Scholarship Recipient Report #8: Marissa

Attending the Atomic Age II: Fukushima Symposium was a unique opportunity that gave me greater insight into an array of differing perspectives on nuclear energy in today’s world. This experience gave me even further insight into the many different issues of concern, such as the less talked about dangers within the nuclear industry, the ways in which nuclear affects the everyday lives of people – from those affected by the Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster to the lives of those who live near power plants in small towns across America, such as those surrounding Vogtle plants in the state of Georgia. It was shocking for me to see that plans for nuclear plants are still going ahead in many countries of the world despite the nuclear disaster just a little more than one year ago in Japan, and also despite the fact that Fukushima Daiichi is still a very real threat with the clean-up process still in early stages. It is clear that incentives for nuclear energy are still strong, despite this huge concern. Yet, as Dean Wilkie outlined, Fukushima has definitely impacted the global nuclear industry in various spheres from governmental responses, such as Germany shutting down 7 out of 17 reactors amid increasing public concern and general negative opinion towards nuclear energy.

Although I am still in the very early stages of development for both content and methodology, my Master’s research project examines the changes in perception that are taking place within the nuclear energy industry since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster. My particular focus is trying to ascertain how the risks associated with nuclear energy in various contexts are constructed, and how these perceptions are currently changing or influenced by last year’s disaster. One thing I have learned from the symposium is that there seems to be a widening gap in perceptions between the public and the ‘experts’, and also there is a tremendous split within the expert scientific community. There are many pro-nuclear scientists and technological experts, and there are many anti-nuclear scientists and associated experts. Being “pro-nuclear” comes with a certain degree of incentive in terms of economic politics, personal profit, and industrial lobbying. This political economic influence is typically not shared by the experts labeled as “anti-nuclear.” As an example, Mr. Hiroaki Koide, who is most certainly an expert on nuclear energy, and has devoted his life to educating the public and the pro-nuclear experts about the dangers to more personal cost than gain. However, it is important to point out and remember that nuclear politics are certainly not as clear cut as the “pro” and “anti” labels suggest, with the nuclear industry is riddled with an unprecedented degree of complexity as a result of government involvement, military interconnectedness, and public demands for electricity. There are experts that are pro-nuclear energy but anti-nuclear weapon proliferation, such as Robert Rosner, who spoke to the symposium via video.

Meanwhile, whilst there is an arguable split within expert perceptions and understandings of nuclear energy, it also became clear to me in this symposium that the public/expert gap is widening. In Ruiko Muto’s heartfelt talk, something that really struck a chord was how the public are often portrayed as being paranoid, holding to unsubstantiated or illegitimate fears of radiation, regardless of how much or how little they as individuals might know. This ostracizing and demeaning of public opinion seems particularly harsh and auspicious in the context of the very hard fact that threats and concerns associated with nuclear energy and radiation are very real. Chernobyl should have been enough to teach us that. Fukushima is only one more example, yet one which cannot so easily be blamed on the irregularities and faults associated with a disenfranchised, failing Soviet Union.

As Bobbie Paul noted, the issue of public opinion discrimination on the “scientific” topic of risk is highly relevant to the community she studied in Georgia, where people are ridiculed for ‘illegitimate’ fears associated with living with nuclear power plants within walking distance. This is most likely a question of risk for what? Or possibly the need to discern risk of “how likely” from risk of “how dangerous” (in the event that an incident does arise). There is also the perspective of time, in terms of passing generations and the inevitable warfare and natural calamities to be considered.

All of these factors for risk are something that I would very much like to understand more. Dr. Jeffrey Patterson, who clearly demonstrated how radiation is a very real threat today and for the future of our society, not just in terms of nuclear energy but also from other types of exposures, demonstrated an important dichotomy for risk. While the medical risk from radiation is more or less the same whether from a nuclear reactor or a medical diagnostic test, the social concern and concepts of risk separating these various radioactive exposure sources differ radically. At the same time, I think there needs to be a deeper understanding for how many people within the public sphere do not have the capacity, or do not want to know about radiation risks, because they simply have no choice. Risk perception may be a question of prioritization associated with immediate and long-term necessity more than anything else.

So these are just some of the issues with how risks of nuclear energy are perceived, but the issues which struck me most and caught my interest during the Atomic Age II Symposium. To summarize, there are many risks associated with nuclear energy such as reactor faults, radioactive waste spillage in transportation or storage, poorly regulated commercial dispersal of both enriched and depleted forms of radioactive uranium, environmental vulnerabilities, vulnerability as a military or terrorist targets, and inevitable links to nuclear weapon proliferation. There are varying perspectives on perception of risks, including perspectives tied to specific government, industrial, or public residential interests. The balance of actual risk with political and economically mediated risk perceptions gets even more complicated with the highly secretive, confidential, and governmentally regulated nature of the nuclear industry. As Dr. Patterson and Mr. Koide mention, the nuclear energy industry is riddled with secrecy. Yet to know that the issue of public radioactive concern from nuclear energy is at least being discussed in a public and scientific arena is reassuring. Following this symposium, I feel inspired to continue research to figure out where differing perceptions lie, what makes them differ, how they may have been changed by Fukushima, how the public can become better educated in the face of “expert” assumptions for stupidity, and how scientific expertise can better incorporate concerns of the public, and the safety and well-being of our children’s children.

Marissa Bell

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