Learning from Experience? the Role of the “Lessons” of the Fukushima Accident for Nuclear Safety Regulation

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 09:45
Location: Hörsaal 47 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Valerie ARNHOLD, Centre de Sociologie des Organisations (Sciences Po Paris/CNRS), France
“Learning the lessons” for European nuclear power plants is an immediate concern after the large-scale nuclear accident of Fukushima Dai-ichi in March 2011. Officially initiated by national governments, the process of analyzing the causes of the accident, conducting safety reviews and revising regulatory norms is carried out by nuclear safety regulators and experts. This resource-consuming process extends far beyond the end of the official crisis management phase and decline of public attention. Through an analysis of the Fukushima lessons learned in France and in the European Union, this paper shows that the primary aim of these activities cannot be reduced to reassuring public confidence in nuclear energy. Instead, regulators use “lessons”, understood as narratives of the causes of a nuclear accident translated into extended risk assessment procedures and scenarios, as a major leeway to enforce and extend the regulation imposed on the operators of nuclear facilities, in a context where regulators dispose of limited resources and uncertain legal authority to amend existing regulatory requirements. At the same time, the regulators’ extensive work, conducted in order to cope with an extended definition of potential hazards, normalizes the occurrence of nuclear accidents and the risks attached to the production of nuclear energy. It reaffirms and “demonstrates”, through multiple review mechanisms, the capability of the regulatory system to control the exploitation of nuclear energy. In addition, it contributes to the depoliticization of underlying energy policy choices through the sharp distinction between political and technical (regulatory) matters.