Episode Summary

In our last episode, we touched on nuclear safety, and so we’ve decided to dig a little deeper into that topic on today’s podcast. We’ll be discussing the paper entitled, “Disowning Fukushima: Managing the credibility of nuclear reliability assessment in the wake of disaster.” by John Downer (2014), published in the journal Regulation & Governance.

Episode Notes

The paper’s abstract reads:

This paper reflects on the credibility of nuclear risk assessment in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. In democratic states, policymaking around nuclear energy has long been premised on an understanding that experts can objectively and accurately calculate the probability of catastrophic accidents. Yet the Fukushima disaster lends credence to the substantial body of social science research that suggests such calculations are fundamentally unworkable. Nevertheless, the credibility of these assessments appears to have survived the disaster, just as it has resisted the evidence of previous nuclear accidents. This paper looks at why. It argues that public narratives of the Fukushima disaster invariably frame it in ways that allow risk-assessment experts to “disown” it. It concludes that although these narratives are both rhetorically compelling and highly consequential to the governance of nuclear power, they are not entirely credible.

Discussion Points:

  • Following up on a topic in episode 100 – nuclear safety and risk assessment
  • The narrative around planes, trains, cars and nuclear – risks vs. safety
  • Planning for disaster when you’ve promised there’s never going to be a nuclear disaster
  • The 1975 WASH-1400 Studies
  • Japanese disasters in the last 100 years
  • Four tenets of Downer’s paper:
    • The risk assessments themselves did not fail
    • Relevance Defense: The failure of one assessment is not relevant to the other assessments
    • Compliance Defense: The assessments were sound, but people did not behave the way they were supposed to/did not obey the rules
    • Redemption Defense: The assessments were flawed, but we fixed them
  • Theories such as: Fukushima did happen – but not an actual ‘accident/meltdown’ – it basically withstood a tsunami when the country was flattened
  • Residents of Fukushima – they were told the plant was ‘safe’
  • The relevance defense, Chernobyl, and 3 Mile Island
  • Boeing disasters, their risk assessments, and blame
  • At the time of Fukushima, Japanese regulation and engineering was regarded as superior
  • This was not a Japanese reactor! It’s a U.S. design
  • The compliance defense, human error
  • The redemption defense, regulatory bodies taking all Fukushima elements into account
  • Downer quotes Peanuts comics in the paper – lessons – Lucy can’t be trusted!
  • This paper is not about what’s wrong with risk assessments- it’s about how we defend what we do
  • Takeaways:
  • Uncertainty is always present in risk assessments
  • You can never identify all failure modes
  • Three things always missing: anticipating mistakes, anticipating how complex tech is always changing, anticipating all of the little plastic connectors that can break
  • Assumptions – be wary, check all the what-if scenarios
  • Just because a regulator declares something safe, doesn’t mean it is
  • Answering our episode question: You must question risk assessments CONSTANTLY


“It’s a little bit surprising we don’t scrutinize the ‘control’ every time it fails.” – Drew

“In the case of nuclear power, we’re in this awkward situation where, in order to prepare emergency plans, we have to contradict ourselves.” – Drew

“If systems have got billions of potential ’billion to one’ accidents then it’s only expected that we’re going to see accidents from time to time.” – David

“As the world gets more and more complex, then our parameters for these assessments need to become equally as complex.” – David

“The mistakes that people make in these [risk assessments] are really quite consistent.” – Drew


Disowning Fukushima Paper by John Downer

WASH-1400 Studies

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