April 30, 2015 12:00 am JST

Woody Epstein: Nuclear society is still isolated

Four years have passed since Japan's devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident of March 2011. Since the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan has essentially been without active nuclear power plants.

     Restart of the plants is now the government's and the industry sector's primary concern. Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority has stated: "We will be tireless in our efforts to improve our regulatory measures so that Japan's nuclear regulation standards will be among the world's highest."

     There is no national consensus in Japan for continuing the use of nuclear energy. About 80% of respondents are against nuclear power, or at least favor a retreat from dependence on it. There is strong, lingering public apprehension about nuclear. At the same time, the resumption of nuclear power in Japan is seen as key to the country's economic recovery.

Court injunction

This year will probably mark the restart of Japan's nuclear plants. The regulatory body has approved the restart of Sendai Units 1 and 2, owned and operated by Kyushu Electric Power in southwestern Kyushu, and Takahama Units 3 and 4, owned and operated by Kansai Electric Power in Fukui Prefecture.

     However, restart of the two Takahama units was in doubt on April 14 when a Fukui district court, deciding in favor of nine private citizens, issued an injunction ordering Kansai Electric to halt restart. The plaintiffs challenged the earthquake safety of the Takahama units, among other points. Kansai Electric will appeal the ruling.

     Meanwhile, the Kagoshima District Court made a reverse decision on April 22 to dismiss a demand by local residents for an injunction to stop the restart of two reactors at Sendai.

     Why did the court stop the restart of the Takahama reactors? In my opinion, it was trying to strongly point out that no one in the nuclear debate is listening to the people. No one in the Japanese government or industry sector is listening to the public's doubts and worries about the risks of nuclear power. Instead of listening, business leaders and power companies quickly criticized the court's decision as lacking in knowledge about seismology and earthquake engineering.

''People aren't stupid''

Experts and politicians sometimes find it hard to listen. In the summer of 2011, I attended a town meeting in Tokaimura, north of Tokyo, to discuss the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Tokaimura has experienced two nuclear accidents: one, ironically, on March 11, 1997; the other, more serious, on Sept. 30, 1999.

     During the meeting, a very worried mother asked one of the professors about the amount of radiation which could harm her children. The news had been filled with many different measurements, becquerels and millisieverts. And what did the professor say? He told her to look it up on the Internet. So much for communication.

     "The public is not stupid," said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Japanese diet's independent panel to investigate the Fukushima accident, at a 2013 press conference. "Accidents happen, machines break and humans make errors. So we have to learn this and minimize risks, or at least become resilient." Kurokawa wants to challenge the notion of 100% safety and instead enter a conversation with the public, who should not be treated as stupid. How can those of us in the scientific community help this process?

     In risk communication, policymakers tend to believe that if we could provide people with more or better information, everyone would make more logical, rational and informed decisions regarding risk. But people do not, necessarily, behave rationally.

     Rationality is one part of decisions. Emotions are just as important. Those who ignore the need for emotions, like sympathy and empathy, in decision-making have missed the point of the human condition.

     How can we in science and technology work more effectively with the public and government? We need to be better listeners. We need to understand the issues important to all involved. We need to be better at giving easy-to-understand explanations.

Art of conversation

We have lost the art of conversation with the public. A tweet is not a conversation. Many in the scientific community lack the ability to talk straight with people without talking down to them. Everyone in the nuclear power debate must learn to listen. As every married person quickly learns, communication begins with listening, not talking. When you begin to listen, you begin to build a bridge.

     We must help the public and policymakers to realize that science is never exact or final. Science changes over the years, sometimes with unanticipated discoveries. All scientific understanding is made through the veils of uncertainty and ignorance. We must help the public understand uncertainty, how to "expect the unexpected," and how to create resilient institutions that can flexibly respond to an accident when it happens. We must be honest with the public and the policymakers. We must say truthfully what we know and what we do not.

Woody Epstein is a resident of Japan and a research associate at the B. John Garrick Institute for the Risk Sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles.  The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of his employers, their affiliates or clients.

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