Skip to content

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.

Preliminary Findings

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.

Geographic Boundaries

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).

Cultural Boundaries

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.

Risk Significance

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.


[1] 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.

[2] The citations here are from European sources; the trope of non-negotiability is less visible in U.S. nuclear discourses.

[3] The concept of “negotiated social order” can be traced to Strauss (1978).

[4] 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.

[5] 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).

[6] Nevertheless, some nuclear energy discourses do exhibit a notable tendency to minimize the degree of risk.

[7] As of April 2013 approximately 26 entities operate 104 nuclear power plants in the United States; see:

[8] One response to the Fukushima disaster by the Japanese government has been to enact an analogous, formal separation of nuclear energy promotion and regulation.

[9] USNRC Commissioner Magwood’s presentation at the 2013 RIC exemplified this theme.

[10] The “black swan” trope (cf. Taleb, 2007) provides one resource for this rhetorical boundary work (see Kinsella, 2012).

[11] 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.

[12] See

[13] See and

[14] See


American Nuclear Society (ANS) (2013). About ANS. Available at: 

Areva Group (2012). Corporate website available at:      57/global-leader-in-nuclear-energy-and-renewable-energy-solutions.html

Bourrier, M. (2011). The legacy of the theory of high-reliability organizations: An ethnographic     endeavor. Geneva: University of Geneva (Working Paper #6/2011).

Callon, Michel (1991). Techno-economic networks and irreversibility. In J. Law (Ed.), A   sociology of monsters: Essays on power, technology and domination (pp. 132-161).            London: Routledge.

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (1999). The regulatory process for nuclear power reactors: A review. Washington, DC: CSIS Press.

Cooper, M. (2011). Nuclear liability. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, downloaded 24 May            2012 from

European Nuclear Society (2011). Word from the President. European Nuclear Society e-news,    issue 32 (Spring). Available at:    contribution.htm

Fisher, D. (1990). Boundary work and science: The relation between power and knowledge. In    S.E. Cozzens and T.F. Gieryn (Eds.), Theories of science in society. Bloomington, IN:            Indiana University Press.

Gieryn, T. F. (1995). Boundaries of science. In S. Jasanoff, G. E. Markle, J. C. Petersen and T.     Pinch (Eds.), Handbook of science and technology studies, pp. 393–443. Thousand Oaks,            CA: Sage.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (1991). Safety culture (Safety Series #75-INSAG-   4). Vienna: IAEA

Kinsella, W. J. (2001). Nuclear boundaries: Material and discursive containment at the Hanford    Nuclear Reservation. Science as Culture 10(2) 163-194.

Kinsella, W. J. (2007). Heidegger and being at the Hanford reservation: Standing reserve,             enframing, and environmental communication theory. Environmental Communication: A    Journal of Nature and Culture, 1(2), 194-217.

Kinsella, W. J. (2010). Risk communication, phenomenology, and the limits of representation.

            Catalan Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies, 2(2), 267-276.

Kinsella, W. J. (2011). Research on nuclear energy in an international context: Challenges for

empirical research design and preliminary findings. Technikfolgenabschätzung: Theorie     und Praxis, 20(2), 84-89.

Kinsella, W. J. (2012). Environments, risks, and the limits of representation: Examples from          nuclear energy. Environmental Communication, 6(2), 251-259.

Kinsella, W. J., Kelly, A. R., & Kittle Autry, M. (2013). Risk, regulation, and rhetorical    boundary work: Claims and challenges surrounding a purported nuclear renaissance.            Communication Monographs, 80(3).

Kinsella, W. J., & Mullen, J. (2007). Becoming Hanford downwinders: Producing community      and challenging discursive containment. In B. C. Taylor, W. J. Kinsella, S. Depoe, & M.      S. Metzler (Eds.), Nuclear legacies: Communication, controversy, and the U.S. nuclear   weapons complex (pp. 73-107). Lanham, MD: Lexington.

LaPorte, T. R., & Consolini, P. M. (1991). Working in practice but not in theory: Theoretical         challenges of “high-reliability organizations.” Journal of Public Administration     Research and Theory, 1(1) (1991): 19–47.

Latour, B. (2004). Politics of nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy. Cambridge,          MA: Harvard University Press.

Law, J. (1987). Technology and heterogeneous engineering: the case of the Portuguese      expansion. In W. E Bijker, T. P. Hughes, & T. Pinch (Eds), The social construction of   technical systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 111-          134). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

National Diet of Japan (2012). The official report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident         Independent Investigation Commission. Tokyo: National Diet of Japan.

Perin, C. (2006) Shouldering risks: The culture of control in the nuclear power industry.     Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Perrow, C. (1984). Normal accidents: Living with high-risk technologies. New York: Basic            Books.

Perrow, C. (2011). Fukushima and the inevitability of accidents. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 67(6), 44-52.

Roberts, K.H. (1989). New challenges in organizational research: High reliability organizations.    Industrial Crisis Quarterly, 3, 111-125.

Roberts, K. H. (1990). Some characteristics of one type of high-reliability organization.     Organization   Science, 1(2), 160-176.

Rochlin, G. I. (1993). Defining high reliability organizations in practice: A taxonomic prologue.    In K. H. Roberts (Ed.). New challenges to understanding organizations (pp. 11-32). New      York: Macmillan.

Schulman, P. R. (1993). The negotiated order of organizational reliability. Administration and       Society, 25(3), 353-372.

Silbey, S. S. (2009). Taming Prometheus: Talk about safety and culture. Annual Review of             Sociology, 35, 341-369.

Strauss, A. L. (1978). Negotiations: Varieties, contexts, processes, and social order. San    Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Taleb, N. N. (2007). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. New York: Random    House.

Taylor, C. A. (1994). Science as cultural practice: A rhetorical perspective. Technical         Communication Quarterly, 3(1), 67-81.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) (2013). Safety culture. Retrieved 8 April 2013    from:

Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing. (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an    age of uncertainty (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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.


  1. Daniel Aldrich permalink

    I enjoyed this essay and wanted to hear more about the rhetoric of “design basis” and “beyond the design basis.” More specifically, what sorts of natural events (seismic shocks, flooding, etc.) and “man made” events (terrorist attacks, plane crashes, etc.) are the basis for discussions about design? To what extent are these purely engineering calculations, and to what degree to broader concerns (evacuation time, population density, etc.) play into them?

  2. Scott Knowles permalink

    Thanks for this very rich essay William. I have some questions about your model–in part no doubt rooted in my limited engagement with the HRO literature. I am particularly curious about this claim:

    “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.”

    Your normative assumption here is that the “nuclear community” concept is too limited to nuclear producers and regulators, closed from scrutiny and conversation with more “democratic” (popular) elements: consumers, media, non-profits. I’d be curious to know more about why/how these groups can be meaningfully drawn into the larger nuclear community, and on what basis they have power to influence “reliability”? This theme runs through many of the papers–the idea that we should jettison expert/non-expert divides. I want to really work through that carefully–in your instance you use the language of democratic practice (checks and balances) to describe an ideal condition. How will those checks and balances be constructed–is this a new model of high risk technology regulation you see emerging?

    Your 13 themes are each provocative–thanks for these! Like Daniel the “design basis” rhetoric really caught my attention. I see this kind of rhetoric in other places, such as when we talk about “100 year floods.” Quantitative risk management, as well, fits into this conversation. Each of these is an example of a discourse where technical experts construct modeling devices upon which to do their work “safely.” These standards are constructed on “best practices” that in many instances have huge data gaps and lots of guesswork–yet they still have power–they become crucial to risk calculations, insurance, and as you seem to be arguing to formal regulation as well. I feel like we need some time to talk about these kinds of standards, how they become powerful, and what happens when they repeatedly fail.

  3. Let me just echo the interest in design basis/beyond design basis issues.

  4. Kath Weston permalink

    It seems your work can help us think about how technocratic premises restrict not just participation as such, but *meaningful* participation, since groups more critical of nuclear power often report not being taken seriously even when they are allowed/invited to testify or otherwise participate in NRC venues, etc. It’s interesting that the nuclear industry has embraced modeling as part of its preference for risk-informed regulation, in contrast to the fossil fuels industry, which has staged campaigns to undermine confidence in modeling because it has found the results (vis-a-vis climate change) less congenial. My field is not communication, so I’m wondering how the nuanced distinctions you draw between different rhetorically constructed boundaries can shed light on power dynamics within this “community.” When groups communicate in a transparent and reliable way about, say, adding vents to U.S. plants post-Fukushima Daiichi, but industry opposes this because it’s expensive, what then? Likewise when industry has an interest in minimizing errors whereas critics have an interest in dramatizing them. I guess the larger question is whether the emphasis on HRO can bridge to or shed light on the way that power inflects communication.

  5. Kyle Cleveland permalink

    Am very interested to hear more about how the NRC explains itself to itself in these after-action/lessons-learned industry meetings. Your unique access to this process will be a great contribution to the conference, providing a useful basis for comparison to some of the papers that propose a more inclusive model that ideally would draw in a wider range of actors. And the range of meetings to which you have been privy should provide more nuanced information about these domains that remain obscure to even dedicated researchers who have not enjoyed such access.

    Your mapping of the rhetorical framing of this is fascinating, and I look forward to seeing your larger paper that unpackages these discourses in more detail.

    With regard to the NRC, I am curious how they are able to implement these lessons-learned when the top administrators (many of whom have no operational experience and are political appointees) rotate in and out and cannot sustain a legacy beyond their immediate terms. Is it a ritual process for political consumption or are these proposed policies likely to implemented?

  6. Ryuma Shineha permalink

    Thanks for your insightful paper. And like Kyle’s comment, I would like to see discourses which represent each rhetorical framing in more detail. And I also get interest in the more detailed relationship between rhetorical framings.

  7. Jen Schneider permalink

    Echoing other commenters: I really appreciated the framework of this paper. Like Scott’s framing paper in panel 1, I think it provides useful categories for us to think about the types of communication happening here. In fact, I wondered, as I was reading, how your framework might map onto Scott’s, if at all. I also echo Kath’s interest in learning more about how this manifests in terms of power dynamics, and finally, I would love to know what happens when these different values clash; in other words, how do nuclear experts rhetorically manage competing/conflicting boundaries? How do they maintain boundaries around design bases and at the same time around economic risks, say? I’m guessing this is in the longer paper, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. Thank you!

  8. Thank you for this interesting paper. I’m looking forward the longer version!

    Could you develop a little bit on why you named your 13 points as “boundaries” (rather than topics for example)?

    The notions of negotiation is also very helpful to explore the policies dealing with radiation protection standards, compensation for the evacuated zones, etc.

    I feel less comfortable with “risk governance”: instead of aiming at enhancing “both nuclear safety and democratic risk governance”, I think your analysis would be stronger if you would explore how risk governance became part of the rethoric.

  9. Bill Kinsella permalink

    Thank you, all of you who have posted comments on my paper so far. Your comments are proving to be very helpful, and will affect how I revise the paper. I’ll provide two brief responses for now —

    * What you’ve read is a hybrid of two writing projects. I’ve been developing an essay on rhetorical boundaries and post-Fukushima nuclear safety negotiations for some time now — Paul, that’s where the focus on “boundaries” comes from. There is an existing literature on rhetorical boundaries, on which that project is based. The other part of the current hybrid reflects my interest in “high-reliability organizations,” which seemed like an appropriate concept to develop in this context, as the original work on that topic began at UCB. So as you can see, I’m still working to meld these two themes together. I may decide to separate them again, returning to two essays, after our discussions at the workshop.

    * A number of you took interest in the “design basis” concept. I’ll come to the workshop prepared to say more about this, but for now I’ll say that it has stood out for me as an important theme. The term is used by the USNRC that are ways that are in part very specific, and in part ambiguous and therefore negotiable. I’m working further on this particular analytical thread. Here are the official USNRC definitions:

    “Design-basis phenomena
    Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, etc., that a nuclear facility must be designed and built to withstand without loss of systems, structures, and components necessary to ensure public health and safety.

    Design-basis accident
    A postulated accident that a nuclear facility must be designed and built to withstand without loss to the systems, structures, and components necessary to ensure public health and safety.

    Beyond design-basis accidents
    This term is used as a technical way to discuss accident sequences that are possible but were not fully considered in the design process because they were judged to be too unlikely. (In that sense, they are considered beyond the scope of design-basis accidents that a nuclear facility must be designed and built to withstand.) As the regulatory process strives to be as thorough as possible, “beyond design-basis” accident sequences are analyzed to fully understand the capability of a design.

    Design-basis threat (DBT)
    A profile of the type, composition, and capabilities of an adversary. The NRC and its licensees use the DBT as a basis for designing safeguards systems to protect against acts of radiological sabotage and to prevent the theft of special nuclear material…”

    The devil is in the details of how these definitions get negotiated.

    Let me stop here for now — looking forward to talking more…

  10. Scott Knowles permalink

    I am completely fascinated by this “design-basis” family tree.

    • Bill Kinsella permalink

      More to come when we meet at the workshop…

      • Bill Kinsella permalink

        Well, OK, let me say this for now. Right after the initial events at Fukushima, questions began to emerge regarding whether the USNRC should review and revise the design basis for US nuclear plants (or more accurately, some of them). This would be hugely costly for the industry, and became one of the most salient of the negotiations I’ve followed between the industry, the NRC, and public interest groups. The short and severely oversimplified version of the story is that in the end, the emphasis has been not to revise the design basis, but instead, to develop “mitigation strategies for beyond design basis events.” We can talk more at the workshop….

  11. Dear Professor Kinsella:

    I would like to highlight three key contributions you make to the workshop: 1) criticizing and advancing the literature on “High Reliability Organizations”; 2) attentively analyzing language practices in the context of the US nuclear community; and 3) offering a normative argument for the advancement of democratic governance of risk by eliminating boundaries created through rhetorical devices.

    Your contribution is also very important in providing a first-person account of a key forum of debate and decision-making regarding nuclear safety in the United States. Having granted access and the ability to conduct participant observation is an achievement in itself.

    To the concept of “boundary work” you added the qualifier “rhetorical” to describe a list of practices hampering communication and advancement of “democratic governance of risk”. You also suggested that “essential communication processes are impaired when rhetorically-constructed boundaries limit participation and constrain topical framings in discourses of nuclear safety.”

    In this regard, I would like to ask you something that was not clear to me in respect to the normative aspect of your argument. If I follow it correctly, you describe a list of impediments for effective communication to take place. It seems that by highlighting the “rhetorical” dimension of language practices you are also suggesting that, by getting rid of them, communication would effectively ensue. Correct me if I am wrong, but your argument echos a fundamental assumption in respect to language as having communication as its telos. If this is your basic assumption, I wonder how much would we benefit from an approach which would account for a dimension of language connected to symbolic power: language that is instrumentally used not to communicate and establish communion through shared meanings, but to render boundaries visible, to separate, to institute social differences and distances. A useful concept that comes to mind here is the one elaborated by Dominique Maingueneau of “inter-incomprehension” which take place when actors are situated in distant and distinct (historical) discursive matrices (Maingueneau drawn his concept from Foucault’s “Archaeology of Knowledge” and the French school of Discourse Analysis). This concept is really useful to analyze the confrontation of organized anti and pro-nuclear groups.

    Another quick observation: your critical argument that the “stakeholders model” does not effectively include members from the civil society resembles closely the critique advanced by Fortrun in her work on Bhopal. In parallel with your description, Fortrum critizes the corporate maneuvers which were employed by Union Carbide to include members of the community, but render them voiceless (as in “political voice” – incapable to exert influence in decision-making processes). Here, I would like to point out as you did, resides the importance of attending to language practices – at once – as vehicles and exercises of power. Your contribution is very important in bringing this to the forefront for our discussions at NSF workshop,

    • Bill Kinsella permalink

      Thanks for these very thoughtful comments, Luis. For now, let me reply to this point you made:

      “It seems that by highlighting the “rhetorical” dimension of language practices you are also suggesting that, by getting rid of them, communication would effectively ensue. Correct me if I am wrong, but your argument echos a fundamental assumption in respect to language as having communication as its telos. If this is your basic assumption, I wonder how much would we benefit from an approach which would account for a dimension of language connected to symbolic power: language that is instrumentally used not to communicate and establish communion through shared meanings, but to render boundaries visible, to separate, to institute social differences and distances.”

      On this topic, I tend to fall back back on two classic perpectives:

      1. “One cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick, et al): Those rhetorical boundaries are, themselves, communicated (or metacommunicated) and have the very effects you describe.

      2.. Jurgen Habermas makes a distinction between “communicative action” — akin to the “shared meaning” you mention — versus “strategic communication” (and one pernicious form of it, “systematically distorted communication”) — the separating and differncing form you mention. There are many critiques of Habermas, and one of those is the body of work known as “counterpublics theory” — you may be familiar with that literature. The latter has proved useful for studies of protest groups such as the antinuclear movement. So, to make a long story short, we have lots to talk about here….

      I’m not familiar with Maingueneau’s work, but will plan to check it out. I’ve found Foucault useful; will send you an article offline.

      Thanks for your engaged and helpful comment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: