Negotiating Nuclear Safety: Responses to the Fukushima Disaster by the U.S. Nuclear Community
William J. Kinsella
North Carolina State University
Overview of work in progress, for discussion at STS Forum on the 2011 Fukushima/East Japan Disaster, University of California-Berkeley, 11-14 May 2013
12 April 2013
This essay revisits the literature on “high-reliability organizations,” originated by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, in light of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. Rather than focusing on the operational level of analysis as did the original literature, the essay expands the high-reliability concept to a more macro level by envisioning a “high-reliability communication system” incorporating a range of actors beyond nuclear operators, vendors, and regulators. Such a system can more effectively address the problem of requisite variety in perspectives, knowledge, and imagination, enhancing both nuclear safety and democratic risk governance. Drawing on a preliminary analysis of responses to the events at Fukushima by the U.S. nuclear community, the essay identifies thirteen rhetorical boundaries that currently structure communication within that system.
Negotiating Nuclear Safety:
Responses to the Fukushima Disaster by the U.S. Nuclear Community
The “triple disaster” of “3-11,” as it is known in Japan, comprised an exceptionally powerful earthquake and tsunami followed by severe damages to four reactors and spent fuel storage pools at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. The disaster can be understood as triple in another sense as well, as a convergence of natural, technical, and social elements. Distinctions among those categories are, of course, constructed and problematic (Latour, 2004), and one goal of this essay is to demonstrate their deep interconnections. Another goal is to examine how the U.S. nuclear community has responded to the events at Fukushima through a negotiative communicative process. The essay approaches the first of these goals by way of the second.
Here I use the term “nuclear community” to denote a broad, heterogeneous assemblage including organizations engaged in commercial nuclear energy production, governmental regulatory authorities, research and development organizations, and advocacy groups that oppose, critique, and otherwise challenge the nuclear power establishment. The essay focuses on a crucial process within that complex sociotechnical system, the process of ensuring nuclear safety. Expanding the concept of “high reliability organizations” (HROs) that “must not make serious errors because their work is too important and the effects of their failures too disastrous” (LaPorte & Consolini, 1991, p. 19), I argue that the nuclear community, as a totality, must operate as a high reliability communication system. Some of the system’s components, such as nuclear power plant operators, readily fit the standard model of HROs as “technologically complex organizations that can do great physical harm to themselves and their surrounding environments” (Roberts, 1990, p. 160). Others, such as regulatory agencies, technical support organizations, and vendors, must also maintain high reliability due to their direct influence on nuclear operations.
However, this essay argues for including a broader range of organizations as essential to nuclear safety, situating the high-reliability principle at a more macro level. At that trans-organizational, trans-institutional level, checks and balances across the broader nuclear community, constituted through communication, are also essential to its reliability. Such communication promotes the “requisite variety” (Weick, 1979) of perspectives, knowledge, and imagination identified as crucial by some HRO scholars. In addition to the “usual suspects”–nuclear plant builders, equipment vendors, owners, operators and regulators—the high reliability system conceptualized here includes critics, independent analysts, public interest organizations, media, and advocacy groups as necessary components. Not only must these diverse components be included in the system; they must also communicate with each other effectively and appropriately. While the literature on HROs emphasizes an organizational level of analysis and a relatively bounded, self-contained, and autonomous organizational model, this essay emphasizes principles of mutually negotiated, communicatively constituted, inter-organizational action.
It is often said that nuclear safety is a “non-negotiable” principle (e.g., Areva Group, 2012; European Nuclear Society, 2011). However, such statements disregard the degree to which that principle is constituted through negotiative communication (Schulman, 1993). Nuclear safety is always a negotiated process: in negotiating a path through risky territory, nuclear practitioners also negotiate relationships, policies, practices, and meanings. The U.S. nuclear community’s response to Fukushima demonstrates these communicative and negotiative qualities, with implications for communication theory and practice, public safety and environmental protection, economic and ecological sustainability, and democratic public discourse. As elaborated below, essential communication processes are impaired when rhetorically-constructed boundaries limit participation and constrain topical framings in discourses of nuclear safety.
Risks, Reliability, and Rhetorical Boundaries
The HRO literature (e.g., Roberts, 1989, 1990; Rochlin, 1993; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007) developed in conversation with the “normal accidents” perspective of Perrow (1984), both approaches responding to the 1979 nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island and other industrial disasters. Invoking principles such as diligence, mindfulness, institutional learning, organizational culture, and interdependence in complex sociotechnical/organizational systems, the HRO approach has received some recognition by the nuclear community. One challenge for that community, however, is to avoid complacent presumptions or assertions of high reliability, reified by the very use of such terminology.
Nuclear safety is often framed in absolute, realist, objectivist, and binary terms: safe versus unsafe conditions, acceptable versus unacceptable risks, affordable versus not affordable safety measures, regulatory compliance or non-compliance, and such. As both a product and a constituent principle of such discourses, technologies, practices, and policies related to nuclear safety are assigned to particular regulatory authorities and regimes, or else defined as outside the scope of regulation. Such categorizations exemplify the active construction, enforcement, challenging, and reconfiguration of rhetorical boundaries (Kinsella, Kelly, & Kittle Autry, 2013). Sociological and rhetorical concepts of “boundary work” (Fisher, 1990; Gieryn, 1995; Kinsella, 2001; Taylor, 1994) help illuminate this negotiative process.
As Latour (2004) argues, sociotechnical systems often pose as “risk-free objects” with “clear boundaries,” obscuring the “risky attachments” that make them “matters of concern” demanding democratic engagement (pp. 22-23). Nuclear energy is rarely portrayed as entirely “risk free” by its practitioners, of course, and the events at Fukushima have once again challenged any such assertion. Nevertheless, nuclear operators and regulators typically portray their domain as risky but effectively managed, a “black box” opaque to non-experts but amenable to expert control. Looking more closely at communication within that black box, and expanding the limits of the box, can enhance both nuclear safety and democratic risk governance.
Mapping the U.S. Nuclear Community
The organizational and institutional actors in the U.S. nuclear energy community can be usefully grouped into a number of categories:
Nuclear producers and promoters include energy utilities, construction firms, and consortia that build, own, and operate nuclear power plants, and myriad vendors, suppliers, consultants, contractors, and other supporting actors. A number of industry groups have particular roles and functions. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) provides the principal policy voice for the U.S. nuclear industry, engaging in advocacy, lobbying, and promotion. The American Nuclear Society is a not-for-profit professional organization that seeks to be “the recognized credible advocate for advancing and promoting nuclear science and technology” (ANS, 2013). The Edison Electric Institute, a policy-oriented organization representing electric utilities, also engages in nuclear energy promotion and advocacy. The Institute for Nuclear Power Operations and its global counterpart, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, are voluntary peer review institutions that facilitate autonomous industry self-regulation in regard to nuclear safety. While the industry emphasizes the benefits of expertise and directness provided by this arrangement, critics argue that it pre-empts independent, external governmental regulation. The Electric Power Research Institute conducts research, development, and analysis related to nuclear and non-nuclear electricity technologies, regulation, and economics. As a major sponsor of energy research, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) promotes nuclear technology development and related education efforts. Following the separation of the Atomic Energy Agency’s promotional and regulatory missions in 1974, the DOE inherited the former agency’s promotional mission.
Nuclear regulators include federal and state agencies with legal authority to set and enforce standards related to nuclear safety and cost. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) is the primary U.S. nuclear safety regulator, having inherited the Atomic Energy Commission’s regulatory mission. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plays a more restricted role, setting limits for radiological releases and emissions. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission maintains some authority related to the costs of nuclear power production and transmission, but most nuclear energy cost regulation operates at the state level, in the so-called “regulated states” where competition is restricted and state bodies set customer rates, or through market competition in the so-called “deregulated states.” Notably, most of the proposed new nuclear construction projects in the U.S. would be sited in the regulated states, where financing for costly and risky projects can be accomplished through favorable rate decisions by regulatory bodies. Kinsella, Kelly, and Kittle Autry (2013) have examined the effects of rhetorical boundary work in constructing a bifurcation of nuclear safety and cost regulation. At the international level, institutions including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, and its Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA) coordinate and advance nuclear safety standards and practices. Despite those efforts, substantial differences in approach and effectiveness exist across national regulatory frameworks (Kinsella, 2011).
Nuclear critics and analysts include nonprofit, nongovernmental advocacy groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Beyond Nuclear, and other organizations that focus primarily at a regional level or on particular nuclear plants. Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club also engage in general critiques of nuclear energy and controversies surrounding specific plants. A number of individual critics with expertise in engineering, economics, or public policy collaborate directly with these organizations or provide materials they use to argue their positions. These actors inhabit a range of positions from consistently and aggressively critical, to informational and educational in orientation, to formally neutral by mandate, as in the case of the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Together, they provide what Kinsella and Mullen (2007) have described as “public expertise” consisting of technical knowledge and rhetorical authority made available to public communities.
Research Methods and Materials
Twelve days after the March 11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami triggered severe problems at the Fukushima plant, USNRC Chairman Gregory Jazcko initiated a formal review of the implications for U.S. nuclear activities. On March 30, the agency chartered a staff task force to complete a “near-term” review within 90 days. Staff members provided a 30-day status briefing for the five USNRC commissioners on May 12, a 60-day briefing on June 15, and a summary of findings on July 19. The author has viewed those briefings and nine other related meetings as live webcasts and/or via the USNRC archive, returning to the archive to further examine themes emerging from the initial viewings.
Ethnographic engagement has provided substantial technical background supporting my analysis of these meetings, and familiarity with key actors. For example, I participated in the USNRC’s three-day 2012 Regulatory Information Conference (RIC), and viewed much of the 2013 conference via webcast. Annually since 1989, the RIC has brought industry representatives and other interested parties together with USNRC commissioners and staff, growing to now include approximately 3000 registrants. I have also participated in a three-day Nuclear Plants Current Issues Symposium for industry professionals, in research seminars at nuclear engineering programs in the U.S. and Germany, in events sponsored by the American Nuclear Society, in events organized by critical public interest groups, and in a series of state utilities commission hearings regarding nuclear power in the southeastern U.S. These activities provide interpretive access to a community notorious for obscure technical, bureaucratic, and legal jargon and barriers to public engagement. Post-Fukushima media coverage of nuclear energy, by general news sources such as the New York Times and Washington Post and specialized news sources such as websites and listserves maintained by nuclear industry organizations, regulatory agencies, and critical public interest groups, provides additional background.
Here I provide a brief, preliminary, partial sketch of thirteen rhetorically-constructed boundaries identified in post-Fukushima U.S. nuclear safety discourses. Due to space constraints, I do not provide detailed evidence for these boundaries or close analysis of the associated rhetorical boundary work. An expanded version of this study does so, utilizing statements and observations drawn from meeting archives, documents, and field notes.
Containing the Nuclear Community
A fundamental, meta-level boundary separates full members of the nuclear community, who participate authoritatively in discussions of nuclear safety, from parties denied standing in that conversation. Despite the regular use of the term “stakeholders” by industry groups and the USNRC, members of the broad public community have little access to these discussions; the term refers primarily to nuclear producers and promoters. The overwhelming majority of RIC participants are industry representatives and USNRC staff; at the 2012 and 2013 conferences only a small minority of participants represented critical public interest groups. A similar pattern characterized the public meetings of the USNRC’s Near-term Task Force. Technocratic premises largely restrict participation to commercial, technical, and governmental actors, discounting key insights other parties might provide. This participation boundary deeply informs the more specific, topically-oriented boundary negotiations conducted within the nuclear community.
Natural versus Nuclear Disaster
Nuclear producers and promoters consistently stress that the “real” tragedy in Japan was due to the earthquake and tsunami rather than the events at Fukushima. While honoring the many victims of the earthquake and tsunami, such statements also minimize the socially and economically disruptive impacts of the nuclear disaster for individuals, families and communities, and shift responsibility to the “natural world.”
Natural Disaster versus Sociotechnical Failure
Separating phenomena such as earthquakes and tsunamis from the domain of the “social” produces paradoxical consequences. On one hand, such phenomena are regarded as subject to precise scientific representation and technological control (Kinsella, 2007). On the other hand, failures of representation and control are fatalistically portrayed as inevitable and unforeseeable rather than as challenges to the prevailing system. Actor-network theory (e.g., Callon, 1991; Latour, 2004; Law, 1987) suggests, instead, that through technoscience humans negotiate not only with each other but also with nature, with varying degrees of success.
Design Basis and Beyond Design Basis
A persistent post-Fukushima debate, and a key theme in the USNRC’s Task Force discussions, involves the boundary between engineering “design basis” and “beyond design basis” events. Despite a series of unanticipated earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes affecting U.S. nuclear power plants post-Fukushima, the industry has strongly resisted proposals to expand the scope of design basis events.
The industry continues to assert that geological differences make U.S. seismic and tsunami risks less consequential than those in Japan. Such statements understate the uncertainty and incompleteness of geological and oceanographic knowledge. More fundamentally, they miss the point that serious latent risks at Fukushima were systematically ignored. The specific forms of those risks may differ elsewhere, but general “limits of representation” constrain risk discourses across geographic settings (Kinsella, 2010, 2011).
As many observers have noted, an irony surrounds the official report of the commission convened by the Japanese Diet to examine the failures at Fukushima. The Chairman’s statement that the nuclear disaster was a product of “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture” (National Diet of Japan, 2012, p. 9), while frank and valuable, has provided a rhetorical resource for exceptionalist arguments that such an event could never happen in the U.S.
Locus of Regulation
Perin (2006) observes that most nuclear safety regulation in the U.S. is industry self-regulation: “NRC inspections typically cover only about 5 percent of all equipment and programs at an “average” plant and about 10 percent at plants with problematic records” (p. 8; see also CSIS, 1999). Nuclear producers and promoters continue to provide multiple rationales for this emphasis on self-regulation, which differs from arrangements in other nations (Kinsella, 2011). The question of regulatory intrusiveness has become a key point in post-Fukushima negotiations between the industry and the USNRC.
Locus of Initiative
In a related negotiation, the industry moved more quickly than did the USNRC to define a broad strategy for enhancing safety post-Fukushima. A comment by a NEI officer illustrates this strategy: “If you don’t like what the regulator is doing, put some constructive alternatives on the table” (USNRC RIC panel session, 13 March 2013). In negotiations regarding the USNRC task force recommendations, the industry successfully argued to limit new safety enhancements at individual plants, proposing instead to deploy emergency equipment at regional centers under a plan known as FLEX. By implementing significant components of that plan before the task force deliberations were concluded, the industry was able to claim an “emerging consensus” in support of its initiative.
Task Force Recommendation Tiers
The task force recommendations were sorted into three tiers for presentation to the commissioners, primarily by assessments of urgency. The assignment of specific recommendations within these tiers was an intensely negotiated process, and larger questions regarding the fundamental regulatory framework were deferred indefinitely by placing them outside the tier system. Throughout those discussions and subsequently, the industry has stressed that activities related to immediate operational safety should take priority over more fundamental changes in the regulatory process.
Rules versus Orders
Nuclear operators and promoters have expressed a strong preference for regulatory rules, which are developed over extended time periods with extensive negotiation between the USNRC and industry, rather than orders, which can be adopted more quickly. Themes supporting this position include the need for regulatory stability, the cumulative effects of regulatory requirements, and the work load associated with compliance and reporting.
Another recurrent theme involves an industry preference for so-called “risk-informed” regulation, an approach that emphasizes basing decisions on quantitative estimates and modeling. The USNRC’s recent State of the Art Reactor Consequence Analysis has revised estimates of event frequencies and consequences downward, and in light of those results the industry has adopted a strategy of characterizing previous estimates as “extremely conservative.”
Safety Implementation Costs
Comments by at least two commissioners, made during a number of meetings examined in the present study, stress that the USNRC bases decisions solely on the criteria of safety and environmental protection, without regard to costs to the industry. Nevertheless, the question of cost is clearly at issue in many negotiations between the industry and the Commission.
Economic Consequences of Nuclear Disasters
A different economic theme involves the potential costs of major nuclear events, beyond the domains of public health and safety and environmental impact. The Fukushima disaster has begun to demonstrate the scale of such economic risks, and will do so further over time. The present U.S. regulatory approach addresses such risks only in a limited way, and many parties regard the U.S. system of nuclear risk insurance as severely inadequate (e.g. Cooper, 2011). Critical public interest groups have achieved some success bringing this topic into post-Fukushima negotiations regarding nuclear safety.
The themes identified here are being developed further in an ongoing analysis of how nuclear safety is negotiated through rhetorical boundary work within the U.S. nuclear community. The fundamental boundary on participation, and the rhetorical strategies used by participants to negotiate particular topical boundaries, warrant continued study. Preliminary findings suggest that expanding the participation boundary would have important consequences for how topical boundaries are negotiated, informing the practices of nuclear safety and broader public conversations about nuclear risk governance. The HRO, rhetorical boundary work, and actor-network perspectives, as combined in the current study, provide a foundation for further analysis.
 The author is grateful to the workshop organizers and to the U.S. National Science Foundation for partial support of his participation. An extended version of this essay, in preparation, incorporates an expanded theoretical framework and additional data and analysis.
 The citations here are from European sources; the trope of non-negotiability is less visible in U.S. nuclear discourses.
 The concept of “negotiated social order” can be traced to Strauss (1978).
 Bourrier (2011) reviews the history and legacy of the high-reliability organizations research program originated in the 1980s by Todd R. Laporte and colleagues at the University of California-Berkeley.
 Some HRO case studies directly examined nuclear power plant operations. Nuclear “safety culture” discourses (IAEA, 1991; Silbey, 2009; USNRC, 2013) resonate with the HRO perspective, although Bourrier (2011) cautions that “Industry and regulatory circles have always preferred to talk about ‘culture’ when confronted with organizational variance, to the detriment of drawing on well-equipped organizational analysis” (p. 18).
 Nevertheless, some nuclear energy discourses do exhibit a notable tendency to minimize the degree of risk.
 As of April 2013 approximately 26 entities operate 104 nuclear power plants in the United States; see: www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/documentlibrary/reliableandaffordableenergy/graphicsandcharts/usnuclearpowerplantownersoperatorsandholdingcompanies/
 One response to the Fukushima disaster by the Japanese government has been to enact an analogous, formal separation of nuclear energy promotion and regulation.
 USNRC Commissioner Magwood’s presentation at the 2013 RIC exemplified this theme.
 The “black swan” trope (cf. Taleb, 2007) provides one resource for this rhetorical boundary work (see Kinsella, 2012).
 Examples include an earthquake affecting the North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia, storm-induced flooding at the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska, tornado-induced shutdowns at the Browns Ferry pant in Alabama and the Surrey plant in Virginia, and precautionary shutdowns at multiple plants in 2012 in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy.
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William J. Kinsella is an Associate Professor of Communication at North Carolina State University (USA), where he directs the interdisciplinary program in Science, Technology & Society. His work examines communication in environmental, energy, organizational, and institutional contexts. His publications include Nuclear legacies: Communication, controversy, and the U.S. nuclear weapons complex (Lexington Books, 2007, co-editor and contributor) and articles in various academic journals.