Disowning Fukushima: Managing the credibility of nuclear reliability assessment in the wake of disaster

Authors

  • John Downer

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Sociology Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
    • Correspondence: John Downer, School of Sociology Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol, 11 Priory Rd, Bristol BS8 1TU, UK. Email: jrd22@cornell.edu

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Abstract

This paper reflects on the credibility of nuclear risk assessment in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns. 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.

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