Nuclear Power

Could Scientists Have Prevented the Fukushima Meltdown?

Understanding risk and responsibility after a nuclear disaster.

Workers carry out radiation screening on a bus for a media tour at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (Tepco) Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma Town, Fukushima Prefecture on May 26, 2012
Workers carry out radiation screening on a bus for a media tour at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s (Tepco) Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma Town, Fukushima Prefecture on May 26, 2012

Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/AFP/Getty Images

Three-Eleven is what they call the disaster. On March 11, 2011, all hell broke loose when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the eastern coast of Japan. As if that weren’t enough, a massive tsunami followed about an hour later, churning over everything in its path for some 200 square miles.

Entire cities were lost. Some 16,000 people died. But it wasn’t over yet. The disaster would further its assault on locals and send chills down spines worldwide once the floodwaters receded and people realized the disaster that was unfolding in the seaside prefecture of Fukushima.                                                      

The tsunami topped a seawall and knocked out the power and backup generators at Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. That killed the pumps that bathed radioactive fuel rods in water and kept them from melting. The cores in three reactors melted down. Seawater was used for emergency cooling and was highly contaminated; unknown amounts escaped into the environment. The promise of safe, limitless power flickered around the world.

Before the disaster, about 600,000 people lived within 30 kilometers of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. By the end of March 2011, more than half of that population had been evacuated. Many will never return to their homes.

In October 2011, the Science Council of Japan organized a committee to rethink reconstruction with an eye toward the social responsibility of science and scientists. Little more than a year later, I visited Tokyo for a conference on the impact of Fukushima on the ocean and the future of nuclear power in Japan.

“Science and technology enable us to make more use of the natural environment,” said Takashi Onishi, a professor of engineering and current president of the Science Council of Japan. “Then, we have been bringing people closer to the danger that a natural disaster may cause.”

Standing before a conference room filled with jet-lagged international scientists and reporters, Onishi explained that seawalls intended to protect against tsunamis gave residents a false sense of security. In another time, would people have lived so close?

Some people have said that Japan should have known better. The earthquake and tsunami were unprecedented, but they weren’t out of the question. Others have accused the nuclear industry of being too friendly with their regulators.

There is a myth in Japan that nuclear power plants are so safe that to suggest safety improvements would be illogical, said Onishi. “[The accident] showed that nuclear power plants are not safe, although the myth of absolute safety of nuclear power plants has been dominating the policies of this country.”

Japan has a complicated history with the split atom. Forever scarred by the sinister side of nuclear fission, the island nation has also relied on nuclear power to build its economy.

The Fukushima accident caused political fallout. First came reports that Japan would try to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2040, the New York Times reported in September 2012. Similar talk of nuclear phase out took place in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. By December, the tide seemed to turn as Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, hinted at nuclear growth. Even after one of the worst accidents in nuclear history, Japan cannot give up nuclear power.

What is the responsibility of Japan’s scientists? To overcome the safety myth, scientists and policymakers need to strike a delicate balance of proximity and distance. This balance was lost in the case of Fukushima, said John Crowley, leader of UNESCO’s Social Dimensions of Global Environmental Change team.

“The experts were far too close to the decision makers … the expertise was not independent enough,” said Crowley. “If scientists are too far from the policy process, then science cannot meaningfully contribute to it, but if they are too close, then it distorts and perverts the science.”

An independent review of the accident carried out by a Japanese council during the first six months of 2012 found a tangled mess of government agencies responsible for both promoting and regulating nuclear power. The report called the accident “man-made,” accusing lawmakers, regulators, and the utility company of negligence. It’s not clear what role nuclear scientists played before the accident, but the situation had the precarious proximity-to-distance balance of a 4-year-old in stilettos.

Finding balance can be tricky, and there is no universal consensus on the social responsibilities of scientists, let alone how far these responsibilities should go.

In the life sciences, concerns about how new information or technologies could be used for harm has shined a light on the larger ethical and social responsibilities of scientists. Similarly, psychologists and anthropologists are debating their roles in aid of military objectives. Should psychologists aid in interrogations? Do embedded anthropologists diffuse cultural conflict or reveal targets for attack?

In the 1950s, Congress addressed the risks and benefits of civilian use of radioactive material, said Scott Burrell, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Right from the get-go, the concept of incorporating social responsibility into the civilian use of radioactive material has been there.”

The NRC is charged with ensuring the responsible use of nuclear materials and maintaining public safety when nuclear materials are in use, especially in the event of an accident. The agency relies on its own staff of experts, the scientific community, and concerned citizens to inform decisions.

“There is an expectation that is strongly embedded in society that there are people with certain expertise who we count on as a society to provide guidance and advice,” said Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “If there is a major policy issue before the U.S. Congress, one could say scientists have a responsibility to use their expertise in a way that helps our Congress to make better scientifically based and informed decisions.” If you know something, society expects you to come forward, he said.

But that’s an undertaking easier said than done for most. One of the great miscommunications between scientists and the lay public is about the nature of risk. Why? Well, risk is hard to explain.

For the public, the word uncertainty often implies a lack of knowledge or unpredictability. For scientists, this isn’t the meaning at all. “If scientists say there is uncertainty, people assume that means they don’t know, but in many areas of science … it’s completely the other way around,” said Crowley. “The ability of scientists to put a figure on uncertainty isn’t a sign of ignorance. It’s a sign of how much they know.”

Anticipating the risk of some future event—earthquakes, nuclear accidents, finances and economies—requires transparency in risk assessment that includes an estimation of the uncertainty, said Stephen Sparks a volcanologist at the University of Bristol. “Decision makers, politicians, and members of the public can find probabilities difficult to handle and explain … but we haven’t got any other choice.”

An Italian court found six scientists guilty of manslaughter after their expert earthquake counsel gave L’Aquila residents a false sense of security. The sheer absurdity of the case rocked the scientific community. Would L’Aquila set a dangerous precedent of criminalization of scientists? If too much were expected of scientists, if the personal risks were too high, would they stop talking?

Let’s hope not.

Four million people live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant in the United States. Expand the range to 20 miles, and that number grows to 18.5 million.

At the end of 2011, 435 nuclear power reactors were in operation worldwide and 65 new reactors were under construction.

It may be scary, but nuclear power is here to stay. So how do we finally come to terms with a technology rife with potential yet shrouded in tragedy? We rely on the masters of the atom, the gods of fission, the lords of radiation on high—nuclear scientists—to make it all make sense.

Across the science community, including the nuclear sciences, the discussion of social responsibility has begun. If Fukushima has taught us anything, it’s that those in the know are best equipped to keep the industry honest and the public safe.