Morality and Law
Fukushima Disaster Ten Years On: Risk to Society and Academic Hypocrisy

We are all seeing a renewed surge of interest in the concept of a global risk society right now in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. After Chernobyl and Fukushima, this virus has become the third global example for its practical verification, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

March 11 marks ten years since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan which led to a large-scale accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. This catastrophe became the second-worst, in terms of importance and radioactive release, after the Chernobyl accident of 1986, and the only one apart from Chernobyl to receive the highest (level 7) rank on the International Nuclear Event Scale. However, for the sake of accuracy, it should be noted that in terms of the release of radioactive materials, Fukushima, according to various estimates, was about three orders of magnitude less than Chernobyl, and it is not entirely correct to directly equate them.

But no matter how you count the levels of radioactive release, it is clear that the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was a global shock in economic and social terms. It had serious negative consequences for Japan itself. These included the huge financial costs associated with its liquidation, the resettlement of residents from the exclusion zone, and much more. Japan, the only country to have suffered from the military use of the atomic bomb, has a particular historical sensitivity to nuclear disasters; this played a social and psychological role in the perception of the accident.

In the post-Fukushima world, a heated discussion unfolded about the future of nuclear power, and about its safety, which led to the curtailment or reduction of nuclear power plant programmes in a number of countries. And here, in our opinion, the negative consequences from the accident itself were supplemented by a very significant negative narrative on the part of not impartial (and, apparently, not disinterested) academic expertise on both sides. It is clear that in such an economically and financially significant industry as energy, this controversy was closely related to the lobbying and anti-lobbying of various corporate groups. And therefore, it was far from objective and impartial in nature. This lobbying struggle, unfortunately, made academic science its instrument to a large extent. Alas, high-browed intellectual experts (the so-called conscience of the nation), as in other branches of science, were no strangers to the temptation of lobbying, both in the form of access to grants and funding for scientific projects, and with respect to strengthening their media, corporate and political influence. As a result, academic hypocrisy (a highly interesting but highly understudied sociological phenomenon) manifested itself in all its glory in this post-Fukushima nuclear controversy. We repeat, this happened on both sides (both among opponents and supporters of nuclear energy).

The nuclear sphere, where this phenomenon was clearly manifested after Fukushima, is by no means the only one of its kind. Among other examples of such academic hypocrisy, one can recall, for comparison, the extremely high impact of corporate lobbying on science in the field of pharmaceuticals and medicine (which is now especially relevant for society and often socially dangerous in the context of the coronavirus pandemic).
The COVID-19 Vaccine: The Public Domain or Is Everyone for Himself?

In the social sciences, this lobbying order is obvious, for example, in the wars of historical memory (where the positions transmitted by scholars on both sides are often far from academic objectivity), in the politically significant construction of national identity, in the solid synthesis of lobbying and academic expertise in the development of various development strategies and counter-strategies, societies, and economies in certain states (often timed to coincide with special dates). It is often possible to see simple political lobbying of this or that state reflected in academic research (published both at home and abroad). As a result, science is becoming another instrument of soft power for individual states. As a particular example, in the complex relations between the states of the Eurasian Economic Union, such an approach, when one EAEU state uses academics from another state to promote its interests in the media and shape public opinion in this other country, has acquired, in our opinion, a very tangible scope in recent years. This can, by the way, raise the question of new challenges to national security emerging from this academic hypocrisy. Thus, this problem covers many areas of science, but it was the reaction of the academic community to Fukushima that highlighted it, perhaps for the first time so clearly.

It is a fact that electricity generated by nuclear power plants is generally cheaper than energy from both hydrocarbon power plants and green power plants with renewable energy sources, and often cheaper than energy from hydroelectric power plants.
The key question is how this cheapness correlates with the risk of having a large-scale accident like Chernobyl or Fukushima once in a generation.

And how confidently can we talk about nuclear safety during the operation of a nuclear power plant? More broadly, is it possible at all (and if so, how much) to consider nuclear energy part of the “green transformation”? Any answers to these key questions, unfortunately, as we understand, are highly susceptible to the aforementioned synthesis of corporate lobbying and academic hypocrisy on both sides. This should always be kept in mind when making political decisions in this area.

Another topic, very characteristic, is that it was Fukushima, following Chernobyl, that led to newfound expert and media interest in the development of the concept of “Risk Society”. Immediately after the Chernobyl disaster, the famous German sociologist Ulrich Beck published his book with the concept and the very term “risk society”. He called the increase in risks and their constant, inherent nature within society an inevitable consequence of modernisation, both technological and social. Later, in the same post-Chernobyl years, the concept of “risk society” received additional theoretical elaboration in the works of Anthony Giddens.
When Disasters and Epidemics Become a New Normal
Oleg Barabanov
Over the past half century, or in the 75 years since the end of World War II, the human community has developed at an unprecedented speed. The scientific and technological revolution led to a real breakthrough in the field of transport communications; the Internet and mobile communications not only caused a revolution, but also qualitatively changed the areas of trade, investment, etc. Globalisation, understood not only as a single system of world trade, but as a new quality of mobility and the interconnectedness of people, has become a reality that transcends state borders.

Then, as society calmed down in the initial years after Chernobyl, the concept of risk society lost its primary global interest, and, as it would seem, found its place exclusively in the pages of sociology textbooks as one of many theoretical constructions. But after the Fukushima accident, this concept gained new popularity, both in the expert community and among the general public. Incidentally, after Fukushima, a number of politically incorrect sociological works appeared in relation to Japanese society, where special emphasis was placed on a kind of inevitable fatalism inherent in Japan’s attitudes toward risk in society. According to this logic, the Japanese live in natural conditions where recurring earthquakes and tsunamis are inevitable, and Japanese society has developed a certain fatalism in the face of disasters and resigned itself to the fact that since sooner or later they will occur, there is no need to worry too much about them psychologically. One just needs to be ready to effectively eliminate their consequences. After technological modernisation, this fatalism in the face of natural threats was combined with the same attitude towards industrial accidents. The fact that they can happen has come to be perceived as a kind of living normal. This psychological attitude, according to the conclusions of the authors of these works, has allowed the Japanese both to quickly and effectively eliminate the consequences of the Fukushima accident, and to maintain a positive attitude in society and not go to the extremes of anti-nuclear alarmism, unlike in a number of other countries.

Is this conclusion significant for the global level of risk society? Is such fatalism inevitable and justified (both psychologically and politically)? We are all seeing a renewed surge of interest in the concept of a global risk society right now in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. After Chernobyl and Fukushima, this virus has become the third global example for its practical verification. How important are the socio-psychological and expert lessons of Fukushima for the global response to the coronavirus? Is there a place for fatalism, academic hypocrisy and other consequences? Each reader can offer his own answer.
Five Years After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Sees Unlikely Revival
Anton Khlopkov
45 out of the 60 countries which planned to develop nuclear power before the Fukushima disaster continue to consider it an option for meeting their energy needs in the future.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.