How Can Scientists Prevent Another Fukushima?

The future of fusion and fission.
Jan. 31 2013 8:03 AM

Could Scientists Have Prevented the Fukushima Meltdown?

Understanding risk and responsibility after a nuclear disaster.

(Continued from Page 1)

An independent review of the accident carried out by a Japanese council during the first six months of 2012 found a tangled mess of government agencies responsible for both promoting and regulating nuclear power. The report called the accident “man-made,” accusing lawmakers, regulators, and the utility company of negligence. It’s not clear what role nuclear scientists played before the accident, but the situation had the precarious proximity-to-distance balance of a 4-year-old in stilettos.

Finding balance can be tricky, and there is no universal consensus on the social responsibilities of scientists, let alone how far these responsibilities should go.

In the life sciences, concerns about how new information or technologies could be used for harm has shined a light on the larger ethical and social responsibilities of scientists. Similarly, psychologists and anthropologists are debating their roles in aid of military objectives. Should psychologists aid in interrogations? Do embedded anthropologists diffuse cultural conflict or reveal targets for attack?

In the 1950s, Congress addressed the risks and benefits of civilian use of radioactive material, said Scott Burrell, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Right from the get-go, the concept of incorporating social responsibility into the civilian use of radioactive material has been there.”

The NRC is charged with ensuring the responsible use of nuclear materials and maintaining public safety when nuclear materials are in use, especially in the event of an accident. The agency relies on its own staff of experts, the scientific community, and concerned citizens to inform decisions.

“There is an expectation that is strongly embedded in society that there are people with certain expertise who we count on as a society to provide guidance and advice,” said Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “If there is a major policy issue before the U.S. Congress, one could say scientists have a responsibility to use their expertise in a way that helps our Congress to make better scientifically based and informed decisions.” If you know something, society expects you to come forward, he said.

But that’s an undertaking easier said than done for most. One of the great miscommunications between scientists and the lay public is about the nature of risk. Why? Well, risk is hard to explain.

For the public, the word uncertainty often implies a lack of knowledge or unpredictability. For scientists, this isn’t the meaning at all. “If scientists say there is uncertainty, people assume that means they don’t know, but in many areas of science … it’s completely the other way around,” said Crowley. “The ability of scientists to put a figure on uncertainty isn’t a sign of ignorance. It’s a sign of how much they know.”

Anticipating the risk of some future event—earthquakes, nuclear accidents, finances and economies—requires transparency in risk assessment that includes an estimation of the uncertainty, said Stephen Sparks a volcanologist at the University of Bristol. “Decision makers, politicians, and members of the public can find probabilities difficult to handle and explain … but we haven’t got any other choice.”

An Italian court found six scientists guilty of manslaughter after their expert earthquake counsel gave L’Aquila residents a false sense of security. The sheer absurdity of the case rocked the scientific community. Would L’Aquila set a dangerous precedent of criminalization of scientists? If too much were expected of scientists, if the personal risks were too high, would they stop talking?

Let’s hope not.

Four million people live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant in the United States. Expand the range to 20 miles, and that number grows to 18.5 million.

At the end of 2011, 435 nuclear power reactors were in operation worldwide and 65 new reactors were under construction.

It may be scary, but nuclear power is here to stay. So how do we finally come to terms with a technology rife with potential yet shrouded in tragedy? We rely on the masters of the atom, the gods of fission, the lords of radiation on high—nuclear scientists—to make it all make sense.

Across the science community, including the nuclear sciences, the discussion of social responsibility has begun. If Fukushima has taught us anything, it’s that those in the know are best equipped to keep the industry honest and the public safe.

Jessica Morrison is a Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences at the University of Notre Dame. She has written for the Chicago Tribune, Nature, and Scientific American.

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