Fukushima: Cultural Capital, Scientific Measurements, Political Denial

Three Realities: Cultural Capital, Scientific Measurements, Political Denial

The magnitude of the earthquake that hit North-East Japan was 9.0, the fourth largest on record in modern times. The earthquake and tsunami risk was on the level of once in a thousand years, for this region: the last comparable earthquake in that region occurred in 869, according to historical and archeological evidence. In a shocking and totally unpredictable way, this disaster exhibited the hidden every-day culture of Japanese society. The dignified attitudes of survivors and the efficiency of their mutual help networks indicate the high level of civility instituted in the North-East of Japan. This tangible cultural capital will be an enormously positive asset for the social and economic recovery of the region.

In stark contrast, the very serious problems with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima have unearthed another, more problematic aspect of Japanese culture:

  • their amazing ability of political denial in the face of scientific facts. 
  • I am gravely concerned that this disaster reveals the long-term practice of a hidden organizational culture related to the use of nuclear technology with a completely disfunctional regulatory system.
  • It is truly alarming to see the government projecting to the public an imaginary third political reality, in which the first reality of the scientific radiation measurements is covered up in order to highlight the second reality of the social resilience of the Japanese public.

Risk-taking is an integral part of our every day life. Constructing and operating huge public projects involves the issue of appropriate levels of risk and budget considerations. But when combined with an organizational culture of structural secrecy and organizational conformity, it has grave consequences, in spite of all the courage of individual engineers, workers and fire fighters now toiling around the clock in life threatening circumstances at Fukushima Daiichi.

I am writing a longer essay with Junichiro Makino, professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, who has been expressing his concerns in his Japanese blog on this issue since March 12th. His main point is that the situation is much closer to the Chernobyl disaster than the official understated governmental interpretation lets us believe. After two weeks, the ongoing problems at the Fukushima reactors are in line with Prof. Makino’s dire predictions. Here are some salient points.

  • Already on March 17th, six days after the earthquake, following explosions at Fukushima’s Daiichi nuclear power plant, the radiation level in the surroundings were comparable to that of Chernobyl. In one small village, Namie-machi, 30 km the plant, the radiation level was measured to be 170 microsievert/ hour. This value corresponds to an amount of I-131 of 1.3×10^14 Bq/km^2. This probably corresponds to an amount of Cs-131 of 3×10^12 Bq/km^2, roughly the same value as what was observed 30 km from Chernobyl. This measurement was taken by a team, reportedly led by the vice minister Kan Suzuki of Ministry of Education (MEXT).
  • Thus, already six days after the accident, it should have been clear that the amount of radioactivity released is comparable to that of Chernobyl. Even so, as of March 25, representatives of Tokyo Electric and NISA (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) still stick to their estimate that the accident is at INES level 5, corresponding to 10,000 times less release of radioactivity than what was actually measured. This is inexcusable.
  • On March 22nd, DoE released data recorded from its Aerial Monitoring System, which shows that the heavily polluted area, with more than 125 microSievert/hour, was extended in the North-West direction of Fukushima-Daiichi over more than 30 km. On March 23, MEXT released results of their analysis of soil samples, 40 km North-West from the reactor, which, not surprizingly, was extremely high in both I-131 and Cs-137. According to the MEXT measurements, the amount of Cs-137 is 10-20% of that of I-137. So the level of pollution by Cs-137 might be as high as 2×10^13 Bq/km^2 at 30km distance.

In conclusion, the Japanese public, and the world at large, have been confronted with different realities: MEXT has been reporting a very high level of radioactivity since March 17th, comparable or ever higher than that of Chernobyl, and yet NISA and Tokyo Electric apparently refuse to accept what is going on. The one reality is based on scientific measurements. What can we say about the other “reality”?

It might look very strange to outside observers that there can be this large a discrepancy between what is so obvious and the official view. Unfortunately, in Japanese bureaucratic systems, such a situation is quite usual. For big projects like nuclear plants, there is of course an evaluation committee consisting of both specialists and scientists from wider fields.

However, scientists critical to a project are quickly replaced by others who are willing to accept a more cozy relationship with the powers that be, with the result that such committees can easily wind up with a vast majority of dangerously uncritical members. In this unfortunate symbiosis of supportive scientists and bureaucrats, companies tend to lose an objective view of reality. In the case of the Fukushima disaster, it is hard for us to know whether they have really lost their grip on reality, or whether they only pretend to have done so. In the end, though, that does not matter much: the practical result in terms of clinging to an imaginary political reality is the same.

The only surprising thing is that even at this stage they are still behaving as though they have completely lost touch with reality. They continue the illusion of a relatively small accident that can be fixed in “just a few days”, totally ignoring the reality of an ongoing Chernobyl-type situation. Yes, it is true that Chernobyl started with one huge explosion that caused the main contamination. But now that the Fukushima plant is producing a similar amount of contamination over a period of two weeks, with no end in sight, it is altogether possible that over the period of March and April the total contamination will significantly exceed that of Chernobyl.


Professor of Sociology, The New School for Social Research; Author, Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and Political Origins of Japanese Culture