Ongoing Disaster: Fukushima, Complex Technological Systems and Uncertainties

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 11:30 AM
Room: Booth 44
Distributed Paper
Jose Luis GARCIA , Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal
Helena Mateus JERONIMO , University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal
Catastrophes such as that which struck Japan early 2011, as a result of the accident in the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the most serious accident ever in the history of nuclear power plants after Chernobyl, demolish claims to extremely small risk probabilities for complex systems and upend the delicate balance between costs and benefits argued by safety experts. The Fukushima disaster demonstrated that in contemporary societies, vulnerabilities and threats are difficult to locate or predict, being both incalculable and impossible to offset. The natural tsunami that ravaged Japan was also a technological tsunami with ecological, social, economic, and political consequences. The Fukushima disaster may be thought of not just as a disaster for Japan, but for the technological order.

Our analysis of the March 11th disaster begins with a simple narrative showing how a natural disaster in a country at the forefront of technological development precipitated an accident in a nuclear power plant that in turn led to a chain of calamities at multiple levels. How did we become constructors of a world with such catastrophic potential? Section two responds by considering how the nuclear threat is played down as a result of the euphoric notion that human vulnerability can gradually be overcome by the increasing ability of science, technology and probability analysis to control and predict events. The final section retrieves the idea of “foresightedness” as the basis of a political and social approach that can take on not only the uncertainties of the world, but also those generated by technical systems, in order to illuminate our choices and decisions. When faced with calamities and damages that appear to arise out of the blue but are the outcomes of our technological systems, their interactions, and our dependencies, foresightedness emerges as a response both rational and virtuous, however difficult.