It’s with pleasure that I introduce the first ever guest post to Decarbonise SA by my good friend, Nic Bartlett.
Nic is an old mate of mine from undergraduate university days. A fellow South Australian by upbringing, Nic has been a resident of Fukushima Province in Japan for the past several years. He teaches in English at a secondary school and pursues a serious training regimen in the sport of kendo, in which he has attained the level of Australian Champion, and has competed at the World Championships. So if you dislike his post enough to physically attack him, first be sure that he is not carrying a stick of any kind.
Following the quake (which he was genuinely fortunate to survive) and tsunami, Nic and a cohort of Australian’s hop scotched their way across a damaged nation and finally back to Australia, to the waiting arms of concerned friends and family. At the time, I had a growing profile as a commentator on matters nuclear, and through the medium of Facebook Nic challenged me with the most pertinent of questions: Would I take myself and my family back? He must have felt ok with my answer, because we caught up a few days later to talk things through. Nic has since returned to Fukushima to continue his teaching and training.
I feel deeply privileged to publish this piece, as I feel it is a perspective that is yet to get much air out of the Japanese nuclear event: someone who is not a nuclear expert, is neither foolish, reactionary or knee-jerk about the matter, but who also has very relevant insights into the nature of risk, decision-making, and most crucially trust that are borne out of both direct experience of the event, and understanding of the grave shortfalls of Japanese (global?) corporate culture and political governance. I don’t totally agree with everything Nic is saying, but I think we “experts” (I begin to cautiously include myself in that group) can and must learn from what Nic has to say if we are serious about the social acceptance of nuclear power.
I’ll be back for an afterword, but now it’s over to Nic.
There is a lot of trial and error that goes on when it comes to perfecting science and it’s child: technology.
I guess that’s why we have product recalls, receipts for purchases, why we get a warranty when we buy cars and computers, and further, why newer models of things are always being built…
We concede that, despite design, technology often fails before it’s meant to and in ways that are unforeseen. But we continue to use technology because it’s useful most of the time and because, more often than not, the worst that will happen is having to replace the toaster or get in line with everyone at the Apple Store service counter. It could probably be said that in day-to-day life people decide to use common technologies out of convenience, perceiving minimal risk and without really paying attention to the science behind them.
When I’ve expressed concern about living 60km from Fukushima Daiichi, some people have been quick to reassure me. They quote me low decimal numbers, and talk about all the other risks that I take in day to day life that could be relatively higher than living where I do in Fukushima. They also suggest that there’s a choice to be made between ‘believing the facts and trusting the science’ over ‘succumbing to fear and getting sucked in by the hype.’ Others tell me that I should ‘hope for the best and plan for the worst’ – that the decision to stick around could prove to be the dumbest thing I ever do. The trouble I see with the former is that I don’t believe the wisdom surrounding this issue to be quite so dichotomous; fear vs. science. The problem with the latter style of advice is that I’ve been here for 5 years and am very attached to my life in Japan. If someone can show me it’s safe in both the short and long term, I’m all ears. But no one can really do that, so I’m back to making the best decision I can with the information I’ve got.
I think the biggest part of wisdom as it relates to choices lies not with knowing an answer, rather knowing how to go about making a decision. I guess it’s a given that we make decisions using information. But to be honest I’m finding the information in this case to be a bit unclear, sometimes scarce and even conflicting at times. I guess fear as it relates to the unforeseen or to potential is likely not the best source of information and largely stems from peoples’ opinions – which can be hit or miss… The remainder of the information I have here is this science that so many people are telling me to trust, albeit that I might not be able to understand some of it. Should I trust in the opinions of those who say they understand and believe in it? Is science truth all the time? Is behaviour or opinion based on a scientist’s advice correct when it comes to making a decision here? Who do I follow when the scientists themselves disagree and are divided? I started to have a layman’s think about what science actually is. The following is what I came up with…
I believe the laws of nature to be consistent and reliable.
I believe that science, as human observation and use of said laws, is consistent and reliable often.
A proponent of all things science might present the two (law of nature and science) as being one and the same, to be trusted equally.
I think there is just that, an issue of trust.
But I would argue: trust, not in science as a constant and infallible set of truths which represent nature, but in the diligence and accuracy of those who interpret nature and create the science that enables our technology.
Trust me, I’m a scientist
We already trust that nature’s laws are constant. That’s why we build breakwaters to protect us from tsunami. And why, even when the scientific weather report says “fine”, I still leave the umbrella in the car during winter – just in case.
Lots of people trusted driving their Toyota Prius until not so long ago when the brakes on a few of them stopped working and some poor folks died. Is the fact that we all get in our cars and drive X kilometers everyday and explicit gesture that we trust the science that went into every aspect of making our cars? Is it even an implicit gesture? Or do we just drive cars because that’s what people do: make and drive cars. That, and we consider the relative risk of doing so to be known and acceptable to us. Perhaps it’s because, even in the worst case scenario, the car failing might only mean a handful of deaths secondary to a road accident.
I guess, at the end of the day, the brakes of one or two or even one-hundred Toyota’s crashing on the road (even killing a bunch of people) because of faulty and failing brakes doesn’t mean we blame the science used in the manufacturing of our cars, we blame the manufacturer… And maybe we become a little more reluctant to buy or ride in a Prius anytime soon… But we don’t turn in our licenses and start walking everywhere.
I know my discourse about cars may seem a little long-winded and persistent, but I feel it demonstrates an important point…
When you are suggesting that people trust the science, perhaps you are actually just telling them to trust in people.
Science is something people do rather than something that is.
Science has done a lot of good in this world, no one could argue against that point. It has cured disease and helped us to live longer, healthier lives. It has provided us with technology that enables many things. But there are also a number of mistakes made that lead to technologies that fail and sometimes end up hurting people or the environment in the process.
CFCs did not work out so well. Image from NASA
So, amongst the growing debate about the safety of nuclear energy production, there exists a lot of fear, even paranoia as it relates to the unknown – and sure, this is only human… Then, there is a whole gamete of related scientific works that divide scientists themselves – again despite given ‘data’ learned people still come to differences in opinion about what the data suggests… On top of all this, nuclear energy production is a multi-billion dollar industry, supporting the economies and infrastructure of countries worldwide. Maintaining and protecting this industry is certainly in the perceived interests of many who, perhaps influenced, would develop agendas which both: drive and promote the science and, lead them to comment to the debate over the safety and efficacy of nuclear energy production.
All things considered, I feel it’s not just paranoia that warrants a knowing smile or inspires sarcasm and could have humans laughing at their own fears and sensibility… Absolute and unwavering belief in all things science (at least, in this case) is well worthy too.
And at the end of the day all of: paranoia, belief, sarcasm, science, agendas and industry are just things people made up. And people get sh!t wrong all the time.
We now have lots of locations producing nuclear power across the earth. I think its fair to say that we, through both and ‘trial and error’ in the design and practice of technology, know a bit about how to go about producing nuclear power. That is to say that we know more now than we did when the world’s first nuclear power plants were being installed. But when the world’s first nuclear power plant was to be built and was still at its design and proposal stages, should it’s commissioner or designer have told us that accidents like Chernobyl, TMI and Fukushima were possible, would we have gone ahead and had it built? I’m not so sure. At least, I’m not sure that we would have viewed the conception of nuclear power so fondly back then if we thought these events were on the cards. It just seems as though we’re now forgiving the risks, not because they’re insignificant, but because perceive we have no choice, practically and financially speaking… Despite the risks we’ve already gone so far down the road pursuing nuclear energy production to turn back – even if, in reality, the risks could be more significant than once thought.
Climate change considered, nuclear is certainly the lesser of two evils when comparing it and that of fossil fuel energy production. That is to say, when both kinds of facilities are running as per their designs and without accident…
But what about accidents? What’s the worst case scenario with a nuclear power facility? It’s given that, anything imagined or foreseen we can plan for… But I think we can safely say that history teaches us the limitations of our planning. It teaches us that eventually the ‘unforeseen’ comes to put our designs and plans to the test. This ‘unforeseen’ isn’t just natural disaster, mistakes in science or design flaw – it is all of those things plus: human error, complacency and dishonesty; agendas of money or belief…
Fukushima Daiichi isn’t failing now because big earthquakes and tsunami are ‘unforeseen’ events in Japan. Both are predictable. Both are ‘foreseen’ when it comes to living in this country. But this government, its industry and a company entrusted with producing electrical power whilst ensuring the safety of people… has failed. And, when boiled down in hindsight, the reason for the failure were choices of money over safety, and saving face over admission of mistakes.
Former TEPCO President Matsataka Shimuzu bows to evacuees. If I had to guess, I’d say they would have preferred a smaller bow in the safety of their homes…
That nuclear reactor near your home, near where the milk you drink is produced, near where the vegetables you eat are grown, near where your kids go to school… Is it safe in the worst case scenario of both natural disaster and human neglect? In my mind, answering “Yes” to this question is at least as much a matter of trust as scientific logic.
It scares me a little to say so, but after March 11th this year my remaining here has become less to do with trust… More so, a faith and hope that things here will stabilize and the feeling that my life here holds significant meaning for me personally.
So, to all of you who are ‘pro-nuclear’: I get where you’re coming from. Trading up from fossil fuel energy production to nuclear will mean good things for our earth and economies – if all goes to plan…
… But sorry, you don’t get to build Fukushima Daiichi’s replacement anywhere near my home or family unless you have my trust. And that trust needs to go well beyond that of the scientific design of the reactor and its containment vessel. I want to know that I and my family will be safe in the worst possible scenario of natural disaster, human error or neglect – where the earth splits beneath it, rain floods it, a jumbo jet falls on it and we find out in hindsight that it’s been left ill-maintained and neglected all in the one day… I want to know that we are safe from the fallout of such an accident. And I want to know that you too would build a house right next to it and happy live out the remainder of your years there with your family despite any risk, forseen or otherwise …
This safety is what the people of Fukushima were promised by Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese government when a bunch of nuclear reactors were built to supply Tokyo with electricity all those years ago.
I still live in Fukushima. I live 60km from Daiichi. I live here, not because I think nuclear power is safe beyond all doubt. I have lived here and continue to live here because I love it and I find significant meaning in my life here. I’m here because, in several ways, it feels like home. And that, for me, motivates any personal risk I choose to take from here on in.
But that is not a risk any one person has the given right to ask another to take.
Nic got me thinking about trust.
Prior to beginning my specialisation in climate change, I worked for some time in the discipline of risk communication. A (the?) key component of achieving good risk communication outcomes is trust between parties.
One of the gurus in this field, Dr Peter Sandman, used to talk about the nature of trust in the context of community-based environmental and safety committees for hazardous facilities like nuclear power plants, waste treatment facilities, and chemical manufacturing. At first, the community volunteers attend and press the facility owner very, very hard. Over time, you know the committee is being run well and effectively when they stop bothering to show up to meetings. It means they now both have a more realistic understanding of the hazards in question, and they now trust the people in charge of managing the hazard. “When that happens” Sandman would say, “You put on a jazz band”.
His point was that in managing such locations you must never, at any cost, take the trust of the local community, and a level of knowledge and understanding of your operations, for granted. You must do whatever it takes to maintain engagement with them. You never know when you will need to call on that trust.
TEPCO manifestly failed in this regard over a period of 40 years. It showed for the whole world to see in the confused and terrified residents being moved from their homes. How different it would have looked to see residents calmly leaving their home near the reactor, saying something like:
“We are sad to be leaving our homes, and what is happening at the plant is concerning. But we understand what is happening and that the levels of radiation cannot do us much harm, but we also understand the need to take precautions at the moment. Our concerns are with the workers who need to be close to it. We will go, and then maintain communication about when we can confidently return”.
Or something like that. I realise it would have made crap television, and I realise you may think it’s impossible. It isn’t, but it takes a dramatically different set of skills to those generally regarded as important in operating hazardous facilities to get an outcome like that. Most fail, but because catastrophe never occurs it doesn’t matter. TEPCO failed, and it mattered a lot. Moving that many people from home in a state of fear could easily have resulted in harm, including death and injury, in excess of the hazard from which they were being moved. Furthermore, had they been putting in the effort it might have been some bright spark from the community committee who chimed in with the question: “So what is protecting the back-up power supply if there is a tsunami?”. There’s nothing like your own family’s safety to get you thinking outside the square.
We are a long way from a nuclear industry needing those skills in Australia but I look forward to pressing the issue when we are closer. Right now though I need to make sure I am a trusted voice. In my profile on the Decarbonise SA site, I say this in the first paragraph:
I want to earn your support, and that starts with explaining the background and motivations that have brought this website to life.
I didn’t use the key word, but clearly what I am getting at is trust. People need to first trust that I am doing this for the right reasons; then they might listen to my “facts”. Those of us seeking to advance this issue need to demonstrate wherever possible that we are worthy of that trust. Then we have a much greater chance of succeeding in bringing people with us on the journey of learning and decision-making for climate change and energy.
I’m working at it. I get in front of people and look them in the eye. I take your comments on board. I have edited posts after dialogue on the site to better reflect the truth. I have requested the “Smug Alert”. Stay on my back. Nic is right. Trust is everything.