Studies of Science 26 (3): 483-530.

International Atomic Energy Agency. “IAEA Response and Assistance Network, Incident and Emergency Centre.” Vienna: IAEA, 2010.

Karpan, N. Chernobyl: ‘Mest’ mirnogo atoma [Chernobyl: Revenge of the Peaceful Atom]. Kiev: ChP Kantri Laif, 2005.

Knowles, Scott G. 2011. The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

Kurczy, S. 2011. “Japan Nuclear Crisis Sparks Calls for IAEA Reform.” Christian Science Monitor, March 17.

Lakoff, A. (ed.). 2010. Disaster and the Politics of Intervention. New York: Columbia University Press.

Malone, L. 1987. “The Chernobyl Accident: A Case Study in International Law Regulating State Responsibility for Transboundary Nuclear Pollution.” Journal of Environmental Law 12: 203–241.

NEI, INPO, and EPRI. 2012. The Way Forward. U.S. Industry Leadership in Response to Events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Nuclear Energy Institute, Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, and Electric Power Research Institute. June 8, 2011. Accessed June 12, 2012.

Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. 2012. “The Official Report of the Fukushima Accident Independent Investigation Commission.” [Tokyo:] National Diet of Japan.

Onykiy, Boris N., and Eduard F. Kryuchkov. 2005. “Nuclear education in Russia: status, peculiarities, problems and perspectives.” International Journal of Nuclear Knowledge Management 1:308-316.

Parr, J. 2006. “A Working Knowledge of the Insensible? Radiation Protection in Nuclear Generating Stations, 1962–1992.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48 (4): 820–851.

Perin, C. 1998. “Operating as Experimenting: Synthesizing Engineering and Scientific Values in Nuclear Power Production.” Science, Technology & Human Values 23 (1): 98–128.

Perin, C. 2005. Shouldering Risks: The Culture of Control in the Nuclear Power Industry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Redfield, P. 2011. “Cleaning Up the Cold War: Global Humanitarianism and the Infrastructure of Crisis Response.” In Entangled Geographies: Empire Technopolitics in the Global Cold War, edited by G. Hecht. Cambridge: MIT Press, 267–291.

Roberts, K. 1990. “Some Characteristics of One Type of High Reliability Organization.” Organization Science 1 (2): 160–176.

Roberts, P. 2010. “Private Choices, Public Harms: The Evolution of National Disaster Organizations in the United States.” In Disaster and the Politics of Intervention. edited by A. Lakoff. New York: Columbia University Press, 42–69.

Schmid, S. 2011. “When Safe Enough Is Not Good Enough: Organizing Safety at Chernobyl.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67 (2): 19–29.

Weick, K. 1987. “Organizational Culture as a Source of High Reliability.” California Management Review 29 (2): 112–127.

Sonja D. Schmid is Assistant Professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech (USA). She works on the history and organization of nuclear industries, and how energy policies and technological choices shape each other. Her manuscript on the development of the civilian nuclear industry in the Soviet Union is under contract with MIT Press.

  1. Kath Weston permalink

    Your point about creative improvisation as something key to the technician’s job, a skill that cannot be augmented by simply introducing more rules and regulations, is so important. I hope you will develop it further. Do you see a place for the workers in nuclear plants when it comes to international nuclear emergency capability and participating on nuclear disaster response teams? Much of the institutional memory seems to reside with them, and it becomes lost not just because grad students in history or anthropology don’t show up with microphones to document it, but because international regulatory bodies do not draw upon the expertise of these workers in systematic ways. Nor do the workers appear often in leadership positions. Yet at Fukushima it’s said the schematics for the plant are often inaccurate, because the plant was built incrementally with many last-minute on-site changes in design, which means those who constructed it know the plant layout best. And some of those workers spoke with regret of not having their knowledge valued or consulted, especially during the initial period when the accident was unfolding.

  2. I had the same reaction as Kath–I was thinking a lot about the local knowledge of the workers while reading this piece (their “metis” to use James Scott’s expression). It seems to me one of the most crucial mechanisms for such an endeavor is to bring this local knowledge into the response decisions as soon as possible.

    This whole topic is fascinating because among other things, it is an experiment in how to make STS insights useful to others. STS is often criticized for being overly critical and too difficult to implement. But if it is true that responding to disasters requires the types of local, contingent, and flexible responses, then planning with this in mind can actually create better outcomes. A worthy set of ideas to explore.

  3. Daniel Aldrich permalink

    Sonja, it was great seeing your contribution here. I wanted to hear more about what an “ideal” nuclear power plant disaster team would like look. For example, would this be some sort of “A team” of engineers, nuclear scientists, doctors, and so on, that would be put together like a UN weapons inspection team to travel around the world at a moment’s notice? Or, would the ideal be a locally-based team which has a better knowledge of the plant itself and therefore be better prepared to show flexibility and innovation? Have we seen a good example in these past nuclear disasters?

  4. Monamie Bhadra permalink

    Hi Sonja! I was just thinking there might be a lot of kickback from countries like India with the idea of an international nuclear response group. Indian government officials, nuclear scientists, and citizens have a very fraught and ambivalent relationship with international regulatory bodies. India’s recent rejection of international standards of nuclear liability laws, not signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and aspects of the US-India nuclear deal are all manifestations of its distrust, even as it chooses to import different reactors from the US, France and Russia. But I think there might be a lot of support for such an institution from civil-society groups.

    And I completely agree that plant workers/laborers as well as those living around the power plant should be part of such disaster response teams!

  5. Jen Schneider permalink

    This is a great paper, and a wide-ranging look at the many institutions involved in nuclear regulation and response. My concern is along the same lines as Daniel’s and Monamie’s: the primary challenge with forming the sort of group you recommend is that nuclear power is embedded in the technocratic paradox: if one knows enough to be useful in a response team such as you describe, one probably already has institutional or industry ties, which compromise one’s trustworthiness in the eyes of many. I think about this often in the context of Pielke, Jr.’s work on honest brokers–it is difficult to imagine an effective response team that is not already allied or committed in some way, given the intense politicization of nuclear power.

    There seems to be another paradox at work here, too, which is that this paper calls for a response team with institutional knowledge of prior accidents, yet it seems to also acknowledge that nuclear accidents (which are relatively rare, comparatively and in temporal terms, and also unique–nuclear disasters differ from one another in significant ways) must be responded to in an ad hoc way, using judgment and on-the-ground knowledge. I don’t quite understand how we reconcile this conflict theoretically. I also worry about the further technocratization (is that even a word?) of disaster response, which has benefits but also disadvantages in terms of democratic management of large-scale systems like NP.

    And finally, I always imagine sharing these papers with my colleagues in nuclear engineering, and imagine their responses…I think many would take issue with the paper’s claim that there is “no international nuclear emergency capability.” While *I* agree with you, I think *they* would point to the significant internationalization of expertise and regulatory response that emerged in pockets in response to this disaster, particularly when compared with, say, TMI. Nowhere near sufficient, but perhaps not as invisible as the introduction here suggests.

  6. Scott Knowles permalink

    This is very important work Sonja, thanks for sharing it. Your empirical work on the confusing organizational tangle of agencies engaged in international nuclear disaster response is very helpful as we try to understand the ways that claims to authority and expertise both create and discipline high-tech risk-taking.

    This essay got me thinking that (and you are probably doing this in the longer work) that a very nice (that is to say horrifying) continuity exists between cold war civil defense fantasies (globally, not just in the US) of control and planning, and the fantasy documents you are finding. Lee Clarke, as you cite, has sketched this out–but you are opening a new chapter.

    You conclude this:

    “My preliminary conclusion is that existing organizations with subject expertise have negligible international authority and often have problematic rapport with the general public; and that training of nuclear emergency experts will need to emphasize creativity and improvisation.”

    I wonder, do you find much evidence that improvisation is being embraced in emergency management, and/or by any of the agencies you are studying? Two generations of disaster sociology has shown your hunch to be right–improv is the way things play out, despite command and control plans sitting on the shelf. The post-Katrina “Failure of Initiative” report cites that the Coast Guard was the only agency to perform well, and the decentralized nature of its command structure seems to have been crucial. Improvisation at Fukushima certainly played a role, didn’t it? When PM Kan showed up at the plant, that wasn’t in the handbook–but it played a (controversial) key role in the response, apparently–others will be able to shed more light on this I think. The point is that politics intervened in a major way, not just after the disaster.

    Tricia Wachtendorff and James Kendra have just written a book (Temple Press) on the waterborne evacuation on September 11 in NYC–it takes improvisation seriously as a concept–and Tricia is in fact working on improv as a skill for EM’s.

    There is wordplay to watch here, too. A focus on improvisation, of course, also potentially is another way to embrace conservative government de-funding of science, hazard mitigation, and environmental protection–“let citizens and companies improvise, give them the power!” This conflict is central to DSTS as I see it: the tension between planning for the worst and the reality of disasters as unscriptable, layered on top of a conflict between central government and local authority. It’s two conflicts in one nasty box.

  7. Bill Kinsella permalink

    Yes, great paper, Sonja, and you’ve evoked some great responses, too.

    As you’ve noted, by taking some steps in the direction of improving emergency response capabilities, the industry has publicly acknowledged that yes, bad stuff can in fact happen. In studying the US industry’s negotiations with the USNRC (with public interest groups as recognized, but less powerful “stakeholders” in that conversation), I’ve seen a couple of ways in which tensions between disaster prevention (aka “nuclear safety”) and disaster response have been playing out.

    One point of contention has to do with the advance distribution of potassium iodide (KI) tablets in communities near nuclear plants. The industry has strongly resisted such a measure because it would send a signal that failures of reactor safety are actually possible. At a meeting between industry and the NRC that I observed, the main champion for taking this step was, not surprisingly, the president of a company that makes KI tablets.

    Another setting for this tension is the emergency response plan called FLEX that the US nuclear industry has developed. The plan involves creating regional response centers pre-stocked with portable diesel generators, water delivery equipment, and other hardware. I was at a meeting of nuclear folks earlier this year where the FLEX plan was discussed. The presenters provided a fairly detailed, step by step account of what measures would be taken in case of a major problem at a nuclear plant. It did seem rather fantastical to me. In the discussion that followed, no one asked about what seemed to me to be a pretty key point: what sort of training programs would be provided to nuclear plant workers so they could follow the FLEX plans effectively. So I asked. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but the answer was more or less, sure, of course, there will be some kind of training. But the gap between detailed plans regarding what equipment to stock (which means what equipment will be purchased; there’s a vendor motive here), and what plan to follow in using it, versus training for the actual activities involved seemed huge to me.

    You note that someone would need to pay the costs of better emergency planning and response. Training would have to be part of that. And the training would have to be continuous–the same workers trained in 2015 might not be on the job in 2018. And as plant-specific details change the planning and training would need to change. There are direct monetary costs associated with this work as well as indirect time and staffing costs–workers in a training program aren’t doing their regular tasks that day. All of this will add to the cost of nuclear plant operation, and the broader costs of moving in this direction would probably need to be covered by assessing nuclear plant owners and operators some kind of fee. All of this will not look attractive to the industry, which is already struggling to maintain profitability.

    I’ve made these comments in a US context, but they could be adapted to fit other national contexts as well. Think about China, for example, an earthquake-prone country with a pretty dismal record of industrial safety that says it want to build 100 new reactors by 2030.

    As you say, IAEA is a poorly-positioned actor to fill the emergency preparedness gap you’ve identified. So is WANO, for reasons you;ve pointed out. I’ll note that perhaps one source of relevant expertise is the US National Nuclear Security Agency, which presumably plans for a wide range of nuclear disaster scenarios. But I don’t know how much of that knowledge NNSA would be willing to share.

  8. I think the issue of “improvisation” or elasticity is particularly important, but I do want to add a cautionary reminder: In 1999, a nuclear re-processing plant at Tokaimura outside of Tokyo experienced a lethal accident when workers, trying to save time, filled a precipitation tank beyond safe levels. They were unaware of the potential consequences of their actions and were motivated primarily by their own desire to limit their workload as I recall. They were unaware of their role in a complex technical process and exercised improvosational skills for purposes unrelated to the plant’s operational purposes and unenvisioned by plant design and operational procedure.

    To my mind, this event raises a question of how, in order to deal with one complex technology, we create a new complex arrangement for which all pertinent variables can not be integrated or even imagined.

  9. Ryuma Shineha permalink

    It is very important and insightful discussion. And I think that it’s important to think about “improvisation” and “expertise” at the site. And in the Fukushima case, there are gaps of expertise and recognition between site-local experts/engineers and administrators of headquarter, it seems that Sonja’s idea and keywords is insightful to think about variety of issues in the Fukushima case.

  10. Karena Kalmbach permalink

    Sonja, thanks for your paper, I really enjoyed reading it! I would like to point to one aspect that hasn’t been addressed in the comments yet, the question of ‘societal acceptance’ from the anti-nuclear side. I wondered how such an international nuclear emergency team would be awarded more trust by people critical towards the use of nuclear energy then existing institutions. I guess such a team would be considered by many anti-nuclear activist rather as a way of ‘white washing’ the nuclear industry in the way that operators could refer to this team in arguing for the safety of plant operation and with this drawing attention away from the many other criticisms that are brought forward from the anti-nuclear side, such as mining conditions, waste disposal etc. Do you see any way of making such a team accepted also by the anti-nuclear side?

    And there is one sentence in your paper, I would be happy if you could elaborate on it a bit further. You write that: ‘If there ever was expertise on how to handle nuclear disasters, we have either managed to lose it, or have no way of accessing it to respond to a nuclear emergency’. Do you mean by this the ‘nuclear veterans’ you mention further down the page? Thanks for this clarification!

  11. Thank you for this precious introduction to international actors of nuclear safety regulation, and your provocative reflection on the dilemna between the need for an international taskforce and the diachronicity of nuclear disasters (once every 10 or 20 years if we stick to TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima). Because of this, your last paragraph rather sounds to me as a wishful thinking in contradiction with the rest of your article.

    As suggested by Kath and Chris, nuclear plant workers in most countries if not all countries with a nuclear industry hold a lot of knowledge which can not be accumulated because of:
    – though they conduct most of the maintenance task, contract workers are often disregarded by regular workers
    – precarity of labor contracts: less and less regular workers, and more and more contract workers. In Japan, as soon as the end of the 1970s, 80% of the taskforce were contract workers. In France, regular workers were 80% until 1988, then, because of the pressure of the markets due to EU integration, within 5 years, this structure was inversed, and since then more than 80% of the maintenance is conducted by contract workers.
    To sum up, those who do and know the most are not listened to because of the very structure of the labor organization.

    A totally different point that I’d like to discuss with you regards the categories of actors that you have identified: general public, industry, regulators, emergency responders, policy makers and opinion leaders, and in particular the first one, the general public. As elaborated mentionned by many papers in this conference (see in particular Nicolas Cisterna’s), the questions of public trust and mistrust of experts is decisive for DSTS, but as problematized long time ago by Walter Lippmann’s “Phantom Public” (and as reminded more recently by Latour in his foreword to the French traduction), I just wonder what do we mean exactly by the public, as in expressions like “public trust”, “public legitimacy”, “the general public”, “the broader public”, “the public media”, “the public engagement”, “public policy”, “publicly accountable”…

  12. Nicolas Sternsdorff permalink

    In reading your paper, Sonja, I was struck by the word flexibility, and that it comes out in the conferences in many ways. You talk about it in terms of flexibility in dealing with complex systems, while others have used to think about flexible workers staffing the nuclear plants (Jobin), or flexible economic systems and the deregulation of the energy sector (Knowles). As others have pointed out, I’d love to see you push this notion further and expand/theorize this section more.

  13. Cathryn Carson permalink

    Rather than go over my 2 minutes as commentator, let me fill out some observations at greater length.

    I’ll take as given — and, countercyclically, not amplify further — the interest STS and disaster studies scholars have in:
    a) the move from preventing emergencies to being prepared for / responding to them
    b) the politics of expertise and trust in the nuclear field

    Instead I’ll pose some points for discussion around improvisation, planning, and levels of governance.


    With this group of readers, improvisation clearly struck a chord. It’s part of standard STS understandings (now) of what constitutes expert practice. It draws on our attention to highlighting and valorizing local and contextual knowledge. And it’s descriptive of how disaster responses have factically unfolded.

    Because it’s a rich and divergent concept, improvisation opens up many avenues of discussion. Along with the ones raised by other commentators, I’d point our attention to three.

    * First, I’m curious how we’d develop the relationship between improvisation and (that other favored, but differently valenced, STS concept) unexpected consequences. Particularly I’d be interested how to play them against one another in a future that’s conceived as either controllable (as classical planning assumes) or fundamentally open.
    * Second, exactly in the context of INPO, I wonder how actors in the nuclear industry might imagine securing the preceding experience on the basis of which improvisations can be well-tuned. To what extent must it be experience of “the same thing” (a la Chernobyl), to what extent it can be grounded in social scientific generalizations about disasters unfolding, and to what extent practiced in simulation?
    *Third, at what level do we situate improvisation. Along with improvising individuals, is there a concept of improvisational organizations as something more than amplifying mechanisms for individual agency? I’d be looking for more examples and more theorization.


    Specifically, planning for things that aren’t supposed to happen. I’d like to take a step outside the “fantasy document” framework (Lee Clarke) for large technological systems. Here I’m interested in the regulatory framework that makes “fantasy documents” not just the evasive mechanisms of interested parties, but also regulatory requirements. And to fill out that space, I’d invite us to look at improvisational planning in less regulated frameworks. Those can be global sites where regulation doesn’t reach because of the different structure, the capture, or the inefficacy of the state. Or it can be other improvisational organizations in high-risk situations like Navy SEAL teams (the military as a classic example for HRO scholarship). Less regulated frameworks, for better or worse, can be characteristic of emergency situations where the presumptions of the regulatory state are partly open to suspension.

    Levels of governance

    We can see operating here two distinct reasons for proposing to elevate emergency response to the international level. It may be useful to call them out. First, there’s the infrequency of accidents, at least of the severity at stake in this paper, with the effect that there’s not enough accumulated experience on any national scene. Second, more implict, but at least as important, there’s the lack of confidence in settings such as the US in other nations’ response capability. The critical background here is the knowledge in the nuclear world that an accident anywhere can affect the nuclear industry everywhere. That’s my own reading of INPO’s proposal of May 2011 — as much as anything, a defensive mechanism to expand control over the playing-out of accidents beyond the boundaries of national sovereignty.

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